December 31st, 9:27 am
Silence bared down on the occupants of the car.
Its weight increased steadily, persistently. It was as though the two men in the car were plunging down to the ocean’s depths instead of cruising on the freeway. A storm was riding their tail. They wouldn’t reach the house before getting caught up in it. Tick tick tick snapped a black and gold watch. It acted as a mediocre mediator between the oppressive silence and all the things that should be said. Silences of this kind, a ballooning limbo, made his skin crawl. A wall of dark clouds swallowed the sun, painting the sky in shades of gray. He shivered at the sudden lack of warmth. Sasuke slipped out of his shoes. He pulled his knees up to his chest, bare feet on the cool leather seat. His neon yellow flip flops seemed to almost glow against the vehicle’s all black interior.
Sasuke caved first and broke the silence.
“Nothing to say?”
“Nothing that will get through to you,” he replied, maintaining his calm demeanor. Itachi was dressed for a funeral. A fitted black dress shirt and matching silk tie. The only splashes of color Itachi had on him were his pale face so unlike his own and the gold accents on his watch. He’d come straight from somewhere important, probably the firm to pick him up. Sighing, smoke leaked from his mouth like dragon’s breath. “How’s school?”
“Same as always.”
Itachi put his cigarette out in the steel ashtray by the gear shift. “Do you have any ideas where you’ll want to intern next year?”
“No.” Sasuke chewed the inside of his cheek, toes curling into the black leather. After a beat, he tacked on a soft, “Anywhere but here.”
Sasuke had been convinced for the longest time that his brother was an alien.
“Who’s coming tonight?”
No human being could have the level of stoicism his brother had. On the long list of things Itachi had done which warranted his contempt, he put that otherness, that alien brain of his in the top five. If asked to pick a home planet from which Itachi would hail, Sasuke would pick Neptune.
“Father’s old friends, a couple cousins, and some associates from the firm. It will be a small gathering this year, I promise.”
A planet of ice and rock upon which no mere Earthling could ever hope to survive suited the little green man in a human suit who called himself Itachi Uchiha. He slumped down in his seat. Sasuke wondered, if he were to truly take the time to write down all his grievances, how long that list might be.
March 6th, 1:54 pm
Sakura scanned the place with pursed lips and a hint of a smile. He had taken a page straight out of a Sci-Fi fanatic’s dream journal with the décor. If the living room was a reference to a futuristic space movie then Shikamaru himself would be the rich company heir who kicked off the plot with his curiosity and subsequent funding of an ill-fated exploratory expedition to an uknown planet. He wore a plain white t-shirt and white pants.
“Two hundred. Cash. Then I’ll do it.”
Sakura picked at her nude pink nail polish.
Shikamaru reclined on the asymmetrical, sleek gray couch, laptop balanced on his knees. She held his gaze, unflinching. Money wasn’t an issue here. No doubt he knew that. Sakura didn’t travel over a thousand miles just to turn up to the deal ten bucks short. She had the cash on her. However, when she’d rolled into town Ino had messaged her, informing her of her coworker’s reputation for overcharging. And why wouldn’t he? He was the one man in Henrietta who provided such services. Without the competition, he could charge what he pleased.
“One seventy-five and I won’t report you.”
Sakura snapped her strawberry gum, the floorboards underneath the round rug creaking under her shifting weight. She thought about haggling a bit more but decided to cut her loses. “I never took you for a conman,” she said, opening her purse.
Shikamaru plucked the crisp bills from her hand and lifted his hips to shove them into his back pocket. Then, he produced a lighter and a cigarette. Instead of smoking it, he set it on the oddly shaped coffee table in between a 3d glass chess set and a shiny black paper weight. “Times are tough,” he shrugged. “I’ll be in contact within the next five days. Keep your phone close.”
Sakura thanked him then turned to be on her way.
“Didn’t you take you for the careless type, Sakura. How the hell did it get stolen?”
She let the steel door to the hideout slam shut behind her and stepped out into the hot desert sun.
December 31st, 10:30 pm
Sasuke Uchiha had sticky fingers.
Before the flood of perfumed pomp which was bound to pour through the front door near midnight, he managed to swipe a bottle of champagne. He kicked the door closed, bottle in one hand and snacks in the other. Throwing the snacks on his bed, he sauntered towards the window. He flipped the latch and opened it. A cloud of dust scattered at the sudden movement sending him into a sneezing fit. Sasuke sniffed, eyes watering, then padded to his dresser. He rummaged until he found the bottle opener then shuffled back to the foot of his bed where he’d have a good view of the night sky. The bed creaked under his weight. The bottle thumped softly as he set it down on the hardwood.
In all honesty, he had half expected Itachi to have thrown all his stuff out while he was away. Use the attic space as storage or turn it into a home gym. But no. A plush navy-blue comforter covered on his bed. His old camera sat on his dresser. Stacks of CDs took up the corner next to his dresser, almost as high as the dresser itself. His KoRn Issues album poster was untouched as was his wall of photos. Everything was exactly the same.
Itachi inherited strictness and perfectionism from their father. In certain situations, he sounded like the man’s mouthpiece more than an actual person. Or maybe it was more accurate to say that all their father’s unyielding effort that had succeeded. Fugaku hammered perfectionism into Itachi; it hadn’t come naturally. Sasuke was old enough to accept that. But because Itachi had been the picture of a perfect son, Fugaku had no reason to believe the same methods wouldn’t work on Sasuke.
Sasuke popped the bottle when the sound of the New Year’s festivities began to drift up from downstairs. His room was dead silent but for those wisps of conversation, music, and the sound of his own breathing. He drank. Sasuke drank and forgot his worries. He drank and examined his wall of photos, reliving the good times; Naruto on the first bite of a cheeseburger, cotton candy sneakers in an amusement park trash can, the front of Ichiraku’s at midnight, Sakura blowing a kiss by Miami beach, a glow in the dark electric guitar, Naruto airborne performing a kickflip while Sakura sipped lemonade on the curb.
He drank and drank and more than halfway through the bottle, light from his phone screen brightened the room. Messages flooded in alongside a wave of dings. Ten minutes until midnight. Sakura had sent a single photo of her posing with a group of girls he didn’t recognize. Naruto spammed slightly off-center aesthetic food pics.
If you’re drinking alone, call me. Happy New Year, loser – read Sakura’s message.
can ur stomach explode if u eat too much? i think it can – read Naruto’s.
He smiled despite himself. Sasuke put his phone on mute and started on the rest of the champagne, burping periodically. Sakura would give him an earful later, but it was Sasuke’s decision how he spent his holidays. Contentment settled over him. He finally felt relaxed. Whether it was the alcohol’s influence, he couldn’t tell. From his point of view, he had everything he needed in that room. Good wine, words from friends, and the winter night sky. Sasuke drifted off to sleep in his own bed for the first time in three years.
He woke the next morning feeling like there was sand in his eyes. No hangover though, a nice change of pace. He felt around blindly for his phone and brought it close to his face. There was a message from Naruto.
bro 🌸’s gonna skin u what u do?
It took two tries to unlock his phone. There were five missed calls and thirty-two messages. Sasuke fumbled through typing his reply.
like today or???
With a little digging, Sasuke discovered that while completely hammered he’d sent Sakura a series of surprisingly well-lit pictures of himself, the open window, and the empty champagne bottle.
He scrubbed his hand over his face. This would be bad. Better to rip off the band aid then beat around the bush. He called Sakura, flopping back onto the bed.
March 12th, 3:00 am
Smoothing the blue shark band aid back over his knuckles, Naruto made a sharp right turn and parked his shopping cart at the far end of the chip aisle. Sniffling, he wiped his nose his hoodie sleeve and caught a whiff of sweat and copper. He needed a shower.
Naruto fiddled with the rip at his elbow and frowned at the rusty brown lining his nails. He’d thought he’d washed all of it off. Should he find another bathroom just to be safe? He never liked waiting until the stuff got all crusty and it’d be troublesome if a cashier noticed and called the cops on him. He sighed deep. His orange hoodie had survived fist fights, puppy love with best friends, and midnight fast food runs.
Loyal and strong his hoodie was. Tore him up inside that he had to put it to rest, but Naruto had squeezed all he could from it. Six good years. Shikamaru never shut up about how he should toss it. Said the only people should be wearing something so loud tore up highways for a living. Although, Naruto doubted Pineapple Head Jones considered the fact that nostalgia was a bitch with five-inch fangs. Plus, Shikamaru wore a lip ring and fishnet in high school which automatically disqualified him from any and all fashion criticism.
Naruto would probably end up shoving it in a box somewhere. He sniffed again, leaning on the cart. Three choices, all with their own brand of catastrophic consequence, popped into his head like options A, B, C on a gameshow. Gripping the plastic handle tight, Naruto weighed his options.
Since agreeing on a chip brand and flavor was like debating the objectively best toe – Sakura liked plain stuff, Naruto stuck to the classics, and Sasuke had been partial to novelty flavors like pickle or wasabi ginger or fucking milk chocolate, the disgusting son of a bitch, before he went vegetarian – they’d played for the chip slot last weekend. Sakura had won fair n’ square, two out of three.
Naruto nudged his cart back and forth. A man with a pinup girl tattoo on his neck gave him a weird look as he passed. For all her brains and quips, Sakura didn’t know dick about snack etiquette. Out of all the brand flavors, Sakura, with her pretty green eyes and pastel pink hair, had chosen Fritos. Lord Almighty she’d picked Fritos for their road trip.
He rolled the cart back to where the kettle cooked chips sat. It was heinous, unnatural, a harbinger of chaos and disaster to bring boring ass, plain ass Fritos on a cross country road trip. They’d have highway gremlins or inkmen chasing them to Toledo and back! The hell if he was gonna spend his hard-earned cash on some shit like that. Naruto picked at his nails. Like a pimple growing conspicuously in the middle of his forehead, his dilemma was obvious.
Not buying an industrial sized bag of Fritos meant undermining the system that had taken eight years to perfect. It was practically sacred. Sakura would kick his ass if he disrespected it like that. He could maybe soften the blow by getting Sasuke what he wanted, but he didn’t know where to find kale chips this early, nor was he too keen on finding out.
Feeling the need for a second opinion, Naruto fished his phone out of his pocket. He hopped up on the bottom of the shopping cart like he was gonna ride it down the aisles. The thought crossed his mind. You were never too old for aisle surfing, but he’d been banned from a Walmart before and thought better of it.
The facetime tune sounded for a couple seconds before Sasuke picked up. He yawned, adjusting his gray beanie. “I’m in some shit,” Naruto chuckled sheepishly.
“Like,” Sasuke drawled, rubbing his eyes, “the five-o brought the cadaver dogs to the house and are about to search the backyard level shit or you locked your keys in your car again? What specific manner of shit are you in?”
“I can A) buy Fritos and try to avoid the bad luck cluster fuck that’ll rain down on us B) get some Doritos instead without calling Void and have Sakura beat my ass for disrespecting the system or C) go chipless which is just unacceptable.”
Void was the emergency option. For use only if one was a hundred percent sure they wanted to overturn a decision. The Void caller forfeited their rights to decision making for a month in return. It wasn’t a position Naruto wanted to put himself in with Sakura and Sasuke in his van.
“No such thing as bad luck. Buy the Fritos. Later.”
He hung up.
Sasuke believed in the transformative power of the rebel persona and its ability to deter others from conversation with him. In most cases, it worked. But he and Sakura had known him before his detached demeanor and “burn the establishment” phase. Naruto did the only reasonable thing and called until he picked up again.
“What? I’m busy.”
Naruto rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah? With what?”
Sasuke flipped his phone around. Naruto got a sweeping visual of where he was. Leaves and branches. Hanging streetlights in the distance. Capital Street. Bodies wrapped in blankets and protest signs with pithy phrases below him. From the looks of it, Sasuke was camping out in the old oak by the strip mall with a posse of his fellow activists. Naruto could’ve sworn he saw Aburame in the mix.
“I’m here to protest the scheduled bulldozing of this tree. Dolly told me there’d be one today dusk ‘til dawn and,” Sasuke adopted Dolly’s nasally, patronizing tone, “if you’re in then you’ve gotta be in, ‘kay? No flaking ‘cause you got too high or all of a sudden grandma needs a kidney transplant.” He scoffed and scratched at his neck. “I really thought she was exaggerating.”
Naruto paused for a second, shook his head, then moved back on topic. Safety of the trip took top priority. “Bad food brings bad juju and that’s the last thing we need pushing ninety in no man’s land.” He had a hunch about this one and his hunches were rarely wrong.
Sasuke considered it for a moment. “Hunches are on the same level as luck to me though I see what you’re trying to say. Doesn’t change the fact that Sakura will be pissed to hell since she won.” He advised that instead of worrying over silly superstitions that might come true, Naruto should concern himself with what would. And as bad as crashing where no one could find their bodies could be, Sakura’s temper was worse. He hung up again. Naruto thought better of trying to persuade him further and didn’t call back.
Sasuke Uchiha was the type of dude to get wasted on a bottle of Hennessy and wake up with a Denny’s sign in his backyard and a banged-up cop car in his driveway. If Naruto was going to convince him of anything, it’d better be after a round of shots.
Naruto accepted his fate. He snatched the Fritos off the shelf, tossed it in his cart, and rolled off to finish shopping. He’d just have to do what he’d always done. Do his best to manage when shit hit the fan. If something tried to run them off the road then chances were, he and Sakura could handle it. On his way to the cashier, he caught more stares. A middle-aged woman with ramen noodle hair. A fidgety teen in a baseball cap. A stout man wearing sunglasses on the back of his head and an expensive looking black and orange komainu jacket.
Naruto made friendly conversation with the cashier as she rung him up. Anna’s cheeks dimples when she smiled. She was a retired chemical engineer and was working there to help her son pay off his law school debt. She’d moved here four months ago all the way from Lancaster. He’d a wealth of stories from little exchanges like this. Collecting them was one of his hobbies. Naruto was in the middle of cracking a joke when the acrid, coppery smell returned with a vengeance. Like stale blood and rot. The scent hit him so hard he gagged through the punchline.
His heartbeat thrummed in his ears. He scanned the vicinity, careful to not look too spooked. What the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck would show up here? Lights flickered overhead. Nothing. Halfway through a relieved sigh, he noticed the man with the pinup girl tattoo at the magazine rack. There was burly skinhead next to him. Fuck.
Anna blinked at him, likely concerned as to whether she’d have to call for a cleanup. “You alright, luv?”
Naruto apologized with a sheepish smile. He patted his stomach, blaming the episode on one too many beers. He dug out his card and handed it to her. Anna chuckled, shaking her head like a disappointed mother. She swiped his card. He gathered up his bags. Arms full, Naruto shuffled to his car, hurried his groceries inside, and turned just in time to duck a fist that came swinging at his head.
He stumbled back and got a good, long look at the man trying to jump him; there were four of them. The man with the pinup girl tattoo was among them. He had a knife. A skinny dude with meth mouth had a bigger knife. The skinhead brandished a baseball bat. The rightmost man had his hands in his black and orange jacket.
“Back for seconds?”
The man in the jacket, the ringleader, stepped forward. “Let this be a lesson to you if you live through this. Be careful who you choose to fuck with.”
Naruto pulled out his phone and checked the time.
He peeled the band aid off his knuckles.
The streetlights flickered.
“Same to you.”
March 13th, 2:29 am
Itachi was away visiting extended family so he had the house to himself. Sasuke painted a large, vaguely misshapen circle on the hardwood floor of his dining room.
Using the diagram depicted in the grimoire he’d fished out of the bargain bin at an antique shop downtown, he filled in the minor details of the pentagram with a smaller brush. It took a delicate touch and a controlled hand to paint all the little squiggles and symbols. The muscles in his lower back screamed from having been bent over for so long.
In hindsight, painting a circle in what was essentially the downward facing dog positing might not have been the best way of going about it. I should work out more, he thought, straining to swipe away a dot of paint that had plopped somewhere it shouldn’t have, maybe pick up yoga. It took him over an hour to finish. Once he felt he’d done all he could, Sasuke took a couple steps back to get a good look at the summoning circle. The outline of the pentagram had turned out less than perfect, but he considered it a decent first attempt. Hopefully, it’d be his only attempt. He gave himself a congratulatory pat on the back.
Sasuke’s deep dive into the occult had started in college.
Boredom pushed him down a strange road. Itachi had insisted that he get a place without a roommate so as to avoid potential disagreements. Apparently, Itachi was supernaturally unlucky. He crushed the one in a gazillion chance it would’ve taken and roomed with the exact same gaggle of jackoffs every year for four years. Itachi claimed he’d wanted to spare Sasuke that particular headache and so set him up with a single apartment.
Having a whole apartment to himself left Sasuke with lots of time to think. His parents’ funeral had been a common thinking point for him. More than what could be considered healthy. He might’ve gotten a little obsessive. At one point during his sophomore year, he had spiraled.
Sasuke flipped to the page on incantations. He practiced mouthing the words first. When dealing with demonic summoning, the slightest slip of the tongue could have catastrophic consequences for him.
Trying to summon a demon to resurrect his parents might be the single dumbest decision of his life but Sasuke had moved hell and high water the past year to ensure that it wouldn’t be an ignorant one. He took the proper precautions. Around the circle, he had laid rings of salt and sage. He could recite twelve different vanishing spells forwards, backwards, and underwater. He had a priest on speed dial.
Once Sasuke felt he was ready, he spoke the words inked on the page. He wasn’t half as surprised as he should have been when the pentagram began to glow. Smoke rose from the symbols. The chandelier lights flickered. A demon with glowing red eyes appeared in a black and orange jacket. It took a long time for what Sasuke was seeing to click.
Naruto’s typical cheer was so strained it looked painful.
“Since you’re my buddy and we’ve been planning this trip for literal years, I’m gonna go ahead and give you the benefit of the doubt here. I am actively assuming you didn’t want to assassinate a world leader, start a war, or ask me to genocide a minority. I am gonna need a step by step play by play for what the shit you thought you were doing though.”