Phil put the mushrooms in a metal pan attached to a stick and held them over the fire. After a couple minutes, he said, "Anyone else wanna do this? My arm's starting to cramp."
It was Luke's party, so I offered to take over. Phil sat back down and Luke said, "You sure this won't cook the poison out of them?"
"Doesn't work like that," I said, though I wasn't certain.
Luke sucked at his cigarette. He reminded me of a feeding calf. His blond hair was pulled back as tight as it could go, stretching the skin of his forehead thin, widening his eyes. He was nineteen, but in the firelight, he looked twelve.
Phil picked up a decent-sized rock and tossed it into the forest. It crashed somewhere in the darkness. He said, "I'm gonna miss this."
"Maybe," Luke said. His hand was shaking so much, he almost dropped his smoke.
Phil clapped his shoulder. "They're worth it, man."
Luke nodded, his eyes focusing a little. "Yeah. Yeah, they are."
The fire crackled. My arm grew tired but I didn't say anything. An owl called somewhere distant. That's how Luke and I had gotten to know each other, actually—as little boys, his dad would take us out late at night, looking for owls. We never found any, but we saw plenty of deer, raccoons, opossums, and other night life. Two boys bonding over a love of nature. It made for a cute story.
"You can still back out," Phil said. "It's your idea, man. Your call. Say the word and we're done."
Luke shook his head. "No. I have to know for sure."
I couldn't remember when Phil had entered the picture. Somewhere in high school, involving shop class. Somehow, he'd worked his way to this point. Would we be here if it weren't for Phil? Probably. Luke had been talking about this for months. But I wondered if, were Phil not here, he would still go through with it. I thought he would've backed out, and I wasn't sure how I felt about that.
"Florida," Phil said, and the one word seemed to brush the fear from Luke's face. He actually smiled.
It wasn't hard to go along with the idea. The odds of the mushrooms being fatal were slim, really. So in all likelihood, Luke would be leaving us for Florida. Maybe Phil would go with him; Phil had nothing tying him here anymore. Maybe he never did. I wouldn't leave; I didn't want to stay, I had as little to hold me here as they did, but I couldn't leave. Florida was too far. Anything outside the county limits was too far for me, and that was why I just held the mushrooms over the fire and said nothing.
"All those girls," Phil said. "Swaying in the July sun, all oiled and shiny. Bikinis obligatory, man. You have to admit, Jessica wouldn't look that good in a bikini. You belong down there, away from her, away from here."
Even the mention of her name didn't drop Luke back into his fugue. He seemed dredged up from the trenches for good.
"Sunshine all the time," Phil said. "Sand between your toes, margarita in your hand, one of those girls by your side. Shit, if that's not the life, then I don't know what is and I don't want it." To me, he said, "They're ready."
I pulled the pan back and sat it on the ground between us. We waited a couple minutes for the mushrooms to cool, then we each picked one up. Phil bit into his first, without any preamble. He winced and said, "Well, death doesn't taste good, but I guess you wouldn't expect it to."
I watched Luke. When he finally took a bite, so did I. No flavor. Nothing. Luke winced, too, so maybe it was just that my taste buds had withered away. I chewed the first dry chunk and bit off another. It slid thickly down my throat.
"This time tomorrow," Phil said, "you'll be on your way to perpetual happiness, no matter what happens. I'd call this a win, wouldn't you guys?"
Luke nodded and chewed. I met Phil's eyes, but he didn't really see me. We both returned our attention to Luke, who seemed content for the first time in months. His decision was out of his hands now. Our decision. I thought about the Florida girls whom Luke would probably, possibly, be courting. I thought of their smiles, which I would never see, and their warm, sun-drenched caresses. It was definitely something to be content about. Maybe not happy, maybe not joyous, but contentment was good enough anymore.