The Last Airplane

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“This is your pilot speaking. I’m afraid we’re going to have some difficulty landing.”

The passengers didn’t find this very funny at all. In fact, the majority of them were still unconscious from the Earth-shattering explosions.

Literally Earth-shattering. One moment Earth was hanging underneath them. The next it was a ball of fire.

Now there was nothing.

Earth had exploded.

The plane had been catapulted into deep space at an incredible velocity. The force was so powerful that every passenger was immediately knocked out. It took ten minutes for the acceleration to slow, and for the plane to to stop spinning so rapidly.

The copilot had been one of the first to wake. When he looked out at the ground, he saw that there was no ground.

There was black space outside. Infinite black space.

The copilot shook the pilot awake. “Sir! Sir! What happened?”

It took a lot of effort to rouse the pilot. His eyes were bloodshot when he opened them. The force of the explosion had caused serious damage to his brain, though he didn’t know it yet. His head had also slammed into the console repeatedly. “Crashed?” the pilot gurgled.

“No, we’re in the air,” the copilot said. He looked out at the blackness again. “At least… I think we are.” For a moment he thought that they were deep underwater, but the plane wouldn’t withstand being submerged. He was reminded of his night flights.

“Where are we?” the pilot moaned.

The copilot grappled with the controls, lightly maneuvering them, though he found that nothing he did could change the plane’s course. According to the monitors, they were spinning. Spinning? How could that be?

The copilot unbuckled his seatbelt, and that was when he realized something that he should have when he’d first woken up. He had been too dazed to notice, but he wasn’t completely situated in his seat. In fact, the moment that he unbuckled, his body started to rise upwards.

“Sir?” the copilot said wearily. “Sir, we have a serious problem.”

The pilot was a much older man. While the copilot was in his late twenties, relatively inexperienced, the pilot had been flying planes for three decades.

But nothing had prepared him for this moment.

That was when he had made his announcement to the passengers.

The pilot didn’t realize that Earth was gone. He considered it a possibility, but all that he knew for certain was that a massive explosion had launched them out of the atmosphere and into space.

Space. Hm. The pilot thought it over. There was no feasible way to locate Earth, if it was still out there at all. Which meant that this plane would never reach solid ground again. It was a disturbing thought, but as a pilot, he had trained himself to think objectively in a crisis. While most crashes happened while the plane was still on the ground, the pilot had experienced his fair share of close-calls in the air. Throughout his career, he’d had to make four emergency landings during cross-continental flights, either due to inclement weather or due to faulty equipment.

The copilot was not able to think so objectively. He was leaving the cockpit to investigate what had become of the passengers. However, he had only made it halfway to the door before panic set in. No gravity meant many of the plane’s controls would fail. The engines could move them forward, but it would be difficult to counteract the spin that the plane was currently experiencing.

Basically they were dead and they were never going to see the ground again.

The copilot didn’t handle this realization very well.

It was probably for the best that he didn’t make it out the door, because the situation out amongst the passengers was far more alarming. In fact, they could faintly hear the screaming and shouting from the other side, but both the pilot and the copilot were too tense to notice.

The passengers were in an absolute panic. By this point, they collectively had reached several more conclusions than the pilot and copilot combined.

For example, if they were never going to land the plane, then that meant there was a limited amount of food. Furthermore, there was an even more limited amount of air. None of them were clear on the specifics, but they were correct in believing that the oxygen was leaking out of their plane at an alarming rate. Normally they would all have about two and a half hours to live. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, several passengers had died from the massive explosion and sudden increase of velocity, and none of them were taking in oxygen. This saved the rest of the passengers approximately half an hour.

This half of an hour would actually be wasted, because almost everybody was hyperventilating, but it’s quite understandable.

In most situations that involved such a level of anxiety, the mayhem would escalate and some sort of brawl would break out. That’s what the intention was, at least. Several passengers were going to storm into the cockpit and attempt to commandeer the plane for themselves, because obvious the pilots had been flying them in the very wrong direction. Luckily for the copilot and the slightly brain-damaged pilot, the passengers didn’t get that far, as the lack of gravity made it much harder to maneuver than they’d expected. Moving without gravity is one thing, but moving through a group of flailing people, all of whom are panicking, was much different.

These were not the only humans left in existence. Four other airplanes had survived the explosion of Earth, with surprisingly few casualties. At the time, seven people had been aboard the International Space Station, and they had the highest chance of survival. Unfortunately, every single one of them happened to be male, so while they would last the longest, they would not be able to reproduce and save the species.

The copilot did eventually make his way out to greet the passengers. He was unable to calm anybody, because he wasn’t especially calm himself. Fights kept breaking out as people flew around the cabin, crashing into each other and throwing fists. The fights never lasted very long, as they were surprisingly exhausting, but another fight would break out only moments later on the other end of the plane.

Some people were scavenging for food already, stuffing their faces with little peanuts from sealed packets, drinking sodas and beers as quickly as possible in an effort to get an upper hand.

None of this would stop the oxygen from pouring out of the plane.

This was how humanity ended, wrestling and screaming.

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The Forest

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“Your first time?” the burly man asked.

“Yes, we’re from out of town,” Richard said. His fiancé was clutching his arm. He sensed that she was getting nervous, but now wasn’t the time to mention it.

The burly man stood from behind his desk. “Desk” wasn’t the precise word for it. It was a block of wood, to be more accurate. Everything in the cabin was made out of wood. It did resemble an office, just a little, but Richard wouldn’t have known were it not for the sign.

“So what brings you to the forest?” the man asked. “The art? The trees?”

“He’s here for the art,” Richard’s fiancé said. “I’m just here for the trees.”

“She’s a chemist,” Richard explained. “The rumors about the sap…”

“Right, right, of course,” the man said, nodding along. “Come with me. Either of you have a flashlight?”

Richard hadn’t considered it. It was only a little past noon. “Is it so dark?”

The man sorted through his desk. “I’ve only got the two flashlights. You’ll have to share one of them.”

As the man passed the light to Richard, Richard noticed the thick leather gloves on the man’s hands. They were the sort of gloves that would strangle somebody in a movie. Richard shivered, considering how cold it would be in the forest.

The moment that they stepped out of the office, his fiancé grabbed his arm again. What was she so worried about? They’d looked at all of the pictures online before they’d driven all the way out here. It wasn’t that creepy.

The burly man held his flashlight at his waist, already turning it on. It seemed unnecessary, yet they were only a minute’s walk into the trees when Richard felt he needed to turn his light on as well. The canopy was thick, leaving thin beams of light, beams that were too far apart. It was unnatural.

“The trees are strong here,” the burly man said loudly. His voice should have echoed, but the sound was muffled by the thick air. “These trees grow taller and faster than any in recorded history. This place was noted by the pioneers since as early as 1740.”

As they walked, it got somehow darker. Richard’s fiancé tightened her grip, and he could feel her breath getting heavier. He was tempted to ask the man to slow down, but didn’t intend to interrupt.

“But it’s the carvings!” the man went on. “That’s what really draws people here today. They didn’t start appearing until a little over sixty years ago. Very peculiar. Very peculiar indeed.”

For an instant, the man swung his flashlight back and forth, as if searching for something. He made a grunting sound and kept forward.

“The carvings were first sighted by my grandfather. He’s the man who set up shop here, giving tours. Been passed down the family ever since.”

Richard searched between the trees with his flashlight, hunting for a carving. They had only been walking for three or four minutes, but their car felt like it was miles away. He threw a glance to his fiancé, who seemed to be calming down as she got adjusted, but Richard frowned when he thought that he could see her breath. Was it really so cold? How was that possible? Again, he shivered.

“Here we are!” the burly man announced. The light settled on a wooden pole in front of them. But as Richard grew closer, he saw that it was anything but a pole.

The wooden carving was about five feet tall. It was perfect and precise. It was the shape of a woman, with wide eyes and an open mouth. She looked like she’d been startled by something.

“Hm,” the man said. He swung his light around in a full circle, searching. “Usually this is the second one we find. Must’ve passed the other.”

Richard stepped forward. He felt his fiancé’s arm fall away from his. His pressed the flashlight up against the face of the carving. The detail was incredible. It was as if the woman had been full and alive only a moment ago.

Richard asked, “How was this carving made? With a knife? No chance it was made with a saw.”

The man shrugged emphatically. “That’s the great mystery of it. I’ve seen a lot of wood carvings in my day, and nothing as intricate as this.” His leather gloves tightened on his flashlight, and he cleared his throat. “Take as long as you like, but there’s plenty more to see.”

Richard turned to his fiancé, her arms crossed and her teeth chattering. “No, let’s keep on,” he told the man.

“Alright.” The burly man aimed his light deeper into the trees. “This way then.” He paused, then nodded. “Yes, yes, this way.”

Richard grimaced. This man had better not get them lost.

They had only gone a short distance before they found another one. This carving was a tall man, his arms thrust out as if he’d been sprinting. “It’s amazing,” Richard admitted. He reached out his free hand and ran his fingers along the hair. Then he felt the face, the cold face.

The man took a few steps back, giving him some room. Richard hardly noticed, entranced. There was some magic inside of the wood, and he couldn’t look away. His hand kept moving over the surface, trying to imagine what kind of person was capable of carving this. How long had it taken? How many were out here in this forest?

“Careful,” the burly man said, returning to his side. He fidgeted with his gloves. “Splinters. And there’s lots of sap.”

“Yes, the sap,” Richard remembered. “There was something funny about it, wasn’t there?”

“What’s funny is that it isn’t sap at all. Should be, but it’s over ninety percent water.” He laughed a deep laugh. “Like they’re crying almost.”

Richard didn’t find it very funny. He turned to hand the flashlight to his fiancé, but she wasn’t behind them.

He froze. His light whipped around in the dark. “Ashley?” he called.

The man rotated slowly. “Hm. She didn’t have a flashlight, did she?”

Richard called again. “Ashley!”

The burly man tucked his flashlight under his arm and rubbed his leather gloves together, huffing out the cold air sharply. “Alright,” the man said. “You go that way. I’ll check over there.”

Richard nodded unconsciously. “Yes. Sure.” He cleared his throat. “Ashley!” How could she have gotten lost so suddenly?

The man disappeared into the dark so fast the Richard was sure he’d vanished into thin air. Shaking his head, Richard took cautious steps forward, waving the light around wildly. “Ashley! Ashley!” It was impossible that she had gotten so far that she couldn’t hear him. Then again, he’d noticed how the thick air seemed to muffle sound. There was something wrong with this forest. Something very wrong.

For a moment, he thought he’d spotted her, and Richard’s heart skipped a beat, but it was only another carving. He inched closer to get a better look at it.

Richard felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. The carving looked precisely like his fiancé.

He took another step forward, numb. The face, the hair, the posture, the clothes… Richard’s jaw chattered uncontrollably.

This wooden carving was identical.

There was movement behind him, and Richard swung around. The burly man was there. His breath made a mist in front of him.

“Sorry about this,” the man said.

“How… How is this possible?” Richard stammered. “This carving—” He couldn’t speak. He was petrified.

The man took off one of his leather gloves. Then he stared down at his hand as if he didn’t quite know what is was.

“Look at her!” Richard shouted, but the sound was so swallowed by the forest, it felt like he’d barely whispered.

The burly man stepped up to him, reaching out his bare hand.

Richard glanced over his shoulder, taking one last look at the wooden carving. By the time he’d turned back, the man was inches away from him, his hand at Richard’s cheek.

The man’s bare skin met Richard’s, and Richard felt… wrong. He felt stiff.

He felt like he was solidifying.

The look of panic never left his face.

 

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

Standard

“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

Standard

“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.