The Envelope

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It was a small town. It was a boring town. But boring was the way that Kevin liked it.

His life was fine until he’d gotten an envelope that couldn’t be opened.

He was a person who liked routine. He craved routine, to be more precise. Every morning he woke up, went to work, had lunch at the same café, and went home.

Kevin worked at a grocery store, working the checkout line on weekday mornings. Mornings were easy. The movements were so repetitive, the swiping of the barcodes, the sorting through the register… For hours at a time, Kevin could live with his eyes closed. He didn’t need to think. It wasn’t that he didn’t like thinking, he just never had much of anything worth thinking about.

After work, he went to the café. Everybody there knew him. It was a run by a family, the mom, the dad, the three daughters. They would share some small talk, but they weren’t precisely friends.

There was somebody new in the café that day. Kevin knew all of the lunchtime regulars. It was a young boy, probably still a student. He was sitting at the table next to Kevin’s, examining a crinkled white envelope.

Every once in awhile, the boy would look up, and their eyes would meet. Then he’d look back down at the envelope, flexing his fingers, making the paper crackle with every movement.

Kevin was eating a tuna salad sandwich. He almost always got the tuna salad sandwich on weekends. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were typically days for grilled cheese sandwiches, while the Tuesdays and Thursdays were for bacon cheeseburgers. The only reason that he would ever break from this tradition was if the café had run out of ingredients for his preferred meal. Often when he came in, he wouldn’t have to bother ordering. One of the daughters would simply gesture to a seat and bring out the day’s lunch.

He hadn’t noticed, so absorbed in his food, and so absorbed in trying not to think of anything, but the boy at the other table had stood up and wandered over. Suddenly the boy was sitting across from him.

Kevin looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t have a clue what to say.

“Hey,” the boy said. The envelope was tight in his hand.

“Hello,” Kevin said.

The boy tilted his head, as if searching for something on Kevin’s face. “Can I ask you a favor? It won’t be any trouble.”

Kevin’s eyes were on the envelope. “I suppose not. Who are you?”

The boy shifted in his seat. He was anxious about something. “My name’s Bryan.”

“Kevin,” Kevin said, reaching out a hand and shaking his. He did it automatically, feeling that he had no choice. “I’ve never seen you here.”

“I don’t live in town,” the boy told him, shrugging slightly. His eyes were on the envelope too. “I’m from a couple cities over.”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “How old are you?”

Bryan smiled, like it was a joke. “Seventeen.”

“What are you doing out here?”

His smile grew. “I don’t quite know, to be completely honest. This morning I stole my dad’s motorcycle, and I started riding down the highway. No direction, no destination.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “You ran away from home.”

“I did,” Bryan said, flapping the envelope against his open palm.

“You have a license? You allowed to ride a motorcycle?”

“I suppose not. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Kevin studied his face. Bryan’s tone seemed politely cheerful, but there was still an ounce of disappointment hidden behind it all. “Why did you leave?” Kevin asked.

“I had some problems with my dad. Nothing special. But… anyway, I have a favor I need to ask you.”

Kevin said nothing.

Bryan lifted the envelope to eye level. “I need you to take this. I don’t want it anymore.”

“You don’t want it,” Kevin repeated.

“A few years ago, my mom was in the hospital, sick. The docs gave her a one in ten chance of living.” He flapped the envelope again, the paper crinkling. “My mom always liked handwritten letters. She said there was something nostalgic about them, something… melancholic.” The word sounded strange coming from his mouth.

“That letter is from your mother,” Kevin concluded.

Bryan looked at it again, as if he hadn’t realized he was holding it. “My dad didn’t like to visit her in the hospital. I wanted to go alone, so I could talk to her without him looming in the back of the room, listening and judging…” He sighed deeply. “About a week after we last visited, my mom sent this letter. But she was dead before the letter arrived.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say.

Again, Bryan flapped the envelope against his palm. “My dad never saw the letter. I got it out of the mail, and I hid it in my room.”

“Why?”

He sneered. “My dad didn’t deserve to see it, didn’t deserve to know her last words.” His face fell a moment later, like a deflating balloon. “I didn’t deserve to read it either. So I never opened it.”

“Why?” Kevin asked again.

Bryan looked away, his gaze on anything but the envelope. “I don’t know, really. I had a fight with my dad last night. Not a big fight, or at least no bigger than any of the others. But I was done with him. It was the last time. So I left, and the only reason I stopped here was because the bike was running out of gas.”

He set the envelope on the table and slid it over to Kevin.

“I need you to take the letter. I don’t want it anymore.”

“Why?” Kevin asked for a third time. He felt foolish for repeating himself. “Why me?”

Bryan smiled, puffing air out of his nose. “You’re somebody. As long as it’s not me or my father, I don’t care who reads that letter.”

Kevin picked it up. He’d expected it to feel special, have a certain weight to it, but it was just crinkled paper. He didn’t want it. It was difficult to say precisely why, but it seemed that this letter wasn’t meant to be read. “Do you have any idea what it says?”

“I have no idea. I keep thinking about the kind of ink she used. Black ink? Red ink? Blue ink? Maybe it was written with a pencil. Maybe it’s written in perfect calligraphy. Maybe it’s meaningless scribbles, a desperate message from a dying mind. Maybe the pages are blank, one last crazy joke to infuriate my father.” He shook his head. “I have no idea. And I have no intention of finding out.”

Kevin stared at the paper, at the address on the front. The address was typed onto a sticker, likely printed off by the hospital. There really was no way of knowing what sort of ink had been used. You couldn’t see through the paper. “The town on the address,” Kevin said. “You really have come a long way.”

Bryan stood up. “I have.” Then as he turned away, he added, “I’m sorry.” It sounded like he meant it.

The boy returned to his table, eating the rest of his meal quickly. He was finished within a matter of minutes. He stood up, paid at the register, thanked the staff, and left. Kevin could hear the motorcycle revving outside.

Kevin wanted to open the envelope right there, right that instant. But something held him back. After he ate his lunch, he brought the envelope home, but still he didn’t open it. He decided to sleep on it, and save it for tomorrow.

Still, he didn’t open it.

This Is How The World Works

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She was leaning against the vending machine when The Teacher saw her.

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” The Teacher asked.

The Student shrugged. “Probably.”

The Teacher chuckled. “I’d like you to come with me.”

She stared at him for a moment, but then decided that resisting was useless. “Fine,” she exhaled, and she started to follow him.

“How have your classes been?” The Teacher asked.

“Boring,” The Student admitted, though she immediately regretted her honesty.

But The Teacher only laughed. “I understand how you feel.” They turned down a hallway, a hallway of the school that The Student had never walked down before. There were no doors lining the walls, and at the end of the hall was only a lonely elevator.

“Am I in trouble?” The Student asked, feeling confused.

“I don’t think so,” The Teacher shook his head. “I think it’s time that you learned how the world works.” He pressed the down button on the elevator, yet as far as The Student knew, there were no floors below them.

The Student asked, “Where are we going?”

The Teacher smiled. “Downstairs. There’s something that I’d like to show you.”

The elevator doors slid open. The Teacher beckoned The Student to follow him inside, and he pressed a button for a floor labeled “E”.

“What does the E stand for?” The Student asked.

The Teacher looked at her with another smile. “Everything,” he said simply.

The Student stared forward at the closing elevator doors, uncertain how to respond. She still wasn’t sure if she was in trouble or not.

“Why is it that you skip classes so frequently?” The Teacher asked. “Why do you suppose it is that you do so poorly in school?”

“Because I don’t care about grades,” The Student said. “Everybody just assumes that if you do well in school, then you’re going to do well in life. But I know that even if I were to ace all of my classes and go to a great college, I’m not guaranteed a good job. Academics don’t correlate to success.”

The Teacher laughed. “What do you want to do when you’re older that you feel academics can’t guide you towards?”

“I’m interested in the arts,” The Student told him. “Art doesn’t make money. It doesn’t matter how much people appreciate artistic talent, because it’s always the businessman that gets all of the profit.”

“If there’s anything that I can say about you, it’s that you’re very intelligent. Obviously grades aren’t equivalent to smarts. But aren’t you at all curious about the things that you could learn from your classes?”

The Student shook her head. “Anything that I learn in class, I can just as easily learn on my own. Besides, the other kids don’t like me. If I’m so smart, then why am I not even remotely successful?”

The Teacher smiled. “Just because a person is born intelligent, that doesn’t mean that they are assured success. That wouldn’t be fair to the lesser people out there. If you’re intelligent, then you have to prove it. You need to earn your success, just like everybody else.”

The elevator doors slid open, and The Student was overwhelmed by the sound of drilling, and power tools. Before her was a large factory, an unreasonable size for something hidden underneath a school. “What is this?”

“This is our factory,” The Teacher said. “Follow me. I’ll show you around.”

The two of them moved down sprawling assembly lines, and past hundreds of workers diligently constructing objects of all sorts. “What is it that they’re making?” The Student asked.

“Everything,” The Teacher told her. He pushed open a set of doors, revealing rows of people all working over benches with fine tools. They were clearly building something, but there was nothing on the benches to see.

“What are these people doing?” The Student asked.

The Teacher led her down a row, watching the workers with his face alight. “These people are building particles. Every particle in the world is created down here, and each individual one is given hours of thought and energy.”

“But there are billions of particles in the world,” The Student said in amazement.

“Billions of billions of billions. And every single one was built down here in this factory. Every mote of dust hanging in the air. Every stone along the sidewalk. Yet nobody ever stops to think about how long of a journey every stone has taken throughout the history of our planet. Some stones have traveled around the world twice over, and hardly a single person bothers to dream of the incredible places that a stone has seen. Even the air that you breathe was created down here, air that has traveled across the planet and back countless times.”

“I’ve never wondered about any of this,” The Student said.

The Teacher smiled. “Nothing in this world should be taken for granted. These workers have all put a lot of effort into making our planet.”

As The Teacher led her down more and more rows of conveyer belts and machinery, The Student asked, “Why do you suppose it is that people don’t like me? No matter how hard I try, I’ve never been able to feel like I fully belong somewhere.”

“People are liars and manipulators. People do bad things all the time, and often without regret. You shouldn’t feel a need to rely on them so much.”

“I understand that,” The Student said. “Sometimes I even dislike myself.”

“I can’t personally refute any of your flaws, but I can certainly question whether they are flaws in the first place.”

The Student narrowed her eyes. “How can you be sure of that?”

The Teacher opened another set of doors. “Let me show you what people are made of.”

Hanging from the wall was an enormous blueprint, taller than a building, depicting the human form. Beneath it, workers were busy drawing diagrams and typing at computer screens.

“Are they designing people?” The Student asked.

“They are,” The Teacher said. “Each person is assembled from the individual particles that were built in the previous room. In here, the humans are constructed piece by piece.”

“That sounds very difficult.”

The Teacher said, “It is. Humans are unbelievably complex. It would be easier to build humans as simple beings, beings that are able to go throughout their lives without a problem in the world, but complexity is more fun.”

The Student tilted her head. “More fun?”

“Yes. The humans that we build down here are designed to be flawed. If they didn’t have flaws, then what obstacles would they have to overcome throughout their lives? How could they grow if they didn’t have problems that needed solving? Without their flaws, people would only be walking calculators, and that wouldn’t lead to a very interesting life.”

“But flaws make life so much harder!” The Student disagreed.

The Teacher shook his head. “Think of all of the books that you’ve read, and all of the films that you’ve seen. The hero of the story always has an obstacle to overcome, a challenge to rise against. Would a story be worth your time if there was no conflict? Such a story wouldn’t be interesting. Fortunately for us, the world is interesting.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” said The Student.

The Teacher raised a finger. “Let me show you one more thing.” He guided her towards another set of doors.

In the next room, a tall computer screen stood before them, glowing with numbers and diagrams. The Teacher stepped up to a small console, and he tapped at the keys.

“What does it mean to be happy?” he asked her.

The Student took a moment to consider the question. “To not have any sadness.”

“But then what does it mean to be sad?” The Teacher asked.

The Student couldn’t think of an answer.

The Teacher pressed a button on the console, and a diagram appeared on the computer screen, a wavy line moving up and down. “Happiness and sadness coexist. You can’t have one without the other. How can you truly appreciate your happiest moments if you’ve never had any sadness to compare it with?”

“I guess you couldn’t,” The Student said.

“The way that we design our humans doesn’t allow for consistent happiness. If a human is happy for too long, then his or her emotional state will return to neutral.”

“But why would you do that? Why would you make everlasting happiness an unreachable goal?”

The Teacher gazed up at the graph on the computer screen. “How can a person grow and learn if they are happy all the time? They would have no motivation to improve themselves. Do you see this chart?”

The Student examined the graph. “It’s a wave function, constantly going up and down.”

“And that’s what life is. Constant ups and downs. For every moment of happiness, there is a moment of equal sadness. We wanted to be fair when we were designing humans. If the happiness and sadness always balance out, then no one person lives a happier life than another.”

“But I don’t want to feel sad in order to feel happy,” The Student said.

The Teacher replied, “As I said before, you can’t appreciate happiness without a proper comparison. Do you appreciate your ability to breathe?”

The Student shook her head. “I don’t think that I’ve really thought about it.”

“Hold you breath,” The Teacher said.

The Student held her breath.

“The longer that you hold your breath, the longer that your lungs wish to have more oxygen, and the better you will feel when you finally inhale again. Do you understand?”

With her cheeks puffed out, The Student nodded.

“So the next time that you have a very good day, take a moment to think about what you went through to be in such a state. For every good day, you have to suffer. You have truly earned your happiness.”

Again, The Student nodded.

The Teacher told her, “Breathe.”

And The Student did breathe. As she felt the air reach her lungs, she felt that she understood everything.

The Teacher led her through another set of doors, but this time there was only another elevator at the end of an empty hall. “The tour is over,” he told The Student. “I hope that you have learned something.”

“I have,” she told him.

The Teacher pressed the up button on the elevator. “This is why the world can’t be perfect. Perfection is no fun. If everything in the world were built to be flawless, then there would be nothing for us to fix.”

The elevator doors opened, and The Teacher sent them back up to the school.

“Flaws are wonderful things,” The Teacher told The Student. “So many great things have happened on this planet because people wanted to fix our problems. Without these problems to solve, people would have nothing to do, and nobody would lift a finger for anything.”

The Student nodded. “The world sucks because there’s no better way to have it.”

The Teacher laughed. “Yes, the world may suck, and your life may seem like a mess, but you can at least appreciate that it’s a wonderful mess, and it shouldn’t be traded for anything else.”

The elevator doors opened, and they were back within the school.

“I suppose you should get going to class, then,” The Teacher said to her.

In response, The Student smiled.

Bridges

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She fell in love with bridges.

She always marveled at the mere idea of them. A pathway, arcing through the sky, crossing the water. And it was a miracle that they could be built at all, somehow placing those supports so deep in the river, somehow holding all of that weight for decades.

Her father often told her how important it was to never burn bridges.

It was when she was little, when she was ten, that she found her love. She had snuck out of home, told her parents she was going to her friend’s place up the street. And she went all the way out to the main street, and she went all the way out to the bridge that crossed the river into downtown. She’d brought all the money that she’d saved up, and she went to a music store to buy the new Muse album. And then she had a couple dollars left over, so she got herself an ice cream cone.

Nobody questioned it. It wasn’t really a city where people questioned things.

And on the way home, she crossed back over that bridge, and there was a man there, standing at the edge. He had been looking out at the river, staring out to the bay. Must’ve been new in the city. He should’ve looked sad, but he looked impressed, but about what, she didn’t know.

And he looked at her. He looked at her and smiled. Then he climbed over the edge and jumped.

She never told anybody. What was the point?

The Muse album was great, by the way. It was everything she hoped it to be.

What was it about bridges that she loved so much? It wasn’t anything particular. It was the possibilities. It was the aesthetic. It was the power.

She never talked about it. It was her secret love. One time when she was a freshman, she was taking the bus home, and she saw them fixing the bridge on the far other end of town. She got out and watched, from her own bridge, the bridge where she’d seen the man fall.

They had these boats, and they had all these big trucks. She’d waited there for hours, watching, until the sun was going down. Her parents got mad at her for disappearing, and she didn’t want to say what she’d been doing.

She wanted to build. She drew maps. She learned the physics, and the weight distribution. She watched shows. She saw books once, at the library, but she didn’t dare check them out. She wanted nothing more than to get a boat and sail under the bridges, see them from below, see them from an angle that nobody ever thought to look from.

She rarely thought about that jumping man. And she knew that she shouldn’t, but she wanted to see somebody else, watch somebody else fall. One night, when the whole house was asleep, she gotten onto her mom’s computer and watched videos of people jumping, but most of them were jumping from buildings, and it just wasn’t the same. There was something about standing over the center of the river, standing where the arc is the highest, and falling straight into the middle. The symmetry was unbearable.

And the dripping. The dripping of water. It had a sound to it.

On windy days, the water crashed against the sides of the bridges, and the air whistled through the holes, and the gaps, and she could hear the Earth whispering at her, beckoning.

She wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t going to jump or anything. She just wanted to get a closer look.

Some bridges had a smell to them. She’d gone to the coast once, on vacation. There was this big bridge they’d crossed over, on the way into the hills, for a hike. And she could smell the bridge, like the sea, and she could almost see the barnacles clinging to the legs. She wanted to climb down and touch them, to feel them.

Sometimes she thought that she felt a little bit too much, that her emotions could never be tamed when she needed it most. Bridges could never be moved. They were impossibly sturdy, fighting gravity, fighting the waves, fighting the water that tried to whittle them away.

When she thought about that day, she almost never thought about the man who jumped. She thought about the ice cream. A scoop of raspberry and a scoop of vanilla, with hazelnuts sprinkled on top. Only a dollar eighty. She’d never found that place again, or maybe they’d just upped the prices.

It was the cold and the wind, or maybe it was the stillness. She didn’t know. She didn’t know why she loved the bridges. She had so many guesses, but none of them tasted right in her mouth. Not that she’d ever say them aloud.

Mom brought a brochure home once, from some city she’d traveled too, and it had a wide, majestic bridge on the front. The brochure went missing, hidden under a bed. What do normal teenagers hide under their beds? Money? Liquor? Certainly not brochures.

But some nights, she took it out from under her bed, and she touched the cover, wanted to touch the concrete, touch the steel. Hear the traffic going by. Taste that ice cream again, a scoop of raspberry and a scoop of vanilla, with hazelnuts sprinkled on top.

She’d forgotten the man’s face. She’d forgotten it a long time ago. Maybe she’d never remembered it at all. But she remembered the look he’d given her. The smile. The look of wonder as he stared down the river, into the bay. The grace with which he’d climbed up onto the railing.

He hadn’t jumped. He’d flown.

 

Whispers

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“This is one is very dark.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Harvard proudly. “That’s one of our best samples.”

Dr. Eloise Verde stepped closer to the cell, her fingernails sliding down the glass. The Being was almost impossible to see, nothing more than a shadow. “I can barely see it. But I think I can hear it.”

“You don’t hear it,” Harvard told her. “It’s not an auditory sensation. Purely a mental one. But this isn’t what I wanted to show you. We’ve found something better.”

Mrs. Harvard was a tall, broad-shouldered woman. Her hair was cut short, and her posture was so impeccable that she looked almost uncanny when she took her long strides forward. Had she not become a physicist, it would have been easy to picture her as an athlete, perhaps a swimmer.

Harvard kept moving at a brisk pace, barely giving Dr. Verde a chance to glance in the other rooms. Most of them were apparently unoccupied cells, glass boxes that showed no traces of having ever been touched, perfect cubes. Other cells were used to store equipment. It was difficult to be certain what precisely Verde was looking at when she only had a chance to spare a glance.

They were deep underground. Deep, deep underground. Nothing came in without authorization. Nothing got out without authorization. Nothing so much as made a sound without authorization.

Verde was not quite sure how she had gotten authorization. Her research paper on visual and auditory hallucinations certainly wasn’t an obvious step towards getting closer to these Beings.

Dr. Verde was a well-respected neuroscientist. It hadn’t been her first paper on hallucinations, but it was the first to look at such a granular level, how individual neurons within the human brain would light up for no reason whatsoever. Pure randomness. Brains make mistakes all the time, and they don’t have to have a cause.

That was where Mrs. Harvard disagreed.

“Every day, people are deceived,” Harvard had said, only moments after Verde had entered the facility. “Every day, every second, an idea pops into somebody’s head, and there is no traceable origin. Not traceable with modern technology, of course. What caught my attention in your paper, Dr. Verde, was the search for an external event that caused these hallucinations. Ah! But they are not hallucinations. By definition, a hallucination must not have an external cause.”

“The cause can’t be internal,” Verde had told her. “I’ve spent over a decade searching. That was why I looked towards radio waves, or x-rays. There must be something imperceptible that influences us.”

“There is,” Mrs. Harvard had said, as though it were nothing. “There are Beings that have been whispering in our ears.”

That was when they had stepped into the first decontamination chamber.

It was the first of at least eight. Dr. Verde had lost count after that.

Still, after exploring this place for over an hour and a half, she felt as though she couldn’t believe what she was seeing, if she was really seeing anything at all. Struggling to keep step with Mrs. Harvard, Verde kept glancing back and forth, back and forth, rubbing her left thumb over her right wrist like she always did when she was anxious. But she wasn’t anxious. Was she?

She was only anxious when she caught glimpses of dark shapes, almost invisible, lurking on the other side of the glass.

“They don’t like us very much, I’m afraid,” Harvard said. “You can see how they move closer. They can’t see us. They have no eyes. But they can sense. And I’m sure that they are frustrated, unable to touch us with their foul breath.”

Again, Verde glimpsed a shadow, a faint shape on the other side, moving, floating, drifting. “What do they want from us?”

“We don’t know. But they’ve been following us for generations, giving us little sparks of ideas, fractions of a thought, guiding us towards some greater purpose. Sometimes people listen. Sometimes people don’t. For all we know, they’ve been pushing us down a path since the dawn of time, convincing the first men to use tools, convincing the monkeys to get down from the trees, convincing the ancient sea creatures to try walking on land…” Mrs. Harvard’s voice faded, as though she’d been struck by nostalgia. Yet still, her pace down the hall was unwavering and strict.

“How did you catch them?” Verde asked. “How did you get them into the cells?”

“The first step was to detect them, to bring them into a tangible form. The Beings are tricky, on a plane of existence that we hadn’t even considered before. But we tracked them down. Yes, we found them.” She was smug. “Once you know how something works, you know how it breaks. I’m sure you can tell that these cells aren’t made of ordinary glass, and if you were to step inside, you would feel the vibrations of our security system, pulsating out a frequency that keeps them at bay.”

“Fascinating,” Verde whispered.

With a click of the heels, Mrs. Harvard stopped walking and spun to the left, suddenly standing perfectly still. “This is what I wanted to show you. This is the greatest sample we’ve ever captured.”

Dr. Verde’s jaw hung open. She stepped closer to the cell.

Harvard asked, “Do you like what you see? And you are really seeing this time. It isn’t a trick.”

The shadow had a shape. It had arms, legs, a head. It was like the shadow of a person, but it had a form, three dimensions. And it was only a few inches away, on the other side of the glass.

“This Being is different somehow,” Harvard said boldly. “It was a trick to catch, I can tell you that. And, oh, what I would give to get it to speak again.”

Verde recoiled. “Speak?”

She shook her head, tightening her lips. “We had it in captivity for only a few hours before we heard it. All of us. Everybody in the facility, even the folks all the way upstairs. I know that ‘speak’ isn’t the precise word. It spoke to us with thoughts, and the same words entered all of our minds.”

Dr. Verde’s mouth had gone dry. “What were the words?” Out of the corner of her eye, it was watching her intently, shimmering like ripples in a pond.

Mrs. Harvard cleared her throat. “We have what you’re looking for.”

Verde looked back at the shadow on the other side, automatically taking a step backward. “What… What does that mean?”

“It means that they are here by choice,” Harvard answered. “Don’t you see? These shapeless creatures… They whisper into our ears, giving us ideas, guiding us along. If they can communicate with us, even from within their cells…” Her eyes moved to the floor. “I’ll wager that these Beings could escape whenever they wanted to.”

Beyond the glass, still watching intently, the shadow lifted its arm, a mess of blackness wobbling upwards.

And the Being waved.

 

Two Packs

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“Three,” Shelby said aloud.

The only thing that he had told her was to count her cigarettes. For somebody trying to quit, it didn’t feel like the best advice. What use was it? She’d told him that she smoked more cigs than she could count. Was it a joke?

She didn’t want to see him again next week. But she had to. She had to stop buying so many packs, or she wouldn’t be able to afford gas, and definitely not the motels. Cash is scarce, and she didn’t know anybody around these parts, so it wasn’t like she could sell dubs again until she went back home.

Home was a long ways away. Home wasn’t far. Where was she, anyway?

Shelby dragged the cigarette from her mouth, looking out over the highway. Almost noon, probably. Ready for some lunch, for sure. She’d spotted a vending machine by the stairs, maybe get some chips or somethin’. Probably a buck fifty for a bag, so she’d want to wait another hour or so, keep herself from spending too high.

A red truck rolled by, with a kid in the backseat. Not her kid. No chance.

Ever since Marty had left her, this was her life. She was better off alone. Every time she tried to settle down with a good man, he turned bad. Had he turned bad himself, or had it been her? And when she had a son, stupid enough to think that she was ready, he’d left before he was ten.

This was her day, every day. Wake up in a motel. Walk the streets. Look for that boy. Come back. Get in the car. Drive. Drive where? Anywhere. Anywhere but here.

Since when does a nine-year-old have the stones to run away from home? Where does he go? Not enough friends in school, right? At least, none that Shelby knew about, and Marty had been long gone by then.

Far away, far far away, she thought that she could see a sign for an IHOP, and her stomach grumbled. She pulled another drag from her cigarette and patted at her belly, wondering when she’d allow herself to have a good meal again. Marty had that warehouse job, and he would bring her out to McDonalds, or maybe Baja Fresh, damn near every day. But then he’d lost that job, when she’d convinced him to stand up to his boss. Fat chance that had of working, but she’d told him to do it anyway.

Last gas station, she’d seen a big map on the back wall. Not a single familiar name. How far had she come? Couldn’t even be bothered to read the signs on the highway. But she loved a good map. The lines, the shapes… She wondered how many more days it would be before she drove off the edge of that map.

She had to stop running. He was going to help her stop smoking. He was going to help her turn her life around, he said. She had to come back next week, if by some crazy chance she ever found this place again. Not that he’d help. He’d leave, like she’d done to every other man who crossed her.

Shelby drew another cigarette from the pack, not a moment after flicking away the old butt. “Four,” she said aloud, and the lighter clicked.

 

 

She wasn’t used to staying still, but she stayed still for him.

Shelby flicked the lighter and lit the cig. “Seven,” she said aloud.

She had her feet up on the dash, sitting in the parking lot. The meetings weren’t supposed to be “therapy” per se. They were just… people who wanted to talk. People who had stories to tell. People who HAD to tell that story, HAD to get it out into the air, because changing your story into sound, out of brain circuitry, and out of that pure emotion, it released it. Shelby always knew that release was necessary. Keep anything inside for too long, you’re bound to explode.

The building was still emptying out. The meetings took place in the attic of a church. Not in the pews of the church. Not in the basement. The attic. Shelby wasn’t sure why. It was dusty, and smelled like a bunch of old farts. Maybe the people who came here were old farts, not in age, but in how much they had seen.

It was night out by the time the meeting ended. And here Shelby was, sucking on one more cigarette with her feet up on the dash, her car window rolled down, and the radio blabbing on about the economy, and some baccalaureate smartass was going on about politics and foreign policy and yak yak yak.

She didn’t see him come out the building. Maybe he was still in there, talking to somebody. He was religious, she’d learned recently. He was good friends with the woman who ran these meetings. They’d been assigned as a pair today, as they had last week, and the week before, and the week before that, and they talked to each other. They talked, and then they listened. There were too many people at the meetings to all go one at a time. Too many screw-ups out in the world, too many words to spit out. Best to split into pairs, gives you as much time as possible to jabber on until your throat goes sore.

Four weeks she’d been in this town. The town had a name, but she kept forgetting it. No point in remembering. What’s the point of a name, anyway? The place is the place, no matter what you call it. Towns were all the same out here, and she’d seen a lot of towns around these parts. It had been such a long time since she’d slid behind the wheel and just driven driven driven until the next town, whether it was a half hour out or a hundred mile ride.

She wasn’t used to staying still, but she stayed still for him.

She ground the ash into the dashboard, pulled her legs back down to find the pedals. “Seven,” she said again.

They were supposed to give one piece of advice every week. Just one piece. They probably figured that if they gave too much advice at once, it’d sound a heck of a lot like complaining. The stupid things that’ll set a person off. Too much advice? Too harsh a critique? What’s the point of coming to this place for help you aren’t gonna listen to it?

He always gave the same advice, every week. Count your cigarettes. Kinda lame, wasn’t it? That was the best that he could come up with to cut back on the cigs? Count ‘em? They get smoked one way or another, whether you know how many you’ve swallowed or not.

But she did it. It seemed wise, somehow, giving advice that seemed so trivial, so simple and dull. Out of anybody else’s mouth, would’ve sounded like total bullshit. But he had this WAY about him. This WAY that he made the suggestion, like he knew that it would even work, like one of those cheesy self-help books that sounds like it’ll turn you into a total laughing stock, but you gotta do it anyway to turn your whole life around.

She didn’t know why she listened to him. But she did. And she kept coming back. She switched motels a couple weeks ago, but she stayed in town. Couldn’t get much further than that seven eleven out by the edge. Then she’d turned back figuring, what the hell, next city’s probably a killer drive anyway, and Shelby couldn’t afford gas.

She spent her days at a playground, usually, when she managed to get past the vending machine at the bottom of the stairs under her motel room. Sometimes it took her hours to get outside, other than for a bite. When she did make it out, by willpower from an unknown source, she went to that little park just a couple blocks away.

Sometimes she saw a kid there that looked like hers. Couldn’t be. Her kid had outgrown parks before he even hit grade school. Nine years old, already done playing with the other kids? Already hiding out in his room with a video game, already tired of all his toys?

Had he turned ten yet? What day was it? She couldn’t even remember her own son’s birthday. It was in July, wasn’t it?

July 11th.

No, she couldn’t remember it. How could she forget? What kind of mother forgets her own son’s birthday, just like that, the moment he’s gone?

July 11th.

She didn’t know. She couldn’t remember anything anymore. She was broken. Been through too much for a girl her age. Where was she? How had she ended up like this? She used to be young, used to have a future. Somehow she’d spent her future already, and now she was just floating in purgatory.

Shelby almost reached for another cig, but she didn’t. It was getting late, and she just wanted her bed.

“Seven,” she said aloud, and she started up the car.

 

Follow Me

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The other night, I had a dream that I couldn’t speak. I was running through the streets, trying to warn people, but they couldn’t hear me. Maybe they simply didn’t want to hear me.

Every morning when I leave my home, there is a man following me. He walks slowly. He isn’t in a hurry. The man is a little bit closer every time that I see him.

My breath comes short, and my mouth goes dry. I try not to look at him, try not to acknowledge him, but he’s always coming from just outside my peripheral vision. My palms sweat and my heart thuds. I pretend that he isn’t real.

The man is a little bit closer every time that I see him.

I pass by windows, and there are eyes behind them. I know that they are his eyes. When I’m inside, at a restaurant or a grocery store, I can see him sitting in a corner, hiding behind a newspaper. He licks his finger before he turns the page. He sees me try to smile at people as they pass me by, sees me trying to make small talk, and fumbling over my words.

He makes me nervous. I make myself nervous.

The man is a little bit closer every time.

The other night, I had a dream that nobody could see me. They kept colliding with me, crowding around me, but they couldn’t even feel my skin. I didn’t have an outline, I knew, because I wasn’t complete. I wasn’t a real person.

Every morning I try to say at least one thing to somebody. A cashier. A waiter. A stranger. Anybody. I hardly speak a single sentence more than that. When you haven’t used your mouth until noon, your voice comes out as a croak. I don’t have friends anymore. They’ve forgotten about me, or I’ve forgotten about them, or they don’t want to see me, or I don’t want to see them.

I live alone. I’ve been alone for years. I don’t know when it happened, but one by one, all of the people that I knew fell out of touch. I want to meet new people, make new friends, but it never feels quite right. It feels forced, as if I’m treating friendship like a fishing trip. Hook the bait, cast the line, and wait.

My bait isn’t very alluring, you might say.

No bites. Except for one.

There’s no point trying to describe the man, because he looks different every time. Each day, each hour, each instant, he is wearing different clothes, wearing a different face. But he follows me, every day, without fail.

He isn’t in a hurry.

The man is a little bit closer every time.

The other night, I had a dream that he was whispering in my ear. He told me that he would devour me, consume me, as if he hadn’t already.

I may be in the belly of the beast, but you are what you eat.

When there are people near me, I feel uneasy. I want to talk to them, but I don’t have anything to say. I live my life on autopilot, without the willpower to break the cycle by myself. I hope that somebody will answer me, before I even ask a question. Somebody will notice me, before I’m even in the room. Somebody will remember me. All I want is to be remembered before I disappear for good.

They know him. Everybody knows that man. It isn’t safe to be in public anymore, but I can’t help myself. Not that being out there does me any good. He doesn’t smile. Sometimes he smiles. Each instant, he is wearing a different face.

The man is closer.

And I want him to follow.

 

The Fall at the End

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After a point, you forget about the cold. The shivering continues, yes, but the sensation of the cold itself starts to numb over, just like the rest of your body. It squeezes at your skull, constricting you, making you want nothing more than to burn yourself to the bone.

The land was still flat. It was always flat. It had been flat for weeks. Simon had no idea how fast he was traveling, but perhaps it didn’t matter. The white went on forever. He kept seeing those thin patches of ice, and it would tempt him. Before, when he had his company with him, they would avoid those patches like the plague. They’d bob under your weight, and creak and squeal, but Simon had never seen it break out from beneath anybody, never seen anybody swallowed into the silence.

Those patches of thin ice were a temptation. Why bother watching your feet? Who cares if the ice eats you alive? And maybe it would feel nice, the frozen water crushing at you, biting at you.

Freeing you.

Still no food. Hadn’t been food for days. Simon had caught a penguin not too long ago, might’ve been four days, could’ve been ten. The meat was all fat, good for staying awake, no good for nutrition. His stomach felt like it was being stretched taut inside of him. Finding water was never a problem. A person’s just got to break a chunk of ice off the ground, hold it in his mouth. Couldn’t drink the water underneath, full of salt. Makes you gag, and choke. Simon had tried, in his impatience.

The ice went on forever. There was no end. There was no edge to the world.

If there were creaks and aches sounding below his feet, he didn’t hear them. He didn’t hear anything anymore. For a long time, he was lost in his head, just thinking, about anything, about nothing, about how wrong he’d been to come out here on this expedition. He didn’t think much at all now. His mind had frozen over.

Sometimes he could hear his footsteps. It was all he heard. It was his universe. Crunch crunch crunch, through the ice, through the thin snow. The white dust picked up in swirls, stung at Simon’s eyes. But it was all dry, so dry, and it scratched at his throat when he tried to swallow.

He hadn’t looked at his feet in weeks, but they must’ve been thick with blisters. Every step should’ve been agony. Not anymore. Not since the cold had befriended what was left of his soul.

And now Simon was starting to see shapes. Through the gray haze, there might’ve been a little hut in the distance, or a tent. Could’ve been anything. Could be a mirage. Mirages were only supposed to happen in the desert, but it was a desert out here.

But the shape didn’t disappear, only grew sharper. Came closer. Must’ve been a person, somebody with camp set up all the way out here. Impossible. Only a mirage. Simon didn’t have the strength to get excited. But the hut was coming closer.

He tried to call out. The words wouldn’t come up. His teeth were chattering, and his throat was locked shut.

There was light inside. A lantern. Maybe. It’s nothing. It’s a mirage. It’s a reflection of the sun. No light. Just dreams. Just sleep.

“Hello?” a voice called. It didn’t sound real. Simon couldn’t have been sure that he’d even heard anything. All a hallucination. He’d fallen down from exhaustion hours ago, and this was all a vivid dream. Not even vivid. Vague, disorienting.

“Hello?” it called again. Something moving, a person climbing out of the hut.

Simon wanted to answer, but couldn’t. He felt the strength draining out of him, but he kept moving, had to be sure that this was real.

In the blink of an eye, he was just in front of the man, the man bundled up in fur from what must’ve been sea otter. The man was holding Simon up, but he couldn’t feel it. Couldn’t think. Still didn’t know if it was real.

“Come inside, come inside, my god.”

Simon was on his hands and knees, which felt wrong, because for weeks now he’d been trying not to fall to the ground, but he was sitting, resting, inside with the bright light of the man’s lantern.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

It was warm in the hut. Impossibly warm. “Simon,” he grunted, dizzy. “Came with a group of seven. All dead now. Searching for The Fall at the End.” The words were tumbling out of him, and he couldn’t tell if he was making sense of not.

“Travis,” the man said. He reached out a hand. Simon might’ve shook it, might’ve just moved his arm limply. Hard to be sure.

“Eat. Eat,” Travis said. He held up a hunk of meat. “It’s caribou. Eat.”

Simon took it and bit into it. It should’ve been frozen solid, but it was only a bit frosty. It was supposed to taste like paradise, but Simon tasted nothing. “Where?” he asked. “Where’d you find caribou this far?”

“Supply drops. Got men at camp, week’s ride back north. They come out on sled. They give me food, I give them my reports.”

“Reports?”

“I’m a researcher. Examining the water out here, and how the currents move under the ice. I’ve dug holes in the ice a short distance out from here. You’re lucky that you didn’t wind up falling in, in your state.”

Simon nodded, though he felt like he couldn’t quite understand anything. He took another bite, but still couldn’t taste. “Researcher?”

“The Fall at the End is out there,” Travis said. “Aye, almost seen it myself. Almost. Another two days south, you’ll hear the rush. Nothing to see, I’m afraid. The mist is too thick. The waves make a blizzard out there. Ice is all broken up, too dangerous to go forward on foot or by sled. No, you’d need a ship. Who knows how you’d get a ship this far out. Even so, currents are bad enough even from this distance. You board a ship out here, you won’t get back off. You’d be tumbling over the edge of the world for the rest of eternity.”

Simon nodded again, the numbness covering him like a blanket. “The Fall at the End is real.”

“Aye,” Travis said. “It’s real. But what about you? What are you doing out here? You were with an expedition, you said?”

“Not an expedition,” Simon answered, shaking his head. “Too smart of a word. We were just young and stupid. All we wanted was to see the edge of the world.”

“You won’t. The Fall is great, yes, but if you get too close…”

“There’s nothing left of me,” Simon said. He might’ve been whispering. He took another bite of meat, but his throat was sore, and he could barely swallow. “So what if I plummet over the edge of the great waterfall? I’m dead out here no matter what happens.”

Travis studied him. “I can bring you to camp. Even if you’ve got frostbite, they’ll do what they can. We have doctors, and medicine. Maybe they’ve even got a job for you.”

Simon shook his head. “I just want to see it. No matter what.”

“Then you’re asking to die,” Travis concluded. He looked out of the hut, out at the white wind. “I know people have gone over the edge of The Fall at the End. They’re still falling to this very day. The edge of the world is the last thing out there.”

“I want to see it,” Simon repeated. His brain was numb. “I just want to see it.”