Wendyl’s Flight

The distant darkening signaled its presence. The swampy, humid summer air threatened to break all day, and the sun sweltered the Morgans like a heavy coat. The field was ready, and they got few days like this to harvest in peace. Perhaps no surprise, then, when the clouds gathered from the distant, impassable mountains. When Ivy’s mother pointed to those giant, dim hills in the distance, she spoke of a land of huge cities and great creatures. Forces pulled and pushed, and the Earth took their shape. She’d told Ivy that the summer was a giant bird flying on the clouds of rain and warming other lands with its eyes, which were hot as suns.

So, when Ivy saw the dark clouds, she called out its name: “Wendyl!” Her parents and her brother looked up when she spoke. They followed her gaze to the unfurling storm incoming.

Her mother shouldered her bag of carrots and ushered the children toward the Secure Area. Other groups began running as well. In the times of the giants, it was rarely cleared to harvest. Even the calmest days were suspect. And people said Wendyl was the quickest and could vaporize with a look. Ivy thought she was too old for such silly stories, however. They were all afraid and stupid; she was neither of those things.

And neither was Reggie, the boy she’d talk to in the dark, each through the vents near their beds. You weren’t supposed to talk during lights out—that’s when the Grumble might hear. But she and Reggie could hear each other even at a whisper. She’d found one of the red beets. He’d said that, even if Wendyl were real, it wouldn’t hurt anyone with the correct root.

She gazed back at the onrushing clouds. Giant lightning strikes burrowed into the ground, racing closer. The blue-white electric veins struck, and she remembered her father. He was having trouble keeping pace with the rest of them, carrying his prized invention—the Potato Finder Extraordinaire, Mach III, which could easily pull spuds from the ground with its powerful claws. Now, he seemed to be tripping over it. They had wandered farther than most single families were advised to go. They had to make up that ground quickly. Most of the other foragers had already made it back inside the fence.

Ivy sprinted back toward the oncoming cloud, back to where her dad struggled. She held up the trouble end, and the two of them ran at a full spring. Giant cracks of thunder sieged her ears, and the oncoming electricity made her arm hair stand on end.

Only a brief patch of grass separated the security fence and the protection bunkers. Her mother and brother disappeared behind the door safely. As they neared, Ivy heard a crack of thunder just behind her. The wind was a constant, high whistle. Old folks said it was what trains used to sound like. The abrupt blast knocked her down. Her dad, racing toward the door himself, didn’t notice for a second. In that time, Ivy remembered the beet she held. She stood and turned around, wanting to see the cloud.

The rolling, gray mass raced toward her. Some of the crops looked to have caught fire after being struck by lightning—little midnight flames against a blackened sky. She gripped the beet and watched the cloud. The dark rolls moved overhead, and then a bright, electric blue fin unfurled from inside. The cloud seemed to part for its girth. She saw the crackling fin connected to an immense body coursing with electricity. The camp had old posters of cityscapes shot at night from above—coursing electric beams in the dark that looked similar to the lightning moving through the cloud-sized creature’s flank. Then, right above her, the giant, beaked head poked through the storm. Its mouth crackled with lightning, and its eyes seemed to light up the whole area. She felt their heat right on her; she clutched the beet in her hand; she stood her ground.

Another blast of thunder appeared to come right from the beast’s mouth, and quick as the howling wind it stirred, the Wendyl was over the shelter and away. Trails of crackling lightning flowed in its wake. She thought she saw a blue, swishing tail—the color and speckled pattern of the milky way on a clear night—before she was yanked backward by her father, wrapping her in his arms and racing toward the door. She saw the door approaching, but in her mind, she pictured those giant eyes, staring. Knowing. She looked down at her hand and saw it covered in beet pulp. Her hair didn’t need electricity to stand on end.

In Which Benedict Overanalyzes Street Signs

When you go nowhere, you can look at the same yellow caution sign for as long as you live. One near my parents’ former house—former house one of five, but I’m the only one counting—was already pale and decaying when I was a kid. Beaten and pock-marked, the withered sign told, originally, that the road was a dead end. The road wasn’t the only thing that was.

Another sign I watched slowly fade. This one was near the train tracks where my wife and I’s former house—house one of one, but I’m the only one counting. There had been another old, deadening sign like the one by my folks’ house. But right before my kid was born—the one who doesn’t come around the current house (bachelor house number three of…who knows?)—a driver, out of control on winter ice, careened into the sign and came to a stop on the tracks. The driver stumbled out in a booze haze before the train got both his car and the old RR sign he’d taken out. I’m not sure what happened to the driver after that, but the sign was resurrected in a vibrant, electric, old-wives-tales caution yellow. It was as new as our son was, and as one grew up, the other gathered character. First was the red sticker with a cartoon image of Patrick Swayze that read “Pure Swayze.” The red sticker slowly molted around its edges for a year and a half before being ripped off by an anonymous passer-by. The rectangular glue ghost of the sticker remained for far longer than the sticker itself. Gathering grime and dirt from the remnants of frozen ice and kicked-up sand, it darkened until slowly fading away.

Before the glue ghost was gone, another anonymous passer-by took a bat to the upper left corner, dog-earing the sign for the rest of its uprightness. The sign outlasted the railway, which stopped running right around when my kid started elementary school—coinciding with the disillusionment of his mother and father. But we’re here to talk about decrepit pieces of public works, not decrepit people falling away and being consumed by the dirt, so I digress.

The area accumulated a lot of dirt, and the dirt kicked up and punched slight little holes into the sign. The tiny slights and aggrievements, sometimes no larger than a grain of sand, came to cover the whole sign; each little indentation pushed away some of that electric yellow. Around the time I noticed that it had faded into the yellow of my childhood, my own kid rode by this sign on his bike—the one his mother and father fought about buying. I’d gone and gotten it as a surprise, and now the bike kicked little bits of gravel toward that sign, too. But perhaps I am making too much of the word “time.” For in a still space, over so many years, all times become the same. These tiny quantum moments of staring up at the ceiling, wondering if I was in a house of strangers, or squinting against a bright, yellow, inevitable sun while mowing the grass, all of those moments (laughing at a dropped quart of milk, cursing at a spilled pitcher of water) just become “the time at the house.” Married house one of one. Life had a large section before—childhood, school, parents, moving, parents’ addictions, college, etc. Then there is the courtship, another giant well of memories compressed into a neutron star barely shining. And so with that house. There was the marriage, then there wasn’t.

A couple years before everyone moved out, moved on, and turned off the switch, someone graffiti’d a red penis onto the sign, enveloping the place where the glue ghost used to be. This was eventually covered with a splash of white paint, which then had a word written in the space—but I couldn’t read the font.

Colors in still places can stay there a long time—the sun certainly has. I find that I am unsure of which way to measure time. Is it great bouts of stillness that must be measured in continental drift, or the lifetimes of moths and ants—whole existences in an instant? I was the last one to leave the house, maybe the last one to see that sign. And I went far away from it. If you measure in states, in years old, in addresses former and current, you can see many changes—most especially if you measure in my weight. But now, here, I can look out over another yellow sign. I drive by it to the same kind of job, or to a similar store where I still buy the same brand of rotini. So everything changes, and yet nothing moves. Should I have ever left that dead-end road?

Simon Breaks the Fourth Wall (But Do I?)

Simon broke the fourth wall by asking his narrator what he was doing.

“Why does this start with me in the bathroom?” He asked. I didn’t have a great answer for that. “I’ve been done for a while now. Can I get up?”

“It’s a free country,” I tell him.

“Is it?”

He’s right; I could make it not so. I could also wonder how free any of us are in the systems we consider “free.” But that’s being pedantic. He’s not talking about that. He is asking if this is some kind of dystopic nightmare-scape. Or, is it some kind of escapist fantasy? Is there anything between the two?

“Yes, it is,” I tell him.

“Then I’m getting up,” Simon pulls up his pants and exits the stall. A couple of other men are washing their hands. They’re taking far too long. One of them takes out a small pack from his pocket and begins preparing a toothbrush. The man begins brushing while Simon washes his hands. The other stranger does not begin brushing his teeth, but instead watches Simon intently while Simon dries his hands.

“Why are you filling this world with creeps?” He asks.

“I’m writing this at night. It’s creepy.” I decide to tell him the truth. What could it hurt?

“It’s not creepy to brush your teeth,” the man brushing his teeth says. However, he spoke through a garbled mouth full of toothpaste with the toothbrush still inside his mouth, so his speech was unintelligible.

“What did he say?” Simon asks, looking in my direction.

“He said ‘it’s not creepy to brush your teeth,’” I tell him. Simon scoffs. After enough times of having his hand spat on in the bathroom by people doing just this, it wasn’t only creepy to him, it was grotesque. Shivers pervaded his body when he heard the scrubbing, scraping sounds.

“Hey, don’t give away all my shit,” Simon says, exiting the bathroom.

“They can’t hear me,” I tell him.

“Yeah, but they can,” Simon waves his arms around. The people walking down the hallway didn’t know what he was talking about. But I did. He was talking about you.

“Don’t tell them!” Simon runs his fingers through his hair rapidly. It was supposed to be a regular day. However, on the way back to his desk, Simon begins to ponder.

“Is being in a story like being in a dream? Can I do anything that I want?” He asked. “Can I fly?”

Simon jumped, another person down the hallway turned at the noise when he landed back on the ground.

“You can’t. You’re in it.”

“Well, that’s a raw deal.”

“It’s not that bad. I already made you a white guy. How much easier do you want it?”

“You could have made me taller.”

“I also could have made you shorter.”

Also, of note, Simon’s 5’10’’. He’s taller than I am. Give me a break.

“Well, if it’s a story, what is supposed to happen?”

I ponder whether to debate the accuracy of his statement. Are things supposed to happen in stories? I mean, they usually do. But is that the point?

“All I’m saying is,” Simon speaks this as he walks by others working at his shared workspace. It is open concept, and everyone is buried in their computers. Some of them are red-eyed from long nights or early mornings while slogging through another endless gigging economy day. “If you haven’t given me the ability to do what I want, you still have that ability. Why is this what’s happening? That’s a lack of imagination.”

“You have something better in mind?”

“Don’t you?”

I think about it. The ground begins to shake. It’s California, so this is noted, people look out the window, but not much else.

“Holy fuck,” Simon says. Outside the window it was snowing. A far more radical occurrence than a little bit of light shaking. Others in the shared workspace leap up and run outside, delighted. Simon follows them outside, but he is one of the last ones. He gives me a knowing look. I’d shrug if he could see me.

Outside, people are all gazing up at the suddenly overcast sky. Snowflakes fall around them, although they immediately evaporate upon hitting the warm sidewalk. Simon doesn’t look particularly impressed. I decide that he starts to float.

“Woah, shit,” Simon begins to rise into the air. The others see him. They begin to point. It takes Simon a few attempts to learn how to maneuver in space. It’s kind of like swimming. It’s just harder to grab onto the fabric of air in order to move yourself around.

“Go wherever you want,” I tell him. Simon gives me a nod and takes off. He’s happy to be away from my presence and even happier to be in the air. I could follow him. But I decide to let him go. The snowstorm stops pretty quickly and the others head back inside. However, all across L.A. that day, there was something streaking across the sky. Not a bird, not a plane, but a fictional character in his own lucid story. But I’ll let him tell you about it.

The Invention

In a small, cramped room, surrounded by useless, discarded spare parts, Fiona completed The Invention. It didn’t look like the original models. It didn’t even quite work the way she had intended, but it worked. Right as it jumped to life, rattling on the table, knocking off delicate tools and extra bolts, she saw that it was working correctly. It was lightweight, but durable. She discovered she could use it while walking, while performing other chores, even while driving. It could follow her anywhere. It was several times smaller and more efficient than anything else that had come before it. Had she been a Greek, she would have run through the town, shouting out a woman’s name.

She called a hotline—one she had seen long time ago for such moments—and was put on hold for 45 minutes. The smooth jazz was distorted over the phone, often cutting out or overloading whatever small speaker was being used to transmit the sound. It was like listening to music while drowning. Eventually, she hung up the phone without success.

She took The Invention over to her friends. They struggled to remember who she was. “Did we have a class together?” “Oh, right, we did both work there. Wow, it’s been years!” “Wow, you’ve changed so much!” They would be happy, bemused, unsure who was reentering their lives unannounced. While asking about what she had been doing, Fiona would show them The Invention. Some were impressed at first—they thought it looked cool. They thought it was interesting; they liked the idea that she had been working on something. Some of them thought she had died, or gone missing, or joined a cult. But when she started up the machine, they gave confused looks. As Fiona’s eyes would light up, imploring them to look “here!” and “here!” and “here!” while showing various ways of using The Invention, they would squint, trying to see what she saw. Inevitably, however, they did not.

“I’m just not sure what it’s for,” they told her. “I like it, but I just don’t see myself using it.” “It’s very well made, but I don’t know what it is.” They would show her to their door, smiling, saying they should get together again, knowing that it would not happen.

Fiona waited outside large corporations and science labs. She would follow people she deemed important toward the door, trying to quickly show them all of the improved features in The Invention. They all quickened their paces, and soon learned not to make eye contact with the woman by the front door.

Crafting The Invention had taken all of her time, all of her skills. When no one bought it, she found it difficult to find another position. People had aged, the world had moved on. Not only were they uninterested in The Invention, but in her as well. Notices piled up, unopened, in her darkening house. The phone that never rang shut off. The lights that she had not used while tucked away into her workshop now could not turn on at all. But in the gloomy house, The Invention continued to perform. She would watch it in the dark, still taking glee from the smooth, efficient motions it went through. Its plastic shell gleamed, never seeming to take on any dirt.

Authorities found Fiona dead inside that house. She was on a ratty couch, surrounded by boxes of old fast food. But The Invention was still whirring. She hadn’t turned it off before passing away. And even after six days, which was how long the coroner determined that she had been deceased, it continued to run. An investigator at the scene took an interest in the device. He watched it work at his desk, thinking there could be some real use here. He showed it to a cousin of his with connections to Silicon Valley. Two years later, there are nine million of them now out in the world, and many more still to come.

Groveville’s Truth

If you drive through Groveville, the sign will say take a left to get to a gas station. But that isn’t correct. The sign leads to a place where a station used to be. The skeleton remains, baking in the desert sun. There are a few pedestrians, and, if they are inclined to speak to you, they may tell you to get something to eat at Big Mama’s Diner. It’s on Elm Street. But if you go to Elm Street, you won’t find a diner there. Not even a sign. There is a Subway, though. And a new Starbucks.

If you do manage to find one of the bars, patrons might say that Groveville is known for its local paper, the Groveville Groveler. They will assure you that it is available at just about every corner in the town, and that it even has countywide distribution. However, every corner is barren. Even the couple of old New York Times stands are empty and covered in dust, gum, and drawings. Don’t try to tell them that, though. They’ll say you’re crazy. They’ll say that they’ve got every issue back home. They’ll say they were just reading it the other day. You must be crazy.

In the center of town there is a large construction site. The locals will say it is a high rise. The workers will say it is a Rite Aid. The foreman doesn’t come around, so you can’t ask him. The only thing that it clearly is is a large site of silent machinery, all waiting to be told to go.

Leaving town, the sign will say take a right to merge onto highway 80. Of course, you would already know that isn’t true. You were just on highway 10. You got into town on that road. However, any direction you receive from someone in town will reference getting on I-80 to travel to the nearest town. Others think the people of Groveville can’t read. How could they, being so consistently wrong about the things in their neighborhood? But others contend that Groveville has constructed its own language, its own meaning, and any attempt to convince the people of Groveville that what they have accepted isn’t true is pointless. After all, no one ever travels out of Groveville. If you ask them why, they will say it is because the war already happened. They are afraid of all of the jackals out there in the night, waiting to tear them to pieces.

Mirror Worlds

In a world made of mirrors, everything looks like you. Everywhere it is your face; in every angle you are the center. A mammoth line of potential yous stretch out like all the possible worlds that could ever exist. But you all blink at the same time. This ancient hallway is really only a tiny room. The endless corridor is a solid trap. Just ahead there is a vast world you can look upon but never touch. When you try, there is your own hand. And there it is again, continually pressing you back, making you view it all through a tomb that only looks like infinity. And when you blink, they all blink at the same time.

It’s a very special exhibit,  a very special experience. The way is paved for you, and all you have to do is step inside. What you see is what others see.

A faint noise might be something else, somewhere else. But it is lost in the view. For how can you look away when you are always at your own eyes? Is there room for anything else? Will there be any room allowed for anything else? There is only a door that doesn’t open—a hinge that cannot be seen.

 

Stationary Station

The trains leaving for Brodericktown always run on time. For everyone else. The famous lines, of which stories had been written about their reliability, are clogged with stalled cars on the platform. All the technicians stand around, unable to answer why they just won’t run. A raving man on the platform is claiming the trains have lost the will to live, like a bad plot device. The rest of us are all on these benches—slouched shoulders, hands on our bags, briefcases, backpacks, staring longingly at the engine. Well, the rest might be. I am fine with the prospect of not arriving at my destination. The limbo of a station doesn’t sound that bad.

Perhaps somebody will walk up and ask if I am skilled with a table saw. They might be working on a shed down the road, and would explain that they needed my help. I could walk down there, in the bright midday sun, and spend the day running their pencil lines through the blade. Afterward, someone would open a cooler of cheap beer, and we would discuss, in unison, how nobody knew how to run anything, how everyone in charge was an idiot, how all the answers are so simple, but everyone is just too stupid. Then we would forget these solutions to the world’s problems as the sun went down, and the frogs would begin to chirp as we said our goodbyes. I would get a motel room from a suspicious clerk, wary of strangers, and plan to meet them at the sight tomorrow. A new life suddenly in front of me, I might call myself Rudolpho to embrace the change.

There was a hoot from the engine that made us all jump. An official told us we should begin boarding. The train was fixed. Most of the others sighed in relief, picked up their things, and shuffled toward the cars. The raving man would not be satiated, however, repeating that it was not safe, that the train did not want to live. A few employees gathered around him, impassive to his impassioned pleas directed at their obstinate faces. I lagged behind, bag slung over my shoulder, hoping to make last minute eye contact with a day laborer who would call me Rudolpho, but in the end I walked into the car all the same, still the same person.

Muckraker

The mud seemed thin enough to cross. On the shore, it looked daunting. But we were told by everyone around that if we took it one step at a time, we would reach the other side. Now, in the muck, I can’t remember what was supposed to be on the other side. But I imagine it was great. Why else would I be crossing this bog?

I wore all of my clothes, which seemed like a stupid decision as soon as I’d taken the first steps, and the soggy, sticky, membranous liquid seeped through my shoes. These shoes were designed for land conditions, not amphibious excursions. My pants were of heartier stuff, and did not give way immediately. However, eventually my entire bottom half became consumed, and then I had trouble moving.

I stopped to survey the land. Aside from a few pieces of wooded flotsam in the bog, the grey sky and grey water seemed inseparable, as if I were trapped inside some giant grey room, uniform, without end. I lost faith in the direction I was facing. Had I strayed from the path? Was I still approaching the other shore? Had I turned around, unbeknownst, and begun to travel back? Had I passed that branch before? I thought I might have. But there were so many branches that I had been near and passed, maybe I was the one mistaken.

I decided that I was, in fact, moving in the right direction. As I continued, the mud continued to rise. As it took over my torso, I moved slower and slower. All of my joints seemed to be gearing down, like the muck had entered my very marrow. Still, it was an indication that I was headed in the right direction. Any moment now, I should be able to see the other side.

The mud rose up over my neck, then hit the underside of my chin. I cocked my head skyward, towards the uniform grey ceiling. Even at its deepest point, I knew of others that had made the journey. Maybe all I had to do was take a deep breath and make it through. A little bit of submersion, then the mud would begin to recede. I would be past the halfway mark.

Weighed down by these dirty, clinging clothes, I took a deep breath and lowered my head into the mud. Pressing forward toward the moment I knew was coming, even as I felt the mud close over the top of my head, I knew it would recede. It was just a matter of when. Until then, I would hold my breath.

Decorum

I want to ask you about the time you most felt like yourself. But we don’t do that. So instead, I just say “good morning.” You reply with the same. This whole giant building is built on this trade. Because if we really stopped to talk, the whole day would be gone. We can’t talk about how afraid we both are that we’ll die and leave nothing behind—we’re afraid that this equation of thoughts, words, physical matter, experiences, equals nothing but an urn or a tombstone. You hit the world like a drop of water, then you evaporate, like you were never there. But we can’t say these things. So instead we say “Mondays, right?” or “looks like it might rain tomorrow.”

The air crackles with static from the dryness of things that will always go unsaid. Because it’s expected we all remain polite strangers, and pull our own hair out in a bathroom, alone. Ask anyone: they’re all doing fine, great! Most often, though, we’re not great, or good, just liars.

There is a dread that I feel when I am behind the wheel. It is putting that mask on. Although it exists both in the tall offices, where we are all dressed the same, and at a party, where I still haven’t heard whatever password or permission granted I am waiting for in order to say anything that exists beneath the surface. Maybe that prevents our little ships of state from being swallowed by other’s oceans. Maybe there is a quick limit on the amount of other people’s souls we can bear. Maybe that’s all true. But still, you and I, we can probably do a little better than this.

Frank’s Stories

Frank was the funniest person I knew. So when he killed someone, it came as a surprise. Our friend group called each other, wondering how to sort this into our organization of the universe. He had called Travis from jail after his arrest. Frank began the call saying “you are not going to believe what just happened.” And we didn’t.

He told us he was standing at the pier, having a drink with someone we didn’t know. According to his story, he slapped the man on the back after a good joke, and the man fell into the water. Since they were both drunk, Frank laughed at him being in the water, and the man couldn’t swim to shore. Frank didn’t notice the second part until it was too late. According to police, who wouldn’t release him on bail, Frank followed this person away from the bar, berating them the whole way until a fight broke out. They claimed the man was beaten enough to have been knocked out, then tossed into the ocean by Frank. It was the Subaru all over again.

Travis had a Subaru that Frank borrowed. After, Frank said it hit a pothole and the wheel just came off. The mechanic suggested the car would have had to go 90 miles per hour, over a jump, to sustain the particular kind of damage it did. Frank just said it was funny. But he said everything was funny. Normally, when he said it, we agreed with him. Especially if he said it, in fact. Him being funny and all.

Frank told us his part of the story then, and now, and each time it was funny. But there was still somebody dead. And regardless of the story, Frank had pushed him in one way or the other. So somebody, luckily not us, was going to have to decide which version of the story was correct. We knew which one we hoped for, but not which one we believed.