This is about my daughter, when she wasn’t yet one. I wrote this sitting in a chair in her room while she slept.
I know the truth.
I know that when I’m not looking she dances, she frolics, she leaps, she jumps. She pirouettes and does perfect toe points. She straps on roller-skates and glides around the house. She’s not fooling me at all.
I know the truth.
I ask her questions, and she looks at me with her big brown eyes and smiles, feigning she doesn’t understand. She’s toying with me. Eventually she’ll stumble. She’ll remark on the weather, or tell me she doesn’t like the outfit I picked out for her. It’s only a matter of time before I catch her.
I know that she wakes up in the middle of the night to dance in the moonlight and sing beautiful arias. I’ve heard her beautiful song in my sleep. I’ve seen her tiny legs practicing complicated steps. Once, I stayed up extra late to catch her, but she must have known I was watching and pretended to peacefully sleep in her bassinet.
I know the truth.
I know that she speaks five languages and is a covert operative for the CIA. She’s taken down foreign governments. She’s assassinated assassins. She’s foiled jewel heists, stopped industrial espionage, and defeated evil countless time. Being my daughter is just a cover story; her alias. I’ve been looking for evidence, and I’ll find it eventually.
I know that this helplessness is just an act. The smiles, the laughs, the big eyes…none of this can be real. She’s not fooling me at all. I won’t be swayed by her simplistic beauty, her small hand in mine, her warmth as she lay on my chest.
Here’s some context on this – I wrote this draft for a class and never used it. It was too dark. Re-reading it now I still like the concept and maybe will expand it out into a full story at some point. It think it’s pretty reflexive of my early writing style where I used a lot of colloquial language and humor to interject my own personality into the work.
Today was the greatest and worst day of my life.
It was great because as I sit here writing this, I feel great. I had the time of my life last night and have never felt freer in my choices.
This was the worst day of my life because I found out I was dying.
I don’t mean the existential version of dying where I realized that one day when I’m old and grey I’ll drift off to a peaceful sleep surrounded by loved ones and never wake up… I mean that at 3:41pm, while sitting in my doctor’s office staring at a picture of his ugly kids and surgery enhanced wife, he said told me in overly dispassionate tone that I had maybe had a year left.
Cancer of the fuck you.
It’s an odd feeling, starting that countdown to the end. The news punched me in the gut and I wanted to vomit cheerios all over his desk. In the movies it always takes a dramatic minute or two before the news sinks in. In my experience it took all of a third of a second before I wanted to punch the fucker in the face and demand a retraction.
I lost all concept of time, sitting there listening to him try to inject some semblance of hope into what was clearly a hopeless situation. People die of Cancer every day, and one day soon that person would be me. “We can try Radiation” he said. “We can try Chemotherapy, but the chances are slim. If we had caught it earlier…”
Mentally I had retreated into my own head. Basically a mini-psychotic break. I heard him, and I’m sure I nodded or made some gesture; but all I could think about what to have for dinner.
What wine goes with Cancer? Definitely something red… maybe a good Cabernet.
Not long after I was leaving. I had managed to schedule some sort of appointment for follow up, though I don’t think I have any intention of following up.
I sat in my car for a minute, trying to figure out my next move. My mind was all over the place. I wanted to be an Astronaut when I was a kid… can I pull that off in less than a year? I always wanted to go to New York City… that seems like a much more attainable goal.
My first choice was the grocery store.
I’m not sure how long I was standing in the pasta aisle, staring intently at the shelves but not actually seeing anything. I was dying, and in it seemed relatively soon. That’s some fucked up shit to deal with. I probably could have stood there, working my way through the five stages of grief, a bottle of shitty pasta sauce in my hand for hours… but as it happens, a bit of kismet intervened.
“Elliott? Dude, you look like shit.” Matt, a casual friend I played basketball with was standing in front of me. “You alright?”
“Uh, yeah. Matt, what’s up. Good seeing you…” and I walked away. I just put my plastic basket down on the floor and left.
I wasn’t sure where I was going. I got in my car, no particular destination in mind and drove. I must’ve circled the town five times before ending up in a seemingly surprising destination; my driveway. I’ve read those stories about people being faced with some traumatic situation and they just get in their cars and starting some grand adventure; but I’m willing to bet that for every adventure that starts with a turn of the key, a billion or so other people just end up at home still pissed off that their wife left, they got fired, or in my case they had a year left to live.
I’ve watched those shows on TV where someone says something seemingly profound like, “The world looked different to me somehow.” Bullshit. I still had the same apartment, with the same furniture, and the same stupid shit I see every day. I flopped into my familiar ass groove on the couch and flipped on the TV, not really paying attention to it. I popped the lid of my laptop open and checked my email.
Somehow in the back of my mind I half expected an email from my mom, crying, apologizing for spanking me when I was ten.
As it were, I got ten emails of craptacular spam.
I logged into my facebook account. Twelve friends on, no one I liked. Status updates, Farmville, book reviews… fucking miserable.
Okay, so maybe not everything is the same. I looked at this bullshit on the screen and it bugged me. These people were caught up in inane crap and here I was reading it because I had nothing better to do that sit there and fucking die.
I pulled up my list of friends; Two hundred and twenty eight friends. I scrolled down the list looking for the first victim to delete. Shep Turner, bingo… a guy who I used to play with in third grade. I don’t know shit about this guy, he doesn’t know shit about me. He could have grown up to be a serial child molester with a penchant for shoving vicodin up his ass. Here I was dealing with some major life events and he was bitching about his fucking facebook farm! Fuck that shit!
Two mouse clicks and he was out of my life forever. The finality was empowering… for almost ten seconds. He really was out of my life forever. I was going to be dead and this fucker wouldn’t care or know! Call me an egotistical prick, but if I’m going out I want a big fucking billboard that says “Elliott died today.” I want people crying in the streets, and Presidential speeches, and a worldwide moment of silence; and I’ve already managed to take one guy out of that loop because he had the audacity to fill the void in his day with a little bit of Social networking.
I found his profile and re-added him with the short note, “Dude, accidentally deleted you.” I could’ve gone with the longer, “I’m going to be dead soon and I want you to be my facebook friend so you might miss me when I’m gone,” but he would’ve taken it as a joke, and it probably would have made me feel shitty when he actually found out.
I looked back over my list of friends. People I knew in college, high school, middle school, grade school, Ex-girlfriends, ex-girlfriends roommates, and ex-girlfriends ex-boyfriends who they were still ‘friends’ with. There were even a few people I’d never actually met, but had chatted with online with for years through various other fads (AOL, Myspace, etc.). I even checked the list of who I was following; a few bands, a couple of celebrities, a few politicians, and the President of the United States.
All in all, it was quite a robust list of friends that a dying man could be proud of…assuming all of these people had any emotional stake whatsoever in my life. If all of them came to my funeral and brought dates (we’re talking the social event of the year) plus any family that was obligated to show up, my memorial could be a rager with six hundred people. Boomtown. I should book a DJ.
One of the weirdest things about dying is the constant and phenomenally cruel way reality crashes down and drowns any amount of hope or suspension of disbelief I may be harboring about any and all situations. Most of these people I barely knew and some not at all. The ones I did know I wasn’t close with. I was 29 years old, single and working a job I barely liked. Even my closest friend Ian had been relegated to online status, even though we still lived within eighty or so miles. We still saw each other, and he’s still the first person I want to call. I’m definitely not going to send him a fucking email about this.
I needed some connection. I needed to hear a voice and not just read some text on a screen.
I checked to see who was online hoping to find someone to reconnect me to the physical world.
Bingo, Scott Brosby.
I worked with Scott in College and he’d actually been a pretty good friend of mine. We bonded because he was another Jewish guy who had sweet spot for the love of shiksas and vodka.
I clicked his name to send him a message.
ELLIOTT: Dude. Sup.
ELLIOTT: Fucking bored. Anything going on tonight?
SCOTT: You still livin in Sacto?
ELLIOTT: Yeah. Anything doin tonight?
SCOTT: Hittin a club. You wanna come?
ELLIOTT: Sure. Time/Place?
SCOTT: 815 L / 10:30…?
ELLIOTT: Sweet. Hit my cell if something changes.
And thus it was so that on the day I learned my time on this sweet earth was going to be drastically shorter than I originally had anticipated, I ended up drinking Vodka and Pineapple juice with Scott in a overly crowded and sweaty bar. Conversation was shallow and meaningless. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about dying, it’s just not something you can yell over a rap song whose premise is about ‘hittin dat ass’.
I opted instead to get a little too close and personal with a chubby girl on the dance floor. Somewhere on that dance floor, with my hand groping her doughy flesh, I felt the rush of being free of long term consequence. Who gives a fuck if I drink too much? Who cares if I take this chubby girl home and maw her box until she suffocates me with her floppy white thighs? Consequences-fucking-schmonsequences, right?
Two hours later I was doing tequila shots in her bedroom and peeling off her clothes. I wasn’t shy or inhibited. I didn’t care what she thought of me. It was one of, if not the best, sexual encounter of my life.
I made it home when the sun light was just beginning to wash away the dark from the horizon. I had the slightest hint of an approaching hangover and was a little sore from my rambunctious encounter with the chubbette, but was jovial from my night of true freedom and reckless abandon. It was and is an amazing feeling. Cancer of the fuck you, fuck you.
There was only one thing left to do before climbing into bed and finding blissful sleep, and that’s call Ian. He was my best friend and deserved to know. What’s more is that I needed him to know. I always knew that he’d walk through hell with me, and I just crossed the river and bought a ticket.
It was the hardest conversation I’d ever had. Not a lot was said. He’ll need time to process, and so will I.
Context: Something I wrote for a class in 2004ish. It’s so campy. Here’s more:
Someone is watching me.
They see me like only they can.
It’s been said that I am an egotist.
Not something I would classify myself as,
Impression is perception when it comes to others.
Sitting here, thinking over both my online life, and my real life…
All I can think of is the times where I’ve said the wrong thing, the hurtful thing, the egotistical thing,
Which life is which?
Impression is perception.
It always hurts more when the names you get called are true.
I’ve been called many names, and I thought I had grown a skin against them.
‘Insults don’t matter’ I tell myself.
‘Insults don’t matter’ I lied to myself.
Why is it so easy to accept an insult, and so hard to believe a compliment?
Why is it that when someone tells you that you look good, you immediately go to the mirror and see everything that’s wrong?
There is always so much wrong.
Then we enter a place where there are no faces, only avatars.
Everyone’s pretty, everyone’s handsome.
Judged solely on character, on wit, on humor.
Turning your head from the cruelty of one perverse world, for the ignorant bliss of another virtual one.
I remember my old self.
The anger, the rage.
I run my hand over the now healed bone that shattered when I hit that wall,
wishing it was her perception.
Her inability to agree with me.
What I remember now, is that she was right.
I remember my old self.
He comes in a clenched fist, a solemn tear, a rapid heartbeat.
Walking the line of humility takes effort and strength.
It takes compassion and faith in more.
I think I stumbled off that line somewhere.
It’s so confusing though.
I waste so little energy on myself.
I waste so little time, so little love.
It’s always them before me… But it’s my own self worth I’m bartering for.
I give to feel good.
I peddle my emotional wares for a teardrop of happiness.
A second of pride.
An instant of eternal happiness.
I often wonder if my kindness is out of self glory, self gratification, self preservation…
Or is it genuine favor towards someone’s well being?
Its there that I am a true egotist, I can’t help but wish I was a better person.
My life is distorted, reflected in a funhouse mirror.
Context: I wrote this while, for the first time, experimenting with hallucinogenics.
Life is a beautiful thing.
As I lay here,
feeling the fire course through my body
I am reminded of that simple fact.
My fingers dance an electric ballet across the keyboard,
guided by the orchestra of simplistic pleasures.
Voices rise from downstairs.
They lurk across the ceiling,
down the wall,
and eventually find their way into my head.
They call my name.
They ask how I am.
What a perverse question to ask.
I am beautiful,
I am hideous.
I am perfect,
I am chaos.
I am me.
Time moves slowly across the desert of the mind, never quite stopping or dying. Possibilities.
Light, music, people.
All is needed right now.
I needed a dresser. Well, I suppose need isn’t the right word, but it is the universally agreed upon way to store one’s clothes and who am I to go against convention? Having just resettled in the Sacramento Valley I took a cursory glance at the internet to determine where one could easily acquire a piece of furniture that was functional, aesthetically pleasing, and within the general price range I wanted to pay. Dressers, as you may have guessed, vary wildly in price. They go from cheap pieces of shit all the way up to hand-crafted, rare wood, absurdly expensive pieces of shit. I wanted something that wouldn’t buckle under the sheer weight of my underwear, but also wasn’t made by a sacred village of furniture artisans only recently discovered in the Amazon rainforest. It took mere seconds online to come up with that singular word that I’m fairly sure is Swedish for Cluster Fuck: “IKEA”.
I’ve been in IKEA before, but not in years – and what’s more the last IKEA I was in was a Canadian IKEA – a people and culture world renowned for their courtesy and politeness, and even then I barely avoided a knife fight over the last collapsible laundry basket. IKEA in my mind is where your day goes to die. It’s the place where the hopes and dreams you woke with are slowly tortured out of you in a rainbow haze of inexpensive furniture and meatballs. I knew it was the best option. They’d have a dresser, sub two-hundred dollars, and I’m handy so I’m not afraid to assemble. It all made sense on paper, but even then I had reservations. I’d have a free couple of hours on Saturday morning and going to IKEA on a weekend is akin to being in Pamplona during the running of the bulls with a severe limp and a bad case of diarrhea: You might get trampled or shit yourself. Maybe both. What’s more is that in a total collapse of mental acuity I decided to bring my kids. Now I’d not only be defending my own psyche from the overwhelming desire to own a new rubber spatula – but also fending off the pitiful yammers of children who want their room to look like that room.
Before we left I cleared some room in the car, folding the seats down in my SUV knowing that as much as I loathed IKEA, she also sings a siren song calling in sailors to spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need. Who knows what waits to seduce me with its low price and cheap craftsmanship within the confines of that building? Who knows how long I’ll be able to withstand the evolutionary bestowed upon cuteness of my daughter’s eyes that allow her to make me buy things for her and not kill her for meat. Finally, having satisfactorily rearranged my car to accommodate two children and a rash of bad decisions yet made, we set out on our journey.
The drive over wasn’t long enough. Maybe seven minutes. I live seven effing minutes from IKEA. This fact disturbs me greatly as it means I’m always seven minutes from emptying my bank account in an uncontrollable meatball binge. Seven minutes from rustic outdoor décor… from kitchy wall prints of Marilyn Monroe… seven minutes from more wicker baskets then any one single parent should own. What in the great wide blue fuck do people keep with wicker baskets?
Looking for a parking spot I see that there is an entire section near the front, for “families,” and I think to myself – “Oh Shit! That’s us!” I may have thought that out loud… which explains why my daughter from the back quickly shot back, “swear jar.” Dammit – this trip was already costing me money and I hadn’t even parked the car yet. I pulled into a spot and handed a dollar back, which she took with a smug, satisfied look.
My daughter is eight. I don’t worry much about her. She’s smart and feisty. I’m not scared about the possibility of her getting misplaced amidst the folds of IKEA. My son is five, and a bit scatterbrained. He has a tendency to examine something so thoroughly that he understands not only the assembly of a thing, but the philosophical drive that created it. He’s a thinker. If I’m not careful I could lose him as he’s trying to work out the nuances of Swedish philosophy as it relates to decorative shelving.
We enter and are immediately presented with the choice: Do we venture upstairs, where the store seduces you with its unique and well-designed room vignettes; or do we venture straight into the “marketplace” and start filling our cart with trinkets. I freeze, unsure of what to do. It’s my daughter who jumps on the escalator and makes the choice for us.
At the top we’re again offered a choice. To our left is the first section with a series of couches along a path neatly plotted on the floor; to our right is the cafeteria with the wafting smell of meatballs. The smell is so good that I think my stomach growled out its own “Oh shiiiiiit…” – I hand my daughter a dollar and say, “You guys want to get food first?” This was less of a question than a demand using my dad voice. My daughter, having known me for a while, says “Nope,” pockets the dollar, and heads down the path. My son, who likes her taste in toys more than mine, follows her.
It’s on. We weave through the living rooms. Then the kitchens. The Bathrooms. The bedrooms. The Kids rooms. It was an hour of…
“Oh, look at this end table!”
“Oh, look at this shoe rack!”
“See! This is the thing that will be perfect for that spot!”
“Oh shit! This is the thing I’ve been trying to find for a year” (hands over dollar).
“No, you can’t have bunk beds! You already have bunk beds!”
“I don’t know why that woman smells like that.”
We were hypnotized. The place had it. At some point we stopped walking the path and began dancing it. It was as IKEA had seduced us and we had ascended to Swedish heaven. We lay in beds. We sat in chairs. I went into an absurdly small water closet and sat on the toilet to see if this claustrophobic little bathroom was something that wouldn’t terrify the literal shit out of me. The people around us also danced – sometime in unison. How long had we been there? Days? Weeks? I expected the world outside to have fallen into a post-apocalyptic zombie uprising while we lucky few danced for eternity in the fluorescent joy. Odin never vanquished the Frost Giants, he just built them a damn IKEA.
The spell is broken when my son utters the magic rune that has gotten us out of plenty of bad situations before, “Daddy. I have to go potty.” The opium of cheap furniture seeps out of my pores and my parental lizard brain kicks in. I grab his hand and the look on his face tells me it’s go time. This is no time to walk. He is moments from unleashing his American manifest destiny on the floor of IKEA and creating an international incident. I see a sign, then another, and another – and in a flash my daughter and I are sitting on a lonely bench, in a lonely hall, listening to my son eek out a rather loud grumpy through the men’s room door. A woman on a rascal scooter rode into the family rest room just as my boy let out a rather descriptive “It’s really biiiiggggg.” I don’t encourage this type of behavior, but it’s rather difficult to discourage it. Fecal humor is funny at any age.
I take the fifteen minutes to collect my thoughts and reprioritize the rather long list of “must haves” I’ve come up with over the last hour. Shoe rack. Dresser. Miscellaneous. I can get out of here under $200. It’s possible. I hear the hand dryer going off in the bathroom and know we’re close getting back on the horse. My son emerges looking flustered and a tad like he just wrestled a bear. I’m determined to get out, so I grab their hands and guide them to the marketplace downstairs.
“Should we get a cart?” Damn my daughter and her reasonable thoughts! A cart? A CART? Do you know what will happen with a goddamn cart?
“Sure sweetheart,” I tell her and we’re off. My list is small but things are jumping out at me.
“Yes you can have a new bed spread. Pick one out.”
“Sure we can get that whisk.”
“Of course we can buy that wicker [expletive deleted] basket.”
The cart is full. We finally reach the end and get in line. I look over the bounty – which is a weird word considering I feel like I’ve just been hypnotized by the Norse God of Regret. The line is long – long enough that three more impulse items make it into the cart. We make it to check out and I’m actually starting to feel heart palpitations as she rings up item after item. How did I end up with this much crap?
The bill comes out to $458.73. I can actually hear my credit card scream as I run it through the point of sale machine.
Not long later the car is loaded and we’re eating at the International House of Pancakes. It seemed apropos considering the international adventure we just had.
In the end I got the dresser I wanted. Along with a bevy of other items – and I can still hear the call. She sings to me every time I see an empty space that could be filled with something. Every time I think to myself, “I need a…” then I stop. Take a deep breathe. Tell myself, “you don’t need any more of that shit,” and hand my daughter a dollar.
I saw a busker, playing his guitar in the San Francisco subway, and I wondered what his story was. I listened for a while, and as I did a man and a woman began to dance to his music. The moment was a still life, isolated from time, and I knew I needed to know the story of how it all came to be.
“I came to San Francisco from South Dakota. The big city. I thought I’d hit the limit of what I could be at home, and a change and a chance for something more seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t Los Angeles or New York, but I could afford the bus ticket. So with my guitar and a sack of clothes I rode for two days and arrived in the shadow of this metropolis. As I walked around the towering sky scrapers I looked up to see if I’d see Superman speed on by.
I’d spend my days busking; sometimes downtown, sometimes out on the piers. I’d play for loose change and dollar bills, and every so often someone, feeling whimsical for the song I was playing, or a guy looking to impress his date would give me a little more. I’d been staying with friends, strangers, anyone who’d have me.
I’d given it a shot, I’d tried to make it. I joined a band, played some gigs. Joined another, played some more. Nothing was going. I decided to head home. To make the bus fare I headed down to my spot in the subway. There are tunnels that run from station to station. The acoustics make it easy to project and be heard. I’m not sure why, but that day I was feeling nostalgic for home and played my mom’s favorite songs, longing to see her again. It’d been some three years and she was my biggest advocate, my biggest fan. She would send what money she could, always telling me to go after my dream.
I tuned my guitar and started strumming. People passed by. A quarter here. A dime there. I sang. I sang for only my mother and future and didn’t care who was there to tell me I wasn’t good enough, or talented enough. A woman walked toward me. She had a beauty and grace, but walked with trepidation and nervousness. She stopped and listened for a moment, then reached into her purse and gave me ten dollars and a smile. I gave her a nod and watched her then walk toward the trains more confidently, a little more calmly. A few minutes later she passed by again with a man, hand in hand. I winked. She smiled at me. He pulled her in tight and she buried her face into his shoulder as they embraced. I played louder, and as they moved away he took her hand and began to slow dance. It was an expression of love and desire; of romance and magic. After they were gone I knew I was done. I put my guitar back in the case and slung it on my back. If I’d done nothing in life, I’d at least given two people the opportunity to dance. And knowing that, seeing that, was good enough to go home on.”
He stood on the corner as I approached.
I didn’t know the man, but he wore a t-shirt I’d seen several times before.
It was yellow in the sunlight, but in lower light I’m sure it appeared white.
He casually stood on the corner, repeatedly pressing the crosswalk button.
The light pole,
dusted from the Arizona air held upon it several lights, all of which were red.
The one he was was most concerned with,
the one I was also concerned with,
a square box,
the size of chair button, illuminated with a solidly lit red hand.
I looked to my left and saw emptiness.
I looked to my right and the horizon.
We waited for
Something…anything… to happen.
He pressed the button again. And again. And again.
It sighed a metallic sigh as it plunged into its groove
Trapped by the redness of the light,
unable to proceed across the road which had been clear the entire time we stood
He said nothing to me.
I said nothing to him.
The light turned green,
A green not dark like a forest green, but the green of grass.
The red hand disappeared and was replaced by white.
It was a dance we did.
I wonder if he knew I was leading?
Dark hair, dark soul, dark words
Dance on the inside of your eyelids while the space around holds
Holds soft, fast, light – the speed of which carries the light from your eyes
To the soft of your thighs, to the height of my cries, in your lap my world dies
Or do. Weaponry of the soul
The call didn’t come that day. It didn’t come the next day either. He’d been waiting for the call for months since he’d met The Surveyor. He thought he was good enough to be selected; he thought someone would choose him. He’d spent every free moment exercising and toning his body. He’d scour the net to learn the best way to make his abdomen muscles look like granite, to make his biceps not just strong, but shapely. It was said they preferred the athletic look in their selections. Not overly muscular, but defined and strong. He’d wake up in the morning, long before his sisters and run for an hour. He’d weave his way through the piles of trash and people sleeping on the tattered compact earthen streets of Sub City, motivated by the possibility of a future; not a future for him, but a future for them.
He first learned about the fragMENtation procedure years before. Michael, the eldest son of a family that lived in Sub City enclave near his had told him about it.
“They take your body?” I asked him.
“Yeah. They put me in a computer, then put the rich guy in me.”
“So you’ll be dead?” I didn’t understand.
“Not exactly I think. They told me that when they stick me in the computer I think I’m still alive and live in some sort of simulation. The other guy gets my body, and my family gets moved to Actium.”
“It’s a city. A place where they’ll be taken care of. It’s win / win Brian. It’s the way out.”
Michael was a perfect specimen of man. He spent all the free time he wasn’t working the incinerator trying in pursuit of physical perfection. Brian would wake up early and catch him as he ran by. He’s stop, jogging in place, and they’d talk about Actium and how Michael’s family would finally be free of Sub City.
“We weren’t meant for this,” Michael would tell him bobbing in place. “People aren’t meant to live in this underground hell hole. We weren’t meant to push trash into some godforsaken incinerator just to help the topsiders. I need to get us out of here.”
Some months later Brian woke up to find Michael waiting for him. “They called,” Michael had said. “I’ve been chosen.” Soon after he was gone. His family too. Brian had waited for him to run by and he never did. He made his way down to the enclave they’d lived to find it empty and abandoned.
They came back once.
They were in new clothes; cleaner than he’d ever seen them. The smell of lilac filled the air as they walked back to their Sub City enclave. They’d spent their whole lives living in a hole dug into the side of the wall maybe ten feet back and six feet high. Brian spoke to Joan, Michael’s younger sister.
“I needed to see it again,” she told him. “I forgot Bear,” she told him clutching a tattered stuffed dog most likely rescued by Michael from the fires of the incinerator.
“Tell me about Actium” Brian asked her.
“It’s marvelous,” Joan had said. “Warm. Never cold, never hungry,” she said trying not to sound overly excited knowing it may be condescending. Joan gave Brian a half wave as her escorts from top side hurried her off. There were three of them in long black jackets, black shirts, black pants. Against the backdrop of Sub City they nearly disappeared into the background. He watched them walk and fade into the crowd toward the door.
Brian was the oldest of his siblings. His parents had met while working the incinerator. Millions of people now lived underground in such places, born into the subservience to Top Side. When Brian’s mother was stricken with sickness there were no doctors to take her to. She died in the back of their enclave, drifting off to sleep one night and never waking up. Brian’s father had taken her body to the incinerator. It’s where all the trash went… where everything eventually went.
“Brian,” his father said to him when he returned, “this world is harsh. This place is hell. I wanted so much more for you. For all of you. Please forgive me.” His father left that night. They said he didn’t make a sound – not a yell nor a scream – as he jumped into the core of the incinerator. Fed up with life in the dark, damp cold of Sub City, people jumped in every day. There was even a word for it: Candling. They called it that because as they slid towards the raging inferno at the core it was their hair that burst into flames first. That was the word used when they’d come to tell Brian about his father.
Brian went to work at the incinerator, his wages paying for the meager food that kept them all alive. He’d arrive at the metallic edge of the pit with a shovel he’d managed to rig from materials discarded from top side, and go to work. The heat was so intense those first few times that he’d nearly fainted; but like all the misery in Sub City eventually he acclimated.
There was no schedule at the incinerator. No foreman. No rules or regulations. If you worked you earn credits. The more you worked, the more you ate. Men and women older than Sub City, as well as those barely old enough to hold a shovel, worked. Someone top side would throw something away in their house or a public trash can, it would be picked up and delivered to the tubes. The tubes could’ve been designed to run straight to the incinerator, but the thinking was that a human element was required to ensure that something valuable wasn’t mistakenly lost. No one ever came looking for something lost to the tubes. It was assumed that once it’s gone, it’s gone; and top side, everything is replaceable.
The incinerator was a vast cone, its metallic walls sheer and clean from the heat, angling down forty-five degrees to the glowing fires below. Brian would shovel trash over the edge where it sizzled and popped as it slid down toward the center. The way his father must have sizzled and popped as he slid. Brian tried not to think about that, but it crept in. Most of what went over never made it to the fire, blackening and shriveling from the convection heat cast off, then slowly dancing upward toward the great turbine moved by the rising heat. Brian was unclear how the machine worked or what it did for top side, but he knew working meant eating.
He’d heard stories that the fire had begun as a coal mine fire beneath the old city when no one lived underground. They said it would burn for a thousand years. After a month of shoveling trash he decided he didn’t care; a thousand years of anything was incomprehensible.
Not long after going to work at the incinerator he started running in the mornings like Michael had. He’d been running every day since. When he worked he concentrated on form, engaging his biceps with the lift, his triceps with the drop. Everything became about sculpting himself. He skipped meals and burned credits at one of the few public access terminals to understand the proper movements to maximize his efforts. Other people used those terminals to look at pictures of top side and dream, but Brian didn’t see the point.
By the time Brian was twenty, he’d grown surprisingly tall, over six feet, and looked like he was carved from marble. He’d been born in Sub City and had never seen the sun. His skin a pale white that only had the slightest tinge of beige from his Heliosis solar therapy rations and a hint of red from the heat of the incinerator he’d been shoveling trash into every day for the last four years. Brian’s eyes were a deep brown, nearly black, his hair flaxen and long. In another time you might find men who look like him adorning the cover of a romance novel.
He dreamt of being discovered. At night, having tucked his sisters Beth and Jess into their beds, he’d imagine being in line for food or solar rations and locking eyes with a mysterious stranger. In his mind it was a woman, more beautiful than any he’d ever seen. She’s give him a slight nod and walk away. He’d follow her and in a private alley of the Sub City ration district she’d tell him she was there to take him away; to take him and his family into the sunlight. He’d had this fantasy every night for a year before meeting The Surveyor.
The black market for the beautiful may have been technically illegal but wasn’t a secret. Whole families had been disappearing from Sub City for years, always associated with a young handsome man or a young beautiful woman. Brian waited in line for his solar therapy rations and caught the eye of a man, pale like most in Sub City but surprisingly clean. As Brian stepped into the small booth labeled “Heliosis”, he felt the warmth of the ultraviolet light that irradiated his skin and saw through the glass wall of the enclosure the man was still looking at him intently. As he stepped out of the booth he turned away from the stranger and walked away, aware that strangers in Sub City meant trouble.
“What is your name?” The man said, approaching Brian who had been sure he’d hurriedly put distance between him and the stranger. Attention wasn’t something you wanted in Sub City. Some people had lost touch with their humanity. It was said that some had even turned to cannibalism on the outskirts where the lights ended and the darkness began. Brian had heard tales of people snatched off the streets and taken to the dark.
“Leave me alone,” Brian said to the man, pushing past him toward the street that would lead home. As he went by he heard the man say something barely audible that stopped Brian in his tracks. “What did you just say?” Brian said turning back to the man. He was a foul creature; teeth cracked and shockingly yellow against the pale of his face; his lips thin and grey and his features softer and thicker than most of those in Sub City who’s jaws and cheeks were defined by never-ending hunger. He was old, maybe sixty, He wore a long black coat of shiny and thick leather. His face was smooth and taught, pulled back by surgeries, and his short grey hair protruded from underneath a grey hat, once known as a fedora, now a symbol of commerce. Men who wore that hat dealt in trade. Some for medical supplies, some for sex or drugs, some for sugary confections; this man seemingly dealt in immortality. His ice blue eyes pieced into Brian, one eyebrow rose as if begging Brian to ask that question again. Brian obliged. “What did you just say?” The man leaned in close to Brian, his short stature causing his head to crane up to reach Brian’s ear.
Brian’s world shook inside him.
“Who are you?” Brian said in a hushed tone cognizant of those still in line for Heliosis some twenty yards away.
“I am called The Surveyor. Do you know this word?” The man said, with a wry grin.
“I do. I want them taken care of,” Brian told The Surveyor. “You get me, they go to Actium.” The Surveyor’s smile became a full grin, “A little ahead of ourselves aren’t we? Let’s talk someplace more private.” He walked away toward a row of shops dedicated to selling items, mostly found by scavengers at the mouths of the tubes. This bazaar, and many like it in Sub City, were the only places to get certain items: toothbrushes, canes, pornography – anything could be found in the shops for the right credits or trade. Brian watched The Surveyor walk away and after he was thirty feet or so away decided to follow. He jogged slightly and caught up, barraging the man with questions.
“Have you ever been to top side?”
“Me? No. My clients will send representatives to me. I send them prospects.”
“How do I know you’re not from the dark?”
“What would those in the darkness know of Actium?” The Surveyor said this with a hint of ire in his voice, and then they spoke no more until they reached their destination. The Surveyor walked between two tented shops to an enclave opening beyond. Depending on how long a family had been in Sub City an enclave could be one room or several. People had been digging into the walls for decades, and this appeared from the smoothness of the enclave opening to be old. They reached an intersection with paths going left and right, taking the left one, and the left one again at the next intersection. They were suddenly in a large, nearly empty room. The ceiling was higher than most enclaves, maybe double Brian’s height. LED lighting strips lined the walls casting off the familiar cold white light of Sub City. “Follow me,” the surveyor said, walking over to a tattered pile of cloth on the floor and pulling upward on a buried handle, revealing the pile hid a door and a staircase down. The light emanating from the door was unfamiliar and yellow, reminiscent of the light cast off from the flame of the incinerator. The Surveyor trudged downward and Brian hesitantly followed, closing the door behind him at the request of the lord of that particular castle. The stairs led to another short hallway and just beyond was a room unlike Brian had ever seen.
The floor was covered in a clean, beige carpet; something Brian had only ever seen stained and worn after its journey to Sub City through the tubes for incineration. Tables made of unscratched wood, with lamps made from unbroken glass sat on the far walls. The light the lamps cast off was warm and more soothing than the harsh light of LED. At the far side of the room was a bed, larger and more ornate than any Brian had seen with clean and kept blankets and pillows… real pillows, adorning it. At the other end of the large chamber was something Brian had only ever seen parts of: a cushioned sitting apparatus, also in perfect condition upholstered in the skin of some long dead animal and colored a rich deep mossy green.
“Still think I’m from the dark?” The Surveyor said with pride at his hidden palace. He took off his hat to reveal his hair to be short and kept, and removed his coat to show he was better fed than most of those in Sub City. He hung both on a hook embedded in the wall before turning back to Brian. “Take off your disgusting clothes.”
“What?” Brian said, snapping out of his envy fog.
“You’re clothes. I need pictures. It may take some time to find a client for you. They can be very particular.” The surveyor took out a device with a small screen Brian knew as a Companion, something not usually seen in Sub City. Modesty wasn’t a luxury any more than privacy in Sub City, so Brian stripped down quickly. The Surveyor looked at him with some satisfaction and took pictures of him from all angles, having him flex and pose in various ways. After what seemed like dozens of pictures, it was over.
“I will see what I can find you, but no promises. I see people like you all the time. The Clients can be very particular.”
“I understand.” Brian said, putting his clothes back on.
“Do you know what fragMENtation is, boy?” The Surveyor asked, sitting down on the smooth surface of his green leather couch.
“I think so…” Brian said.
“You don’t know shit,” The Surveyor said with a slight chuckle. “The frag is transformation. He will become you. You will cease to be. Your consciousness will be stored in a machine, disassociated from your body – which will now be his. You will live for eternity as electrical current on a chip. They say the procedure is painless. You go to sleep and when you awake – or rather you think you awake, you’re in paradise… or hell. It’s really not possible to know.” The Surveyor said all this casually, taking off a glove and looking at his nails which Brian now realized were the cleanest he’d ever seen fingers in Sub City. “Perhaps you never wake up. Perhaps you’re erased. Either way, the client gets what they want and you get what you want.”
“Jess and Beth go to Actium,” Brian said. “They become top siders. They’re free.”
“Yes,” The Surveyor said standing and walking toward Brian who’d been standing at the end of the room awkwardly, not sure if he should or could sit down on any of the surfaces.
“You may go. Tell anyone of this place and not only will I not help you, I’ll make sure you and your sisters become candles. Do you understand me?” The Surveyor said, lifting Brian’s hand and inspecting his nails as he’d just inspected his own.
“I understand,” Brian repeated. The Surveyor looked at Brian’s hand another few seconds, shook his head in slight disappointment, and flitted his hand to shoo Brian away. Brian retraced his steps out of the enclave back onto the street.
Sitting down between the tents in the bazaar, Brian felt unsure and confused about what had happened. He’d fantasized and been so focused on feeding himself the narrative that he wanted this for Beth and Jess that it never occurred to him that he wanted to live. Seeing that man, made Brian want what he had. He’s never considered a long life. The inconceivable nature of such a thing had never factored into his drive toward getting out, until now. If The Surveyor called he’d give his life for them; but in being finally confronted with the reality of that fact made Brian realize he wanted to live. He wanted freedom. His desire and drive wasn’t entirely for his sisters, but also for himself. An overwhelming sadness took him and he wept, his tears falling into the compacted grey dirt of the street.
Cognitive Fragmented Storage Media, more commonly known as the FragMENtation procedure, had been invented in part by accident. Scientists for years had searched for a way to connect the human consciousness to a machine. At first the research provided insight into how brain functions worked, but eventually the entirety of a brain could be downloaded and augmented. Fearing alterations and sinister uses, governments banned the technology and further research. When a billionaire had died and his fortune fell to a previously unknown heir who’s attitude, intelligence, and knowledge bore a strikingly familiarity to his deceased benefactor – the world knew Pandora’s box had been opened. The rich would purchase the body of the young and beautiful to cheat death. The Government, funded by these men, wrote laws to protect the “heirs” – and a new market was born. The poor and dregs of society born into an unfair system of wealth and power where they had neither, and thus had little hope for respite. They were born as subservient in Sub City ungoverned by laws; or they lived as actual servants to the wealthy top side. There was no choice in the matter – if you were born top side to pave roads or build buildings as the working class, that’s what your life was. If you were born in Sub City to shovel trash into the incinerator to power those in the sun, that was your lot. The history of the frag flickered off the screen of the public terminal Brian was using as his time ran out.
Brian knew only the frag gave the possibility of a way out. He could live out his days in Sub City, eventually being driven to candling himself as his father had done, or he could pay the ultimate cost in exchange for the lives of his beloved sisters. Brian had thought that he’d already made that decision, but now he didn’t know if he could.
The meager money he made at the incinerator was partially paid in food – a chemically produced sludge designed as a perfect sustenance. The rest went toward what little luxury one could acquire in Sub City: Time on the net, an LED strip to light the enclave, a one inch square of chocoloate, credits toward a shower with real water – though that was something most were unwilling to splurge on. On the day Brian had met The Surveyor he’d taken the first shower he’d had in two years, partly out of shame for being so filthy in such an opulent place. That coupled with the money he’d spent on the public Net terminal was the most money Brian had ever spent in a day.
He didn’t tell his sisters about The frag or Actium. He didn’t know if he’d be selected and couldn’t bear to fill them with false hope. He loved them and felt compelled to give them a life beyond the dirt and smoke. Jess was the youngest, now eleven. She’d tried her lot at the incinerator herself, but stopped at Brian’s behest.
“We all end up there,” Brian had told her. “Don’t run toward it.”
Jess, thin and seemingly frail as everyone was in Sub City, bore a striking resemblance to their mother. She was only six when their mother had died, but every day since she’d grown more and more to look like her. She even started to sound like her – and Brian would ask her to tell him stories before bed. He’d close his eyes and listen to her make up tales about Top Side and drift off for a moment in the warm embrace of memory.
Conversely Beth had the look of their father and for some reason whenever he saw that in her, it gave Brian a rush of anger. He hated his father for candling and abandoning him and his sisters, and vowed that he’d protect them at all costs – even at the cost required by the frag. Beth was thirteen and more boyish than her sister. She already wore the scars on her hands on face from countless scrapes with other kids, most of which she’d started. She was small and wiry, but packed a ferocious temper and a mean streak for those who drew her ire. Brian had once come home from the incinerator to find her pinning a boy down by the shoulders and repeatedly kneeing him in the testicles. He pulled Beth off the boy and when he asked her what happened she wouldn’t say. Brian had done the best to shelter them, but an irony of Sub City was that in a place with no sun or sky there was no shelter. Everyone eventually gave in to the inherent madness of the place.
Seven months went by since he’d met the surveyor when he finally got the call. A girl, no more than ten, came to their enclave and delivered a note. Many of the young, unable to work the incinerator provided other logistical services; messengers, nurses, or sex for the depraved. Jess and Beth had spent time as messengers. This girl reminded Brian of his sisters and why he wanted to do this, as he opened the note; and then he remembered his doubts as well.
MEET AT THE DOOR. 1900 TOMORROW.
The note was unsigned but Brian knew.
The door was the exit to Sub City; the end of an old tunnel that had been walled off to create a failsafe if the incinerator were to melt down. It was seven feet of concrete with two thick steel doors in the middle. This passageway and the tubes were the only way things were ever brought into Sub City. To Brian’s knowledge, very few things left. Most of the people there had never seen the other side, and the things that did come in through the door weren’t meant for the masses. That seemed particularly true to Brian after having seen the favor bestowed upon the Surveyor’s opulent enclave.
Brian worked what he hoped was his last shift at the incinerator. He could’ve skipped, but he was filled with angst and needed a release. He wanted to experience the grind of that task one more time, hoping that the knowledge of his sisters never having to do that would give him bravery and strength for whatever was to come.
He wouldn’t have the time or money to shower. If this was the call, they’d hopefully take him as is. He hurried through the streets that he’d run through every day. He knew every divot, every piece of rubble, and avoided them all deftly as he lightly jogged, reaching the door at 1630. The doors were open, but as always guarded by government personnel, always clad entirely in black. At five after The Surveyor appeared and approached Brian.
“Good news my boy,” The Surveyor said to him, the grin on his face showing off his teeth, now perfect and white. No doubt payment for some other person being selected. “Someone wants you.” Brian studied his face during the long pause after he’d told him, taking his time before finally responding.
“Now,” the surveyor said through thin, tense lips. “Come, Come.”
“What about my sisters? They’ll be going to Actium?” Brian asked as more of a demand than a question.
“If you’re chosen, Yes. It’s all been arranged. Follow me.” The Surveyor walked toward the door as the men guarding it, dressed in the same manner as the men who escorted Michael’s family so long ago, parted to let him and Brian pass.
Brian was nervous, and scared for his sisters – but couldn’t stop his feet from moving. They walked through the large opening of the door. Beyond was a cage and a series of doors, all seemingly designed to keep anyone who may get past the guards from proceeding any further. At each gate the guards, all dressed in black, let The Surveyor and Brian pass until finally they found themselves standing in a corridor bigger than any Brian had ever seen. The walls curved upwards, as if they were at the bottom of a giant concrete pipe. The top of the arch was some thirty feet above Brian’s head and as he looked he marveled that man could create such a thing. In the distance two bright LED’s shone toward them and quickly approached. Once close enough Brian recognized the lights as coming from a car, something he’d only ever seen on the net. It came to a stop some ten feet from The Surveyor and Brian, the only noise emanating was the crunch of the tires on the moist earth it rode on, its method of locomotion otherwise silent. First a man dressed in the familiar all black exited the car, followed by the passenger door opening to have shadow of a man emerge. Helped by the man in black, he walked with considerable difficulty and appeared to Brian to be the oldest person he’d ever seen. Sub City wasn’t a place for a long life span. People died horribly, starving, and young. A broken arm in Sub City could mean starving to death. This man, his hair sparse and silver, his skin thin and translucent to the veins underneath was an age seemingly inconceivable to someone who’d spent his life in the squalor of Sub City.
“How old is he?” Brian whispered to The Surveyor as the man ambled toward them.
“Old.” The response came from the man, his voice dry and graveled with age. “I’m old. Too old. And you are young.” His words were slow and deliberate. He approached Brian and inspected him deeply, reaching out and feeling his arms. “Lift your shirt,” the old man said. Brian obliged, not quite sure how to react to this altogether alien situation.
“He’s as photographed,” The Surveyor offered, “Perhaps better. It appears he’s taken care of himself since the initial images.
“I have!” Brian said in an attempt to seize his opportunity.
“Indeed,” said the old man who then whispered something into the man, dressed all in black attire, who’d accompanied him. Without another word he turned and made his way slowly back to the car, joined by his aid, and the car left as silently as it arrived.
“Now what?” Brian said.
“Now we wait.” The Surveyor’s answer came along with a hand on Brian’s back as he ushered him back toward the door. Once back inside Sub City The Surveyor walked off without a word leaving Brian alone with his thoughts. As he had after he’d first met The Surveyor, Brian sat on the street to think about his life and what he wanted. It had been months of trying to tell himself that this was what he wanted for his sisters. That this was the best thing. That he’d end up candling his way into the incinerator before he’d ever get close to being old. It didn’t matter that he knew he wanted more; that his wants had bubbled up from the pit of his stomach to scream loudly in his ear that he wasn’t ready to give up.
By the time Brian reached his enclave, the note had already come – this time delivered by two men clad in black, ready to escort Brian and his sisters to the door. Brian didn’t need to say his goodbyes. He’d isolated himself in pursuit of his goal and was a ghost in the community; a silent runner, known only by persistence and routine as he jogged the same route every day. He helped his sisters gather their meager belongings. They didn’t have much. An extra set of clothes each, some things they’d made to act as toys when they were younger. He didn’t need to explain. He’d turned to them and before he could get a word out Beth put a hand up and told him, “Actium. We know.” She hugged him, and Jess joined. Brian could feel the wetness from both their faces, but they’d known. Of course they knew about The frag, though it wasn’t Brian who had told them. “We’ll never see you again?” It broke Brian’s heart but he was desperately trying to convince himself this was the right choice. They would have a better life. He could do that for them. That could be his legacy.
They made their way to the door. The Surveyor was already there, still dressed in his coat, gloves, and grey hat. “You must be Bethany.” He took her hand gently and shook it. “And you must be Jessica,” he took her hand as well. “Let’s get going then.” He turned and headed toward the door. Beth and Jess looked at Brian, not knowing what to expect on the other side. Brian felt nervous, and knew his sisters must be too. They had seemingly, nearly an in instant, learned about this whole ordeal and simply went along for the ride in loyalty to their brother. In Sub City you didn’t pass on a chance to leave, and though they wept for the impending loss of their brother, they believed him when he told them it was the best thing for them all.
As they climbed in the first car any of them had ever ridden in, knowing only the name of their apparent destination, they were all overcome with awe and held hands. It didn’t take long for the car to exit the tunnel and they all saw the sun for the first time.
Ones and zeroes; days and nights. It’s all the same thing. There were minutes, cycles, nanoseconds where he remembered what time was. Other times everything seemed endless. Beth and Jess were little girls playing on the floor of the enclave, and then a moment later they were dancing in the sunlight of Actium. Ones and Zeroes; days and nights. He danced with them. He ran, oh did he run. Sometimes the run felt like a thousand miles; other times a few feet. There were moments, or maybe years when he remembered it all: Sub City, the frag, his home in Actium before the procedure… but time had no real meaning, not that he could remember. Ones and zeroes, days and nights… it’s all the same thing now.
For much of my life I’ve been screaming at the wind that the tenacity of an idea doesn’t necessarily instill it with value. Simply because we’ve always done it a certain way doesn’t mean we shouldn’t re-evaluate to see if there is a path that is more efficient, more effective. Too often it seems that people find themselves immobile in their complacency toward tradition and repetition.
This concept is something I’ve constantly tried to employ in my own life as a parent, as a professional, and as a student. It’s not remotely easy. In fact, there is beautiful simplistic innocence that comes with doing something the way it’s always been done. How can it be wrong? It’s always been done that way. What’s more is that it’s often not wrong.
As a parent, this couldn’t be more relevant. I’m constantly questioning “conventional” wisdom with my children and forging my own path with them. There are lots of good things in conventional thinking – but also lots of stifling things that don’t make sense to me. It’s true for me in religion, in marriage, in sports, in work, and in life. The thing I seem to always have at my disposal is skepticism.
With progress comes good and bad. The beauty of evaluation is that it’s constant. It’s fluid. It’s an ideal that must constantly be applied. Whether it be religion, or belief, or politics, or social issues – having the gravitas to step back and ask the simple question of whether there is a better way for you, the individual, to accomplish that task; and then broadening the question – do we, as a family… or a community… or a city… or a state… or a nation, have audacity to ask the question of not just what are we trying to accomplish, but how are we going to accomplish it.
The tenacity, or staying power, or immortality of an idea doesn’t instill it with value. It may still be valuable – but just because we’ve seemingly always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s still the right way.
Writing for me is oxygen. It’s the only form of artistic expression I feel I can adequately do. There is often a screaming chaos inside of me, and as I can’t paint, play an instrument, or sing to save my life, the written word is my sword; the period and semi-colon the arrows in my sling. For me, having the opportunity to share my most beloved expression with strangers and professors is an honor and a privilege. I do so knowing that it will be judged and evaluated, but I also do so knowing that it’s judged and evaluated so that it can be better. It can be sharper, tighter, and ultimately more refined. That’s the beauty of writing – it’s ever evolving. On a whim I may change a word in a paragraph that has remained static for months. I may add an adjective, or change gears and delete a sentence entirely. Neither is wrong, but both aren’t right either. Outside of grammar and structure, and even withing sometimes, there is no right or wrong in writing. There is beauty, there is art, and there is effort. Ultimately, it’s the ultimate form of breaking away from complacency. What happens on the page is different moment to moment, day to day, month to month.