As Pompeii Exploded

As Pompeii exploded, the elders told everyone that it was not that big of a deal. They claimed all they needed was faith. They claimed it was Crete’s problem. And moving cost too much. Moving was a hassle. How could anyone possibly move? Besides, Pompeii didn’t have exploding earth events; that happened in other places.

Other people saw the smoke; they heard the great, thunderous clashes and watched the sky darken into a great, premature night and pleaded with them to leave. They were dismissed as radicals. They were slandered as not loving Pompeii. If they loved Pompeii, why would they be trying to get people to leave? If they didn’t like the perfect, never-before-exploded-by-volcano community, they could take their own boats away.

The sky darkened. The fires from the approaching lava lit up the low hanging clouds. But the elders said that the righteous would be spared. Pompeii didn’t get consumed by lava. It had never happened before. Any danger was the work of dissidents. Some from the foothills came running; they told tales of desolation: mountainsides on fire, skeletons of livestock and family members melting away, howling in pain. Nothing had been spared. Those survivors were thrown in jail.

Cassandra tried to get her father to go. She pleaded with him. She saw the smoke. She believed. Her father forbade her, so she left him, sneaking out a window.

The streets she entered were a jumble of bodies bumbling and bouncing together. Some were heading for the beaches, and others shouted obscenities at those trying to escape, hurled objects at them, spit at them, and grabbed at the clothes of those running by, stripping them down to their underwear. Ash began to fall from the sky.

The escapees tried to protect each other from the jeering mob, but some were lost, wrenched back by their friends, family members, and lovers who claimed that only the elders could be correct. They were always correct. They said it was nothing serious. Explosions never happened here. Everyone else was just being too sensitive. It was disrespectful to the history of Pompeii to suspect it could be consumed by fire and ash. It wasn’t one of those places to the east that occasionally got hit with fire and brimstone.

The beach was a confusion of rushing. Cassandra ended up in a boat with strangers herding together, all pressed in desperation, the boat nearly buckling under the excessive weight. The ones who stayed behind continued to shout and curse at the leaving boats. They told them never to come back. They told them they weren’t welcome. Then they turned around to look at their great town, bereft of all its bad elements. They took deep breaths of the sulfurous air,  basking in the shade of the smoke cloud. They were consumed in their rightness.

From the boats, Cassandra could see some of the destruction. The houses fell, the smoke swept quickly, super hot, down onto the town. Most of the people she knew were gone. Whole beings were shattered, leaving only shadowy imprints or ash ghosts. She could see the lava striking the water, throwing a giant geyser of steam into the air. She watched as the town that never burned burned.

Trash Man

I didn’t expect seeing all of my belongings out on the street to be so weird. It’s only a studio apartment, so I figured it would be smaller. But after they busted down my bookshelves, scattered their contents on the sidewalk, tossed my futon over them, broke my instruments into several pieces (which, that was just spiteful), it was easy to see all that I had, everything I had ever owned and considered somewhat part of my being, as just a giant mound of trash. I had thought more of myself. Then again, I was also being forcibly removed from my apartment, so maybe the trash analogy was accurate.

The sun was bright and oppressive, a scorching L.A. summer day. I sat down on the uneven futon balanced on mounds of books and found no solace in the skinny palm trees. There was an aggressive lack of shade. The potential tasks overwhelmed my brain—how would I gather everything up? Should I? Should I welcome my forced new beginning, leave my phone right there on the cushion, and wander off down the busy streets? If everything around me was trash, perhaps I should just shed all of it. I began to make myself believe the ultimate freedom was freedom from possessions. You can’t throw away—you can’t waste—what isn’t there.

Wiping increasing sweat from my forehead, I caught the eye of some other tenants leaving the building. I could see it in their eyes. They wanted me gone. It appeared I had been unwelcome in my own building for some time. How can you be disliked by people who don’t know you? But I suppose that is the whole history of the world. Many of these books thrown onto the grimy streets would tell me the same. Maybe they see the result and assume it was because I had a drug problem, or I was a freeloader, or I was disrupting the neighbors. They bought into the adage that destitution in material equals decrepitude of the soul. The eviction is proof that the eviction is just. So, too, will be my shirt when it is stained with sweat, my socks when they gather too much dirt, and my face when it is burned and thirsty.

As I watched another couple from my building walk away after stopping for a quick moment to leer at me, another person sat down on the futon. He had a giant backpack stuffed to bursting. I could smell him, and he could smell me, I’m sure. He reached down and picked up a copy of Death on the Installment Plan, which I’d bought but never read, and opened it. After thumbing through a few pages, he turned to me. That sunburned face I was just imaging, wrinkled from squinting and cringing for years, nodded and asked if I wanted some water. He removed a beaten-up plastic bottle form the side of his bag. I took a long sip, ashamed of using so much of his supply.

“This your stuff?” He asked.

“Used to be,” I said as a police SUV pulled up next to the two of us.

W.A.S.P. Colony

The yellowjackets’ nest began with three workers placed directly above the front door of a one-story house. It was a small pile right above the frame, and the three sets of sharp wings created a triad of triangles moving about the small cone, developing the colony. The few, empty tube spaces would be filled in, and at night the three would stand guard—nestled around their tiny abode.

As the nest slowly expanded, they flew about more. Others joined in at the new subdivision. Empty spaces filled up, and more paste was added. The sides slowly spread out, and more triangles appeared. As more came, the work continued later and later into the evening.

They became more aggressive once they received wi-fi. They flew around furiously, ready to threaten anything that came too close. After installation, the internet technician was run off the porch. They would gather around to watch Call the Midwife on the queen’s entertainment center. Drones didn’t have control of the mouse. They expanded the nest to cover the giant flatscreen, and still more began to join.

The increased materials needed for the growing mass of the colony made them more litigious towards some of the other insects. They harassed a bumblebee hive out on an adjacent awning until eventually that hive packed up and moved down the block. There was only enough material for one plugged-in community.

As they bought cars for the queen (who had a taste for big, expensive luxury SUVs), they became increasingly NIMBYish about the trash pickup trucks and decrepit wooden structures the termites had. They flew over the other colonies, ogling the massive mounds of dirt they could use for their own location while at the same time drawing up civil complaints and code violations against the standalone colonies—their claim was that every insect colony needed to be attached to a house. In this way, they could remove the termites without resorting to stinging.

The queen decided there should be an addition to the porch. Some other insects, including the ants, began to protest because the extension covered up their own colonies. The wasps’ position was held up in district court, which stated that since the wasps owned the house, they owned the property. The judge, an elderly praying mantis, was accused of bias for spending too much time around the house with the wasps’ nest.

On a particularly hot summer day, there were protests from the other insects surrounding the belligerent behavior of the wasps. The queen decided that the answer was to have each insect also pay tribute to her as well as their own queen. Others protested, but the wasps promised to enforce the decisions of the court regarding ownership of the property in the event the others did not fall in line. So for the next two months, on each day, a lone drone from each colony would bring a piece over to the wasp nest, which now covered the majority of the porch. Some became enamored by the bright lights of the flatscreen television and never made it back to their homes. Once again, the other colonies protested, but the wasps claimed that standing around the television was something insects did on their own free will. They could leave anytime they wanted.

As fall neared, none of them noticed the significance of the large, red pickup truck pulling into the house’s driveway. Men and women began unloading large equipment, and the air began to fill with smoke. The rest of the insects, safe on the ground, watched as all of the wasps slowed down, crawling around their sprawling mansion, unable to muster up a defense as the massive structures were taken down. The television was loaded into a truck, the SUVs were driven away, and the rest of the bugs cheered as cleaning crews dismantled the large structure across the front façade of the house and danced on the corpses of the wasps who fell to them. The celebration spawned tales and legends still passed down in those colonies. When a couple moved into the newly renovated subdivision a couple months later, there was no evidence of the wars that had been fought—nothing but the tales the other colonies would tell themselves.

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.