I don’t know why I’m telling this story. Maybe it’s so I can start the process of forgiving myself, knowing that what I did was beyond my control. Or maybe that’s a lie. Maybe I wanted to do it all along. I honestly don’t know.
When my buddy Raul and I heard that the Puerto Rican government was paying people to help clear the abandoned and unlivable properties that got wrecked by Hurricane Maria, we jumped at the idea. After the hurricane, neither of us were able to go back to work. Things were looking pretty bleak until that opportunity presented itself.
We went to the coordination center and got a map telling us the areas we’d be responsible for and what to do with the stuff we dragged out of the ruined houses. It was pretty straightforward – pull all the furniture and carpets and appliances out of the houses and put them on the side of the road. Trucks would pick up the junk, and, eventually, the homes would be properly demolished.
I did my best to not grimace when we were told how to tag and handle any bodies that had been missed by the initial sweeps right after the storm.
There were red X’s on the map showing where other crews were working. One spot on the far end of the grid was unmarked. It was ours.
“You’ll want to bring these,” the coordinator said, and handed us a pair of gas masks. “The mold might be toxic.”
“Great,” Raul replied. I couldn’t tell whether or not he was being sarcastic.
“No one’s been to this part of the grid since the first couple days after Maria,” we were told. “Be careful and try to avoid coming in contact with standing water and other fluids you might not be able to identify.”
Raul and I signed the documents guaranteeing us a day’s pay for a day’s work and we hopped in the truck and left.
An hour and a half later, we arrived at the top of a street featuring homes that, before Maria, were probably gorgeous.
“Rich folks,” Raul commented.
“Yep,” the driver replied. “Lots of pharma execs I think. Maybe you guys will find some cash. Finders keepers, right?”
We nodded. The driver laughed and we got out.
“Well, here we go,” I said, and put on my gloves and mask.
We approached the first house. It was a two-story mini-mansion made of white brick. Well, I assumed it was white brick at one point. It was coated in black mold.
“This is disgusting,” Raul complained.
“Yeah, but it’s money,” I answered. “Get your ass in there.”
We spent hours going from house to house and dragging out the easiest stuff to remove. The coordinators never told us we had to finish a house before moving to the next one. I figured they’d probably start when they discovered the half-assed job we did.
Despite the driver’s comment about finding money, all we found was a waterlogged bag of weed in the dresser drawer of a bedroom that had belonged to a teenage kid. Raul pocketed it and said he might be able to dry it out. I said he’d be smoking 90% black mold spores. He thought about it for a minute then left it alone.
We took a break for lunch around noon, then walked up the hill to the house at the top. It was by far the largest in the neighborhood. It must have belonged to someone pretty high up in the local pharmaceutical racket.
The three main floors were mostly empty; it looked like the owners had the resources to get the majority of their stuff out of there before the storm hit. We were about to move on when Raul noticed a door on the first floor leading down.
“A basement?” I asked. I was surprised. None of the houses here had them.
“Sure looks like one,” Raul replied. “And look at this shit.”
He ran his gloved index-finger across an orange substance on the floor and wall surrounding the door. “Is that mold?”
“Yeah, probably. I wonder why it’s not black like the rest of it.”
“No idea. I want to check out the basement though. They might have left some good stuff.”
I agreed. We flipped on our flashlights and headed down the stairs.
The first thing we noticed about the basement was how hot and humid it was. The eyepieces on our masks fogged up almost immediately.
“I can’t see shit,” Raul complained, and pulled off his mask.
“Seriously?” I asked. “You’re gonna breathe this shit in?”
“It’s either that or fall down the stairs and break my neck.”
I sighed. He had a point. I couldn’t see more than blurry light from the flashlight. I took another step, tripped over my feet, and said “fuck it” and took off my mask as well.
We trudged down the remaining stairs and shone the flashlight around the cavernous basement. The dirt floor was covered in orange mold. There were metal countertops all around the edges of the room and what looked like lab equipment set up on some of them. A series of heaters glowed dull orange in various spots in the basement.
“Must be getting power from the solar panels on the roof,” I said. “Talk about a fire hazard.”
Raul nodded. “I wonder if this stuff is worth any money.”
“I guess it depends on what’s inside,” I answered, and examined some of the tubes and beakers.
Most of them were clean and dry. Others were empty aside from an orange ring in the interior, as if something had evaporated over the months of neglect.
“Take a look at this,” Raul called from across the room.
I headed in his direction. He was shining a flashlight on what looked like a fish bowl filled with dirt.
“Look at these mushrooms,” he said. He picked up the bowl. “I’ve never seen puffball ones like th-”
As he spoke, one of them burst. A cloud of spores filled the air around us. In our surprise, we both gasped. Our chests filled with the orange substance as we coughed and swore at each other.
“This is why we don’t take the fucking masks off!” I yelled, hacking the stuff out of my lungs and spitting it onto the floor.
“Fuck you, I didn’t make you take yours off. You couldn’t see shit because of all the steam.”
“Yeah yeah, fuck you. Put that fucking thing down.”
We coughed up more of the mold without saying much else. I started to get uncomfortably warm. I was already hot from the room temperature and the work, but this was something else. I could see Raul felt it too.
“I gotta get this shit off me,” Raul complained, and stripped out of his work clothes. I wanted to object and say we should avoid the mold, but I was stifling, too.
Stripped, we stood away from the nearest heater and tried to cool off.
“You feel any better?” I asked.
“Yeah. I think I’m okay.”
There was a pause. At the time, neither of us knew what was happening. I can claim, in retrospect, we had no idea the spores were affecting us in more ways than just the sensation of being overheated.
We both yawned and stretched our muscles. I felt much better. Good, actually. I hesitate to use the word euphoric, because that happened later, but the fringes of euphoria had taken hold. I could see it in Raul, too. He was smiling and stretching his muscular arms out wide.
“Stretching is pretty fucking good,” he remarked. “It’s like I’m opening myself up.”
I agreed. I felt a bit antsy, though.
We stood and stretched for a few minutes longer. I was okay, but Raul was clearly off. His smile had shifted into a grimace of uncertainty and discomfort.
I was overcome with a sensation of despair. I felt protective of Raul. He’d been my friend for so long and seeing him out of sorts was awful.
“Can I do anything to help?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I feel so closed off. Trapped, you know? Like, I know I can experience things better if I was… open.”
The word “open” echoed in my mind. It was so tantalizing. It carried a sense of freedom and possibility, like arms held wide for an embrace. An idea came to mind. One I can’t believe arose from the same brain that carried compassion and caring.
“Can I try something?” I whispered.
Raul was stretching and pulling his arms and legs and whimpering. “Anything,” he murmured. “This is terrible.”
“Ok. Just…just trust me.” I took my Swiss Army knife from my pocket and made a slit down my friend’s palm.
All at once, the tension in Raul’s demeanor evaporated.
“Oh my God,” he said, and looked at his bloody palm. “That was such a relief.”
We watched the blood drool into the moldy floor. I felt something moving in me. Something changing. It’s hard to explain. It was like I was being guided into action; action necessary to help my friend. As if on cue, Raul spoke.
“I’m tightening up again. It’s worse this time. Help me.” He held out his hand.
I didn’t need him to explain any further. I sliced between each of his fingers down to his wrist. I studied his expression as I made each cut. The tension was going away. Seeing that gave me a feeling of accomplishment more powerful than I’d ever dreamed.
When I was finished, he presented his other hand. Then his feet. I carved between his toes to each heel. The latter took a few minutes, but the saw attachment on the knife helped get through the bones. When I was finished, Raul sighed with contentment. We fanned the new, longer fingers and toes out on the cellar floor. Their span was dramatically greater than before.
“Is that better?” I whispered. My desire to help was overwhelming.
Raul nodded. “I think so. It’s…it’s getting there.”
“Here,” I suggested, and carved a slit between his navel and pubis that spanned hip-to-hip. I reached inside and teased loops of his intestines from the cavity. My friend closed his eyes and bit his lower lip in an expression I’d always associated with bliss. I noticed he had an erection. We both did. It confused me, but only momentarily.
“Just bodies being bodies,” I thought to myself. “This is beyond gay or straight. Beyond sex.” My eyes brimmed with tears. “This is love.”
The intestines were warm in my hands. Almost hot. The feeling of intimacy had me on the verge of sobbing. No one had ever touched my friend like this. It was likely no one ever would again. He trusted me. He loved me. I was his first, and he was mine.
I stood, stretching his viscera further from his new opening. My friend’s eyes followed my every move.
“That’s me,” Raul commented. “It’s can’t believe I thought I knew myself before this. Before I saw inside.” He began to weep. “I’m beautiful, Gonzalo.”
I brought the tangle of Raul’s insides to my lips and kissed them. “Kissed him,” I corrected myself. “If I kiss his cheek, I’m kissing him. If I kiss his forehead, I’m kissing him. What I’m holding is no worse. No different. What I’m holding is him. My friend. And I love him.”
“More, please. For as long as you can.”
I spread his intestines over the room. They draped over the chair and desk and whiteboard covered in chemical diagrams I couldn’t understand. When a loop wouldn’t come undone, I cut it with the pocketknife. Their contents poured onto the ground and I noted, with passing curiosity, how stringy, white mushrooms sprouted where the clumps fell.
“Help me turn over, Gonzalo. I want to press against the sweet earth.”
I did as he asked.
“I can feel the mold, my friend. I feel it growing up through the ground and into me. Is this what it means to be a vessel for life? To create something new and beautiful inside my body?
I couldn’t control my emotions anymore. I had no reason to try.
“You’re stunning,” I sobbed. “I love you.”
“I love you,” Raul whispered in return.
“What can I do for you?” I begged. “What can I give you?”
“More,” was the reply. “Anything you’d like.”
I flicked open the pocket knife. With my left hand, I pinched the Achilles tendon in Raul’s right ankle. With my right hand, I sliced through. I felt the tendon go slack and try to roll up into his calf. I held on, though, and using both hands, I pulled down and back toward his foot. It snapped and came out, leaving a hole. I pressed four fingers inside. More warmth. I slid my entire hand behind his calf, feeling the slick bone underneath. My friend’s hips gyrated against the dirt floor.
“I know what I want to do, Raul,” I said.
“Anything,” he breathed.
“I want to be inside you.”
I watched as Raul pushed his hips back and presented himself to me.
“No,” I said, and gently guided him back down. “I don’t want to fuck you. This is too special to end that way. We’re better than that. Closer than that.”
I took the knife and carved deep lines into Raul’s armpits. He bled heavily. I didn’t have much time. With another few, quick cuts, I carved a rectangle in his back. I reached under and pulled. The skin came off. I tossed it aside onto the mushrooms surrounding us.
“Settle into me,” Raul whispered.
I pressed my bare chest against the exposed musculature of my friend’s back. I felt him shudder and he moaned. My hands pushed into the holes I’d made in his armpits. Gradually, with increasing force, I pressed harder. My arms began to disappear inside his.
“Yes,” he mewled. His voice was getting low. This would end soon.
I watched my hands clawing under the tight skin of his arms, fighting to reach full depth. His arms were longer than mine – I could do it. The skin split on his left bicep but I persisted; deeper and deeper and I felt his hips pressing back to meet mine as I made the final thrust inside. And there, finally, we were.
With my arms enveloped by Raul’s and my body against his, we lay, breathing in unison. His breaths were shallow. I felt his heart beating through his back. The rhythm was weak. My head spun with joy. I kissed his earlobe.
“Is this heaven?” he muttered. “They’re all smiling. They’re all running. Gonzalo, I…I want you to run with me.”
“I will go anywhere,” I answered. “Anywhere.”
“Run with me,” Raul breathed.
It was his final breath.
I closed my eyes, luxuriating in the warmth of my friend. “Let’s run, then,” I whispered back, and I drifted into a black, dreamless sleep.
When I woke up, all I could feel was hideous, claustrophobic coldness. I opened my eyes and gasped. I was where I’d fallen asleep, but my mind had since cleared. My arms were locked in the cold, wet body of my dead friend. I scrambled and pulled them out, tearing Raul’s skin in the process. My chest was stuck to his back. I pulled away, feeling my belly and pubic hair rip out in painful clumps.
I looked around. In the dim light of our dying, cast-aside flashlights, the entire basement was covered in stringy, white mushrooms. I could barely see the other side of the room where the stairs were. I left my clothes and bolted for the exit.
I ran up the stairs, called emergency services on my cell phone, and told them everything.
Now, I write this account from my jail cell.
I intend on pleading guilty for the murder of Raul. It’s likely my sentence will be short because of the effects the mold spores had on my mind. But the guilt will remain. I was the one who cut my friend open. I was the one who spilled his blood and guts and shit into that abandoned basement. The law may forgive me, but I won’t forgive myself.
In the days I’ve spent in this cell, I’ve hated myself for the actions of that day. I hate the violence. I hate the depravity. I hate the loss. But, most of all, I hate how it was the best I’ve ever felt. I remember the closeness. I remember the love.
The one visit I’ve been allowed was from my wife. It was brief. Five minutes or so. Before she left, she hugged me. I could tell how much compassion she put into that embrace. How much understanding. But from the moment it began, I felt none of it. It was like I was being held by a ghost. It was nothing compared to those moments I shared with Raul. And, I fear, unless I can return to that house someday and repeat those acts of savagery, nothing will ever compare again.