SPOTLIGHT: Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires by NJ Gallegos


That last Airbnb was the tits. The ultimate. Steven discovered it almost by accident one dreary morning lazily searching the site, only half hearing the rain pattering against the window. He loved seeing all the listings, good and bad. He especially loved the listings that featured veritable palaces, often complete with white marble columns that were trendy back in ancient Rome (and in the houses of the modern day filthy rich), gleaming fountains featuring golden cherubs endlessly pissing into back-lit bowls, and their hefty price tags of $12,000+ a night, always with the stanch line; NO PARTIES! As if John Q and his friends would rent such a place just to play croquet and discuss the latest book club venture and retire to bed at 9 PM sharp after a glass of warm milk. 

Fuck that. 

                No, that last Airbnb was THE PARTY HOUSE, located on the western edge of Denver, just a hop, skip, and a jump south of I-70. Its advertisement caught his eye right off. Two green marijuana leaves bracketed the print; 420 Friendly House, Bring Your Pals and Have A Rocky Mountain High Time!  

The photos of the place were unreal. The house boasted two hot tubs, an air hockey table, a vintage Pac Man arcade machine, and the best part? On entering the house, they were greeted with a table piled high with bongs, pipes, and rolling papers. These people wanted you to party your fucking ass off in the land of recreational marijuana in the shadows of The Front Range. And if you so had mushrooms of the psilocybin variety in your pocket, no biggie. That shit was decriminalized around these parts.  The cops of Colorado didn’t worry themselves with such things. Instead, they focused on actual issues like busting prostitutes and dealing with mass shootings that nowadays seemed to sprout from the ground like… well… weeds. 

Steven sent the 420-house listing on his group text, composed of friends he’d accumulated from college and various raves. They’d become a tight-knit group as the years raced onward, especially since all were massive aficionados of mind-altering substances and purveyors of a damn-good-time. He also texted the listing to his girlfriend, Roxanne. Roxy. They’d solidified their couple-dom shortly after dropping E together during Steve Aoki’s set at Lollapalooza. Slicked with sweat, Roxy swiveled her hips into Steven’s groin in a deliciously torturous manner. Making his little head fall in love. Their mouths met after Steve Aoki tossed a chocolate cake into the crowd nearby and a dot of frosting clung just above Roxy’s top lip, just begging to be licked off. And when the beat dropped in a throbbing crescendo of sound, all the strobe lights flickering in a manic dance—everything became one. Heaven and Earth united in one glorious instant, becoming something else entirely. A sensation both Steven and Roxy experienced within their very being, their very bones, their souls. At once, they became one with each other and with everything. It was as right as anything had ever felt. The subsequent screwing after the show had been epic, ethereal, as life changing as any experience Steven had ever known. After the E wore off and the aftermath set in—a mix of low energy and dull depression, Steven and Roxy realized they shared other similar interests; ordering in obscene amounts of GrubHub, watching old reruns of Seinfeld, and passing joints back and forth. A hell of a foundation for a relationship, really. Too bad he fucked it up royally. Just like he always fucked everything up. 

When it came down to it, Steven was the master of fuckery. 

He booked the 420-house and after collecting their bags from the carousel; they descended upon the nearest dispensary with the enthusiasm of a hungry hawk diving for his breakfast. They loaded up on edibles, flower, vape pens. They purchased strains with fantastical names like Sour Diesel, Cat Piss, and Purple Monkey Balls. One girl, Meghan, somehow smuggled in some coke. Steven found out exactly how she’d done it as she crowed loudly for all to hear in the Uber about how inept TSA was, at how they didn’t even bother examining her checked conditioner and “could you believe the idiots completely missed all the blow I packaged in a Ziplock baggie and plopped inside?”

Now the cocaine, that was where Steven really fucked up. 

The day was full of debauchery, each person furiously puffing on joints and ripping bong hits, rendering the air thick with a skunky haze—long after the smoking had ceased. Roxy headed to bed, claiming a headache and a queasy stomach. She never could handle her IPAs worth a shit. Reaching their shared bedroom meant she had to wade through a sea of empty beer cans strewn about like the remnants of a fallen society. Steven was cruising, ridin’ high, and didn’t feel like a visit from Mr. Sandman. Hell, it wasn’t like Roxy was in the mood for a roll in the hay either (having used two of the most common not-tonight-dear excuses in one breath), so why go to sleep? 

So, he didn’t. 

Instead, he stayed awake and when Meghan offered him a few lines of the conditioner coke; he figured why not? A few lines snorted off the glass-topped table, somehow devolved into him snorting a line off of the swells of her breasts. An hour later, Roxy stumbled bleary-eyed with a monster migraine from the bedroom, hoping to find a bottle of Advil in the kitchen’s cabinets and instead, discovered Steven—sans pants—deep inside Meghan on the couch. White powder dusted his nostrils, looking just like the tippy tops of The Front Range just outside their windows. Roxy blew a complete gasket, rousing everyone from their respective resting places (Clyde had fallen asleep or, more likely, passed out half in, half out of one of the hot tubs), and everyone got front row tickets to their breakup. Real pay-per-view shit. A spectacular event for those watching. He’d tottered after Roxy, his erection wilting and waggling, begging her to reconsider. It was the drugs, babe! I didn’t mean to do it! Please forgive me! Roxy made quick work of the affair. She packed up all her shit, caught an Uber to DIA, and was on the next flight back to Chicago. She blocked his number, all his social media accounts, hell, even his PlayStation account. He had no way to reach her and unfortunately for him; it was all too easy to lose a person within the masses in The Windy City. 

It’d been a month since he’d seen her. He thought every slim, short brunette he sighted on the streets was Roxy.   

None of them were. 

When he got close, their features melted from Roxy’s smiling face into someone else and he would feel disgust—at himself for being so obsessed with the thought of her and with the women, because they weren’t Roxy.   

At first, he thought Roxy was being ridiculous and rash. Of all people, she ought to understand that he wasn’t in his right mind when all the shit went down, that he didn’t mean it. 

His initial emotion?  

Righteous anger. Fuck her and the horse she rode on. He didn’t need her, anyway. He didn’t need lazy Saturdays spent in bed watching their shows, and he certainly didn’t need Sunday brunches where they held hands and guzzled down Bloody Mary after Bloody Mary. No, sir. The anger flared hot but quickly burnt itself out. A bleak sadness settled in the anger’s ashes. He saw Roxy everywhere he looked; in the little knick-knacks on his shelves, within his spaghetti dinner for one—the meatballs reminded him of her dimpled smile. He maximized his time in the shower, eschewing jerking off for sobbing. Somehow, the tears were okay when intermixed with the streaming water, hidden from view from the world.

Time lost meaning. The sun rose in the East over Lake Michigan and set in the West. How many times, he didn’t know. Monday through Friday, Steven rose wearily from his smelly sheets (he couldn’t bear to wash them, insisting he could still smell Roxy on them), pulled on his work duds, and trudged mechanically to work. Had his alarm not rousted him from his depressed bed of sadness, he might have put down roots and become one with his mattress. He spent Saturdays and Sundays in deep despair with a heaping side of regret.    

Untold days later, two of his friends, Clyde and Brock—both present for THE ENDING OF STEVEN AND ROXY—met him for lunch. Steven turned up, reeking of B.O. and weed. He hadn’t changed his clothes since coming home from work on Friday, and they drooped from his frame. In his despondence, he’d lost 10 lbs. Want foolproof diet advice? Just completely torpedo your relationship and develop a debilitating depression! How could he eat?  

He’d taken to heart Tove Lo’s advice from that song constantly playing on the radio and decided he should stay high all the time.

They all ordered, and Brock pulled a frosty pint glass full of Daisy Cutter towards him, taking a lip-smacking drink. He turned to Steven. Brock’s blue eyes normally danced with unspent laughter, as if all of life was a merry joke, but today, they were full to the brim with frank concern. 

“Listen, Steve. Clyde and I have been meaning to talk to you,” Brock shifted awkwardly on his stool, clearly not relishing starting the talk—his idea or not. Steven barely noticed, he fixed his gaze on the fizzing bubbles of his beer, a Stella. 

Roxy loved blowing bubbles. He’d taken her to Millennium Park once and handed her a massive bubble wand. How her face lit up with unabashed delight!    

“Yeah,” Clyde helpfully supplied. 

Brock shot Clyde a look; eyes narrowed. “Like I was saying, we’re worried about you. You’ve walked around like a zombie ever since you and Roxy broke up. You’re losing weight, you don’t shower, and I don’t think I’ve seen you smile since our Colorado trip. It’s been a month, dude. You need to snap out of it,” Brock swept his arms out, gesturing towards the restaurant and outwards, to the sidewalks thronged with people, “This is Chicago, buddy! You know how much pussy you could pull right now? All you need to do is go on Tinder, swipe right on a few broads and BAM!”

Still staring deep into his glass, as if the pale amber brew might provide him the answer to life, Steven muttered, “Why? What’s the point?” Melancholy dripped off each syllable.

“The point? The point? Dude, the point is; yeah, you fucked up. You fucked Meghan and you shouldn’t have. That’s on you. But it’s time to move on, get your sea legs under you and start getting out there again. There are so many women out there! And not to sound gay, but you’re a good-looking dude. You’d have to beat women off of you with a stick.” Brock raked his fingers through his hair—one of his nervous habits, and continued, “Besides. It’s not like Roxy was that great, anyway. You always complained about how she was lazy. Plus, she writes for BuzzFeed and brags about it constantly. And she doesn’t even write any of the good articles, just those shitty quizzes. ‘What kind of toaster would you be?’. She sucks, honestly.” He leaned back on his stool and clasped his hands, the gesture reminiscent of a trial attorney finished making their point to the judge and jury.    

Steven flicked his eyes up, meeting Brock’s. Deep bruised hallows sloped downwards from eyes threaded with red spidery veins. His sleep—when it came—was troubled, full of dazed half dreams of better times. “You really think so?” 

Brock opened his mouth to answer, “Yes, I—”

Clyde cut in, “Yeah! We think so. We talked about it.” He offered a crooked smile. Clyde would never be a member of Mensa, but had a good heart. 

Another sideways glare from Brock. “Right, like I was about to say. You need to get yourself out of this funk. One last hurrah, something to move your life into the Post-Roxy phase. Like a trip or something. Maybe a wilderness retreat or a getaway to some desert hideaway. You know, some place where you could find yourself, smoke some peyote and have a vision quest or some shit,” Brock said. He’d been on a kick lately, obsessed with becoming one with the universe. More than once he’d brought up the idea of a South America trip, mostly so he could smoke DMT with shamans and trip balls.

“Maybe you’re right,” Steven said, straightening up and pulling his shoulders back. His back muscles protested some. They’d become accustomed to hunching forward. Why should he be moping around, anyway? Roxy was probably already wriggling around under some muscle jock, Steven as far from her mind as kindergarten. He gazed over Brock’s shoulder, taking in the concrete jungle sweeping away from the restaurant’s plate-glass windows. How could he get his head right amidst all these buildings? Everywhere he turned, there were blatting horns, sirens filling the night air with insistent tones of move-the-fuck-out-of-the-way, and the people—they were absolutely everywhere. No, what he needed was some peace, time to detoxify his soul (not his liver. Oh no, he planned on exercising that organ extensively). He cast his mind out. Where was his happy place? Sparkling blue water, fruity drinks, sandy beaches—completely mobbed with people. Cali had that good kush but far too many people. No thanks. Seattle was beautiful, but far too rainy. The last thing he needed was a heaping helping of Seasonal Affective Disorder to add to his regular ‘ol depression. His mind kept returning to Colorado, that beautiful rectangular state, chock full of plenty of space, mostly devoid of people, home of recreational weed. 

The entire state smelled of pine and… dare he say, hope? 

“Colorado,” he said, the word coming out in a near whisper, befitting its reverential status in his mind. Plus, the location had a lovely symmetry to it. Colorado, where he and Roxy ended; Colorado, where he would emerge from the ashes of his failed relationship and fuck up, new and vibrant like a phoenix. Just like the bird from the Harry Potter movie. 

Brock nodded vigorously. He hadn’t expected Steven to warm up to the idea so quickly. “Colorado is a good choice. Although… maybe not Denver. Returning to the scene of the crime and all that.”

Steven wholeheartedly agreed, not Denver. 


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