University High School
Instructor: Lee Fallon
The Thought of Falling
The Thought of Falling
Run or Die!
The man appears in bed, asleep. His sheets are haphazardly pulled across his body, a stray foot hanging out one side. His brow is furrowed, softening the hardness of his face only slightly. The scars that line his face stretch and contort. His hair is matted and sweaty; the pillow it sits on reaches for the ground, barely attached to the bed. A loud ringing wakes him suddenly. He gasps.
He jerks forward and looks about desperately. He feels around the bed for something he can't find. His fear is palpable. But the ringing passes; it was only the doorbell.
The man breathes a sigh of relief, though his trepidation doesn't leave him. He stands, dons a robe and shuffles out of the room. The wooden floors feel cold beneath his feet. He pulls his robe around himself more tightly.
He descends a cramped, claustrophobic flight of stairs. The steps creak, straining to support his weight. He's a large man. In his youth, he might have been a bodybuilder. But the creases around his eyes give him away; he's not as strong as he once was.
The doorbell continues to ring. The man wonders if it had been designed to be obnoxious.
"Coming!" he calls, his voice hoarse. He fumbles with the door's lock, as garish as it is unwieldy. He pulls the door open, revealing a troop of armored men. The man squints at them, feigning confusion. Their faces are hardened, much as his is, though they're far younger than he. They wear black helmets with straps looping around their chins, forcing each of their faces into a frown. Each has a large gun fastened around his torso. Each fingers his trigger.
There are about three men dressed like this; the fourth is a much softer man with a countenance unlike the others. His face is clear of blemishes, his skin eerily smooth. He wears a long overcoat that barely conceals a black vest strapped around his torso. His eyes are a deep, piercing blue. The man senses something off about this one.
"Hello, uh," the man in the overcoat steals a glance at his phone. "Roy? Is that your name?"
The man — Roy — nods, remaining silent.
"I'm K." The man in the overcoat, evidently named K, extends a hand. Roy shakes it, apprehensive. If K notices something's off, he doesn't show it.
"That's your name? K?" Roy says, his voice still hoarse.
K smiles, though it's cold, apathetic.
"The only one I know," K says flatly. "Might we come in?" It's a command, not a question.
Roy steps aside, and K stalks in.
"Sorry," Roy clears his throat as the other men try to enter. "I…don't think there will be enough room for all of you. My checks aren't all that big, you see." The soldiers, now agitated, look to K for direction. K considers Roy for a moment.
"It's only three men, Roy," K says softly. "Why not let them in? The guns are only for show, you know." K laughs a little. Roy stares back at K, trying not to let his anger show.
"Sorry, I just don't think there's enough room," Roy slams the door shut, its hinges groaning with the force.
"Bad decision, Roy," K's voice is hollow, almost menacing.
But before Roy can even open his mouth, gunfire erupts. And Roy dies. Everything is black.
It takes only a few keystrokes for things to begin reappearing, one by one. First the old, faded banister, followed by the creaky stairs, and then the floors, the ceiling, the door, the old light, and, finally, Roy. His eyes are wide with fear, his mouth agape. A bullet appears at his forehead, suspended in the air. Its tip is piercing his skin, but he isn't bleeding. And then K appears, clutching a gun aimed at Roy's forehead. He's still smiling.
Things begin to reanimate, but they move backward. The bullet reenters K's gun, which he promptly holsters within the folds of his overcoat. Roy's pupils contract, his fear dimming to an irritating anxiety. Roy opens the door, revealing the soldiers trapped behind it.
"It's only three men, Roy," K says. "Why not let them in? The guns are only for show, you know." K laughs a little. Roy stares back at K, trying not to let his anger show. But he relents and nods to the soldiers. They shuffle in, forcefully brushing past him as they enter. Once they've all found their places behind K, Roy shuts the door with a sense of finality. K reopens his phone, peering into it, looking for something.
"A few quick questions," K says coarsely. "Name?"
"Roy Morton," Roy responds flatly.
K, sensing Roy's apprehension, sighs.
"Roy, this is just a routine checkup. You have nothing to be worried about."
Roy nods, though he's still nervous.
"May I continue?"
"Ye-Yeah," Roy mumbles.
"None. That are alive, at least."
"Any previous occupation?"
"Uh," Roy pauses, considering his answer. "None."
"None?" K looks up, narrowing his eyes at Roy. "Really?"
Roy nods slowly.
"Ye-Yeah," Roy stutters, his nerves getting to him. "Went to college, studied, started working as an accountant right out of there."
"Awfully simple life, isn't it?" K is smiling, staring right into Roy's eyes.
"Did a lot of brawling in your youth?"
"No…not really." Now it's Roy's turn to narrow his eyes. What sort of game is K playing?
"Huh," K nods. "Well, mind telling me about those scars? Because I, quite honestly, can't figure out how you got them."
"Yeah, uh," Roy takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "I was attacked by a dog when I was young. Deathly afraid of those things now."
"Mmm," K purses his lips, looking from his phone to Roy and back. "You're a pretty big guy. That because of the dog too?"
"Is it wrong for me to prioritize fitness?"
K laughs again. "No. No, not at all. Mind if we look around the place?"
"Sure." Roy grits his teeth. He has no other choice. K smiles and the soldiers immediately spread out, searching the apartment. Roy stays by the doorway, staring at K. K stares back at him.
"Hey, boss!" one of the soldiers calls from above, "I think we've found something!"
Roy sighs. K grins.
"That's my cue!" K says, turning to the stairs. Roy shakes suddenly, unnaturally. His eyes roll back in his head, and suddenly, he lunges at K. It's an instinctive, animalistic movement — practiced, almost programmed. And he's dead. Again.
Again, things reappear. First the apartment, then Roy, standing by the doorway. Then the soldiers, dutifully standing behind K, who materializes along with them. K is still smiling.
"No. No, not at all. Mind if we look around the place?" K's grin begins to irk Roy.
K stops, clearly disconcerted by this answer.
"I-I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you correctly." K's grin has disappeared.
"No, you heard me right. I don't want you looking around my apartment. You clearly don't have a warrant, otherwise, you would've told me. I know you're required to do so." Roy is slowly gaining confidence, his breathing becoming steadier, though his hands remain clammy.
"You know quite a bit about the law, Roy. Why is that?" The edges of K's mouth turn up.
Now it's Roy's turn to stiffen.
"Thought I might've needed the knowledge for a situation like this," Roy grunts.
"Is that so? And why would you expect to be in a situation like this?"
"Dunno. Lots of guys at the office have been grabbed for less."
"Less? Less than what?"
Roy bites his lip, realizing his mistake.
"Nothing, uh…Just, like, for unfair reasons. Less than what's fair."
K is grinning again. There's a dangerous glint in his eyes.
The two men stare at each other for a moment. K moves closer to Roy.
"Roy, it'll be easier for both of us if you just tell me the truth. So say it. Tell me the truth." K is almost whispering.
"There's no truth to tell. This is as much as I can tell you. It's what I know."
"No!" K snaps, rushing over to Roy. He grabs Roy by the neck, enraged.
"Tell me the truth!" K's spittle flies into Roy's face.
"I'm an accountant. I don't know anything else!" And it was true. Roy didn't remember anything but that.
K slaps Roy. His hand feels icy — almost metallic.
"No, dammit! You're not a damn accountant! I know that's a cover!"
Roy stares at K for a moment.
"It-it's not a cover," but he can't get the words out. K screams again. And Roy is dead. Again.
You've started to understand how this works, by now: things reappear again, but this time, a little different. K and Roy appear together, K throttling Roy. K's mouth hangs open, his spittle hanging in the air between them. The men appear behind K, their guns trained on Roy's forehead. And the room appears, and things fall back into motion.
"No dammit!" K begins, but Roy's hands are already around his neck. Roy, too, has become conscious of this arrangement of life and death. Roy shoves K backward, a fiery rage in his eyes. The men behind K open fire, but only graze Roy. K's body is riddled with bullets, and Roy drops him to the floor. K is dead. But the men have more ammunition. And now Roy is dead.
You and Roy alike are annoyed now. Your failure to progress is his; his failure yours. This time, Roy has appeared standing over K's bloodied corpse. So, he did advance, if only a little. Now there's a cold, empty look in Roy's eyes. His muscles flex in a way they haven't for a long time. It's an oddly familiar feeling, though simultaneously foreign. The men appear in front of him, desperately reloading their weapons. Things begin again. Roy looks up from the body, and immediately dives for the first man. This time, you and Roy resolve to advance. No matter the cost.
Roy is wrestling the man he's tackled for his gun; the other two men continue to fumble with their clips. Their aim, to begin with, isn't very good. And Roy seems like a bullet-sponge. Perhaps you will be able to succeed this time.
No such luck. The men reload before Roy and wrest the gun away. Roy dies again.
It took you a little longer to say yes this time. But you did, and Roy appears yet again. Maybe it's the keyboard you're using, maybe the mouse, or maybe the laptop itself. Either way, you figure, there must be an easier way forward. Other than just dying.
This time, Roy's tackling the first man, while the other two men reload. Just as how it ended last time. Progress is slow but dying seems like the easiest way forward. Now Roy has the foresight to use this man as a shield, so when the men fire, they only kill their comrade. Roy throws away this second body and attacks the next man. The third man continues to fumble with his magazine. And Roy grins, triumphant. Maybe, just maybe, he will get through this time. Maybe, just maybe, his death might matter this time. But the third man is somehow wilier now that you've killed his partner, and he seems to have infinite magazines. And though Roy seems an endless sponge, he is not; and once again, he is dead.
Why even try? You know you'll die, right? Well, not you. Roy.
No, that was a stupid mentality for losers. You are not a loser. You are very good at video games, and Roy will not die this time. Not if you have anything to say about it.
But of course, your words don't count much in a video game. The third man is still firing, and Roy, inexplicably, is dodging some of the bullets. But not all. He reaches the third man, but not before dying. Again.
This is the trick, you think. Yes, dying. That's the trick. You haven't advanced much, but you have advanced; you've only died in between. So, what if it takes a moment longer to load? Roy's death doesn't mean anything as long as you advance.
Roy's is throttling the third man. Roy tires of this game as well. He, too, wants to die. For real. In a way that actually means something. His muscles flex: the man is dead. Perhaps now he will truly advance, he will truly have a purpose. Maybe you will, too.
Or perhaps not. Unluckily, there's another enemy. There's always another enemy. Does it really matter how Roy dies this time? It doesn't make a difference to you; you forget about it not long after it happens. Another unremarkable death among many.
Does it even matter that he has died? You've advanced, and he'll get up in less than a minute. And you know that he will get up as many times as you demand. There's comfort in that; a reassurance, a false invincibility.
And so Roy dies again.
"So, this will be your room," the woman smiled. "We hope you enjoy your stay here! And if you ever need anything, I'm Melissa." She pointed to a baby blue nametag with several stickers plastered around it. Her smile widened unnaturally; she looked more pained than excited.
"Oh," the other woman nodded, trying for a smile. Her skin, aged and wrinkled, hung loosely off her cheekbones. She was tired, her eyes sunken and misty. Her hair, a tangled, silvery mess, was loosely tied back. Slowly, she padded her way into the room, her back hunched.
"Here, let me help you," Melissa offered, grabbing for the older woman's arms. She shook her head, brushing off Melissa's outstretched arms. Her sari fell to the side, revealing her arms, brittle and frail. She stopped and looked about the room wearily.
The room's walls were white, generic and plain. A small kitchen sat unused and empty, while a television glowed in the room behind it, playing a daytime game show. Tentatively, the woman stepped onto the carpet, its bristles parting beneath her, and sighed.
"Alright, well, I'll leave you be," Melissa waved and closed the door behind her, trapping the woman inside. The woman set her purse, which had previously been clasped between her hands, down on the kitchen counter and sat down on the couch facing the TV. The couch was hard and uncomfortable, barely yielding beneath her. At the end of the room, a sliding glass window protected a balcony, overlooking the thick garden that sat at the center of the complex. Other tenants could be seen from here, walking about their rooms, tending to flowers, entertaining guests, or just watching television. But the woman was alone.
"So, this will be your room," a bored security official motioned to what amounted to a hole in the wall, preoccupied with his phone. His face, eerily smooth, was barely illuminated by the dingy old lights hanging from the ceiling. A thin, fluorescent electric field protected the room. The boy, whom the security official had been showing around, reached out towards the field and was promptly electrocuted.
"Shit!" the boy shouted, immediately recoiling. The tips of his fingers were singed, now branded by an ugly black mark surrounding a swelling red bubble.
The security official looked up.
"Oh, right," he smacked the wall, and the field fell. "The medical offices are down here." He turned on his heel and began marching down the hall.
The boy jogged along behind him, grasping at his wrist. Miraculously, the security official managed to stay at least ten paces ahead of the boy.
"Please, keep up," the official called back, quickening his pace. The boy shook his head, gasping in pain.
Eventually, they came across a white door, as smooth as marble, fitted in the wall. The security official knocked against it, and it swung open, revealing a large, brightly lit chamber. At the end of it, four tanks lay against the wall, filled with an odd blue liquid. A silver table sat in the center, with tools of varying sharpness adorning the walls. A bespectacled man in a long lab coat materialized from beside the doorway, rushing forward. He grabbed the boy's hand and quickly scanned it, barely looking at the wound.
"This looks bad, man," he shook his head, clicking his tongue. "It looks like we may have to amputate."
The boy was taken aback.
"Wha-What?" the boy began, but the man — who he assumed to be a doctor — dragged him along by his wrist. The doctor stopped at the silver table, holding his hand out to the security official expectantly.
"Wait, hold on," the boy said, "What are you even-!" The doctor was given a long knife, and he smiled, brandishing it.
"It's been a long time since I've done a good amputation." The doctor grinned, revealing a set of gold caps attached to his front teeth.
"Hold on, wait!" the boy yelled, but it was too late. The doctor swung the knife down, disregarding which fingers were actually damaged.
"Honestly, I just want to die," another elderly woman sat down next to the woman, letting out a long sigh. They sat in what the woman had been told was the "game room," where others in the facility would go to relax after lunch. Small brown tables were scattered haphazardly about it, their tops painted with chess and backgammon boards. Few people actually played the games, though. Most just sat quietly, not saying much to each other. This was the first interaction the woman had had in weeks.
The woman stared back at this other woman, confounded. She hadn't seen this other woman before. She was wrapped in a shawl, wispy white hair loosely hanging about her face. Her face was almost hawkish, her sunken eyes contrasting with a long, hooked nose.
"Edna," the new woman extended a hand, small and fragile. Tentatively, the woman shook it.
"Really," Edna grumbled, "This place is so depressing. I have no idea why my kids put me here." She gasped suddenly. "Kids!" — Edna nearly shouted — "How are yours? I'm sure they're wonderful!" Edna stared at the woman, her eyes wide, expectant.
"Uh," the woman said, "I actually don't have any. My nephew and niece put me here."
"Oh," Edna seemed disappointed. "Well, I'm sure they're wonderful."
The woman nodded slightly. Her niece and nephew were not, in fact, wonderful. Months earlier, they'd suddenly shown up to her house, demanding that she move into an assisted living facility. Well, not initially. Initially, they'd asked. They demanded after she refused.
The woman's sister, younger but still elderly, put up stiff resistance, but to no avail. The niece and nephew, after a month of arguing, succeeded in their conquest. The woman had been sent to the facility and trudged about for one surreal week. But at the end of that week, she received a frantic call from her sister.
"They're selling everything!" the woman's sister had gasped. "Didi, I'm so sorry. I-I just wanted to — and they didn't notify me — but I-I"
"Slow down," the woman said softly. "It's alright. They're just things."
"But they're your things!" her sister sobbed.
And the woman didn't know what to say.
"Hey," Edna said. "Are you ok? You seem preoccupied." The woman snapped to attention.
"Fine," she nodded. "I'm just fine."
"Alright," Edna grunted. "But really, how do you feel? About this place, I mean."
"Uh," the woman thought for a moment. "It's fine. Quiet. The nurses are kind."
"That's optimistic. I guess that's admirable, though. It's just too sad for me. Everyone just waiting to die. Although I guess I'm doing the same."
Edna was right. Among those in the facility, there was almost an excitement around death. The woman had heard almost everyone, at one time or another, say something along the lines of, "I just want to die," or, "I don't want to live anymore." And eventually, she'd begun to agree.
It seemed to the woman that the loneliness the facility generated only intensified these thoughts. Everyone was just too weary, too tired. They'd lived long lives and were ready for them to end.
"Well, I better be going. Nice meeting you," she said, promptly getting up and shuffling away. The woman stared after her silently.
The boy snapped awake, drenched in sweat. He was breathing heavily. It was only a dream, he reassured himself. Only a dream. He hadn't really lost his fingers. It had been a figment of his imagination.
But suddenly, he realized that the familiar tingle of touch in his right hand was missing. Slowly, he looked down to his hand, fearing what he might find. He gasped. His fingers had been reduced to little more than mangled sticks. Dried blood ran down from their tips, which had what seemed to be artificial metal tips attached to them. Miraculously, though, he could move his hand without difficulty. Even more miraculously, he felt no pain. He must've been dreaming again.
The force field guarding the entrance to his room fell, and a security official rushed in, his uniform unkempt.
"Sir!" he saluted the boy. "You are late for your meeting with the general!"
"What?" the boy could barely get the words out.
The security official stayed silent and frozen, his body rigid. The boy stared at him for a moment.
"Uh, tell him I'll be there in a minute," the boy said. The security official stayed frozen.
"Dismissed?" the boy tried. The security official smiled, nodded at the boy, and left. The boy shook his head and tried taking in his surroundings. The room was claustrophobic, its ceiling barely hanging above the boy's head, and its walls barely ten feet across. Those walls were made of a smooth, polished obsidian, casting the room into an ominous sort of darkness. He was sitting on a cot, opposite the force field, beyond which lay a hall. A desk had been lazily placed against the right wall, while a dresser sat leaning against the left one. The floor was a coarse stone, chafing beneath the boy's feet.
The boy got up, and, after rummaging through the dresser and hastily dressing himself, he left his room and hurried off to the conference room the security official had shown him the day prior. Just as he was about to enter, yet another security official appeared from the shadows.
"What are you doing? The containment chamber is that way, sir!" the official pointed behind the boy, down a dimly lit, foreboding hallway.
The boy turned and stared down it.
"Are you sure?" he said.
"Yes," the official said flatly. The boy looked at the official, and then back down the hallway. With a sigh, he began down the hallway.
"I keep having these dreams," the woman said. She was sitting across from a man, who stared back at her blankly. His eyes were a misty cloud of blues and whites; severe cataracts obscured his vision. A small, empty table separated them.
"There's a boy. I'm not really sure who he is," she said. "He's on some sort of space station. It's like that TV show…uh…Star…Space…" She gritted her teeth, annoyed. She'd been watching this show only hours earlier. Why couldn't even she remember its title? "Never mind, it-it doesn't matter. But the station is some sort of military base, and there's a monster. I don't really know what it is…it's sort of brownish — no, green. Yeah. Gobs of saliva always hang from its mouth. It has a hunched back and is all scaly all over. It's really disgusting, but…it seems almost benign. You know what I mean? Like it could destroy the entire station if it wanted to, but it doesn't, for whatever reason. Does that make sense?"
The man kept staring at her. Judging his silence to be as good an answer as any, she went on.
"So, this boy. He's thin — almost malnourished — but capable and is brought to this base. I-I'm not really sure why yet. And his hair — it's like the end of a mop, hanging lazily around his head, with no rhyme or reason to it. Really, hygiene seems to have fallen by the wayside for these spacemen. But anyway, he goes down to the room to investigate this monster for himself. And-!"
The man snorted suddenly, as if waking from a deep sleep.
"Wha-What'd you say?" he asked, bewildered.
The woman sighed.
"What is it?" the boy stared down into the pit. A scaly green creature was roaming about inside. Like the rest of the complex, dingy lights swung from the ceiling, barely illuminating the pit. He could, however, discern the general features of this pit. The walls were an ugly collage of brown and red, and the creature's feces had mixed with mud on the floor, creating a nauseating paste. The creature itself was a sickly monstrosity; it had long fangs and sharp claws, though the effects of malnourishment were clear. It stalked about the room slowly, seemingly disaffected.
"No idea." The officer sitting next to him smiled, his glee apparent. "But that's what's exciting, isn't it?"
The boy stared at him.
"Uh…" he began, before being cut off by a thick metal door slamming open behind him. A man appeared, ducking to avoid the top of the doorway as he stalked in. A green cap was tucked below his left arm, his lapel outfitted with various medals. Robotically, he extended his right arm.
"Greetings," he said flatly. "I'm the commanding officer of this base. General Mitchell."
The boy shook his hand. "Hi," he mumbled.
"Now, we found that thing you were just marveling at lurking around this place just the other day. You were brought here to discern what it is."
"Well, I'm not exactly an expert or anything, but I-!"
"Why don't you go down there and take a quick gander?" the general cut him off, smiling. His smile was just as forced and awkward as his movements.
"Well, I really don't know how safe -!"
"Nonsense! We have gas installed so if the monster makes any sort of move towards you, we can kill it" — the general snapped his fingers — "just like that!"
"But, won't the gas kill me, too?"
The general's face fell flat. "Just go down there, son."
Resigned to this fate, the boy left the room and trudged down the hallway, the metal floors clanging beneath his feet. Eventually, the hallway widened, and the ceiling grew to an enormous height. Large black doors appeared before the boy, looming above him like cold obelisks. The boy reached out with his metal fingers, and just as he was about to touch the doors, they swung open, revealing the monster.
The thing, sensing something different, slowly lumbered around, the chains that bound it dragging along behind. It looked at the boy, and slowly cocked its head to the side, staring at him with what seemed like fascination. Despite its grotesque features and mangled appearance, the creature seemed peaceful, almost benevolent. The boy reached out again and touched the creature's snout.
"Excuse me," the woman hobbled toward an attendant. "Do you know where the man I was talking to yesterday is? I was worried about him, and I'm just wondering how he's doing now."
"Which man?" the attendant asked. "There are lots of tenants here, so you'll have to be more specific."
"No, no," the woman shook her head. "I pointed him out to you. We were talking about my dreams. Remember?"
The attendant shook her head.
"Ma'am, this is the first time we've ever spoken," she said.
"I-I'm sorry, I just thought…" the woman trailed off, her brow furrowed.
The attendant smiled warmly.
"It's alright. Why don't you describe this man for me?" she said reassuringly.
"Well, he was quite tall. Very thin. Wizened, I guess. Well, that describes everyone in here, doesn't it? He was wearing a long overcoat. His name was…Pierre, I think."
The attendant bit her lip.
"I can't think of anyone here who fits that description. I'm sorry." The attendant seemed almost sad.
"Ok," the woman nodded, continuing into the room. She shook her head. It was getting worse.
The monster and the boy were staring at each other, frozen. Neither dared to move a muscle. Slowly, the boy's eyes explored the thing. Its skin was green and scaly, heavily scarred. Somewhere in its cavernous black eyes was a weariness, a nearly imperceptible exhaustion. But the boy noticed.
The monster stared at the boy's hand for a moment, baffled. But after a moment, it too extended an arm, touching the boy's wrist.
And then, the boy collapsed.
The woman was staring up at the ceiling of her room. She'd never really studied it, but upon consideration, it seemed terribly bland. It was a spongy sort of grey, with perpendicular lines of white crisscrossing it. It seemed almost like a city layout, though a lazy one at that. Two lights hung just at her periphery, obscuring much of her vision.
She was lying in a bed, exhausted. This was a new bed, one she could control with a small remote. For weeks, she'd been too weak to move about herself.
A nurse would come in every so often, feed her, check the monitor beside the bed, and leave. The nurse, unlike the other staffers, wore pink shirts and slacks. She was tall and thin, her hair long and straight. Save for a small blemish, her face was clear, devoid of makeup. The woman thought the nurse was awfully pretty.
A slow, quiet creaking sound came from the living room, presumably from the door. The woman, shaken from her reverie, fumbled about, trying to find the remote. But alas, her hands only found the soft weaves of her bedcovers. She sighed and strained to turn on her side. Her muscles, thin and tired, protested violently against this, but she persisted. She wanted, at the very least, to know the nurse before she died.
Finally, after what seemed like an endless struggle, she found herself lying on her side. But no sound came from the living room. The apartment was eerily silent. The woman despaired. Was the door just another figment of her imagination? Or, had the nurse forsaken her, knowing her death loomed? The woman began to hyperventilate, which the monitors did not like. They began to beep faster and faster, incessant and ominous.
But suddenly, something appeared. The woman blinked, her eyes weary and confused. It was a swan, swimming into the room with its bill proudly raised in the air. She couldn't exactly tell whether it was waddling across the floor or swimming through the air, suspended by some unknown force. Its feathers were pitch black, but it seemed more inviting than foreboding. She reached out for it, and as she did so, it turned to her, and without hesitation, opened its beak.
It was singing.
There was a spider on my ceiling. At first, in my groggy delirium, it seemed like a house centipede. I scrambled backwards in fear, only to realize that it was just a spider. I'd had this apartment for a long time, but this was the first time I'd ever seen a spider in it. And a long, black one, at that. Not one of those small, harmless types - one you might crush beneath your foot and brush off with little more than a fleeting disgust. It was larger, and thus, more malevolent.
The spider was glued to the ceiling, completely frozen, immobile. I wondered if it had noticed me staring. I fumbled around on my bedside table for a moment, trying to locate a tissue without looking. Finally, my fingers found one, and in one swift yank, I took the tissue and crushed it. I brought the bloodied tissue back down from the ceiling, inching along as I feared the spider might still be alive. But, luckily enough, it was dead; I'd squashed it completely. It twitched a bit in the tissue, its body bent horribly out of shape. But the twitching was just temporary. I pitied it, if only for a moment.
It took some time to collect myself after the encounter with the spider. After flushing it down the toilet, I dressed, and discovered that it was noon. I'd been waking up late for some time - between noon and 3:00, to be precise - and wasting away my days until I inevitably collapsed in the early morning. My gums grew tired as I gnashed and grinded my teeth together during the few hours I did sleep.
After having found the spider, I spent the day looking for more. I imagined a small nest of spiders infesting my wall, climbing over one another to find a way into my room. They would have built a small city, built as much on webs as the backs of their plebes. The thought, though fleeting, frightened me.
How did the spiders find my apartment in the first place? My apartment was one of many; why did they choose mine? Was it pure luck? Perhaps one had come, long ago, and built a family, and that one spider's family was just now growing too large to be held in my walls.
But that begged yet another question, one that fascinated me. How do spiders build a family? Do spider mothers give birth the way human mothers do? Do they have miscarriages? Do they experience loss?
But I had little time to ponder more of these questions; it was already 5:00 PM, and I had a date.
So I went outside. The air was unfamiliar, but still somehow kinder, less abrasive than it was before. It was spring. I lived in the city, but even here, the effects of spring were palpable. People had come out with their dogs, and the few trees that lined the sidewalk were blooming. The brick and stone of the buildings surrounding me took a cheery hue, though one not devoid of a weathered fatigue. Cars puttered up and down the street, belching contentedly as they went. The sun beat down, but the wind fought back; the day was pleasant.
It wasn't that late, but the park had already taken a dark, foreboding countenance. The trees, old and withering, loomed, casting long, rigid shadows. The grass had become snarled in some places, matted in others. Few people walked in the park - some runners, some parents pushing their children in inelegant, metallic strollers - but no one else. I'd once loved the park, but now, it seemed as if some dark secret had been revealed to me, and I'd become jaded, disillusioned. For a moment, I caught sight of a large, black mass among the shadows, jagged and spindly, but it disappeared almost as soon as I noticed.
We were seated not long after I arrived. The girl's name was Sydney. I smiled at Sydney, in what I hoped was an endearing gesture. Her hair was short and black; her cheeks were rosy, and they seemed to burn brighter when she smiled back. There was a small candle on the table between us, flickering towards me when she talked, and towards her when I talked.
We got through the expected formalities of a first date in mere moments; we discussed our mutual friend for a moment; I discovered that she was a secretary for a large firm, the specifics of which fled my mind as soon as they entered it; she discovered that I was a "writer," which really meant that I was unemployed. But we'd both known most of these things beforehand. There was a slight pause after we'd finished with this portion of the date. Then, she broke the silence:
"You go on many dates?" I realized I'd been smiling like an idiot that entire time, and I stopped. She continued to beam.
"No-ah-no," I stumbled through the words. "I-I actually just got out of a...long term relationship. I hope that doesn't turn you off. I'm not trying to, like, shift some big emotional burden on to you or anything."
"Oh, no, no, no. That-that's not at all what I was thinking. I don't care about - well, not in, like, a callous way. I mean-!" She was stumbling too, almost as if mirroring me.
"No, no, you're good. I know what you're trying to say. But I just - I feel like a lot of people get turned off by that, right?"
"No, yeah, totally. I mean, if nobody wanted to date you after leaving a long relationship, how would you ever get a date, right?'
"Right, yeah, I guess. I just wanted you to know that...you're not a rebound, or anything like that. I mean, you are, in that, like, you're the next person I'm trying to date, but I mean, you're not a rebound in the negative sense of the term."
"Dude. I get it. Stop worrying, man." There was a silence after that. Not a short awkward pause, but a long gap in time. Our words lingered in the air, like a cobweb: they were there, but hardly perceptible, and quickly fading. It's fitting, I think, that after long passages of conversation, there are long moments of emptiness, or silence. It's the only thing that balances out the noise.
"Have you been here before?" Sydney cleared her throat.
"Yeah, a few times, actually. It's pretty good."
"Do you recommend anything?"
"Uh...I'm personally partial to the dragon rolls."
"What's on that?"
"Like, shrimp and avocado, I think. It doesn't sound immediately appealing, but it's pretty good."
"Alright, I'll give it a try."
The waiter came by not long after and took our orders. We thanked him and tried to politely shoo him off.
"Do you have any fears?" I asked Sydney.
"Yeah, like, I'm afraid of heights."
"Yeah, I mean, once in eighth grade, my Academic Challenge team -!"
"Oh, uh, I think some places call it a quiz bowl."
"Oh, got it."
"Right. So, we were at this hotel in Chicago - it was the national tournament - and the hotel was basically set up so there was this, like, central atrium, and all the rooms and hallways overlooked it, from the bottom floor to, like, the 32nd floor. And for whatever reason, the rounds were always on the top floors, which, coincidentally, also had the narrowest hallways. So I had to shuffle around, hugging the wall the whole time, because I was so scared of falling over the side."
"Then you're not scared of heights, are you? You're scared of death."
"Everyone's scared of death, though."
"Really? I feel like there are people out there who aren't scared of death. And what about...I don't mean to sound crass, but, like, suicidal people?"
"Suicidal people are scared of death too. It's just that life just scares them more."
"But...that just means there is no fear other than that of death. Your fear of heights just collapses to a fear of death."
"No, no. You might be right, that all fear stems from death, but that doesn't mean other fear doesn't exist. It's just a matter of what kind of death worries you most. For me, it's falling. When you're falling, you have no control. Nothing is sure. Things you could normally rely on disappear."
"That's an interesting way of looking at it."
"I spend a lot of time in my own head. I've thought it through."
"Yeah. Huh. Well, I don't have any fears I've thought through like that...I guess I'm pretty scared of spiders."
"Yeah, it's just - something about them. They're quick, they crawl, they're poisonous -!"
"I think it's venomous, actually."
"Spiders aren't really poisonous, they're venomous."
"Oh. Uh, okay. Anyway, I really don't like spiders. And I mean, like, why are they hairy?" She laughed at her own joke. I smiled.
"Are spiders hairy? I mean, I know tarantulas are, but I mean...are normal spiders?"
"Well, even the ones that aren't are still scary. I mean, they're just so...nasty."
"I don't know. Let's not talk about spiders, alright?"
The sushi came. We'd both gotten dragon rolls. The waiter lingered a little too long. But he left, after a moment. And we ate.
"Do you have any tattoos?" Sydney asked.
"I-uh, yeah," I said absentmindedly. "I have my grandmother's name on my chest in Bengali."
"Huh, really? So do I."
"On your right breast?"
"Yeah." We had the same tattoo. In the same place.
"That-huh. Cool, I guess." I hadn't meant my response to be so curt - but something had caught my eye. There was a child in the street. A young boy - young enough that his feet weren't much longer than the center lines of the road he was standing on. He was crying, his hands curled up in fists that rubbed against his eyes, leaving deep red depressions when he pulled them away. I stared at the boy through the window of the restaurant. Cars rushed by him, paying him no heed; the people lining the streets, seemed not to notice him either.
"What're the chances of -!"
"I-I'm sorry, do you see that?" I pointed out the window.
"What?" she grunted, vaguely annoyed at my interruption.
"Out there, there's a boy."
"No, no, there's a boy in the middle of the street. He's like, I don't know, four? He's a little kid. He's just standing there. We-we should do something."
Sydney turned around, my words sobering her slightly.
"What're you talking about? There's no boy there." She was confused, more than anything. But she was right; the boy had disappeared. And there was a slight pang in my chest. I felt almost as if I'd lost something.
It was evening now: dark enough for the streetlights to be on, but light enough that they hugged the streets in a warm caress. More people were out - couples, in particular. The air was cooler, but somehow more soothing. Not cold enough to warrant an overcoat, but enough for a fleece, or a sweatshirt. Sydney's dress didn't have any sleeves; I offered her my jacket.
"Oh. That's very kind of you," she smiled. I shrugged off my jacket and draped it over her shoulders. Her skin was perfectly clear, save for a single blemish on her right forearm: a small brown dot, only slightly darker than the skin around it. My brow furrowed as I noticed it. I had a birthmark that was identical.
"Hey Sydney," I mumbled. "Is that a birthmark on your right arm?"
"Yeah," she blushed a little. "I'm surprised you noticed."
"Yeah…" I trailed off. "I...uh, I have the same birthmark."
"What?" she paused, her smile more incredulous than kind now. I pulled down the sleeve of my shirt, and sure enough, it was the same brown mark, sitting on the same vein.
"That-that's weird," she stuttered.
"Yeah," I said quietly. "Weird coincidence, right?"
"R-right," she forced a laugh. As if to ignore the incident, Sydney slipped her hand into mine, like the couples that lined the streets. Her hand was warm and soft, lacking the roughness and wear that my hands had imprinted on them, a roughness that went even deeper than the coarse hide of the skin itself. A roughness I'd once lacked, a long time ago.
I felt a presence behind us as we were walking. I craned my neck backwards, while still trying to keep pace with Sydney. But I was forced to stop: there was a large spider, taller than me and wider than the sidewalk. In form, though, it was not unlike the one that had been on my ceiling earlier. It was moving towards us at a leisurely crawl, tenderly picking its way down the street. And now, I understood why Sydney was scared of spiders; it was hairy, like she'd said, and had a number of eyes as black as its body. It had two pincers at the front, which gnashed and grinded together as it bore down on us.
"What's wrong?" Sydney turned back to me, concerned.
"There-there's a spi-spider," I nearly choked on the words, my finger shaking as I pointed to the monster. It had stopped, and seemed to stare back at me just as I stared at it. Even from a distance, I could see myself reflected in its eyes. Sydney peered down the path my finger indicated.
"Where?" she asked.
"It's literally massive, you can't miss it," I gasped. My heart was beating at my ribcage, desperately trying to escape. Sydney gave me a look.
"That was a really funny joke, dude," she said flatly. "Let's go." She took hold of my hand and dragged me away from the spider, which continued following us.
We kept walking for some time. In silence, largely. And, once I got over the giant spider following us, I enjoyed it. I think there's a certain intimacy to silence. A connection that can't be expressed through words.
"So, your last relationship," Sydney cut open the silence. "I-I don't mean to pry, but -!"
"No, go ahead! It's fine with me, honestly." My voice withered a little.
"Alright, well...were you and your last girlfriend...close? I know that sounds like a dumb question, given that you said it was long term, but sometimes, 'long-term' doesn't necessarily-!"
"No, no, uh...yeah, we...we were..." I glanced back. The spider was still there, a few paces behind.
"So...the break up must've been hard."
"Y-yeah. You could say that.".
"Oh. I'm sorry. What was she - !"
"Hey, why don't we talk about something else?" I cut in, stealing glances at the spider.
"What? I was just -!"
"Spring in the city is nice, right?"
"Look, I'm sorry if I struck a nerve, but -!"
"And the dogs, and…" I barreled on.
"Honestly, I just wanted to know."
"Why?" I stopped. "Why are you so fixated on my last girlfriend?"
"I'm not, I was just asking," she said, exasperated.
There was another long pause. We walked in silence for a little while again. A few couples passed us; I realized I wasn't holding her hand anymore. But then again, we weren't a couple.
"The park is beautiful." Sydney smiled at me. We were, as one might guess, in the park now. There was a small lake there; we had decided to make our way over to it.
The spider was still following us. How it had made it through the trees and foliage eluded me, but it had. It remained some distance away, but I could feel its many eyes glaring at me. It weighed down on me, dragging me back even as I tried to keep up with Sydney.
"What's that?" Sydney pointed to a dark mass sitting at the shore of the lake. There were a few small lanterns scattered about, but the mass was engulfed in shadow, and thus featureless. It was small - barely perceptible against the shore - but it was there. I feigned indifference, but I felt an unnatural draw towards it. I could feel the spider bristling behind me as we approached. I looked back; it seemed angry, as if it didn't want me near the thing. But Sydney had taken hold of my arm again, and so we went down to inspect the object. I could feel her trembling; but her trembling quickly became indistinguishable from my own.
The object was small, not longer than my forearm, and not much wider, either. We began to discern some of its features: a head, a foot. It was a baby. A dead baby had washed up. The hair on its head was thin, barely hanging on, as if a single brush would wipe it all away. Its skin was an ugly, blood-red; it was stillborn. Its fingers were curled up tightly in its palm, the skin stretching around the depression it had made. Its eyes were closed; it was at peace.
Tenderly, I picked the baby up and cradled it in my arms. It felt familiar, holding this baby. I hadn't had the opportunity before, but now, I did. I recognized it. And I began to cry.
"I'm sorry," I sobbed. "I can't...you can go. I'm sorry."
But there was no response. Sydney wasn't there. Neither was the spider. I was left alone with my baby, cradled in my arms.
The Third Impact
Bow-legged, knock-kneed, stupidly intoxicated and dangerously inebriated, this Yale Law School graduate, who abhors drinking and worships drugs, stumbles into the party, babbling about his father's pedigree and sealing shut the memory of his absent mother, though, being inebriated, it occasionally escapes the manacles of his mind and slips to his lips, only shaking free in faint whispers and grunts. No matter. The woman with him, a graduate of an unremarkable private high school in New Jersey, equally as intelligent, privileged, shallow, wealthy as the man, didn't notice, being intoxicated and beatific herself. The man, of course, expected the woman to sleep with him. The woman, of course, expected the same. The man, graduate of Yale Law School and Georgetown undergraduate school, where he had been reported to the administration innumerable times, and had each time mentioned his father's pedigree, was destined to pass out on top of the woman, his smell and size suffocating her slim frame - a frame she knew would be, relatively, fleeting, an ayahuasca fueled realization that had led to the unabashed hedonism of the night thus far.
2012. Purity Ring performs in Miami, Florida. In a dark club. Silenced by the darkness. The lights awake. The people are revealed. A kaleidoscope in their veins. Red, green, blue. Neon tears coating their lips. Their eyelashes. Their cheeks. They crowd the makeshift stage. The sound pushes them back.
The Yale and Georgetown graduate whose bravado poorly masks a supposed loneliness that's really self-pity - though you ought not tell him that - drags this pleasure-seeking woman along with him, his hand fleeing her shoulder dodging her waist skittering across her ass doing a little tango on her palms caressing her neck and fleeing her shoulder again. She doesn't feel any of it. She only feels an inexplicable, primordial force dragging her along the outskirts of the dance floor, past couches with stains so large and ancient they may as well be the actual, original color, past a few inert partygoers either so stoned or so bored or so pretentious as to be immobile, red Solo cups crumpling in one hand, small phones glowering in the other. This looks like the set of a white rapper's music video, she thinks. The wallpaper peels and the furniture demands to be reupholstered and the carpeted floor has already begun to turn to an unhealthy slush of bile and alcohol, both spilled and regurgitated. She wonders why the house hasn't been condemned.
2012. This Canadian electronic pop group - "not electropop," they'll snap - blasts their music. The band floats a few inches above the audience. It's not a real stage they stand on. Cobbled together about an hour before, the owner of the house figured a band should have a stage. And so he built one with plywood construction workers had left to renovate the house with. But the stage is so thin that it's almost indiscernible. The band floats, only a few inches closer to divinity.
"Do you love me?" The room is dark and the apparently lonely Yale and Georgetown graduate who is dangerously inebriated has sat down on a bed, thin slits of bluish light streaming in from a single window smashed into the wall carve slices into the back of his black sport coat, like the bars of a jail cell in a world turned sideways. The room is generally austere, only decorated by the bed and an old wooden dresser with a broken lamp deteriorating on top of it.
The sudden epiphany of the transitory nature of her beauty has fueled an anxiety-ridden obsession with love. She wants to know if he loves her - really.
"Well of course I love you. Would I fuck you otherwise?" He burps, and the smell of meals he's long since digested fly from his mouth in disgust. He wants to know if she's wearing underwear - really.
"I…yeah, I mean, I guess." This is something that bothers her, and has bothered her for a long time, whether she admits it or not. Must he love her? Must she love him? How many people has she loved, really?
"I have to love someone before fucking them. It's just a psychological thing. But at the same time, it's not hard for me to fall in love with someone, or even to convince myself that I'm in love. And after all, the two are materially the same, no? Me loving you, me only believing that I love you - what's the difference?"
"It's…it's in your head, I think." She's not sure.
"Right. It's only psychological. Right now, I love you just as much as the man you'll end up marrying. As the man who will sire your children. Maybe I am that man. I don't know."
A small, clear vial, no larger than his hand, appears suddenly, slipping from the deep crimson folds of hell contained within his jacket, long unwashed and now noxious. Bath salts. He throws his head back, right hand covering his mouth, eyes shut, left hand trembling, betraying his fear. He comes down and grins, a flash - a glint - of light appearing in his eyes, which dilate more rapidly by the second, the blacks of his pupils consuming the white glint almost as soon as it had appeared.
"You know, I only talk to hot girls." The bath salts are really kicking in now, his pupils having stretched so wide they contain galaxies worth of the absence of thought. "All these other girls - they're ugly as shit. You're hot."
"Isn't that kinda sexist?"
"No, you misunderstand. I judge everyone by their looks, regardless of gender." He stands and begins to advance, staggering forward methodically, rather than the drunken stumble of before.
"But, I mean-!" She stands her ground, though not so belligerently that it defies him.
"I am terribly shallow. I know that. But, so is everyone else. And that's why I'm better than them. I know I'm superficial. They don't. I embrace my nature. They deny it." His hands clamp onto her waist. She refuses to flinch. Awkwardly, without anything resembling finesse or subtlety or romance, he guides her to the bed.
The song changes. The bed is soft but thin. Not a warm embrace but a hug from a gaunt, bony friend.
"I love this band. Don't you?" His eyes are totally empty. Light streams into the room from the door, which refused to close all the way. He is little more than a silhouette.
"I-I haven't really been listen-!"
"I don't care. I hate small talk. Very Mia Wallace of me. You seen Pulp Fiction?"
"You know what I hate? I hate that dubstep shit. I can make better music on my fucking toy keyboard. You ever hear that Skrillex guy?"
"He sucks. I mean really. No talent whatsoever. And looks stupid too." He suddenly yanks her head towards him, his lips puckered, his empty eye sockets obscured by their lids. His eyelashes are long, almost feminine. She's never noticed.
He kisses her. She relaxes her lips and kisses back, though without passion. It's a rote, obligatory action, one that's been long conditioned into her, one she's grown to expect. She can feel his lips and hands, physically, but not on any greater level. There's no fluttering in her chest, no compression in her lungs, no tightness in her nerves.
He pulls back, sweat dripping down his face, off the bridge of his nose and onto the bed. His breathing is labored, his brow furrowed, his lips pursed in a frown. His eyes are open. He considers her for a moment, eyes darting about imperceptibly. Her eyes stare back, glazed over, almost filled with tears. He blinks. Do bath salts smell?
He opens his mouth again, but not to kiss her. He bares his teeth, perfectly whitened, manicured, if you could do that to a tooth. His face draws closer, all trepidation gone. Her eyes narrow in confusion. His teeth clamp onto her cheek. She screams.
His head smacks against the dresser with an ugly thump, the dresser's hard wood cutting into the soft skin wrapping around his skull, freeing a bit of the bone housing his - however minuscule and decayed - brain. Half-clothed, bits of spittle and specks of blood slip down her chest as she stands and feels at her cheek, wincing at the slight pain of dirty skin against blood. Her muscles relax. She wonders, however briefly, if she's killed him. She wonders if that matters.
She slips from the room. It's at this point the story began. Lights sprayed her with neon, sneering and jeering and laughing and kissing and caressing and beaming down upon her.
The house shook violently with the weight of the baseline. Feet smashed the floor in. Sweat was passed from person to person.
The woman realized that she had been staring at the partygoers, staring at them for long enough that she began to become them. She had spent her life staring, staring at other girls, then women, and only then did she realize that she had stared at them for so long that she had become them. And she realized then men had never stared like she had, though they looked. She had been subsumed by the crowd. The music seemed louder.
They danced without speaking. Oftentimes on acid or MDMA or DMT or mescaline or peyote people seem to come to profound realizations. The dancers learn nothing. They only dance.
But suddenly, then, they began to sing. The crowd parted. And reformed violently. Necks snapped and slipped back into place. Wrists twisted. Skin tore. A few cried. The partygoers smiled through the blood. The air burst into flame. Hot breaths warmed cold necks. The partygoers shivered. Bodies shook, almost trembling. Her heart fluttered. Her lungs contracted. Her nerves tightened.
And now bodies began to really split. Bones rose and twisted. Skin stretched and tore. Hearts pounded against one another as they slipped from their cages. Sternums split open. Ribs snapped and twisted around one another. Spines rattled on the floor, discarded and forlorn. Blood spurted and sprayed about. Like the sweat before it, the blood mixed together until one's blood became indistinguishable from another's. The people were involuntarily consuming each other. Their bodies took control, overriding their brains, smashing together, becoming one. The floor was matted grass. The floor was sweaty hair. The floor was blood and sweat and what was left of their being.
The woman floated in this sea of gore, her remains totally mixed with the remains of others. The bodies - what remained of them - were more lovely than anything she'd ever seen before. This feeling was more lovely than anything she'd felt before.
No longer corporeal, no longer attached, no longer a woman or man or much of anything discernible, she had these realizations. She was free, both totally unconnected and intimately, inextricably linked to everyone around her. And she knew what she was feeling.
This was love.
The teacher ambles to the front of the room, his jacket a little too big for him, tie askew, computer and coffee mug in hand. The computer and mug are a little big for him too. He has a slight swagger in his step, a confidence ingrained into his gait that, surprisingly, naturally compensates for his height. The room is mostly silent.
He plugs in his computer, the cable snaking down the side of the table and back up behind him, into a wall containing many mysteries for one such as me, a literature major. My arms are folded; I lean forward, chair leaning with me, watching the teacher struggle. Nobody else seems real.
We're in a classroom. Towering columns flanking long windows. Wooden slats on the ceiling. Folding tables forming two rows that coalesce into one at the very back. Two to a table.
The movie flickers to life before us. Above us. It's sort of diagonal, really. There's a screen behind the teacher, hanging down from an impossibly high ceiling. I have a "distributional requirement" - that's what they call it - so I must take a science class. The teacher says humans cannot comprehend very high and very low numbers. 1,000,000 is just like 100 to us. 0.0001 is no different from 0.1. The unreal and real are not substantively different to the human eye.
No. It's not a classroom. I was wrong. This is someone's room. We're crowded around a television, as far as I can tell. Most are obscured by the darkness; only a few are revealed by the glow of the film. And the teacher is a she. A woman. She lurks in the back, though I never look back to really check. Maybe she isn't there. I can't bring myself to look.
I know who she is, though. A choir teacher I had in middle school. Short, blond hair usually tied in a bun, eyes blue and glassy. She put on Elf around Christmas. We made her cry once, I remember. No. Twice. Thrice? Not four times, I know. I figure the movie we have on now is like Elf again.
A few from the back of the classroom from earlier sit in front of me. One specifically stands out. He sits on a couch, laughing at something someone said; I stand behind him quietly. The back of his head faces me, but somehow, I can see his forehead. Or at least perceive it. Impossibly large.
He laughs at the film. It's stupid, it's obviously faked. How could anyone like this?
I can feel some sweat forming at the back of my neck, my mind clouding, overcast with fear. I recommended this film, I remember. They don't like it. It's a great film, they just don't get it. They just don't understand it.
I start paying attention to the film. There are two men, students. Perhaps one is a teacher. There is a slight wrinkle in their power dynamic, a slanted angle in energy between them. They stand in a bathroom, though it's blurry and not quite clear. It's been shot on film, a slight red tint splashed across it. Or perhaps that's the walls behind them, tile streaked with blood. The two are smiling, talking in Japanese. It's dirty, grainy.
One cuts a deep slice into the back of the other's shoulder. The other wants the one to do it. He smiles and laughs. It's a long, thin cut, red and bleating. The cut is curved, like the blade of a linoleum knife. It has the color of a scab, but it hasn't healed. Half of his shoulder is becoming unhinged from the rest of his body.
And now there are cuts everywhere. Many, across all of Japan, are being cut. It's a mark, indicating something. What it is that it indicates, the authorities aren't quite sure. But many are doing it. A memetic compulsion. A few girls actualize the phenomenon, anchor it to the viewer. Remember, humans can't easily comprehend large numbers. But two attractive schoolgirls - this is a very different proposition. We don't see them cutting each other, but we know it's happened. Her shirt sits differently on her shoulder. Cuts, cuts, cuts.
I'm becoming nauseous. Everyone is laughing at the incredulity of all of it. My stomach churns more.
Back to the first scene I remember. The bathroom. The film is all I can see now.
The other's wound has healed. Nobody can die. But we can certainly feel pain. He and the one are laughing about it. Now the frame begins to cut about. I see the rest of the bathroom. The two talk. Suddenly, the toilet begins to rumble. Things begin to fly out. An ear, a finger, a liver. Blood spurts. The two men begin to laugh.
No. It's not on film. It's purely digital. It looks like The Dark Knight. Glossy, pristine, buildings glittering and glowering beneath the city lights. Metrosexual fantasies.
I can't hear anything. A muted, choppy sound envelops me, a cacophony of screams and shouts and laughter: noise. Muffled and subsequently reverb boosted. A distorted crowd, the sound surrounding, consuming, swallowing me whole.
The police are angry; I catch quick glimpses of harrowed investigators mumbling vague updates on television. A nationwide hunt begins. Many are recruited. Who began this phenomenon? People are dying left and right. I am scared for my life.
Everyone is trying to solve the mystery. I feel different. I know that somehow, I'm a woman now, though I can't feel any real physical differences. My best friend stands atop a gargoyle like a vigilante searching for prey. There's a cut on her back. A white beam appears in the distance, appearing with a loud boom, shaking the world so thoroughly that both of us nearly fall off the building. We've solved another part of the mystery.
The transition back to manhood is elided. I'm in a hotel. But it's not really a hotel, not for me or my friends. We can't go to the rooms; we can't even comprehend the upper levels. Only two are available to us.
The first is the lobby, so cramped that I'm forced to exist between the two planes, my body in the lobby, my mind in the basement. The lobby is gilded, pristine, golden. Low chairs with faded flower print fabric pulled across in lazy upholstery. Glass tables with black flowerpots and purple flowers hanging out. Bright lights unabated, fighting a little too hard against the night. Chandeliers hanging too low, their glass cutting into the foreheads of absentminded passerby.
Two friends of mine stood in the lobby, reading magazines, bored. They approach me as soon as they see me. "Don't go in." I don't hear anyone say anything, but this seems to be the vibe they're giving off.
I'm in an elevator, and we descend. I've forgotten about the basement. The elevator doors slide open. Black, sleek, smooth tile cover every inch of the place save the ceiling. A few bright white lights illuminate the area, but only barely. I can't see the bulbs.
There's a hallway to the right, and a door ajar before me. The hallway leads only to darkness, and besides, I felt a dark compulsion to move forward. I entered the room.
The beast existed on my periphery. It was in the room - the hypnagogic room, I called it, for no reason other than feeling - but I refused to look at it. It was hulking, but formless, a black, fuzzy, vibrating mass of being. It had armor and spikes beneath the soft blur, all mercilessly black. Reptilian, venomous.
The beast has any number of ways to approach me. It stands and stares. I can't bring myself to stare back. So, I woke up.
My joints groaned. I was drenched in sweat. I thought of the color red. My muscles had tightened, crunching into incongruent shapes.
The darkness of my room is suddenly oppressive. The beast could be anywhere. Behind my curtains. Inside the shadow by my bed. I desperately fumble with the light. Not fast enough. Not fast enough.
I breathed heavily under the glow of the light. I hadn't been so thoroughly disturbed by a dream in some time. My chest heaved.
I rise and began to pace the room, thinking of the dream, rationalizing it. In a fit of madness, I transcribe it, desperately writing out bits and pieces on my phone:
"A deep slice into a shoulder.
Cuts cuts cuts.
Toilet belching up body parts.
The hypnagogic room.
Back basement room in which the beast lives.
Black shining floor.
In a hotel.
What's around the corner?
The beast could come in the room from the window door or shadow by the bed.
Every time a bit of the mystery is solved a white beam light appears like boom and extends into the sky.
Can't die but can feel pain and have body parts gone.
Dirty Y2K J-horror.
Distorted crowd noise surrounding consuming.
The beast has a soft vibrating black outline.
Dream or nightmare?"
This, after some thought, coalesced into a story, the coherency of which, intrinsically, is limited.
And you read this story. Only this time, it's not real.
Movies for Guys!
"I think there's something wrong with me," Terry mumbled groggily. He was lying in bed, his sheets failing to cover much of his body.
"Terry, there's nothing wrong with you," Kamala was sitting on the other side of the bed, her back to Terry.
"No, Kamala, I'm serious," Terry sat up, running his hand through his hair. "All of this — it's all too serene."
"What's wrong with serenity?" Kamala said dryly.
"Well, nothing, but -!"
"Well, then, there you go. There's nothing wrong with you."
"I mean, there's something nagging me," Terry said. "It's as if there's something in the back of my mind, but I can't identify it. Something itches, but I don't know how — or where, I guess — to scratch it."
"There's always something nagging you, Terry," Kamala began rummaging around the clothes lining the floor, trying to find a shirt. "That doesn't mean there's something wrong. It just means you forgot something. You'll remember it soon enough. Or you won't. And the world will continue to turn."
"N-no, I-let me try again. It's like I don't belong here."
Kamala gave him a look.
"The door is right there, Terry," she said flatly.
"No, Kamala. My memories all feel fuzzy. Like I get where I am, and what I'm supposed to be doing here, but not how I got here, or why."
"Terry, as we get older, we forget things. We begin to question things. That's the way it is. Besides, this is the fourth way you've tried to explain how something's wrong now. There's nothing wrong with you. It's all in your head."
"But Kamala. I don't even know...why I love you."
She frowned for a moment, but smiled suddenly, as if having just successfully pranked him.
"That's how love works. You can't explain it."
The world receded.
He wears size 6 slippers - the same size as his age. He paces about on a blue carpet, the mahogany floor creaking a little beneath each step. The carpet has thin, light blue recesses crisscrossing it, like the grid of a city map. A depressed afternoon light streams in through two windows beside him, a bookshelf pressed against the wall between them. His hands sway awkwardly at his sides, only rising or falling when he breaks out into a kind of dance, its steps known only to him, every so often. He circles fluffy blue pillows stacked atop one another. Slight, inaudible whispers will occasionally break through his teeth, fleeing no further than his lips, barely more than a breath bent out of shape. He quiets himself every time he notices. He refuses to break the illusion.
His eyes flit about constantly, though he doesn't notice. Of course, nobody ever does. Our eyes move about thousands of times within each second, taking in the world around us. His eyes do the same, only he rejects the world, his room, his bookshelf, his carpet, the light, his floors, his whispers, his breaths. He is elsewhere. With a friend, his face burning with embarrassment. Maddeningly, he can't quite identify what had mortified him so deeply. She smiles at him. He knows the details of her face are distinct: unique and still beautiful. But specific details escape him, her face diving in and out of his memory as if afraid to confront it. She reaches out to him and begins to say something.
The world recedes.
He woke up in her arms. He could feel her heartbeat: slow, measured. He turned. She smiled at him.
Terry and Kamala were kissing. They said nothing; they barely even moved. They just kissed. Terry's mind began to wander, which he thought was odd. Shouldn't he be focused on this? On Kamala? She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever met. Though, he couldn't remember very many other women. Or people, for that matter.
These thoughts - awkward, seditious, interrupting their kisses - refused to go away. There was a large gap in Terry's memory. He could only recall brief glimpses of moments that occurred earlier than three years ago. Maybe an image, but nothing cogent. But that was alright. A key element of love, he thought, was image. He could always picture the people he loved with a perfect clarity in his mind. It might be fleeting, but for a moment, he could see them perfectly. And that's what mattered, he supposed.
But even the last three years were hazy for him. This troubled him more. He wasn't even really sure how he'd gotten here - the back of a limo, deep purple neon lights cutting through their chests and into pleather seats.
What are they doing? Are they on a date? What is a date? Is it just a platonic hang-out, only without the platonic part? Is there an overtly sexual undertone? What else could possibly separate it from a platonic hang-out? What else could be the goal of a date, other than sex? Isn't that what everything inevitably collapses to? Does everything have a sexual undertone?
Friends wither away as time passes. Maybe you meet your best friends in your hometown, but it's more probable that you don't. So you go to college, and make better friends, and you stay friends, and maybe you like one enough to stay with them for prolonged periods of time, so you get married, and maybe have kids, but by that point, all your college friends have moved away and you probably don't talk outside of, like, commenting on a Facebook post, and you're forced to make new friends. And so you make friends with co-workers, or other parents of kids who attend school with your children, but in all likelihood those people suck, and since you can't really be friends with your kids, you're essentially left with just the one person you married until one of you dies and then you're all alone again. So, if friends are basically transitory, the only genuine interactions are with one's partner. Everything collapses back to sex.
Terry wondered if other people thought about these things while kissing girls.
"Terry?" Kamala said, squinting at him. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah, fine," he smiled. "Just, uh, drifted off." He paused for a moment.
"How did we meet?" He could see his reflection stretched awkwardly around the fishbowl of her eyes.
"Love at first sight. I remember it like yesterday." She blinked, her eyelashes nearly long enough to brush against her notably prominent cheekbones.
"Do you remember our first kiss?"
"What is this, a quiz?" She laughed. His lips - unnaturally large for a man - didn't part. She quieted.
"Of course I do. Don't you?"
"Well…what was your memory of it? Like, what was it like?"
"All first kisses are awkward. The whole point is just to open the doorway to another kiss. It gets better as it goes on.
"Alright." He said this flatly, feigning annoyance to mask the real annoyance he felt. He hates when interactions collapse like this, when he's unsure of how to respond, his partner having beaten him in some imagined contest of rhetorical prowess. Conversation ought not be a fight, he thought.
Terry wondered many things. And this troubled him, given that he seemed to be married to Kamala. And he couldn't even remember how they started dating.
The world receded.
At 6 years old, his weekday routine is nothing particularly special. His mother drops him at school; he steps from her brand new, 2010 Volvo - apparently the safest car on the road - and walks through the glass doors of his school, hobbled by the weight of a backpack with only one strap on his shoulder; he turns right, walks some ways, but not too far - aging into first grade comes with privileges - and deposits his bag in a narrow wooden locker; he enters a classroom, where most of his classmates are already relaxing, and sits with his friends, simultaneously excited and reluctant to be lectured on the merits of Dwyane Wade (yes, he does play for the loathsome Miami Heat; but, on the other hand, he's very cool).
"Why does your skin look like poop?" Upon entering this new school, he was assigned a "buddy," to show him around and introduce him to people. This is his "buddy."
He's unsure of how to answer. His "buddy" pushes him, lightly, then a little harder. It begins to hurt.
Tears formed at the bottom of his eyelid, beginning to build nearly to the point of overflow, teetering on the edge, only held back by his eyelashes. His eyelashes were long, he knew. They came from his mother. They blurred his vision, the brown of his skin mixed with the muted blue of the classroom's carpet. He looks up, other students' outlines peering back at him. Across the room he sees a friend - the friend - staring at him. She turns back to her friends, laughing. Leaving him alone.
His vision is still blurred hours later, as he steps into his mother's car. There are some bruises on his chest, beneath his shirt now. He can't see much of anything on the drive home.
"The world is a difficult place, I know." His mother is speaking distantly. "And you spend so much time in your room you don't see any of it. I love that you imagine worlds, create new ones...I don't want you to stop that. I don't think most kids do that the way you do. But you can't just give up, leave this world. Keep going. This world will be better."
The world recedes.
He stood next to her, smoking outside a movie theater.
"Don't you miss when we were kids, Kamala?" Terry squinted through the smoke, his eyes stinging just a little.
"What?" Her eyes drooped sleepily.
"I mean, nobody ever said stupid, empty, meaningless shit just to fill the air. People just spoke. And it was stupid, but it was honest."
"I'm not sure that honesty is really a good thing, Terry. People would be so much happier if we just...lied sometimes. You know? If it isn't said, then maybe it isn't real."
Smoke is all that filled the air between them for a moment.
"Do you ever fear that one day, you'll wake up in your bed, just as you were when you went to sleep ten years ago, and the last ten years of your life have been a dream? All of this time spent, work done, relationships created...gone? Just imagined?"
"Not really. The fearing part, I mean. I wholly expect to wake up, one day, in some other time, some other plane. But I don't fear it."
"I mean, I think I'd change some things, for one. But ultimately, I'd forget the dream anyway, right? It wouldn't matter."
It was subtle, but they were at an impasse. They'd had disagreements, but this one, for whatever reason, felt more fundamental to Terry. And subtly, he began to think again.
He turned to her, thoughts churning about in his head, and looked, peering at her in a way he never had before. Suddenly, he knew what he'd been feeling for her. It was fear.
Terry loved her - or, at the very least, felt deeply for her - as intensely as any promiscuous 20-something loves their eventual wife. But those 20-somethings feel infatuation, not love. Infatuation means that their passion overwhelms their intelligence; flaws become elided by beauty. Love comes later: love implies embracing those flaws, a necessary product of newfound dependence on another. And certainly, Terry was dependent upon Kamala. But he was more dependent upon the idea of her, upon her existence. He was more scared than happy.
Maybe that was fine.
The world receded.
The television has evolved. Once, it fizzled angrily as it awoke, annoyed at being inconvenienced. Now it placidly slips into life, screen glowing warmly in embrace of the audience. He sits before his TV, bare ankles resting awkwardly atop one another, knees folded, brushing against the carpet. His head barely reaches over the cushions on the couch behind him. His eyes are glazed over, though this is deceiving: really, he is fully rapt, absorbed entirely by the television.
In his room, he writhes on his pillows, clutching at his stomach, eyes shut, seeing men with guns firing at him stomp forward, grimacing menacingly. His eyes dart about. There: light and swords and lasers and death. There: passion and romance and politics and life. There: all around him - love. Monogamous, eternal, passionate, tragic. Love.
The world recedes.
They were walking along a river now. A dog chased a butterfly on the grass. A group of children were being led along by a stern looking woman. The river crashed softly against the rocks barring it from the grass. It was all very serene.
He couldn't stop thinking about Kamala. He always thought it was weird, when people talked about "love at first sight." He didn't think that existed. A crush? Sure. But love? No. Love was something much more intense than that. It wasn't something that could be built through a look. "Love" in one look was sociopathy, not love. And yet, he thought he loved Kamala. Even though he didn't remember meeting her. Even though he was scared.
Suddenly, he froze, as if possessed by a divine force. The trees seemed to stretch, bearing down on him. He stumbled backwards. Kamala turned to him, a look of slight confusion on her face. Behind her, small blips of light appeared in the sky, swelling rapidly. The light began to overtake the world around him, consuming all in its path. The sky became a searing white light glaring down at them. Then came the river, its waves turning to a pristine white sheet. Then the light began to crawl onto the grass, swallowing both blissful bystanders and warped trees alike. Just looking at the light hurt his eyes; he could barely see anything. But he could still see Kamala, smiling at him like nothing had changed. She was there, right in front of him, beckoning him forward. The world was receding for the final time.
He hugged her. She hugged him. He felt that he should cry. But as the hug ended, he did not reach out desperately, trying to clasp her hands in his, as he'd done so many times before. He let her go. He closed his eyes. He was forgetting what Kamala looked like already.
The boy lies in his room again, awake, but dreaming. Of another world.