PJ slapped a mosquito on his neck and rummaged deeper into Alex's bag of camping junk. He was feeling for the telltale smooth round surface indicating Alex had had the good sense to bring bug spray, but all he came up with were more Clif Bars. Jesus Christ. If they continued consuming these things at the rate they were going, neither of them would be shitting for the next two weeks.
He slapped his neck again, not even sure if he'd felt a bug or imagined it. Rubbing sweat off his skin, he found new welts from at least three more of the little fuckers.
He was on the ground next to a pile of tangled tentpoles unwrapping a Clif Bar when Alex tromped out of the woods with a stack of branches in his arms. His hair was plastered to his forehead, and there were large sweat stains under the straps of his empty backpack.
PJ frowned. "I could have sworn that thing was full when you left."
Pretending he hadn't heard him, Alex eased himself down to the ground next to PJ. "Not that I'm surprised, but I see the tent isn't up."
PJ bit into the Clif Bar and shoved the crinkly wrapper in his pocket. "Well observed. Hey, did you bring bug spray?"
PJ rolled his eyes. "Seriously?"
Alex looked mortified. "I can picture where it is in my apartment."
"That's what you said about the salami! We can't eat your intentions, Alex. Or spray them on us."
"You know where there aren't any bugs? Tents."
"Yeah, about that." PJ's usual gambit in these situations was to play the incompetence card, which he did now. "Putting up the tent was not a good job for my skill set."
Alex sighed, got up and began untangling the tent. "Did you at least find the matches while you were ransacking my carefully packed supplies for bug spray?"
"Uh, no." PJ winced. "But that doesn't mean they aren't in there."
"I have no trouble believing that."
After ten minutes of Alex struggling and PJ lending the occasional reluctant hand, the tent was standing. Alex dug a matchbook out of his camping bag and began setting up the firewood. Watching Alex wad up sheets of newspaper, PJ said, "So what was in that backpack?"
"Wouldn't you like to know."
Alex had not explicitly said so, but this camping trip was part of a larger experiment they were conducting—what Alex referred to as "exposure therapy" for PJ's…problem. A few months ago, when the entire country but himself was talking about Get Out, PJ had run out of patience with his inability to tolerate horror movies, and Alex—whose obsession with horror bordered on life-impairing—suggested a program of gradual accustomization. In practice, this meant periodically sharing the shit out of PJ at the office. PJ wasn't sure what Alex had planned for tonight, but there had been…props, of some kind…in that backpack. Of this PJ was certain.
He gazed at his friend where he bent over the firepit. Alex was sweating even more profusely now, and a bit of butt crack showed between his belt and damp t-shirt. Despite the mosquitos, the scarcity of edible food, and the corny jump-scare pranks looming in his near future, PJ felt unreasonably happy to be there.
"We should do this more often," he declared, stretching his arms over his head while Alex coaxed a small flame to life.
"Do what? Sit there and watch me do all the work?"
"No. Be in…nature." PJ inhaled heartily. "No sirens, no subways, no hipsters, no Twitter…"
"That's a common trope in horror movies, you know."
"What, no Twitter? That's the least horrifying scenario I can think of. That's my dream for my life."
"I mean no cell reception. If anything happens, we can't call for help."
"At least we know Blumberg will call the cops if we don't show up for work on Monday."
"By then, our bones could be picked clean."
PJ shoved Alex's butt with his foot. "What I'm trying to say, you goddamn prince of darkness, is I'm really glad we did this."
"So am I," said Alex with a tiny smile.
PJ didn't know if he wanted to cherish that smile in the depths of his cold black heart or say something awful to wipe it off. Possibly both.
Once the fire was roaring, they sat on a log and gazed at it with a sense of accomplishment that, in PJ's case, was entirely unearned, but still felt good.
By now, it was almost completely dark. PJ passed Alex one of the Slim Jims he'd acquired for them at a gas station once he'd realized Alex had brought nothing but nuts and Clif Bars. "Okay, so what's first?"
"I thought we could start off with a classic." Alex switched on his flashlight and held it under his chin.
PJ unwrapped his Slim Jim and settled in to listen.
"About thirty years ago," Alex began in a spooky campfire voice, "there were three murders, all high school kids…and the bodies were never found. It happened just a few miles up the highway from here—right around the place I used to go to Boy Scout Camp every summer…"
PJ's mind wandered from the story to dwell on Alex. The flashlight didn't make him look scary at all—it made him look like a Buddha statue smiling among votive candles. As the story picked up, Alex began acting it out like a crazy person, and PJ imagined what little Boy Scout Alex had been like. Probably exactly the same: chubby, neurotic and adorable.
"…and one of the kids said 'Hey Mr. Barnes, there's something stuck under here!' and he pulled up an old half-rotted shoe—"
Out in the dark, something laughed.
PJ sat up.
Alex was still talking, showing no sign he'd heard a thing. He was, PJ admitted, a surprisingly good actor.
The thing laughed again.
"Okay," said PJ, "how did you do that?"
Alex paused his story. "Do what?"
"Oh fuck off."
"That noise?" Alex was laying on the innocence a little thick now, PJ thought. "Pretty sure it was just a fox."
PJ rolled his eyes, then froze at the sound of another giggle. This was the thing about horror movies: they were still scary even when you knew what was coming.
He could hear words now. Too faint to make out, but spoken by more than one voice. Children's voices, coming from more than one direction.
PJ mustered a nervous laugh. "This is from that sound effects library you like, isn't it? The one with like five hundred different screams and stabbing sounds?"
"Uh, I don't need a sound effects library to get fox calls in the woods."
"That was not a fox—wait, hang on—"
He could make out a word now, or at least part of a word. It sounded like…ee-ay.
"What the hell—Alex, they're saying my goddamn name!"
"Hm," said Alex smugly. "Not something I could find in a library, is it?"
"Okay," said PJ, standing up. "I need to see how you did this. Give me that flashlight."
"Uh, PJ?" Alex relinquished the flashlight. "There are actual wild animals out there, I'm not sure you—"
"Obviously you're coming with me."
"Obviously." Alex stood with a put-upon sigh, but he was smiling.
PJ started off in the direction the first voice had come from. There were voices all around now, bouncing off trees, some nearby and some farther away. He could hear twigs breaking under Alex's shoes behind him, but neither of them spoke.
The trees thinned and he stepped into a clearing. Something sat in the middle of it. Not, PJ realized with a nauseous lurch, a log or a bush or anything that naturally belonged in a forest, but a hunched shape that seemed to have...limbs. Stepping closer, he made out a pile of branches arranged into an odd structure, and underneath it—
The flashlight beam fell on the shiny plastic eyes of a doll.
"Jesus Christ!" PJ jumped back.
The doll sat under a crude stick structure—a makeshift shrine festooned with tangled, grotty feathers. In all its sinister grotesquery, there was something familiar about it—
Despite the pounding of his heart, PJ laughed. "Someone's seen The Blair Witch Project."
Alex had caught up to him. "Hey, how do you know about The Blair Witch Project?" He drooped visibly. "I thought you didn't watch horror movies."
Around them, the voices continued calling to each other, but PJ could tell now that they were looped, repeating the same phrases over and over.
"Alex, everyone knows about The Blair Witch Project. The parodies alone—"
"Fine, fine. But it's based on a real story, you know. In Connecticut a few decades ago, there were these kids building wooden cairns in their sleep, and none of the kids knew each other but the cairns all looked exactly alike—"
"Nice try," said PJ. "I too listen to podcasts. You know Point Mystic is not actually a true crime show, right?"
"Dammit, you know about Point Mystic too?"
"I can't watch horror movies. I've got no problem with horror podcasts."
"All I can say is, it's scarier when you don't see the monster is a lie peddled by directors with small budgets."
Alex sighed melodramatically. He took out his phone and tapped the screen, and the voices stopped. "You're too clever for me, PJ. I know when I'm beaten."
"Aw," said PJ, feeling a tiny bit guilty. "For a few minutes there, I was genuinely scared, I swear."
"You're just saying that to make me feel better."
"When have I ever, ever done that?"
On the way back, Alex collected the speakers he'd stashed in the woods. PJ laughed when Alex showed him how he'd cued up the sound effects from his phone.
"These are marketable skills, Alex. If podcasting doesn't work out, you could design haunted houses for a living."
"I should take you to a real haunted house," muttered Alex. "Better yet, one of those Hell Houses. Those evangelicals are not kidding around."
PJ felt an urge to express his affection and his—admittedly somewhat condescending—admiration for his friend, but as so often happened, he couldn't make his mouth say the words. He slung his arm around Alex's shoulders instead.
After a moment passed with neither of them commenting on the presence of that arm, PJ started to feel less safe keeping it there. He dropped it abruptly.
Back at the campfire, Alex dug out the marshmallows and found them some sticks.
"I haven't done this since I was a kid," said PJ, spearing his first marshmallow. Alex, who'd found a stick with multiple branches, had already loaded it with three.
Roasting the things was harder than PJ remembered. The little bastards went from lightly browned to flaming cinders within seconds.
The silence as they licked carbonized goo off their fingers was not entirely comfortable.
"Hey, uh, PJ?" said Alex.
PJ recognized Alex's Earnest Voice, which presaged a kind of awkwardness PJ needed to avoid at all costs.
"Do we have—a thing?"
PJ stuffed his last charred marshmallow into his mouth so he wouldn't have to respond.
"Cuz—I feel like there's been this—tension, for a while. Between us."
"There's always tension between us," said PJ through his mouthful. "Mostly consisting of me laughing at you and you getting offended. It's like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football."
"That's not what I'm talking about. I think we—like each other."
PJ froze. Maybe if he held still, this conversation would go away.
"I mean—I feel something, and if I'm reading you right, I think you—"
"No." PJ got up and tossed his stick in the fire. "I'm not gay. For fuck's sake, you're not gay. Do you know how many ex-girlfriend stories you've told me?"
Alex stared at him.
"Fine, I didn't count, but it was a lot."
Alex kept staring.
"What?" PJ snapped.
"Bisexuals aren't just a porno thing, you know."
PJ rolled his eyes. "The point is, I've never once been attracted to a guy. I've never even fantasized about a guy."
Alex's unimpressed stare didn't waver.
"Okay, fine—but none of them were serious fantasies."
Alex exploded. "What the fuck is a serious fantasy?! That's not a real thing, PJ!"
"I mean they weren't fantasies of real people! And they—well—"
"Oh, do tell, I'm dying to hear this."
"They only happen when—they just pop in there when I'm—close. You know. When all sorts of weird shit that doesn't mean anything crosses your mind."
"You—have—thought—about—men. That's enough for reasonable doubt, don't you think?" Alex folded his arms and looked away. "And thanks, I'm gonna be thinking about that all night now."
"Jesus Christ!" PJ clutched his hair. "Why did you have to tell me that?" He got up and stomped outside of the fire light. "This is fucking weird."
"Look, it's weird for me too, but that doesn't mean it isn't happening!"
"I don't care. I can't fucking deal with it right now."
"You know," said Alex, "we are on a camping trip that is about confronting fear."
"I'm not afraid! I'm annoyed! There's a difference!"
"You're the one who's always saying you're afraid you'll die alone!"
"What—and you think you're the best I can hope for?"
That shut Alex up. His face dropped.
PJ's sluggish conscience roused itself to poke him in the heart. He swallowed. "Wow, sorry. That came out—didn't mean to hit that you quite so hard—"
"No, I get it."
"Just, the way you put it—it was so—"
"I see—it's not that I'm a man, it's that I'm me."
"No! Motherf—" PJ could feel everything spiraling out of control. This conversation, his thoughts, his whole life. "Alex, you're my best—I mean, I don't—"
"Please, PJ." Alex was giving him that look of fed-up disappointment that always made PJ feel genuinely bad about himself. "Tell me what you mean. Because I don't know. I really don't."
PJ sat down again and slumped over his crossed legs. His head was full of cartoon birds. The more they talked, the less sense it all made.
"I don't want to talk about this right now," he muttered.
"Then when? When will there possibly be a better time?"
PJ raised his head. "I don't know, okay? I can't deal with this right now, and this dumb trip is pissing me off, and I really really need you to stop talking!" He got to his feet and stomped off toward the tent. "Oh, and one of us is sleeping the fuck outside."
"Let me guess who that's gonna be," Alex shouted.
PJ shrugged and unzipped the tent. "You're the one who likes this camping shit."
PJ blinked awake. He had the feeling he'd been woken by a noise, but he couldn't hear anything now. The dome of the tent glowed with faint gray light. He scrambled out of his sleeping bag.
Outside, the fire had died down to a few dim embers. Alex's sleeping bag was empty.
The flashlight laid on the ground next to the fire. PJ stared at it, frowning, still drowsy. He had no idea what time it was. Alex was probably off taking a piss. But why hadn't he brought the flashlight with him?
"Alex?" he called.
Either Alex was off relieving himself or he'd been dragged into the woods by a bear. The latter seemed unlikely. Unsure what to do, PJ stumbled back to the tent and laid down on top of his sleeping bag. In moments, he'd fallen back asleep.
Later—he had no way of knowing how much later—he woke again. The air vibrated with that same sense of a recent sound. PJ lay still. His heart was in his throat, though he couldn't have said why.
This time, he heard the noise. It came from the direction of their car, and PJ relaxed a little. Alex getting something out of the trunk, no doubt. But no door or trunk slamming followed. The car door handle rattled, paused, then rattled again. Something metal struck it.
PJ's blood froze. Whoever that was wasn't Alex.
Where the fuck was Alex?
He lay frozen on his back, mind tuned to static, every nerve in his body focused on the noises from the car and whoever was moving around it.
The noises stopped, but he felt no relief. Instead, he imagined the intruder stalking silently toward the tent, tire iron in hand. His body tensed and his eyes squeezed shut, as if truly expecting the blow to fall.
After another minute of near-hyperventilation, his brain started working again. They had to be gone, whoever they were. But if they weren't, he couldn't stay here. As slowly and silently as he could, he shoved his feet into his shoes and unzipped the tent zipper one tooth at a time.
The campground was empty. No Alex, no murderer—not that he could see, at least. Shaking, PJ grabbed the flashlight from next to Alex's sleeping bag and ran for the woods.
He'd been hopping over roots for about a minute before he realized he had no idea how to get back.
He could call for Alex again. But what if the murderer was still out there? No, probably not a murderer. But maybe a murderer. Was it best to assume a murderer?
He stopped and found he was standing in the clearing with Alex's creepy doll cairn. Here was a landmark, at least. Now he was afraid to leave it. "Alex!" he tried to shout, but at the last moment it came out as a whisper. Alex could be anywhere in these woods. He could be in somebody's trunk, miles up the interstate. Or he could be lying on the ground a few yards away, injured and unconscious, while PJ stood there doing nothing.
He picked a direction at random and started walking—cold, miserable, scared, having utterly ceased to care about their stupid fight. At that moment, he'd have given anything for more horrifically awkward conversations about his alleged sexuality. As it turned out, it was never too soon to worry about dying alone.
He did not, in fact, have to give anything. Five minutes later, a bush rustled, startling him shitless, and a voice hissed "PJ!"
"Alex?" He hurried over, his whole body thrumming with relief.
"Oh thank god," said Alex.
"What the—" PJ's relief turned quickly to anger. "What are you doing out here?"
"I went to pee," said Alex, sounding miserable. "On my way back I saw someone walking toward me—I thought it was you, but when I called to them they didn't say anything, they just kept coming closer—so I ran for it. I tried to get back to you, but I could hear them between me and the tent, so I hunkered down and waited for them to go away. Did you see them? Are they gone?"
"I think so. Well—I don't know. They tried to get into the car." PJ took a few deep breaths. He was still a bit lightheaded. "Alex—are you fucking with me? Did you hire a dude off Craigslist to pretend to be a murderer? Because I swear to god—"
"I promise you, I had nothing to do with this. Do you really think I'd stage something this fucked up?"
"Well I didn't. See this?" Alex held up his hand. "I'm shaking. This is real fear, PJ."
They sat in unhappy silence. After listening to them breathe for a while and watching his own breath condense in the cold air, PJ asked, "Should we go back now?"
"Okay. So what do we do?"
"Wait here till it gets light?"
"What, do murderers turn to ash in the sunlight or something?"
"Look, I dunno. If they're still there, they'll probably be gone by morning. They can steal all our stuff, I really don't give a shit."
"Fine." In all honesty, PJ didn't especially want to go back either. "But it's balls cold and my butt is wet."
"You big baby." There was a smile in Alex's voice. "Come sit over here."
PJ huddled next to Alex, who put an arm around him.
"Um," said PJ, not leaning closer but not pulling away either. He was much warmer this way. "Are you sure you didn't plan this?"
"Oh get over yourself. I'm not putting the moves on you."
"Okay, good." PJ felt free to snuggle closer and grab Alex's hand. He laced their fingers together. "As long as that's clear."
It was nice. Alex smelled like sweat and polyester camping gear. His hand was slightly clammy. That was okay—PJ's was too.
"I've had a crush on you since we started working at WNYC," said Alex.
PJ giggled. "Really? That long? Wow, Alex."
Maybe getting chased by a murderer had put things in perspective, or maybe it was all the adrenaline pumping through his body, but PJ no longer feared anything he might say. They were just words.
"I don't think I started until we got the job at Gimlet," he said. That had come out more smug than he'd intended, but he needed a smokescreen for his sincerity. Surely Alex knew that about him. "Must've been all those late nights. You looked so hot in your Chinese-takeout-stained sweat pants."
"Oh please. There were times when you looked like an actual homeless person. Remember when the guy at the front desk asked you for your ID?"
"Whatever. I looked good."
"Yeah, you did."
PJ's face got hot. They were veering toward sincerity again, toward—yeah, he could admit it. Attraction. Maybe he'd try to sit with it this time. Not say anything, just—let it hang in the air. Would it kill him?
"Hey uh," said Alex, "can we kiss? You know—just to see if it's weird?"
Exposure therapy, thought PJ. For the pathologically intimacy-averse.
"…Okay," he said.
He turned his head toward Alex, whose face was only vaguely discernible in the dark. It was—not unlike kissing someone in a movie theater. There were soft lips, a touch of saliva and stubbly skin, and then it was over.
Alex licked his lips. "You taste like Slim Jims."
"Really? Must be those Slim Jim-flavored breath mints I've been eating."
Alex laughed, and PJ took a breath to calm himself. He felt hot and shaky. It was like being in middle school all over again.
"If this doesn't work, will we still be friends?"
"Is that what you've been afraid of this whole time?"
"No. Well, partially. It's one of the things."
"Yes, PJ. We will still be friends." Alex's arm around him tightened. "You have mocked and insulted me for every moment of our friendship. If that didn't end it, why would this?"
"What does it say about you that you're into a guy who constantly mocks you?"
"I dunno, what does it say about you that you're into a guy you're constantly mocking? Actually, it makes perfect sense, now that I think about it…"
"You're never going to take my mocking seriously again, are you?"
"PJ, I've never taken it seriously."
"Good. I never actually mean you to."
"I know." Alex squeezed PJ's hand. "Could we kiss again?"
The next kiss was slightly longer and slightly wetter.
Alex pulled back. "You're a dick," he said. "But you're a nice one."
PJ glowed inside.
Three days later, PJ stood outside Alex's building and pressed the buzzer. Since creeping back to the campsite at 5 AM, throwing their shit in the car and driving back to Brooklyn, not a single un-work-related word had passed between them.
PJ pressed the buzzer again. And again. He held it down until Alex's crackly voice over the intercom said "I'm coming, you bastard!"
When Alex opened his apartment door, PJ took the Get Out DVD from his jacket pocket.
Alex stared at it. "You want to watch this now? Right after our recent trauma?" He was wearing a stained WNYC T-shirt (the one with the pigeon on it) and plaid pajama bottoms. PJ thought he looked amazing.
Struggling to play it cool, PJ shrugged. "Gotta get back on the horse."
Alex still didn't take the DVD. "Um. Is this a date?"
PJ cleared his throat. "Do you…want it to be?" When Alex didn't reply, PJ held up a bag from the bodega downstairs. "I brought beer."
Alex raised his eyebrows. "Wow. A sixpack and a horror movie about being black in America—what could be more romantic?"
"Look," said PJ, "I'm going to be scared. I might need to hold someone's hand. Come on, isn't this why people go on dates to horror movies?"
Alex accepted DVD and beer. "Come on in," he said. "I'll make popcorn."
PJ grinned and shut the door behind him.