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The Red Balloon: A Mystery Novel's Excerpt
Matt Canagan woke up with a pounding headache and the taste of vomit already in his throat. He realized that he was on the floor of his bedroom, because he recognized the carpet that was pressing against his face. He lay there for what seemed to him to be quite a long time, but in reality took only a few short moments, and his stomach began to spin. He realized he was going to vomit and he stumbled to his private bathroom and fell to his knees in front of the toilet.
Every contraction of his diaphragm was a sharp knife in his side but there was nothing he could do to stop it. His stomach heaved and he emptied the remaining contents of it into the porcelain bowl. A sour stench, something akin to burgers and fries and what was probably Blue Devil Beer, filled the tiny bathroom immediately. His bathroom had never smelled of daisies or fresh fields, but he generally took care to keep the place clean; that effort was pissed away in the time it took to turn the clear water of the bowl a murky brown.
After four or five long heaves, his stomach seemed to be empty. One final heave sent immense pain ripping into his diaphragm. He blinked through tears, the pounding in his head getting worse as razor lines of fire ripped through his esophagus. He didn’t trust himself to let go of the bowl, afraid that if he did, he would fall over and end up making a mess on the floor.
When he was sure that he was done, he gently lowered himself onto his rear and reached up to flush the toilet. His vision seemed to be wrapped in a thick haze, so it took him two tries to bring his hand to the handle. When he finally caught his fingers on it, they slipped off the first time and he cursed under his breath. The noise immediately seemed to boom in his own ears, even though he was sure that he had spoken very quietly. He reached for the handle again and this time it caught; the sound of the toilet flushing made him bring both hands to his ears in order to block some of the noise.
He sat in the darkness of the bathroom, leaning his back against the door to the shower stall and clutching his head between his knees. He hoped that doing so would make the room stop spinning at such crazy angles. He wondered how much he had drunk the night before to produce such a throbbing headache. The stench of beer and fast food had filled the room by now, even after the expurgation had been flushed down the drain, so he must have downed a ton. He had gotten trashed on Blue Devils in the past, yet he’d never had a hangover quite like this before; it was a new experience and not one that he wished to repeat. He sat, thinking, trying to remember how much he had drunk, but it was a fool’s errand. How much he had drunk was just as gone as what he had been doing while drinking. It was always that way with him and Blue Devils.
It took some time for the room to stop spinning, what seemed like an eternity to him but what surely was no more than a few minutes. His sense of time and space was always useless the morning after, and it wouldn’t properly return for several hours. He looked at his watch, taking the time to turn his head slowly as he brought his wrist up into view. He stared at his wrist. It took him several moments before he realized that he was not wearing a watch. That was unusual, too, because he always wore his watch. He checked his other wrist, but it wasn’t there, either. Strange. Without a watch, the best he could guess was that it would be at least two or three more hours before everything started to make proper sense again. Some aspirin might help to cut that time down, though; sometimes it helped. Sometimes, but not usually.
He crawled forward in the darkness, reaching hands out blindly. He could not properly judge the distance to the sink and he did not want to run into it. He’d done that before, a few months ago, and he’d managed to knock his nose hard enough to draw blood. That had certainly not helped with the hangover, and he didn’t want to do it again. He found the sink and then slowly pulled himself up to his feet so that he could reach the medicine cabinet.
There was a light right about the mirror, operated by a small button. His fingers stumbled across it and he pressed it. The center of the horizontal bulb flashed with a dazzling white light and then the bright light spread across the entire surface of the glass. He squinted and raised his hand as rays of too-bright light stabbed into his eyes and his pupils dilated. The pounding increased in tempo and he swung the mirror open so that he would not have to stare at himself. He knew what he looked like the morning after; hair out of place, bloodshot eyes with huge bags under them, a pallid face that would frighten most able-bodied men. He was not a pretty sight when he was hungover.
He found a bottle of aspirin, the generic supermarket kind of aspirin. He didn’t have the cash to be able to afford any name brand product of medicine. It didn’t matter. Aspirin was aspirin, as far as over the counter stuff went. None of the name brands really worked any better than any of the others, despite what their TV commercials claimed, and the generic supermarket brand was cheaper. He popped the supposedly-child-proof cap off – anyone with half a brain could pop it open, even a child – and poured some pills into his open hand. The entire bottle emptied in a rush, filling his palm to overflowing and losing some down the drain. He sighed and turned his palm over, dropping everything into the basin. He reached down and his fingers found two pills. He popped them into his mouth and dry-swallowed them. Mission accomplished, he shut the bright light off and swung the mirror closed. It banged loudly as the door slammed into place and Matt used the sink to lower himself back down to the ground.
As he always did the morning after, once he’d emptied his stomach, he began to wonder what he had done while drinking. It was a futile gesture, as always. No matter how hard he tried, he was not going to remember where he’d been or what he’d done. Drinking made him do interesting things, but it also did interesting things to him. He suffered blackouts on a regular basis, regular meaning every single time he drank.
After wasting a sufficient amount of time trying to remember what he’d done, he gave up, right on schedule. Following that, he forced himself to stand and left the bathroom. Cool air rushed up his boxers and he wondered what he’d done with his pants. He didn’t usually undress when he got home from a night out, but all that he was wearing was a pair of wrinkled boxers and a white tank top. He must have undressed himself or been undressed by someone else. The chances of someone else undressing him were slim to none. No one would have undressed him and then left him to sleep on the floor beside his bed. Even ignoring that, no one in their right mind would actually go home with him. Jen was usually the one to get him home safely, and there was no way in hell that she would have undressed him.
Matt sat down on the edge of his bed and looked at the clock on his desk. The numbers seemed to be larger and brighter then normal, but he could read them. Almost eleven o’clock. He probably should have been in school by now, but he was in no condition to be driving to school, much less sitting in class. All the bright lights and talking students would drive him out of his mind. When he spent the night drinking, he was usually sober enough to interact with the world by noon. But with the pounding in his skull seeming to be never ending, it might be a few hours after that before he could finally get about his day.
At a quarter after eleven, he stood up. The world seemed to shimmer – the edges of objects kind of faded from one position to another, a strange melting jump-cut that seemed quite uncharacteristic of his hangovers – and then things straightened out as he walked across the room and left his bedroom.
The hallway that led to the living room was a cramped tunnel. Light trickled down from the living room, sunlight illuminating the room at the end of the hallway; his parents had undoubtedly left the living room curtains open. Most of the month had been cloudy and rainy, but now that the weather was changing for the better, the two of them had been doing everything in their power to bring the outside in. His father worked for the parks department, his stepmother was a zoo keeper, and both of them were in love with the outdoors. Matt had not inherited that love from his father and had not learned it from his stepmother; his favorite activities generally involved a bottle in his hand.
He walked down the hallway, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. When that failed to wake him up, he abandoned that tactic and tried to get some of his hair from out of his face. Even under the best circumstances, his hair was a curly mess of medium length platinum blonde locks. Most people assumed that his hair was the result of powerful chemicals or hours spent at the beach, but his hair was just naturally bright. Except for a brief period during his sophomore year when he’d dyed it brown, it had always been that way. Its length varied; sometimes a crew cut, sometimes long and tied in a ponytail, his haircut depended on a variety of factors. No matter the length, however, it was always a curly mess. As he ran his hands through his hair, his fingers caught in knotted strands and pulled painfully at his scalp. He abandoned trying to fix his hair and decided to wait until he got into the shower to do something about it.
“Dad? Gina?” Matt asked as he emerged from the dark hallway and into the bright cavern of the living room. He raised his arm to shield his face and protect his bloodshot eyes from the sunlight pouring into the room. The room’s color scheme – brown carpet, brown-red furniture, walls that were some kind of tan color that he’d never liked – seemed to leap out at him as he entered the room. On a dark, cloudy day, the room was a depressing mess of second-rate furniture and messy stacks of books and magazines that would get read eventually, if not soon. On a sunny day, the entire room seemed to laugh and scream and pulse with life. But there was no life in the house, except for Matt and a cat named Jingles that was probably curled up in a ball on some windowsill. His parents were at their jobs. The only reason he called out was to make sure that they were gone.
When no answer from either one of them was forthcoming, he moved directly over to the windows and closed the curtains. One of the heavy curtains – thick, cumbersome, hideous monstrosities that the stepmother had picked out – upset Jingles from his sleep and caused the cat to yell at him. Shutting one set of curtains substantially lowered the amount of light in the room, enough so that Matt plopped himself down in one of the red-brown chairs instead of shutting the rest of them. He threw his feet up on the coffee table, upsetting a stack of magazines and sending them spilling to the floor. His senses dulled by the previous night’s activities, it took him a while to gain his composure and pick them back up.
When his parents weren’t working, or picnicking, or hiking, or gardening, they were reading. Any time that outdoor activity was prohibited by the weather, they were immersing themselves in books and magazines. His father mainly perused books about trees and plants and the weather. His stepmother read nature magazines and journals concerning animal sexuality and the feeding habits of certain animals that would never, ever come to New Jersey. Matt didn’t have much time to read for pleasure. Besides school – which he usually did attend, when he wasn’t nursing a hangover – he had other things to occupy his time. Although some of his friends joked that his only job was drinking, he did have a part time job; he spent thirty-five hours a week at the PointRX, the town’s largest drug store. School and work prevented an excess of time for extracurricular activities.
That wasn’t to say that he didn’t have hobbies. He treasured the free time that he did have and he used the time as wisely as he could. He was a huge sports fans, and although baseball caught his attention more than anything else, he also tried to watch as much football, hockey, and soccer as he could. Professional wrestling was another of his hobbies, a hobby that his three hundred plus video tape library exhibited quite well. When he could find the time – which wasn’t often – he found himself involved with cars, particularly with the upkeep of his eighty-nine Mustang, a gorgeous piece of machinery that was currently sparkling in the driveway next to his house. And then there was drinking; couldn’t forget that. He loved parties and went to every single one that he heard about. Big or small, it didn’t matter. He managed to get drunk at every single one of them and, although he frequently made an ass out of himself, nothing that bad had ever happened. Only real problem with drinking, Matt thought, was the hangovers. And the blackouts. But they weren’t really anything you had to worry about unless you were an alcoholic.
Once he’d straightened up the magazines, he leaned back into the chair and crossed his arms behind his head, making an uncomfortable pillow out of them. He let his eyes fall closed for a few moments. He woke back up when Jingles jumped up into his lap and tried to walk up his chest, making sure to stick his furry little face right into Matt’s. The cat’s green eyes looked huge, mere centimeters from touching his own.
“This is ridiculous, you know,” Matt mumbled. Sometimes he was convinced that the cat knew why he occasionally skipped school; this was not the first time the cat had scaled him in order to stare him down. It was almost as if the cat disapproved of his drinking, but that was nonsense. “Get off of me, you fat cat.”
The cat continued to stare into his face. Jingles was not fat. If anything, the cat was malnourished, but it wasn’t from a lack of care on the Canagan’s part. They always made sure Jingles had plenty to eat and drink, cat food and tuna and water and milk, but Jingles never ate much. Matt had never, in his entire life, seen a cat eat less than Jingles and manage to survive. Jingles wiggled his nose at Matt’s words and then sat down on his chest, leaning forward and continuing to stare into his eyes.
“Get the remote,” Matt said. “Fetch.”
Not surprisingly, the cat didn’t move.
Matt picked Jingles up, drawing a meow of protest in the process, and set the cat down on the floor next to the chair. Matt leaned forward and picked the remote up from the table. He turned the television on and immediately lowered the volume, keeping it as quiet as possible. The hangover was still present and he didn’t need excess noises messing around with his system.
Instead of seeing the local weather – his parents had a habit of keeping the television in the living room turned to the local cable access channel twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week – he was treated to a news bulletin. Matt leaned forward, squinting at the screen. It was a live news report from Northern Terrace Park; Mark recognize it instantly, having been there more times in his life than he could count. Yellow crime scene tape criss-crossed the entrance to the park. Matt increased the volume, ignoring the pain that throbbed around in his skull; he wanted to know what was going on.
Leslie Doren, the town’s only female reporter, looked to be under the influence of a mind-altering substance. Her skin was pale white and she seemed to be shaking. Matt wondered if his eyes were playing tricks on him, but the living room was in perfect synch now, and the background on the television was not shaking. At first, he thought it was quite unprofessional of Leslie Doren to appear so visibly shaken on camera. A few moments later, he realized that her appearance was completely understandable. After all, a crime had been committed in the park, and the victim had used to live on the same street as Leslie Doren.
Matt had good reason to be shaken, too. The victim was a girl named Terry Wessel. He had known Terry for years, gone to the same schools as she did, been in some of the same classes. For a while, they had been friends.
In fact, they had been more than friends, for a while. But all that had changed with a very messy break-up.