Fading Away | Nick Borden

Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash

Content Warning: Alcoholism

It’s Halloween night, and Paul has nothing to do, so he heads across the river to a bar in town. He always heard stories of kids sneaking in there in high school, but never did it himself. It’s only been a year since he graduated, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Even though he’s been in town since the summer, he’s been afraid to show his face because then he would have to admit that he dropped out of college.

Paul’s back home, back in Ohio, living temporarily with his uncle. He’s gotten enough lectures about disappointment and perseverance and dealing with obstacles. When he first got his academic scholarship to the University of Chicago, everyone in town thought he was some kind of genius. When he had left for college, his parents threw him a going away party, which was attended by a lot of people he had never met before. He doesn’t want to see those same faces filled with disappointment.

The bar is walking distance away, but Paul drives anyway. He has to cross a one lane bridge on the way, and he waits for five cars in a row to cross before he does. As he drives through the town, he looks around at all the run-down houses with their overgrown lawns and their faded, peeling paint and their broken windows. He pulls into the one block downtown area, where the streets are lined with homeless people, and trash blows around in the wind. What a shithole, he thinks.

The bar is decorated for Halloween, with fake spiderwebs all over the walls, and pumpkins everywhere. Some people are in costumes. Paul always hated dressing up for Halloween, even as a kid. He sits at the bar with his head in his hands and waits for the bartender to come back out.

“Hey, Paul.”

Paul feels a hand on his shoulder and looks up. Sitting next to him are a boy and a girl he hasn’t seen since high school, one long year ago.

“Remember me…Ezra, from school?” the boy introduces himself.

Ezra’s a typical stoner. He’s dressed in flannel, and his dirty blonde hair goes down past his shoulders. His face is glowing, as though he’s never been happier. Paul has never been friends with him, so he’s not sure why Ezra’s so excited to see him.

Next to Ezra is a girl who looks vaguely familiar. Paul thinks she looks like a hippie, wearing ripped jeans and a Sex Pistols t-shirt.

“I’m Ashley, we used to have history together,” she says.

Paul nods politely but says nothing.

“Back from college?” Ezra asks.


“How long you here for?”


They’re looking at Paul awkwardly, and he can’t think of an excuse, so he tells them the truth.

“I’m back for good actually,” he says through gritted teeth.

Ezra nods knowingly and sips his beer. “Well, you’re back home, man. You’re where you belong.”

Paul’s not so sure that’s a good thing.

“Well, let me get you a drink at least,” Ezra hops the bar and pours him a beer.

Ashley raises her glass. “To coming home.”

They are two rounds in when Ezra says, “I wish I was from Detroit.”

Paul laughs out loud. “Detroit? Why?”

“Ohio sports suck,” Ezra complains. “I mean, Ohio State can’t even beat Michigan anymore. I feel like Detroit has such a strong… I don’t know, a strong culture, I guess.”

“That’s just a nice way of saying they’re really poor,” Ashley smiles.

“Look at the Lions,” Ezra says. “Every year they play like fucking garbage, and all their fans are there anyway. Ohio’s just a fucking black hole. A giant state-sized dumpster.”

“The Tigers were cool for a while,” Paul says. He follows sports, but not very closely. “They’re close enough it’s almost like they’re ours.”

“I always wanted to get a Justin Verlander jersey,” Ezra says admiringly. “But I just couldn’t bring myself to advertise another team.”

“I wore a Peyton Manning jersey to school when he won the Super Bowl, remember?” Ashley says.

Ezra rolls his eyes. “I expected better from you.”

“I didn’t take you for such a sports fan,” Paul observes.

“What can I say man, appearances are deceiving,” Ezra laughs. It’s a hippie laugh, slow, drawn out, and fake.

“How long have you two been dating?” Paul asks.

They both shake their heads and giggle.

“We’re not dating,” Ezra says.

“But we are soulmates though,” Ashley grabs Ezra’s hands. “We share a brain.”

“Refill!” Ezra jumps up and goes behind the bar again. “You gotta try this, I just found it at this local brewery…”

Ashley scowls and says, “He doesn’t care about your stupid hipster beer. Why don’t you get out that whiskey you were talking about earlier?”

“I don’t know, I…” Paul stutters, but they both ignore him.

Ezra slams a giant brown bottle on the bar. “You like Bourbon? You will after this.”

“Ezra’s a whiskey snob,” Ashley explains.

They’ve had a couple rounds of Ezra’s Bourbon, and Paul thinks the room is starting to wobble slightly. He can feel himself sweating now. Ezra has wrapped himself in one of the fake spiderwebs, and is carving a face into a pumpkin. Ashley opens one of the windows.

“I know you can hold your liquor, man,” Ezra looks at Paul proudly. “You’re from Ohio, it’s in your blood.”

Paul regrets not drinking more in high school. Now that he’s not in college anymore he feels like he missed out. There’s something about alcohol that makes the lights in the window more vibrant somehow, Paul thinks. Outside a car drives by and they hear someone screaming out the window. The noise fades as the car drives away.

Ashley leans across the bar towards Paul, squinting her eyes. She looks like she’s struggling to stay awake. “Why didn’t we hang out more in high school?”

Paul smiles faintly. “You guys were so much cooler than me. Everyone wanted to hang out with you because Ezra was the biggest stoner in school. I was just… some guy, you know?”

“I actually wasn’t,” Ezra laughs.

“Wasn’t what?”

“I wasn’t a stoner,” he says. “I only actually smoked a few times, and I never even liked it. Everyone thought I looked like a stoner, so I just went with it.”


Ashley puts her head down on the bar and closes her eyes. “I’m the only one who knows how lame this guy really is. It’s a burden.”

Paul laughs and shakes his head in disbelief. “It’s not just what you look like, it’s the way you talk, and… just your whole persona, man.”

Ezra shrugs and pours another round of shots.

“Cheers,” he says. Ezra throws his head back and swallows the alcohol in less than a second, then shrugs and drinks Ashley’s shot too.

Paul looks around the bar. The sky is pitch black in the windows, and everyone else has left. The three of them are alone. The room is drenched in blue light from the colored bulbs in the ceiling. Most of the spiderwebs have fallen off the walls, and the wind occasionally blows the door open. When it does, they all get a whiff of something that smells like sewage, and Paul has a view across the street. He sees what looks like a bouquet of flowers lying by the side of the road, and a plaque he can’t quite read.

“What is that?” he asks. “Across the street, with the flowers?”

“Oh, some girl died,” Ezra explains quickly. “What’s Chicago like?”

“Huh?” Paul says, still focused on the memorial.

“Did you get to see any live music there? I hear the nightlife is great,” Ezra asks.

“Yeah, I guess,” Paul says. He didn’t go to many parties. He always felt like he should, but he was never really in the mood.

“You’ve got to see some of the live music we get in this place,” Ezra says. “They say punk rock is dead, but they’ve never been here.”

“Sure,” Paul is starting to feel drowsy and depressed.

“You’d like this stuff, man,” Ezra continues, not noticing Paul’s lack of interest. “I mean, this is real art, not that fake shit they teach you about in Chicago.”

Paul ignores him, instead looking out the door at the memorial across the street, thinking.

After another few rounds, Paul politely tries to leave, but Ezra doesn’t want to hear it.

“It’s all… gone…” Paul stammers. “…threw it all away…”

Ezra leans forward and grabs his arms. “I used to think you were the smartest guy in high school. What’s happening to you right now… you’re about to learn the real meaning of life.”


“You’ve been blind for so long,” Ezra whispers. “I want to save you.”

“My parents were alcoholics…” Paul moans.

“So that makes them bad people?” Ezra asks. “Look, once you learn the meaning of life you won’t even remember going to that preppy school. You want to know what it is?”


“No, you dumbass,” he slaps Paul across the face. “What you’re learning right now is that it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

For a second Paul feels confused, then slightly offended. “Did you just quote Kurt Cobain’s suicide note?”

“What? No, it’s Neil Young. Don’t make this depressing, man.”

Paul gets up and tries to find the exit, but he gets dizzy and has to sit back down. He realizes that Ezra is holding his arm, guiding him. Ashley is sleeping next to them, quietly mumbling to herself. Paul stares at the display of liquor bottles stacked on top of each other behind the bar. They seem to be glowing somehow. Paul can see his reflection in one of the bottles, distorted and unrecognizable. It’s almost hypnotizing, he doesn’t want to look away.

Ezra slides Paul another beer from under the bar, raises one of his own and says, “Here’s to being alcoholics.”

Paul doesn’t remember when he started drinking water, but after a while his vision starts to clear up. Talking is still hard though, and there’s an unpleasant weight in his stomach. He feels relief, as though he has escaped some kind of punishment.

Ezra is leaning on the bar, drunkenly rambling about something. Paul is trying to remember where he parked. Someone must have come in and changed the lights because they’re now slowly rotating colors. Red to yellow, yellow to green, green to blue, blue to purple, purple to red again.

“…everyone wants to say that this guy killed punk rock, or this other guy killed punk rock, it’s always someone else,” Ezra is gesturing with his right hand so furiously that he keeps spilling beer all over the floor. “But the truth is punk rock killed itself, man, and nobody wants to admit that…”

“Yeah, sure,” Paul says, barely listening.

“That’s the story of rock and roll, man,” Ezra whines. “You finally make something cool, and they just… steal it… and ruin it forever, and throw it back in your face.”

“I guess.”

“Black Flag, My War, side two, the only genuine record ever made,” Ezra holds his empty beer bottle up to his eye like a telescope and looks at Paul. The last drops of beer drip down his face.


Ezra goes behind the bar and fumbles with something. Paul hears smashing glass, and then Ezra resurfaces with two beer bottles.

“You wanna try…” he struggles to finish his own sentence. “Hip— Hip—”

“You’re cut off,” Paul takes the beers away and guides Ezra to the barstool next to him. There’s a moment of silence while Paul pours him a glass of water.

“You know what I’ve been wondering for a while?” Paul asks. “When did it become cool to have a therapist?”


“When I was in Chicago, I was just surrounded by all these rich people who didn’t know they were rich—”

“Eat the rich,” Ezra mumbles.

“—And all these rich white girls would always be saying stuff like, ‘my therapist said this,’ and ‘my therapist told me that,’ like it’s just another thing for them to buy. It’s the most obnoxious thing…”

“Relax,” Ezra pats Paul on the shoulder. “You’re safe now.”

Ezra is beginning to fall asleep, leaning on Paul’s shoulder. Paul takes a few more drinks of water, hoping to sober up enough to drive home. Someone is singing outside in the street, but Paul can’t make out the words.

“You’re one of us now…” Ezra whispers.

He smiles, and then passes out on the bar.

Paul leaves, feeling weird about everything. He waits outside in the cold until he is reasonably sober, and then starts to drive home. He thinks about what Ezra said: ‘You’re where you belong.’

He pulls to a stop at the one lane bridge because there’s a car stopped in the middle. Ezra figures the driver must have a flat tire, so he gets out to help. When he gets there, the tires are fine, but the driver is nowhere to be seen. Paul has an uneasy feeling in his stomach, and he regrets drinking so much. He looks over the railing at the river below, filled with jagged rocks and dangerous rapids, and decides, with an annoyed feeling, that he will have to walk the rest of the way home.

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