When Vaux got back from Machu Picchu, he had a peeling sunburn and a dark purple hickey on his neck. He’d been gone for three weeks, during which time Freddy had had to pull double, even triple shifts to cover, which was hard but cool since he wanted the money and he got OT, time-and-a-half. On triple shifts he just slept for a few minutes during breaks in his car with the heater turned on. Those days he plugged it in to the power at the Chipotle Bell and didn’t even feel guilty about it since he figured they owed him for being such a good employee and everything.
It was hard not to feel jealous of Vaux a little bit even though Freddy knew he’d have his turn eventually. He’d been checking his notifications when Vaux updated with his new badge and Freddy felt himself get red in the face. Vaux already had nine badges. NINE! And Freddy hadn’t even gotten a single one. He didn’t know anyone who hadn’t gotten a single badge, it was freaking embarrassing. Every time he thought he’d finally saved up enough to get something, I mean even the freaking St. Louis Arch ffs, the badge nobody wanted, something invariably came up. A car repair, snow tires, a forgotten and usually overdue fee owed to some bureaucracy or another. He slipped in the shower when he was drunk one night and dislocated his shoulder. Just random bullshittery that seemed perfectly tailored to help Life give it to him right up the ass just like always.
He was getting close again now, so he figured it would be just like it always was, something would come out of left field and hit him like lightning and drain his bank account. But as the days passed and the paychecks trickled in one every 2 weeks, the amount of cash flowing out was definitely outpaced by the money coming in. The number got a little bigger and a little bigger and Freddy’s hopes got a little higher and a little higher.
While the money slowly accrued, Freddy spent hours online doing research and recon not only on the Wonders After Dark site – because of course they’d talk everything up, greedy fucks made everyplace sound equally awesome but everyplace was most certainly NOT equally awesome. So he read forums and Reddit too, even Wikipedia for the historical angle. He spent hours on Instagram peering at photos people had taken. Burned through hundreds of Yelp reviews and thousands of tweets. He read blogs and watched vlogs. Whenever he wasn’t working, he studied. Obsessively, even though it got to him sometimes. The jealousy. There were people who had earned dozens, even hundreds of badges and had all these awesome stories to tell and posted pics of themself with some smiling beautiful girl at the top of the Space Needle or whatever and when Freddie looked at them his mouth watered practically.
Eventually after giving it a lot of thought, he settled on Stonehenge. He wanted to kick things off with a bang, so to speak, and do something big. Unforgettable. The American sites, while cheaper, all seemed too normal, too mundane. He didn’t want to pick anyplace he could just drive to, he wanted the whole After Dark experience, the plane trip, the hostel, the monument, the sex, everything just the way it was supposed to be. But at the same time he didn’t want to go too exotic and end up in a place where he didn’t speak the language and have it turn into a huge clusterfuck. Stonehenge was historic and iconic and cool and it just felt right for his first time.
The day his bank account hit 20k, he booked the reservation and the plane tickets and the room at the hostel. He didn’t do like Vaux had done, he didn’t make it a real vacation, he didn’t want to leave work for that long. Making someone else cover all his shifts was a dick move to pull on your coworkers. Just 3 days, 3 days would be enough. Get there, git r done, get the badge, get home. Next he took out a Craigslist ad for the girl.
He had left it till the last minute kind of hoping maybe a real girl might drop out of the sky into his lap but of course that didn’t happen. The girls he worked with were all way young and even though he knew he could talk one of them into it probably managers weren’t supposed to mack on the employees anyway. It was in the company handbook. And he didn’t meet people otherwise except for online and he’d never quite figured out how to turn online into real life. Real physical embodiments of women were like transdimensional ghost images to Freddy, like they existed in some other universe and he could see them but couldn’t speak to them. He saw them at grocery stores and walking down the streets but they may as well have been holograms for all the good it did him. So he took out a Craigslist ad.
Quite a few girls responded which was nice. Flattering, you know? Even though they were only in it for the badges it was still flattering. He interviewed them during his break at Chipotle Bell as if he was going to hire one of them for a job opening even though he felt kind of embarrassed he was wearing a uniform and smelled like onions and cilantro. They were all nice enough so he picked the prettiest one, a girl named Miranda who had this stunning mass of curly black hair all around her head like a halo and a huge bright smile and big brown eyes with long eyelashes and was super skinny even though she had an enormous chest, which Freddy thought the best of all possible worlds. They weren’t real he didn’t think but what was real any more anyway? And she already had a passport and had 6 badges so she had experience with this kind of thing. 6 badges, Jesus. Freddy vaguely wished he was a chick so all he’d have to do to get badges was look cute and answer Craigslist ads.
Miranda’s enormous chest began to haunt him even though he tried to tell himself soon enough, soon enough. It became really hard to concentrate on work chopping vegetables and filling out order forms and making up work schedules thinking the whole time about Miranda’s enormous chest. He started capitalizing it in his mind, Miranda’s Enormous Chest and thinking things like “I’m going on vacation with Miranda’s Enormous Chest” and “this is my girlfriend, Miranda’s Enormous Chest” but of course he’d never have said anything like that out loud because patriarchy. Plus he didn’t want to get his hopes up for Miranda becoming his girlfriend since girls like that never went for guys like him even though they should because he was a stable guy with a steady job and he didn’t push girls around or anything.
He thought maybe he might be able to get to know her a little bit more on the plane and possibly get a chance to show her that he was a decent sort of dude but she took an Ativan before the plane even took off and and slept pretty much the whole flight. Freddy wished he’d been smart enough to do that but instead he watched a bullshit movie starring the Rock and Jennifer Lawrence and then an even worse one with Natalie Portman and Idris Elba and Jonah Hill for some reason. Jennifer Lawrence looked like she was a thousand years old and Natalie Portman looked like she was a million so it was the hugest waste of time ever.
They were staying at the official Wonders After Dark at Stonehenge hostel in someplace called Bath which Freddy thought was a pretty stupid name for a city but he figured it was British or something. Everybody said the hostels were the best places to stay for people who were there just for the badge and not the tourist-y stuff. It was just like a normal American hotel with all the amenities but they called it a hostel since it sounded quaint. That’s what the Wonders After Dark people called all their headquarters at every Wonders site, was hostels. The Wonders After Dark Hostel at Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Wonders After Dark Hostel at the Taj Mahal. It was kind of funny putting such an old fashioned word with such a new fashioned thing.
When they got there the hostel was having a mixer, which from what Freddy had read, they did every night so people could get to know each other. Freddy was a little disappointed when Miranda saw somebody she knew from someplace and went off to talk to them leaving him to stand at the edge of the room watching them talk until eventually he gave up and went to bed since she’d slept for like 8 hours on the plane and he hadn’t hardly slept at all but whatevs at least he knew how many freckles there were on Jonah Hill’s ass. FFS.
Miranda came in really late, Freddy didn’t know how late, but late enough so that he didn’t wake her when he got up the next morning. She had crawled into bed beside him but laid primly on top of the covers with all her clothes on. He let her sleep and got dressed as quietly as he could, hit the breakfast bar which wasn’t very impressive given the amount he’d paid for it all, seriously, wtf is bangers and mash, wtf is a scone anyway, and seriously, oatmeal? thanks grandma and took the bus to Stonehenge.
Stonehenge during the day was wall to wall people milling around looking at a bunch of giant rocks, basically. There were families with kids and old couples and it all seemed so wholesome that Freddy actually got kind of annoyed. It wasn’t sexy, not at all, all these people tromping around rubbernecking and he just hoped and prayed that it would be better when he and Miranda came back later that night. He had already read everything on Wikipedia anyway, all about how no one really even knew how Stonehenge had been built, that it may have even been aliens or Merlin but that it was probably just a bunch of guys rolling rocks on logs or round stones for days and weeks on end. Merlin and aliens sounded a lot more fun and he wondered if anyone ever made a movie of that.
On the bus headed back to the hostel Freddy pondered about how Stonehenge was kind of like apps on his phone, how they seemed like magic but were really just the work of a lot of cubicle monkeys doing small mindnumbingly boring things all day every day just like Freddy himself chopping onions to make burritos with. That seemed to be pretty much the course of all human existence was little faceless nameless people just like him doing little pointless meaningless things all day long till they died. Whether it was erecting giant rock structures or making burritos it was all pretty much the same.
But hey, at least he got to have sex at Stonehenge with Miranda’s Enormous Chest. Suck it, Druids.
When he got back to the room she was gone and he started to get kind of nervous wondering if she’d ditched him but at 6 pm when they were scheduled to leave for their reservation at 7:40, she showed up out front and smiled charmingly and he felt good about it all again. On the bus ride in, she chatted breezily about these rich guys she’d met who had made her a deal that she could go with them to Paris if she had sex with all of them at the Wonders sites and there were like 10 available badges in Paris alone. Plus there were special badges she could unlock for doing more than one guy at a time, which not that many people had so it was a pretty big deal for her. Like the opportunity of a lifetime and she had said yes so Freddy would be headed home alone which was fine, he figured. At least he wouldn’t sit there the whole time with his brain spinning trying to think of some clever line that would turn her into his girlfriend, wouldn’t embarrass himself asking her for pizza or coffee sometime, wouldn’t slowly die inside while she thought about it and tried to let him down easy. Better to never try than to be let down easy, he figured.
After a while she stopped talking and started checking her phone and Freddy started thinking how awesome it would be to be a woman and have guys just like lining up to have sex with you all the time and how easy life would be if you were the sex-ee and not the sex-er. So easy to go through life just laying on your back and getting everything you ever wanted handed to you. It didn’t really seem quite fair. But whatever.
The bus arrived and the place was lit up like Christmas with all these LEDs in the form of torches and candles and they’d even fixed it so they flickered like real firelight would’ve. Freddy was suddenly happy again, happy he had picked Stonehenge after all. The educational tourist trap vibe he’d gotten earlier had vanished and it really was like magic. Maybe not real magic, but like Miranda’s Enormous Chest magic – close enough. There were people dressed as Druids in brown burlap robes keeping everything operating smoothly and a privacy curtain that kept the crowd separated from the couples. The curtain was black velvet and embossed with tiny silver stars like Merlin’s robe, probably. Every couple got 20 minutes and Freddy figured that would be more than enough time. 7:40 to 8 with Miranda’s Enormous Chest.
When their turn came up he and Miranda were led by a silent Druid past the curtain. He heard Miranda inhale sharply and he remembered she hadn’t even seen Stonehenge yet, not from the inside. That in and of itself was amazing but the way they’d fixed it all up was staggeringly awesome. The Wonders After Dark people really did know their jobs. The whole ground was lit up by candles – real candles, not the LED ones. At the very center of the stone circle they’d set up a big elaborate bed with tons of pretty pillows. It had shiny brass bedposts sticking up super high and this fluffy maroon and green comforter that was embroidered with greens and flowers. It had one of those curtains like olden times beds sometimes had around the top, cream colored, beige-ish, sepia maybe was the word. It felt like a portal had opened up and they’d stepped back in time hundreds of years. Everything smelled like freshness and evergreens all overlayed by the smell of burning beeswax. It was perfect, just perfect, everything was so perfect and Freddy looked over at Miranda and he knew she felt it too. But the clock was ticking so they hurried to the bed kicking off their shoes and he pulled the curtain shut around them while he was sliding out of his pants.
Freddy considered kissing her, wanted to because she had a nice full mouth and white teeth, but she obviously wasn’t into it so he didn’t. He was dismayed to see she was leaving her shirt on but there wasn’t enough time to try and charm her out of it. She laid down on the bed which Freddy was surprised to see was covered with butcher paper like the exam table at a doctor’s office and they did what they’d came there to do with the paper rustling distractingly the whole time. Miranda looked off to the side as if it embarrassed her, as if it was humiliating to her on some level, as if maybe she was even trying not to cry. She pressed her lips together and gulped a bunch of times. Kind of a turnoff really but hey that’s what you get when you pick a girl at random on Craigslist probably. Luckily it didn’t completely take him out of it and he was able to complete the transaction in a couple minutes. Once it was done he tried to ignore the look of relief on Miranda’s face as they both got their clothes on as fast as they could.
They really should give people more than 20 minutes, it was barely enough time, he thought. Girls liked to take more time than that, it was no wonder things went so bad.
He opened the curtain and they followed the waiting Druid down the path lined with actual candles back to the real world of flickering LED’s and a Druid at a podium held out a hand. Freddy and Miranda handed over their phones and the Druid uploaded the Stonehenge badge and sent out announcements on all their social media accounts for them. Freddy had a faint twinge of horror when he realized his grandparents would see it and know he had just had sex but it was worth it because everyone else would see it too. The Druid handed their phones back and he and Miranda stood there for a moment just looking at them.
Freddy felt a surge of hot pride, gazing at that round badge with a cartoon version of Stonehenge on it and even better he noticed he’d gotten a couple more badges too, the Virgin-No-More Badge and the SureWood-Forest-First-Time-In-England badge. Of course, he knew that. You usually got 2 or 3 badges per trip or even more if you were really in it to win it. Like if you’d had sex at all the Wonders After Dark sites in a country, you got an extra badge, if you’d had sex twice at the same site you got an extra badge. First time in every country was a badge. Lots of extra badges were available if you knew what you were doing and did some careful planning.
He suddenly realized that Miranda having 6 badges really didn’t mean that she had done this 6 times, probably only 2 or 3 times before and that seemed a lot less impressive. He looked over at her, seeing her differently, seeing her as someone maybe more like him than he’d thought. Miranda was staring at her phone intently too but the look on her face was something Freddy barely recognized. Maybe disappointment, or even sorrow, which seemed weird. She just stood there looking at her phone, at that beautiful Wonders After Dark badge that represented everything to Freddy and it didn’t seem to matter so much to her. Like maybe she didn’t even want it after all. Weird. “Are you ok?”
It took her another long moment before she glanced his way. “I think I’m gonna go back home with you after all, Freddy.”
“Oh. Well. Sure, but. What about Paris?”
“Well.” She sighed and put her phone away. “I think I decided that having sex with 5 guys I don’t know in exchange for a picture on my phone is probably not a good trade.” She blinked then as if saying it out loud suddenly made it real and then she shook her head with her brow wrinkled up as if she was surprised she’d even considered it in the first place. “Since having sex with one guy I don’t know was kind of awful. No offense.”
“I thought you had badges already.”
“Yeah, but. I had a boyfriend. Then. When, when I got my other badges. I had a boyfriend. But we broke up. And I thought maybe this would make me feel better.”
“No. No offense.” Miranda looked away and ground her teeth. “I don’t want to go to Paris, Freddy.”
“Yeah, ok, you don’t have to. But. Do you think they’d take me instead? Cause I could really use the badges.”
She stared at him with her mouth open for a moment or two and then burst into laughter. Freddy joined in and the Druids started shooing them back towards the bus so Freddy extended an elbow and Miranda slipped her arm through his and they walked back down the path to where their chariot awaited. Before they got on the bus they stopped and put their heads together and smiled and both of them extended out their arms and snapped selfies of their smiling faces with Stonehenge in the background.
And it wasn’t real, but it was close enough.