Travis Dahlke


It found us in the basement with humming pipes trapped by wood paneled walls when it was your turn to play GoldenEye. A split screen death-match against me, Xenia Onatopp, after I smoked Chris who was Baron Samedi. No blood. You, sister of Chris, chose Helicopter Pilot. A storm gathered the afternoon’s heat outside. Some kid no one knew crushed Doritos into the carpet. Slurping from my Sunkist can, I watched your fingers draw invisible circles on the Nintendo 64 controller and I was in love.

Thunder crashed closer. There was a tornado warning that sang from your parent’s TV upstairs. I searched through the Russian gas plant for you. Nobody at Chris’s birthday party knew I had made myself a god with a stealthily entered cheat code. I found you by the turbine generator with soda biting up my nose. Xenia delivered a fatal wound to Helicopter Pilot right as the power went out in your house. I instinctively reached for your hand in the dark. You instinctively said it was okay. The party was ruined and Chris was depressed forever because his Nintendo 64 wouldn’t turn back on and your mom would never be able to afford a new one.

You found me in a reverse hug pretending to make out with myself at the Spring Fling. You laughed so hard soda exploded out of both nostrils. The boy you came with as your date got back together with his girlfriend during a slow song. Maybe Helicopter Pilot was there with us, hiding in the PLEASE RECYCLE bin beneath the pizza crusts and emptied cans of aerosol deodorant. It waited outside the bathroom stall where you kissed me. Later that night, as I read and reread the Usher lyrics in your away message, reflected on my family computer’s screen was Helicopter Pilot’s slit mouth underneath its visor.

When summer came, it kept the weight of its flight suit on. It was with us on the ledge overlooking the limestone quarry where we watched our friends leap naked one by one into the glowing yellow pools below. You looked to me, nails digging in my palm, and said, ‘If I die you know where to meet me.’ We held our breath, turned around, and left our friends floating in the lagoon and Helicopter Pilot was behind us the whole walk home.

It found us when you were pretending to be enrolled at a Midwestern college where nothing was haunted because everything was new. I thought we’d be safe there among the roommates burning incense to mask strainers of pasta sauce left to rot in your sink. They couldn’t see the flight suit or its pixilated hands or hear it breathing through Passion Pit playlists played from laptop speakers. When we moved back to the East Coast, Helicopter Pilot was nesting there under our parent’s Burberry. It hissed from the supply closets of offices. It floated in the candle smoke of every bar restroom where you brought your phone when you thought no one was looking. 

Helicopter Pilot was at our wedding during that ice storm, sulking in the banquet hall’s coatroom where your brother fed it drugs. It watched me slip in the parking lot, where you fell trying to lift me back up. Then one-by-one, the guests who had ambled outside to drunkenly fight in their cars, announced pregnancies. They announced Disney-themed birthday parties. Helicopter Pilot was there, listening to our friends revel in Mason’s allergies and Isabella’s first teeth. It watched us pretend to smile at phone screens. It lurked in swimming pools, where blue and pink balloons came to rest. Alone to squirming hexagons of chlorine, you pulled away from your Diet Crush and said, ‘This tastes like something’s missing.’

We brought it with us in the rented U-Haul, past the drive like your kids live here signs to a neighborhood sheltered in towering evergreens. Helicopter Pilot watched your legs peel away from the truck’s upholstery, and it followed us into our still dismantled bed. Our house was a bargain Victorian that had lost its turret in a hurricane. The basement was tropical with mold and the stench of moisture, worsened by a galloping, ancient washing machine. The circuit breaker door hung by its hinge, revealing an intricate nest of rainbow wiring. Without telling one another, we both Googled the home’s previous owners. I saw it in your search history. Both of us desperate to find some gruesome thing in the house’s past. Hopeful that maybe someone else’s curse could destroy what had attached itself to us.

In the summer, Helicopter Pilot seeped through our only air conditioner, sending blue smoke into the sky. The man next door extinguished the flames with a garden house. Him and his wife reminded us of the grandparents we had lost. They were our only friends and we played shag carpet party games with them every Thursday until the wife passed and it was I who comforted the husband when I’d find him wandering the neighborhood at night. When their house, a Victorian like ours, became vacant, we watched the vines that strangled its porch bloom with marigold flowers. 

Helicopter Pilot followed us to the fertility clinic in the city. It flickered through overhanging parking garage lamps and it waited in the pizza parlor next door with the toxic orange Sunkist flan we loved.  Then it was in the specialist’s office, with his rigid couch and family watching us from photos of their vacations to Vail and the Caribbean. A scorched appliance breath from the corner of the room as we listened to our doctor explain some paternal stomach issue. He gestured to numbers behind decimals, saying ‘She’s just not a fighter.’ Helicopter Pilot was in the backseat on the drive home, sharing the silence with us.

When dusk would soak our yard and thunderstorms moved in, we’d glow with sweat, fucking on the floor of the forgotten nursery. There, beneath partially glued Jungle Book wallpaper, Helicopter Pilot waited. We became caught in stillness. The house felt exactly the same at two o’clock in the afternoon as it was at two o’clock in the morning, but we never mentioned this to each other. Once, I woke to hear Helicopter Pilot rummaging through our loose battery drawer downstairs. Another time it was in our closet, hissing through its helmet. Down, left, up, down.

All at once, the cul-de-sac’s youth became teenagers. They used our dead neighbor’s overgrown yard as passage to a secret drinking field in the woods. We were afraid Helicopter Pilot would harm them, so we put up warning signs and complained to the town. We wore masks with cloaks and spray-painted SATAN across the forest to scare everyone away. We adopted a cat that took off running before we could name him. Helicopter Pilot was there, watching the orange fur disappear into the trees. Sometimes in the morning, it would leave gifts on the doormat that neither of us could bear to describe.

Helicopter Pilot was there when we gave each other the flu, and when you got sick from an allergy to diet toothpaste, and when we went back to the hospital it was there too, behind the gently shut curtain and ornamental words for cyst. It was there for your blood in the paper towel, and when I moved into the nursery. ‘You put in cheat codes. An incantation,’ you said with closed eyes. ‘But I’ll forgive you, I guess.’

Its radio hiss was under phone calls of condolences. It curved around tin foiled lasagna containers. It was there for the single glasses of orange juice in the sink. Helicopter Pilot lay on your side of the bed at night. It was there when my hip gave out after I tried fixing the dryer you wore down with a million spills. Lying on my back, I saw the basement ceiling was not a ceiling but the floor of our very first house. I had found you where you said I would.

It was here that we’d both compare a strange, fizzy feeling. A corn syrup aftertaste. You showed me how a new family replaced the wood paneling with drywall. How the pipes still sang out loud. Everything was covered by shimmering dust. You were there, pointing at the carpet where we used to sit. ‘Look,’ you said. ‘Nintendo games don’t even show the blood.’

And then I’ll wake up inside our basement, alone except for our Helicopter Pilot sorting laundry into piles. Maybe helping with small things around the house.

Travis Dahlke is the author of “Milkshake” (Long Day Press) and “Mount Summer” (Out to Lunch Records). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, HAD, Juked, and The Longleaf Review, among other journals and collections.