After they legalized all drugs in the United States, a handful of men became very, very rich. Nobody really inquired as to whether they’d been able to corner the market as a result of a head start they’d had running the illicit market, and the remnants of the federal government had essentially abdicated governing to the states. Small-time pushers and importers were crushed and the winners built fortunes far beyond the imaginings of even the most ambitious old cartel leader. These men took their place among the tech giants of the early 21st century, but perhaps because of where they’d come from, they had a slightly different attitude towards wealth than their Silicon Valley compatriots. A few, at least, realized the value of devoting even a tiny sliver of their vast winnings to improving their image. And so, one February I found myself in Miami on assignment for Davin Hux’s “little folly,” as he wryly called it, Casual Friday magazine.

It was a slick production, the kind that had rarely been seen since in the last couple of decades. Most of the old outlets had been bought out by VCs and stripped of any valuable assets before being shut down, and the internet had become almost totally overrun by AI-generated garbage. Once the models started training on previously AI-generated material, it all turned into ad-filled sludge so useless that a lot of people had given up on the entire thing. Casual Friday was a throwback for people who’d been around for the old days of print and a novelty for those who hadn’t — its circulation was immense and it featured some of the best writers and artists on the planet. It paid well, too, and even sent reporters around the world to cover topics Davin thought were interesting. He ran the whole thing at a loss, because it was his baby and any amount of money it could lose would still be a rounding error as far as his finances were concerned.

I’d been picking up AI copy editing gigs here and there, just enough to pay the rent on my little apartment out in Connecticut. In all honesty, it was a pretty miserable situation. I’d lost my editor gig when the tech site I worked for got bought up and then shut down, and the resulting economic insecurity didn’t help my already-precarious relationship with my wife. She left a couple of months afterwards — or, more accurately, she kicked me out of the house her parents had bought us when we’d gotten married. I couldn’t blame her, exactly. Sure, I was a little bitter that she didn’t support me while I looked for new work, but it wasn’t like there was a lot out there for me. I thought about retraining, maybe taking up a trade, but this stubborn streak in me refused to believe the reality of the situation — that writing just wasn’t going to be a viable career for me or most other people moving forward.

So I moved into this dingy rental where the halls always smelled vaguely of cabbage and piss, scrounging up enough money from little jobs to keep a roof over my head and beer in my belly. I rolled out of bed every morning hungover with a longer and longer beard. Kelly had always hated me with facial hair, but I didn’t see the point in shaving anymore. I contemplated killing myself but was too chickenshit to actually try. The worst part was that I felt truly alone. If I’d had some friends to see me through maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad, but the black hole of my relationship had pulled me out of their orbit and without realizing I’d become distant from pretty much all of them.

All but one, really. Julie was one of my oldest friends, from back at UChicago. She had a wife, a baby girl, and a pretty successful career in finance that put her in contact with a lot of wealthy people. So one day, as I hauled my brittle body up the steps to my third-floor unit on the way back from restocking on the cheapest lager they had at the corner store, she texted me to tell me she’d met an interesting guy at a party who was an editor at a real, honest-to-god magazine, and he was always looking for new writers.

My first piece for CF was about the last independent movie theater in Manhattan, the Roxy Cinema in the basement of the old hotel on 6th Ave. Davin got in touch with me personally after that — he’d apparently loved it and wondered whether I’d be interested in writing a story on a group of people who’d taken a mysterious gray-market drug back in the late 90s and written about their experiences online.

See, back in his youth, Davin had been really into weightlifting. It paid to be physically intimidating in the business he was in, after all. He spent a lot of time on this old message board for bodybuilders where guys were trying all kinds of weird ways to get jacked. One of them stumbled on this substance that came to be called “scramp,” because nobody knew what it actually was. Rumors abounded, of course: it was some Cold War-era surplus Russian anti-radiation med, or maybe a small-batch research chemical from Eastern Europe, or even, possibly, some kind of advanced combat drug developed by the American military and leaked out onto the black market. People started distributing it, but they realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t actually improving their workouts, just causing unpredictable and erratic behavior in its users. I was vaguely aware of the whole thing, having heard it talked about here and there alongside other semi-forgotten relics and urban legends like the Pain Olympics and that guy who broke a glass jar inside of his ass. Scramp seemed to be a little less well-known than those, though — I mean, Justin Whang never made a video on it.

Aside from his personal connection, Davin figured the piece would be both titillating and an interesting look at some of the horrible things that happened to drug users before legalization. Of course, people still overdosed and ruined their lives just the same on legitimately-purchased drugs, but I didn’t want to argue the point — he was paying me a ton of money and flying me down to Florida for a week, all-expenses paid, to interview the only guy from the bodybuilding message board his people had been able to track down. He was totally off-grid — no email, no phone number — and besides, Davin was kind of old-school and felt that you’d always get more texture and detail by talking to people in person.

Word was that our man spent a lot of his time in a place called Lucky Seven. It was an ancient little bar down on Miami Beach amidst the crumbling art deco architecture of the strip, one of those places that seems to have survived unchanged for the last century or so. When I stepped inside, out of the blustering rain and wind, a bluish haze obscured my vision. I’d forgotten that people used to smoke in bars. I caught a lungful I wasn’t expecting and coughed up the acrid fog as I made my way over to the central bar that formed a full circle off to one side of the small space, with a couple of bartenders on the inside and stools — mostly vacant — dotting the outer rim. On the other side of the room, a few odd-looking people shot pool while another fiddled with the jukebox. Beach bums, old Florida folks, haggard and thin, bulging and sagging, black tattoo ink long-since faded to blue under leathers so worn-in they’d practically become fused with their wearers. 

I ordered a shot of whiskey and a pint and glanced around the room. The walls were peeling and damp, plastered here and there with old gig posters and corny retro kitsch. The wooden bar had been shellacked over so many times that it gave the etchings and inscriptions from decades past the appearance of having been trapped in amber. The whiskey burned my throat and I soothed it with a sip of beer before asking the bartender if he’d seen my guy. He gave me a look like why was I asking about somebody like that before mumbling that he usually came in a little later in the afternoon.

So I sat there, listening to punk rock tracks from the 80s and 90s, the kinds of stuff my parents had on sometimes when I was growing up. I thought about striking up a conversation with the man next to me, a rail-thin pale guy with a mop of stringy dark hair in a filthy denim jacket, but thought better of it when I saw his teeth — yellowed and mostly missing. What leads someone to end up in a place like this, I wondered? The whole bar, its denizens, the records and the drinks and cigarettes, it seemed like they’d been there forever, an island out of time. The sea could continue to rise up and swallow the whole beach, the entire state of Florida, and they’d go down with the ship, unprotesting and placid as they came to rest at the bottom of the Atlantic.

I was halfway into my second beer when the bartender caught my eye and motioned towards the door with his shaggy head, indicating that the man I was waiting for had just walked in, soaked from the rain but apparently oblivious to it. When I saw him, however, I realized that the notice was completely unnecessary — I could have pegged him from a mile away. 

Shiny Mike was an old guy who could have been anywhere from fifty to seventy. His skin was so tanned it looked like a medicine ball, his eyes were an irregular yellowish-orange, and his mouth twitched and smacked compulsively. His massive head was completely bald except for a graying goatee and patchy eyebrows and glinted under the dim overhead lights. While his chest, arms, and neck, completely exposed by his lack of shirt, were evidently well-muscled, he had a massive, globular gut. I initially took this for a beer belly but realized as he lumbered forward that it was as solid as the rest of him, a pronounced Palumboism with the resultant effect of appearing as though he’d swallowed a bowling ball. 

He made a circuit of the bar, sniffing at the air as he dripped rainwater across the dusty floor. Eventually, he stopped before the stool next to mine and deposited himself on it — I was amazed that the frail wooden thing could support his massive frame. The bartender scowled and fished around behind the bar for a moment, then pulled out a flowing yellow t-shirt, which he tossed to Mike, muttering something about him knowing the rules. The big man wriggled his way into the shirt and pulled it down over his jutting abdominal muscles. It looked as ancient and worn as him, and proudly announced that the wearer was a runner in the 1978 Honolulu marathon. As large as the shirt was, the letters were stretched to distortion on Mike’s body. 

Once he was settled, he pursed his lips and rested both hands on the bar, tapping his fingers. He seemed to be waiting for something, so I caught his attention with a polite cough and offered to buy him a beer. He declined, his eyes bulging as he expounded his belief that beer was for “copycats.” I nodded, sheepishly placing down my pint glass, and said I’d pick up whatever he wanted. He ordered — of all things — a sidecar, and as he raised the delicate-stemmed cocktail glass to his lips, he gave me a pat on the back that knocked the wind out of me and thanked me for my kindness.

I tried to strike up a conversation about the weather, but he stonewalled me with an insistence that only copycats make smalltalk. Undeterred, I tried a different tactic, asking him if he knew of any good gyms in the area. This got him started talking about the failings of various establishments. One had kicked him out for eating raw eggs — shell and all, another for hitting on the female staff. He went on like this, scratching the stubbled sides of his face here and there, getting into the virtues of a home gym, his training routines, and so on. After another couple of sidecars, I’d maneuvered the conversation to the old bodybuilding forum and finally got to the topic of scramp. I figured we were getting along well enough that I might as well be up front, so I came right out and told him I was writing a story about it.

He got real quiet for a moment, then seemed to recover and plastered a big grin across his huge face, exposing his yellowed teeth. Scramp, sure, he said, I’ll tell you all about scramp.

We first got wind of it from some bucko out in North Carolina. Said he’d found the stuff on the internet. It wasn’t like it is now, right. I never bought anything off the internet. I didn’t have a credit card either, ’cause they’re for copycats. But this individual, he says it’s improving his workout, helping him build muscle. It’s not steroids, not HGH or any of that junk, it’s something totally different. So a few guys send him some checks and he mails them some of the stuff. These little capsules full of orange powder.

One of the first guys who did it, he says he didn’t know what the dosing was supposed to be. So he cracked open a couple of the caps into his protein shake and drank it down before heading to the gym. Thing was though, he never made it there. He woke up a week later with a grand piano on his lawn and a couple of missing toes. He never figured out how that happened. You’d think, uh, you’d think that would scare people offa doing it, but it just encouraged them.

Another fellow, he took just one of those little pills. He lifts some weights at home and feels great. Then he gets hit by the urge to go running. He’s got to go to work, but he can’t sit still. So he starts running. He runs and runs and before he knows it he’s in the middle of the woods and he can’t remember how he got that far, doesn’t even know where he is. They had to call the rescue team out to find him.

Shiny Mike went on, telling me about all the wild things people had allegedly done on scramp. Some of them I’d already heard of, some of them were new. Half sounded like lies that had been embellished with each retelling until they were so over-the-top that they were impossible to believe, big fish stories about a substance that couldn’t possibly have so many wildly divergent effects — boosts in energy, blackouts, memory loss, compulsive gambling, sluggishness, hallucinations, muscle gain, muscle loss, euphoria, suicidal depression, and rectal bleeding, to name a few.

I did it myself a few times, he said, and I wondered if his twitches and wild appearance had anything to do with it. More likely he was just an old, washed-up bodybuilder who’d pumped his body full of supplements and liquor over the years, but I still listened intently as he described his experiences.

I got a few of the capsules from a pal of mine, ok, and I emptied one out and took half of the stuff the first time. Time got kind of fuzzy, you know, he said, running a meaty hand over his bald head. Seemed like I was at the gym for a few days just lifting nonstop, getting the best pump on I’d ever had, but it had only been about an hour when I got home. So I figured, hell, this stuff seems legit, might as well try a little more. Well, the next time, it wasn’t so simple. One minute I’m swallowing this little pill, the next I’m lying on the beach butt-naked and getting hauled in by the cops for public indecency.

Mike sniffed, then polished off his fourth sidecar. The real strange thing, though, he said, was that I could remember parts of it. The time I lost. Just ah, little flashes. And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone who ever took scramp got flashbacks. Seemed to be just about the only consistent thing about it.

I figured he meant flashbacks like people who take psychedelics say they have, feeling like you’re back on acid a few months or years later. But he shook his head, ran the thick muscle of his tongue over his jaundiced teeth. Not like that, he said. I remembered, you see? I remembered where I was. And that’s how I realized what it is.

He was talking crazy, with the conspiratorial tones of a paranoiac. What had I gotten myself into? How badly had my life gone that I was listening to this hulking maniac ramble on about a drug experience he’d had decades earlier? My mom used to say that everything happens for a reason, and that always pissed me off. Sure, if you zoom out far enough any kind of chaos looks like a pattern. But that doesn’t really help when you’re sitting at a bar in the middle of a near-hurricane with a chemically-enhanced psychotic reflecting on how six months ago you were living in a gorgeous Colonial Revival home with a woman you thought loved you.

Shiny Mike’s right eyebrow twitched as he leaned in close. I could smell the liquor on his breath, along with god knows what else. It wasn’t any of those things, pal, he said. It wasn’t any of them. Scramp was bait.

Bait for what, I asked, regretting the entire trip and wondering if I could get an earlier flight out of the country’s rotting phallus that was Florida. At that, Mike just pointed up. Them, he said. Aliens.

Think about it, he went on, the stubble of his huge face practically scraping my own. What do we use to catch fish, huh? Food. That’s what fish are after. Now what are people after? Well, you might say food, sure, but after you’ve got the basics covered. Novelty. New experiences. Escape from the day to day. Well, if you wanted to bait a human being, you’d use something that could give ’em just that, wouldn’t ya?

I grimaced. So what, I asked, playing along for the time being, these little green men dose people with this drug and then abduct them while they’re out of their minds?

Mike’s eyes bulged and for a moment I truly thought they were about to pop out of his grimy sockets. You’re thinking too small, he whispered. Too linear. You think aliens are gonna look like us, maybe with bigger eyes and no hair or something. Think they’re gonna show up in flying saucers and haul people up with space beams. Ain’t like that. We woulda detected them by now, all the radars we got pointed out into space. They aren’t up there. They’re outside this dimension. That’s why we can’t see ‘em. It’s like fish in the water, right? They don’t even know they’re in the water, that’s their whole world. These aliens, they’re outside the water, they’re looking in at us, and sometimes they cast in a line to catch one of us funny little three-dimensional critters, maybe pose for a little photo op, then toss us right back.

Oh, wow, I said, trying my best to feign belief in Mike’s diatribe. I’d been better at this kind of thing, once, before the years had worn away at my ability to pretend that I gave a shit about other people’s delusions. Mike didn’t seem to pick up on my doubt, though. He kept going on and on about fucking four-dimensional aliens. I wondered if Davin would be interested in this. More likely, I felt with a pang of resentment, he would scrap the whole piece. I’d get a kill fee, at least.

Just then, Mike broke off and got to his feet. Got to drain the lizard, he told me with an ugly grin. As he disappeared into the bathroom, I ordered another beer and felt myself sink into the familiar morass of alcoholic depression. Everything was fucked. Even if Davin liked the piece, so what? I’d get paid a little, keep a roof over my head a little longer. What was the point? I might as well just stay in the Lucky Seven, let myself fuse into the wooden seat like a barnacle, and settle in for the slow rot of the world with the rest of the lost souls. I wished I could be like Mike, then, someone who could believe in something bigger out there. As far as I could tell, the world was just a wind-up toy without a winder, a pointless mechanism that would eventually run down its reserves of energy and collapse into entropic silence.

I looked up from the bottom of my glass and Mike was still gone. It had been something like twenty minutes. What the hell had happened to him? Against my better judgment, I slunk off the stool and stumbled towards the bathroom. I saw feet under one of the stalls and took a deep breath before I went to knock on the door. The old metal frame creaked as it swung open, revealing Shiny Mike sitting motionless on the toilet, one hand crossed over his massive chest and balled into a fist. The sight didn’t surprise or disgust me. He looked angelic, almost. I prodded his hand, hoping he was merely unconscious, but all that happened was that his arm descended like a drawbridge, coming to rest on his knee. The fingers of his hand relaxed and within them was a small orange capsule. Scramp. I plucked the pill from his sweaty palm and backed away from the corpse. Had he been intending to take one last trip to the fourth dimension before his heart gave out? Or had that been the cause of his demise?

I realized then that I was holding what might have been the last dose of scramp in the world. It didn’t look like anything special. There was nothing to indicate that it came from anywhere else but this world. Davin probably didn’t realize that Mike had still had a supply of the stuff. He might pay me good money for it if I brought it back with me. I allowed myself a temporary spike of elation at the thought before I came back down to earth. Shiny Mike was dead. Florida was sinking under the rising sea. A few more dollars would buy me what, rent on a nicer place? Was I going to get out there and date again? Marry someone else? Have kids, publish books? Those all felt like paths that had been cut off a long time ago.

But there was a new road opening up before me. Maybe it would take me to the same place it took Mike — dead in a toilet stall in a bar that seemed to stand outside of time. Or maybe it would take me somewhere else, somewhere beyond the stinking vortex I felt the world had become. I stared into the grimy mirror and popped the little orange capsule into my mouth. I imagined a long, shimmering thread connecting it to the aliens that Mike had been so sure were out there, watching us from above the surface of our world. If they were really out there, I was going to give them a piece of my mind. Maybe fish think the same thing, then they’re hauled out, gasping for air in a world beyond their comprehension.

I felt a tug on the line.

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