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  • Writer's pictureFrank Diamond

Prank



Outside it’s snowing. Again. Hard. Already new-white blankets the off-white of last week’s storm on the campus of our mid-sized college in upstate New York. Flakes tap against our dorm windows. The forecast calls for eight to ten inches. 

Lights out and our talk — mine and RanShack’s — drowses toward nighty night with references to, perhaps, Aristotle or Diogenes. We’re philosophy majors, after all. But still basically kids. So, maybe we talk about R.E.M. or U2. Or perhaps the Rangers or Islanders. Or even who should win the best picture Oscar: Shawshank Redemption or Forrest Gump. I can’t really remember the exact subject because of what comes next.

Just before our drifting words sputter into sleep’s rhythmic breathing, Theo, our other roommate, jumps out of bed and screams in such terror that the sound charges me from all sides, expressing human, animal, and otherworldly agony all at once. 

I grasp my ears and yell “Stop!” But I can’t hear myself.

“I am dissolving!” Theo bellows. “Help me!” 

The night light etches his silhouette. He stands, arms imploring heaven. 

I can’t move.

“Theo, it’s OK!” RanShack cries.

Too late, for Theo dashes out of the room. We hear him stomp through the hallway past the elevator and clamber down the stairwell, still screaming. Somebody yells, “Call security!”

Though in minutes, he can no longer be heard, Theo’s agonized cry lingers in my ears like tinnitus. I take deep breaths, try to calm myself. RanShack flips his lamp on. He’s stunned, like a boxer taking the eight count.

“He’ll freeze his ass off!” I say. “He’ll have to come back!”

He says, “At least he didn’t crash through the window.”

Windows, actually. We’ve got two that we now stumble toward, each to his own. My hand shakes as I lift the roller blind. But not just my hand. I’m trembling all over.

“There!” 

“Where?” 

“There!”

Theo slip-slides across the quad wearing nothing but sweatpants, a flannel PJ top, and socks. His spindly, 6-foot-5-inch frame collapses about a half dozen times as if he’s a puppet whose strings keep getting cut. He struggles into upright, runs a bit more, falls again. How long can this last? Long enough for Theo to turn a corner and disappear behind a building across the way.

“Holy shit,” I whisper.

On the peripheries, red and blue flashing lights appear and float through the storm toward each other. Two golf cart-type vehicles of campus security, back tires no doubt in triangular snowplow mode, meet right below us where Theo’s footprints begin. The guards confer for a moment, and then one rolls off retracing Theo’s steps, while the other heads across untrampled snow toward where they must have decided that Theo most likely will be now if he hasn’t zig-zagged into the woods that surround the college.

“They’ll get him,” RanShack decides.

Maybe, I think, because the storm kicked up a few notches. Its intensity already erased most of Theo’s footprints, while only three of the etchings of his falls remain.

RanShack turns toward me. 

“Don’t you think they’ll find him, Trotsky?”

“They should.” That’s not the question, though. The question is will they find him alive?

The weather people underestimated this storm, and instead of eight inches we eventually get 18. That’s not unusual in this part of the state, where nothing short of an atomic bomb would make administrators cancel classes. 

Students carry on the next day knowing that a search — complete with cadaver dogs — takes place on the edge of their cocoon of higher education.

And they do find Theo — that’s a nickname, by the way, his real name’s Maximilian Nola — as twilight scatters muted colors along the horizon. He’s dead. Hypothermia. 

We give statements to school security, administrators, and the local cops. RanShack — real name Randal Shackleton — and I, Trotsky — real name William Trotter — know that the worst thing to do would be to fake an emotional response. So, no tears, no mourning. Shock’s OK. Shock is real.


Detectives with the town’s police department seem inclined to like us. Maybe that’s just a technique, but I don’t think it’s entirely put on. We’re not trust-fund babies, RanShack and me. We’re work-study. I do shifts at the cafeteria, and RanShack makes rounds with maintenance. We’re not part of the contingent of snot-nosed spoiled college punks who number too many at our school. That should count for something with these bootstrap puller-uppers. 

“I didn’t really know him that well,” I tell a detective. RanShack is in another room being interviewed. They separated us just like they do on cop shows. “Maximilian keeps — kept — to himself.”

“Even in a dorm room with two other roommates?”

“We tried, you know, to draw him out like you do with people with social anxiety,” I say. “So, that didn’t work. Then we more or less ignored him. We didn’t want to crowd him. We wanted to give Theo the chance to get used to us.”

“Theo?”

“Yes, sorry, detective. That’s our nickname for Maximilian. He minored in theology.” 

“And all three of you major in philosophy?”

“Yes, detective. What are the odds? You can wind up being roommates with anybody with any major. But we’re all philosophy.”

“And did Maximilian take that initiative?” 

“Initiative?”

“To be friends with you and Randal.” This with a tinge of annoyance.

“No. Not really. Then me and Randal just….” I shrug. 

He says that “some things need to happen organically.” 

Three long beats before I respond. Organically? I don’t expect such a word from a cop.

“We did try,” I finally say.

“I know, young man.”

They didn’t press it because — surprise, surprise — it turns out that Theo battled mental illness his entire life. Even with all the confidentiality laws surrounding somebody’s health records, that fact wanders loose. About two weeks after the incident, the maintenance guys clean out Theo’s belongings to store in boxes somewhere in case someone comes back to claim them. I don’t know if anybody ever did.

RanShack and I hadn’t gotten to know Theo better because he only started rooming with us at the beginning of the second semester, replacing a guy who dropped out. We were not impressed. Theo always bumped into things, stumbled, or flat-out fell. He wasn’t on good terms with his motor skills. 

He wears glasses with thick black frames that somebody with ’tude could possibly turn into a retro rebel look. Theo doesn’t have ’tude. Then there’s the hair: totally gray since his early teens. A young man’s face under an old man’s hood accented by pitch black eyes in which the voids of the pupils dominate. Also, he could be staring at the world from inside a fish tank, thanks to those Coke-bottle lenses. He blinks slowly, rhythmically. Seemingly too aware of what should be an automatic bodily function. 

Creepy.

Now, I don’t say Hollywood keeps me and RanShack on speed dial for leading man roles. But at least we blend, maybe too much. At a party last semester, one girl asked if we’re brothers. We waxed jivey about each other’s ugliness, but we’ve fielded the question before. I suppose we could be twins. Brown hair, blue eyes. About the same height and weight: 5 feet, 11 inches, and 175 pounds, give or take. Similar build reflecting gym time and also a tendency to blow off a workout the same way we’re a bit too ready to cut class. Over winter break, Shackleton grew a Van Dyke, and I’m working on a mullet. We silently agree: enough with this “you look like brothers” bullshit.

When Theo moves in, we try to balance the new dynamic, but balance keeps its distance. He’s quiet and either extremely fragile or extremely violent, but holding it in. We can’t decide.

“He’s all right,” RanShack says.

“Is he?” I say.

That night, Theo thrashes in his sleep, crying out sometimes.

“Nope,” RanShack says. “Not putting up with that.” That morning he hands Theo one of those tins that breath mints might come in.

Theo plates it on his palm, stares at it. 

“It’s zolpidem,” RanShack says. “For sleeping.”

“Deep sleep?” Theo asks, still gazing at the tin as though it could be an archeological find that might crumble.

“Puts me out,” says RanShack. “One pill right before bed.”

“Deep sleep,” Theo says, like a mystic who’s finally found enlightenment.

It works, too. That very night. Theo sleeps drama-free.

“Thank you,” he murmurs to RanShack the next morning. “Is it…?”

“Yeah, it’s my prescription but go to town. I don’t need them, really. Just now and then.” Translation: RanShack likes his beer but his beer doesn’t always like zolpidem. “You should get your own prescription, though,” he adds.

“I should.” 

But Theo never does, and when he runs out into the snowstorm that night, RanShack right away grabs the tin, pockets it. He tells me later that he tosses it into the piles of trash that he collects as part of his maintenance crew gig. 

“That’s that,” I say.

“Really?”

This isn’t the response I’m after. We’re both disturbed by what happened to Theo, but RanShack gets physically ill. I hear him barfing a few times after the incident, and he now and then wanders about the room like a geezer who has forgotten what he’s looking for.

I lay it out for him a week later over beers at McStew’s, the off-campus dive where college kids and townies sometimes brawl. 

“Theo was mentally unhinged,” I say. “He probably would have wound up killing himself.”

“How do you know?” RanShack asks.

“Look, we’re young.”

“So’s he.”

“He’s gone, Randy. We’re still here. We have our futures.”

“Yeah.”

“We did something stupid,” I say. “A prank.”

“Yeah, right. Just a prank.”

“No,” I say. “I take that back. Not just a prank. If you remember our intentions were sort of decent. Loosen that zombie up a bit. Get him to enjoy life for a change.”

“Then why not just tell the cops?”

“Because good intentions or not — and you know a lawyer could make it seem diabolical to a jury — it’s against the law. We’re talking a Class A drug here. That’s possession and distribution. It’s involuntary manslaughter. It could even be considered third-degree murder. And there’s no statute of limitations for third-degree murder. Confessing does nobody any good.”

“It gives Theo’s family closure.”

“Theo’s family’s got closure. He ran out into a blizzard and froze to death. See? Closure.”


Distractions abound in a place like McStew’s but the workers and bouncers tend to notice mainly two things: people yelling at each other, and patrons leaning into each other having what appears to be a quiet argument that too often leads to punches getting thrown. 

The waitress suddenly appears and asks, “You guys OK?”

We lean back.

“As a matter of fact…” I order buffalo wings, emerald chips, and another pitcher of beer.

We’re careful to keep up the appearance not too far from reality: two friends hashing out a scheme.

“Can you live with what we did?” RanShack asks.

“We?”

His head snaps back as if I slapped him. 

“What?”

“Look,” I say, satisfied that he knows who’s mostly to blame. “We will not only live with it, we will bury it and move on. And we will have happy, productive lives.”

What happened — what we did — was this: While cleaning a lab in the Empsonelli Neural Perception and Psychedelic Science Building, RanShack came upon LSD pills. He suspected right away because someone had helpfully printed in black marker “LSD PILLS” upon the little plastic bottle that lay on the floor and which RanShack scooped up and dumped into his trash can. When he finished cleaning the space, he rolled the trash can down to the dumpster room and fished out the bottle before tying up the bag and tossing it onto the heap. Mission accomplished. 

We Netscaped like crazy that night to certify as much as possible the tablets’ authenticity. Bottle says “LSD,” but is it?

“There’s only one sure way to find out,” I say.

We discuss it, finally deciding that I’ll babysit in case something goes wrong as RanShack guinea-pigs himself. 

“For science!” he says, before popping the pill and chasing it with a wincing swig of tequila. RanShack’s eyes water, and he wipes his nose as he coughs.

Deep breath and he says hoarsely, “We have liftoff.”

In about 30 minutes, he bolts up onto the edge of the couch sitting straight as a gymnast, and talks about beautiful exploding colors, sentences in different languages floating by, streaking lights. He points to my head: “You have a halo, Trotsky.” Then, he whispers, “I am one with all things” and collapses back into the couch in an open-eyed trance.

None of this is unexpected, more or less matching accounts we’d read about acid’s effects. None of it causes alarm because RanShack’s experiencing a good trip. 

For now. Could it go dark? I don’t know. The responsibility for my friend’s well-being that I’d so casually accepted now triggers panic. 

Should I take him to the clinic if he doesn’t snap out of it in another hour? What would I tell them? The body hides LSD, but this soon after ingestion? There’d be questions. I began to roleplay what those questions might be and how I should answer them when RanShack shakes his head as someone might when breaking the surface of a cold lake.

“Wow!”

“You OK?” 

He smiles blissfully. He’s OK.

“This is incredible!” he says.

“What do you see? Tell me.”

“That wall. It’s breathing.”

“What else?”

Floating globs of color, sudden bolts of light, sparkler showers, corners of the room growing and shrinking, shoes melting into the floor. 

“Astounding!” RanShack says. “Just astounding! Like they said, my ego dissolved and I became part of everything. I became you, Trotsky. I hung on to you — your existence — as a way to tie myself to reality. And you were saying something.”

“I don’t remember.”

“But I took over you. I not only heard your thoughts I became you thinking your thoughts. It’s crazy. Paranormal. Religious.”

RanShack’s a Catholic of a sort. The sort that doesn’t go to church. I’m agnostic of a sort, the sort who doesn’t want people thinking I’m hedging my bets by not plunging into atheism.

We’re learning about Camus in one class and Camus said that “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, then live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.” 

Nobody ever called Camus a chickenshit.

Also, true atheists don’t believe in anything paranormal. Nothing exists except the material universe, right? No ghosts. No sprites. No banshees. No angels. No afterlife. No.

Yet, I have experienced incidents that cannot be easily explained without having a belief in the power of coincidence that borders on the supernatural. Once upon a midnight dreary, I agonized over a term paper that should explain the nuances of one of the more famous existentialists of the last century. 

I recalled a teacher that I’d had freshman year in high school who specialized in just this philosopher. I hadn’t even thought of her in seven years. I considered reaching out but discarded the idea, thinking, “Are you really going to chase her down after years of no contact? She probably won’t even remember you.” The next day — and, I mean, the very next day — who should contact me asking how college life goes and offering to help if I need it? I never even found out how she got my email address.

And one night years ago, I dreamed about a favorite uncle — Uncle Jim — whose body started to shut down. He stopped eating. Could hardly move because of arthritis. Doctors gave him another year, because Uncle Jim didn’t have cancer or heart disease or anything else that might take him fast, and the nursing home he wound up in always made the 10-best lists of such institutions in the state.

In my dream, Uncle Jim wept as he listed everything he’ll miss in this world: the Mets and Jets, a favorite restaurant, morning prayers, family, watching the ocean. And as I listened to Uncle Jim recite these things, I actually became Uncle Jim. I thought his thoughts and felt his sorrow, a sorrow that I would recall years later when reading T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” which talks of our world’s connection to “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.”

I awoke to a phone call telling me that Uncle Jim had just died.

Coincidence? I don’t know. But RanShack’s talk of thinking my thoughts seemed somehow plausible. 

RanShack’s LSD tablets didn’t exactly match the size and color of the zolpidem pills, but close enough, especially since Theo usually dived in after we’d turned the lights out. RanShack dropped a few in the pill tin, and because of a few unused zolpidem, this gave the prank a Russian roulette flavor. But on the first night, Theo dropped acid.

And that’s how Theo — Maximilian Nola — died. Age 20.

RanShack recovered. Guilt can corrupt. Yes, you do something wrong, you should feel guilty. Wallowing in guilt, though, means wallowing in self. It’s a form of narcissism, I told him. It can stand in the way, especially for two young guys getting into law. 

Oh, yeah. I’m an attorney. What the hell else are you going to do with a degree in philosophy? Stay a student until 40 and hope to land a tenured position somewhere? No thanks. I’m a deez, dooz, and dem kind of lawyer. The people’s lawyer. Criminal law.

Shackleton’s practicing law, too, somewhere. We drifted apart as people do. Why? Just life. Kids. Career. Ups, downs, sideways.

We keep the pharmaceutical experimentation in college just between us. Nobody needs to know. Oh, yes. I dropped acid back then, as well. About a month after Theo. RanShack’s turn to babysit. 

That’s when I freed him of guilt. My ego did indeed dissolve, and I saw faces of people I’d cared for but who’d died. I talked to them. They became more present in my life. The dead aren’t really dead, and the living aren’t always living. You can get away with murder because, in essence, there’s no such thing.

“You talked to Theo,” RanShack told me after I’d come out of it.

“I did. Most he’s ever talked.”

“Does he forgive us?”

I lied. “Forgive us?” I said. “He thanks us. He’s so much happier now.”

“So, there’s a heaven?”

“He forgives you, RanShack.”

That should have been the end of it. We never again dropped acid. RanShack stopped feeling guilty. We became quintessential college knuckleheads, joining a frat and limiting substance abuse to beer and an occasional shot. We saw the future and the future looked good.

Except, except, except…

It is now nearly 30 years after college, and I’ve built a reputation as a kick-ass criminal attorney that prosecutors don’t want to tangle with. About six months ago, however, he returned. 

Theo. 

He stands by my bed pointing at me. His black eyes seem to have taken on an appearance of coal heating up, a trace of red seeping from below. His gray hair whips about in a wind I do not feel.

“What the hell do you want?” I shout, thinking that my words stay within the confines of dreamland, but my wife shakes me awake.

“Are you OK?”

I know that LSD can sometimes cause flashbacks, and this must have been one of them. It wasn’t hallucination because I knew that it wasn’t real.

Then — after an admittedly fraught few days and nights — I thought, “Well, that’s that.”

No. He returns. 

Sometimes in my sleep, and sometimes when I’m awake. I’ve learned how to pretend he’s not there because, well, hell, he isn’t. I talk to him when I’m alone, but he says nothing. 

I’m trying to decide what to do. See a shrink? Or maybe I’ll track down Theo’s family. I haven’t figured out what to say to them if I do, though. Or how to explain why it’s taken me so long to say it.

I must do something, though, and soon.

Because lately Theo’s image begins to betray the shadow of a smile as he continues to point at me. 

A frozen smile.

A mildly sadistic smile. 

A prankster’s smile.


 


Frank Diamond's poem, “Labor Day,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize Award. His short stories have appeared in RavensPerch, the Examined Life JournalNzuri Journal of Coastline College, the Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, and the Fictional Cafe, among many other publications. He has had poetry published in many publications. He lives in Langhorne, PA.

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