Debatable Reunion

A myriad of familiar faces crisscrossed Derek as he tried to cross the party. Everyone had a phone to put in someone’s face. Everyone had something they were looking to hide behind. If you look at this, you won’t have to look at me.

Derek realized he was being judgmental. But there was nothing to be done about that. It was who he was. It encapsulated his gait, his tight clothes, and his closely trimmed hair and beard. He knew he could tell what everyone was thinking. That hadn’t atrophied in the time away. While they had been separated, everyone was an echo across technological chasms. He’d remained in contact with some of them via phones and chats. But he couldn’t get as sharp a bead on them. Not seeing them offset his natural leg-up. Without it, he felt exposed. All interaction was a contest in their group, and with his chief weapon down, Derek had taken too many L’s for his liking.

It twisted his mind, seeing Barry speaking, knowing how Barry spun his words around when they spoke via Skype. Lena had dragged him with a master’s use of logical fallacies. She could turn any yes into a no. Karen only believed things she learned firsthand from primary sources. So she could never be debated on anything but her own terms. None of them could say anything without offending the other, so they drank and sat in front of the TV playing trivia games on it.

Lewis didn’t get drunk, so he was back at the corner of the room, typing his answers without saying much. Lewis’s sobriety was his weapon. If Derek was going to score points against him, it would have to be before he got too drunk. Back when he was in middle school, Lewis sent notes to each class member asking them to go out with him. That brute, cold, capitalist numbers game continued to instruct his social interactions. Not drinking tilted the room in his favor in the contest of discussion.

Natasha was the easiest comedian and dominated any game revolving around cleverness. Even if she often had a shallow point, or no point at all, it was hard to argue while laughing.

Lena and Barry finally entered the ring first. In what began as a statement regarding the free speech of alt-right protesters, Barry found himself with bad allies, and Lena beat him into a pulp, until he had to concede that not only should they not be allowed to speak, but that the mandatory minimum for punishment should be 15 years. Natasha briefly asked if we were verging on fascism, but she said it in a funny anecdote so as not to throw all of them into despair. A true jester. Lewis watched the debate but said nothing. People weren’t drunk enough yet. Derek could tell what he was thinking. He tried to pounce on Lewis early—to score some points before it was too late—but Karen swooped in to save him, bouncing back to a comment Barry had just made without citing a primary source. When Barry couldn’t remember where he’d heard it, he was finished. Technical knockout.

After another round of games, Derek headed outside. The driveway was empty. All of the cars were parked on the street. The wet ground and overcast sky belied a rainstorm that had passed. He lit up a joint and smoked it on the stoop. The highway was near enough for the cars going by the to sound like ocean waves. Halfway down his smoke, Natasha sat down near him. He offered it to her.

“If Lewis sees this, we’re done,” she said while taking a drag.

“He’ll already come at me for earlier,” Derek said.

They smoked in silence for a moment. More waves crested.

“Do you think we should give it another try?” Derek asked.

“You’ve just been lonely.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“We all were. Now we’re here.”

“Is that any better?”

“Does it feel better?”

“Is that one of your jokes?”

“Shouldn’t you already know what I’m thinking?”

“I think my own head is too loud for that right now. I can’t hear anyone else.”

“What’s it saying so loudly?”

“That trip we took to Salem. To see all the witch stuff.”

“Hm. What a hokey place.”

“Yeah. But it was autumn. It was chilly. The drive was long. The mixes were good.”

“The ‘Getting a Little Blue” list especially.”

“Yeah.”

“Well…what about it?”

“It was, I think, when I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been. That’s what’s been so loud.”

Natasha nodded, and they both stared down the driveway.

“You ever think that?” Derek asked.

Natasha shook her head. “You ask me, none of us like each other. We’re trapped together like a black hole. So much time, so much familiarity, so much resentment. We’ve all become a singularity. It’s all part of the same thing.”

“All of it?”

“All of it. I think I might move to Santa Fe. It sounds like a place with a lot of space.”

“I can’t imagine wanting more space.”

“I didn’t know I wanted it until I got it.”

“Ah.” More waves crashed on the cement just beyond the line of pines. The rain began to drizzle again. “That one of your jokes? Santa Fe?”

“Read my mind and tell me.”

The Scream Room

“Welcome to your Scream Room. You have paid for a three-minute session. When the session is about to end, the lights will flicker, and the door will open. Before then, all your words and actions are sound proofed and completely anonymous. Once the door opens, we will be able to hear you. Your session begins now.”

The lights turned red, and Loretta began to scream. She pulled at her hair; she punched the cushioned walls. She kicked at the ground with her feet. She called out the names of everyone she wanted to call a motherfucker. Her conscious brain sank away, and a swell, a wave filled her. Her body disappeared; her words ceased to be words. The padding in the room ate up her sound, but she felt her vocal cords shredding against her cries, the foam gathering at the corners of her mouth, and the burns and abrasions building on her hands. Her arms and legs ached as they continued to thrash. She ceased being Loretta. She ceased being angry at a person. The screaming became for and about the room. It was prayer. The only way to speak to God was to curse It.

Then the red lights blinked Loretta ceased moving. She stopped screaming and sobbed silently on the floor for a few seconds before the door popped open.  General office bustle from the complex filled her ears. She got up; her head vibrated with a halo of adrenaline.

“Thank you for choosing the Scream Room. Please be sure to like and share your experience. Have a great and pleasant day.”

Loretta picked up her phone from the doorway. She began to check it as she stepped into the hallway. As she passed another of the complex’s open doors, and someone was walking out. A man—tall, balding, and heavy around the middle—paused mid-stride as he saw Loretta walking by. He was Kenny from accounting. They both looked away before their recognition was too obvious to not make conversation. Kenny waited in the hallway for Loretta to get out the door before heading toward the exit himself. She sped up to increase the distance between them. Loretta passed a closed door with a slight defect in the soundproofing, and she could hear faint screams from the other side. The light, soothing new age muzak drowned most of it out.

A smiling door woman at the front desk told Loretta to have a nice day. She smiled back and stepped outside. The Autumn chill brought a sting to her flushed cheeks. The pain of beginning bruises began to blossom over her hands. Hopefully, the traffic would be light enough to get her back to the office before her lunch break ended.

Car Crash, Relatively

I could feel the space in between the sound and the action. There was a brief glimpse to the future. It showed us something we don’t always see—space. It was the dying light of a star from light years away. It was the laws of the universe showing themselves: what we see and what we hear are not fixed, not true. I didn’t hear the slam when it happened—I heard the ghost of it. I didn’t even see the car accident, really, just reflections from my cornea processing protons moving at the speed of light. Put that way, what is there to any of this? What is looking out from behind those eyes? Upon seeing the crushed cars together and feeling so little, a dissociation descended—a comparison between what I’d just seen in real life and what I’d seen on TV. When the sound hit, it was dull, plastic. The Foley artist did a poor job capturing the drama of the situation. Or maybe my ears were not in Dolby. Maybe it was a bad reception.

A couple people ran into the street. They were closer than I was; they would have seen and heard it all at once. The spell wasn’t broken for them. Their shouting drifted up to the hill to me like gentle whispers. Distance can turn bombast into intimacy.

There’s an instinctive pull that says I should go. That I should insert myself down there and get out my phone. We should be calling someone. Something terrible has happened. But the drivers and passengers in the cars were outside and walking around. They were angry at each other, not hurt or dead. Bystanders were on the phone. It was a scene in which I had no place. I could only be an extra body, a rubbernecking onlooker for the eventual police and ambulance to push out of the way in order to perform concussion and sobriety tests.

The string of consequences that would follow would be long. Maybe one of them was drunk. Maybe the other had just gotten out of prison. Maybe one didn’t have a license. Maybe one was going to a hospital for the birth of a child while the other rushed to a dying relative. Maybe they’re each obstacles in the other’s emergency. Maybe the one who could be drunk will hit rock bottom now. Maybe he will turn things around. Maybe he ends up on the streets. Are they headed for an uncaring system that will drive them down, or do they have a support system to get them through?

I was seeing a moment of creation and destruction in several lives. A big bang that already echoed in their future, travelling in that relative space between the sight of the accident and the sound of the crash. But it wasn’t my life. I was only seeing it by chance. Would I remember it later? Was I supposed to?

The Kinds of Things We Remember as Divine

Penny was setting paper on fire in the living room. Thom found an old phonebook outside, and the only way to work through this archeological discovery was to burn pages and place them in a ritual urn. I think this irked Cali, who was an on-again-off-again Wiccan, but she put on a brave face for the rest of us. The couple next door liked to smoke outside, so maybe they could take the heat if somebody upstairs smelled anything burning.

None of our names were real, but we all chose them. None turned into Darth Optimus or anything. We’re all kind of humble when it comes down to it. Humble enough to know that if you’re going to destroy a phone book, you had to make it kinda religious.

Thom told a long story about his brother, Mock. Mock shacked up with a widow on vacation and drove her car back to Virginia only to discover she wasn’t a widow. He received a decent beating and still managed to hitchhike his way to Denver. Penny said that was due to his being white. Anyone else thumbing while freshly beaten was more likely to be taken to jail than on a road trip.

One of the two smoking neighbors—the man—knocked on our door and told us to shut up. Gus, who almost changed his name to Darth Gus (but chickened out), shouted at him to not smoke around their kid. The man then threatened to call the cops. So we turned off the Franz Ferdinand and played Twister. I wrapped an arm underneath Thom in such a way as to warm the entire inside of my body. But Gus said he wanted a drink, and the game ended before we all fell all over each other.

Penny remembered that she’d seen Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as a kid and needed to watch it again immediately. We all fell asleep during it, and I woke up to watch the Netflix preview loop over and over again. Looking back, I said maybe three words that entire night. But my brother wasn’t on a clandestine trip with a widow, and I’d found no relics of a former civilization to burn.

Cali was smoking out the window. Maybe she’d woken up. Maybe she’d never fallen asleep. I never asked her. But I thought of her watching the yellow light of the snow-covered driveway for a long time. I’d try to draw it, but it wasn’t a cartoon image. It was a silent movie. When she dropped the cigarette out the window and went to the bathroom, I closed my eyes and pretended to be still asleep.

An Accountant on the Astral Plane

When I began to lose my corporeal form, first it manifested by dropping things—pens, cups, staplers. An object would be in my hand, then suddenly find itself on the floor. The explanations were obvious for a time—clumsiness. I hadn’t been particularly clumsy as a child, so a sudden descent into it was frustrating. As more objects would seem to slip from my grasp, I became agitated. A coworker’s eyes widened in concern as I cursed at a notepad lying inert on the floor.

The first time I stepped out of my shoe, it tripped me, and I nearly fell between two cubicles. It being a Monday, cries of “must be Monday” erupted with a chorus of laughter. The laughter seemed like it would never end. Faces reddened, people choked, Darrell was taken to the hospital due to an exacerbated cardiac condition.

Not being a meditative person, the thought of transcending planes of existence wasn’t an obvious thesis to me. I tried to concentrate on work. Losing myself in the swirl of spreadsheets and numbers, my mind could live in the timelines of claims: 2015 was forever ago. The world turned in seconds, one name, one balance replaced by another. Each year, hundreds of new names, new claims entered the system. Everything new became old in a moment. Everything ephemeral.

When I reached through my car’s door handle, I knew something was wrong. At first, I thought I had just missed it. So I concentrated. I stared at the chrome handle attached to my red sedan. Slowly, carefully, feeling like an old man trying to balance a cup of water, I reached for the handle. When I did, I watched my hand pass directly through the chrome, emerging whole on the other side. After a panicked moment of glancing around the parking lot (which entailed switching to a bland “have a nice day” smile whenever catching eyes with a coworker walking toward their vehicle), I tried again. This time, concentrating as hard as I could, I reached. And grabbed the handle. The door opened regularly.

Great concentration worked briefly. For a few days I could carefully determine when I needed to reach something, focus on it, and manage to grab it. But when all of my clothing fell off while at the urinal, I didn’t know how I could go on. The other man at the urinal stared, shocked, and the urinal began to flush on its own—no longer reading me there. I tried to gather up my clothing as fast as I could—clothing that kept slipping through my fingers. That night, I received an email saying I was going to have to speak to HR about the “indecent exposure” incident in the morning.

That next morning, concentration stopped working. I could slip between my sheets, couldn’t grab my clothes, couldn’t grab my door handle (but could step right through it). I heard a scream from downstairs when one of my feet casually slipped through the floor by accident. I found I could position myself in space, hang levitated in the room, and move through all of my furniture.

Later that day, however, my retinas stopped catching reflected light, and my sight blinked out. Sound could no longer ring in my eardrums, and everything was silent. I can only think of things that I knew before—all those names, dates, and repeated motions.  Though now I think, minus my job, my sight, my touch, and my hearing, I might be able to finally finish that screenplay. I never seemed to make time for it after work. I’m still working on the last act.

The Ballad of L and D

Laurel decided that if her last act was going down in a massive crowd, that was a noble end. She and Dwight made bandannas out of ripped shirts. She tied hers so that the DAMN. logo was facing front. Dwight’s showed a glimpse of a cat above his eyebrows—remnants of a t-shirt that had looked more like a van mural (for reference, check out the Creepy Van Murals Facebook page). They posed for each other’s cameras and posted the pictures. Dwight spent most of the prep session complaining about a wasted Bumble date and how he didn’t understand why he didn’t connect with anyone. Then he added peanut butter to a BLT, which may have been a clue. Laurel tried to comfort him with the knowledge that if they died in the protest today, the issue would be solved. Dwight flipped her off and ate his BLPBT.

It was going to be busy downtown, so they took an Uber close enough where they could ease into the giant crowd. Even shoulder to shoulder, some enterprising merchants had muscled little carts of food into the area. Dwight Venmo’d a vendor for two burritos, which they ate as they drifted toward the epicenter. Dwight thought every girl with braids was his date last night. Laurel told him to focus on the end of the world.

They heard big chants and shouts from various disparate causes all melding together into one large crowd. Somewhere still further up there was a speaker on a microphone, but over the chants, drums, and various other talking, it was impossible to make out. Laurel and Dwight took pictures of posters they found funny or poignant and posted them. They joined various chants as they passed them, and eventually drifted away from each before picking up a new slogan. The day was bright and hot, and everyone seemed to have brightly colored shirts.

Later discourse would never be in agreement about what happened next. It all depended on sides. The first shot that rang out hit Dwight in the bandanna. He collapsed, and Laurel tried to drag him to the side of the crowd. People shoved and pushed past her, knocking her down over and over again. One runner stomped on her ankle, breaking it, causing her to try to slide over to the sidewalk.

To anyone who was there, the shots were the actions of a wrathful government emboldened by its own echo chamber. To the other side, they claimed the protesters had begun shooting themselves to blame them. Even the militants who claimed responsibility had gaps in their story. None of those potentialities struck Laurel as she tried to maneuver into a stairwell to take care of her friend, who was already passed on.

She’d wait in the stairwell, afraid to let go of her friend, for several hours as all of the running and panic subsided. It was dusk by the time paramedics found her and Dwight’s body. The joke they’d told while prepping eight hours ago, “hey, at least if alt-right radicals attack, we’ll be saved from more shitty DC Universe movies,” now rang bitter and hollow.

Mornings, Generally

I have a 23-minute walk from my house to my office. Naturally, I leave with 21 minutes to spare. During the school year, I must part a sea of children headed toward the elementary school. Often, a single kid will have a train of relatives—an entire branch of a family tree—escorting the royal offspring. I have to vote in this school (just so you know that I am responsible after my confession about the walk), and I’ve seen big, giant posters proclaiming “we’re all going to collage!” with cartoon animals in graduation gowns and diplomas in hand. I wonder why they are already programming them for crippling debt for jobs that won’t pay their rent. But then again, I already know.

Luckily, it’s the summer, so all I encounter instead is an onslaught of leaf blowers. Sticks, rocks, and dust all whip against the face, because apparently everyone has the expense for landscaping. Does this contrast uncomfortably with the many, many tents posted up along the sidewalk? Yes, it does.

There are two people who, if I am not careful, will match me stride for stride for several blocks—both always going in the same direction. So I have to adjust, alter my route, depending on if I run into them. I’m sure they’re fine. But I hope they appreciate my two-block detour to avoid our awkward matching pace.

Two different lights have poor traffic flow crossing north to south. Because only one button for the crosswalk will begin the light sequence, I must approach from one side, hit the button, then cross to the other side of the street to catch the lights in the correct order (note: if you try to explain this process to another person, they will, in fact, think you are insane).

These trips are soundtracked by whatever I happen to have on my headphones that day. This allows time for daydreaming, attempts to forget about any whack arguments I’m still playing in my head from last night’s band practice, and imagining a way of playing that is as free, fun, and fulfilling as we think it should always be. It’s easy to imagine coming up with similar ideas to what I’m hearing, of being able to share that with other people, of having the fantastical imagination be acted out in real life.

Until I take off the headphones to enter a coffee shop, further biting into my walk time. There, on this particular day, a tall, slightly pudgy white guy, wearing black shorts, a black t-shirt, and short, gelled black hair, orders a cold brew and gives his name as Lance. And, as far as I can tell, I’ve never seen a more “Lance” Lance in my life.

After the coffee shop, I have another 5 minutes of daydreaming left. One particular spot on the sidewalk, without any particular cause, smells rotten. Whatever was there has left, but the ghost of the scent remained. This small little window in which to imagine better futures runs out, and for the next nine hours, I pretend to be someone else.