AGORA

His days followed a pattern crafted specifically around his highest priority in life: avoiding the presence of other people.

Only went outside at asscrack-of-dawn o’clock, and only then for just long enough to put out the trash or bring in the paper. Invested in a grocery delivery service, and instructed them to leave his bags at the doorstep. Successfully convinced his boss that he could fulfill the duties of his IT job from the comfort (both introverted and otherwise) of his own home.

His life was a neat collage of patterns, a cozy assemblage of oft-repeated tasks. For him, his idea of adventure was leaving the house for his weekly library raid. (Because even to an agoraphobe like him, that vast store of old volumes was worth braving the outside world.)

Even then, his attack was scheduled to the second: arrive at 5 on a Wednesday (when the library was usually at its emptiest), give the librarian on duty a perfunctory nod when prompted, make a beeline for fiction, scan for other patrons through the gaps in bookshelves and adjust his route accordingly, then take his place at His Table, the one conveniently tucked away from all the rest and usually left empty due to its proximity to the bathroom.

And everything would’ve continued going just exactly According to Plan (as it always had), if it weren’t for that meddling lady. He’d say Lady with a capital L and mean it, and here’s why:

  • Had enough books in her hands to present a serious toppling risk.
  • Among the volumes were dog-eared copies of Dostoyevsky, DFW, some Murakami (his absolute favorites).
  • Social interaction was likewise the last thing she had in mind, or so he could tell from her own practiced route through the stacks.

He could actually feel his cheeks run hot as she took a seat at a similarly abandoned table, this one with a keen view of the trees and the birds that populated them outside. Felt the trickle of sweat at his palms, too, as she alternately thumbed through Infinite Jest and sketched the neighborhood’s denizens in a pad she’d brought with her.

And so it was these physical sensations (psychosomatic or not) that kept him fused to his table’s chair when she’d eventually seen and read and sketched enough, when she’d gotten up and left before he could muster up agora-defying courage to talk to her.

*   *   *

It’s kind of hard to call in sick from home, but he did so, and stayed out for as many days as it’d take to mourn the loss his anxiety had dealt him. Shut up the blinds and refused to answer the door, wouldn’t even return calls or emails.

It was after the fifth day of this that the Why finally hit him. The Why Am I Doing This and the Why Am I Like This that are on the tip of the tongue of those on the verge of breakthrough. But he shrugged off the Why for a while and went back to his books.

They say that most people would rather submit to electric shock than sit alone in a room with themselves and the thoughts their brains contain, and right then oh boy, yes brother, you better believe that was him. But there was something else about this fear that was tempting. Chalk it up to the knowledge that without facing this fear he’d have literally zero chance of seeing her again, that’s fine. But the important thing is that he did face it.

Took the bus into work on a whim. Forced his face into some semblance of a smile despite the bubbling fear inside him and struck up a convo with the tiny and hunched old man waiting at the bus stop with him. Within a half hour had relived the man’s entire tour of duty in the Ardennes, knew all there was to know about his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, and had actually brought the sweet old man to happy tears just by listening to musty old stories that were dying to be let out.

Rode the agoraphilic wave and chatted with the bus driver for a while, too. Broke down the grizzled guy’s practiced detachment with his earnest enthusiasm, till the driver was laughing at jokes that weren’t even any good.

His newfound superpower followed him into the workplace, where just by the looks on coworkers’ faces you could tell the prevailing question was, “Is this really the same guy?” Told his boss he was back in the office to stay before the day was through.

*   *   *

Back to the stacks. That familiar amniotic place that threatened to lull our MC back to his agoraphobic past. The table near the bathroom practically screaming his name, the fiction section freshly sorted. And there was her. At her same table, sketching once again. And there was heat in his face, and sweat on his hands, and he thought briefly of making his escape before the other side of his brain could intervene.

But he didn’t. Wouldn’t. Instead, he found his feet walking in her direction, his body following dutifully along like a child’s finger on the page of a good story. To her table. To the chair across from her. He took a seat. Breathed. And although his own pulse felt like it was choking him, his voice came out calm; clear; confident:

“Hi.”

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THE WORD NERD

So here’s a kid–eleven and going on precocious, glasses on his nose so thick coke bottles wouldn’t even do them justice, a dusty old Dostoyevsky in his hands as he sits in a comfy library chair and downloads the text to his brain.

But let’s get you acquainted. For starters, kid can read. Routinely fells the sort of dense history book you’d need a machete to hack through before lunch. Does shit like assign himself book reviews (which he then critiques and grades as if he were a teacher). Actually has his local librarian on speed dial.

But in time, like any copiously fed addiction, kid’s word tolerance reached a breaking point. It wasn’t enough that he devoured books as he was apt to do to food (which being an overweight and nerdy little boy, you can just imagine the crowds of schoolmates clamoring to be his friends). No, he needed to craft them, too. Had to feel the Zen-like focus that accompanied moments of writerly Flow, experience the bitter frustration of The Block, too.

And so he set his Dostoyevsky down beside his composition book, the puny thing’s TV-static-looking cover trying its damndest to fight against the pull of old Fyodor’s work. And on any other day it would lose the battle. But this day was different. This day, our kid was determined.

Kid was very clearly of the Dump Shit Out First, Sift Through the Rubble Later variety, or at least his ridiculously-quickly-filled comp book attested to that fact. Could almost see smoke billowing out from his carpaloid hand, feel the heat coming off of the page and his brain both as he let the Hand Cramp to End All Hand Cramps subside.

The days (and notebooks) that followed passed in an absolute flurry, our little dude making dutiful pilgrimage to his library Mecca each and every day and engaging in what was quickly revealing itself to be the often masochistic practice of making shit up in story form.

Still took crap from those in his class whose IQ values were comparable with their shoe sizes. Heard them riff on the usual, easy subjects: his weight, the fact that he couldn’t deftly kick balls that needed to be kicked or throw balls that needed to be thrown. But he let it all slide off now that he had his stories. His words.

Librarian set him up with a desk all his own, even took to bringing over a brand-spanking-new OED and pocket thesaurus. Things were going well.

Very well, that is, until the little shits caught on to what our dude was doing during his free time away from the clutches of a well-rounded public school education.

Led daring raids into his literary stronghold and shot volleys of whispered insults whenever the librarian wasn’t in earshot. Played keep away with his books of reference and shot spitballs into his hair at precisely the moment he’d seem to be on a roll.

But for all their efforts at sabotage, they only strengthened our kid’s resolve. Even helped him with a problem his writing had suffered with: a lack of active characters. Now that the Douche Brigade had begun their attacks, dude had no problem dreaming up characters who fought their oppressors with a vengeance. Good luck translating that into real life action, though.

The tormenting went on (and intensified, as prepubescent struggles tend to do), until our budding literary star couldn’t get diddly done for all the interference he had to put up with. But he took it all with the sort of (im)patience that comes with putting up with a lot of crap for a long time.

He put up with it, that is, until they stole his comp books.

There grew in our bookish hero a bubbling rage the likes of which our shoe-size-IQed tormentors clearly didn’t see coming. A rage that’d normally be ineffectual in the hands of Dude, but now came out in the sort of outburst that’d make old Fyodor proud.

Channeled every strong character he’d previously conjured, let the Brigade have it and socked the Ringleader (the one who’d stolen his books, naturally) right in the mouth.

The books hit the floor, as did the collective jaws of the assembled crew. There passed a moment where the Ringleader massaged his jaw and his ego both, sizing up our dude in the process. Waiting. Watching. But something in the kid’s crazy, determined eyes scared him off. Cloaked behind the vague threat of a future retaliatory attack, the Ringleader made his leave with the rest of the Brigade.

And so our chubby little bookworm gathered his stack of comp books and laid them next to his Dostoyevsky, the stacked TV static covers now looming over that dusty old volume even if they were a little dog-eared and worse for wear.

Sat down at his desk and gathered his writing instruments as the magnitude of what he’d done finally caught up with him.

Was about to get started again when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye–or rather, someone. The librarian gave him a quick, conspiratorial wink–blink and you’d miss it–and then let him get back to work.

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FIRST DATE AT THE END OF THE WORLD

If he had to give the date a numerical rating, he’d probably backtrack and say it was on a five point scale if pressed. She was cool, way cooler than he thought conceivably possible, and he was just so not. Cool, that is.

I mean don’t get me wrong, dude could be cool. Dude could be stop-stop-I’m-actually-going-to-pee funny. It’s just that when he saw that smile, that radiance… Let’s just say he reverted to questions of employment and (groan) small talk about the weather.

And so when the meal (and his time) was up, and he could see this wonderful person slipping away, he dropped the L word. Actually started shaking his head before he finished saying it, he knew how bad of an idea it was. But he said it, and it hung there in the air like some delicate bubble that she finally popped with a nervous laugh and an insistence that she really had to go.

It was about that time that the sky started falling.

What at first looked like basketball-sized hailstones revealed themselves to be meteorites as they crashed apocalyptically into the ground and sent up molten blacktop from the parking lot they were standing in.

It was 9 p.m. but it might as well have been a.m. for the blinding light that dominated the sky. Locusts appeared out of nowhere and skated through the air. Dude could almost swear he heard “O Fortuna” being chanted in the distance.

And so naturally he literally swept his date off of her feet and tried his hand at heroically escaping danger. Only he tripped on a nearby meteorite crater and faceplanted with her in his arms.

“I know how to run, you know!” she offered up as she dusted herself off.

“Sorry. I was trying to be cool.”

“Well don’t. Try staying alive instead.”

And she bolted, leaving him behind and in tow as what appeared to be the living dead started sprouting out of front lawns across the street.

Cars careened out of the way of boiling lava lakes that had just opened up in the center of the street nearby and went over curbs, downed light poles and tumbled end over end like some bad action movie as the two sprinted, our dude huffing and puffing to keep up.

He somehow had the presence of mind to produce his keys and direct her over to his car, which car had narrowly avoided having its engine crumpled by a felled light pole. But he stopped outside of the car, frozen.

“What is it?!”

“Nothing, I– I can’t figure out if you want me to open your door for you or not.”

“Just get in!”

And get in he did, the two of them almost yelling louder than the carnage outside as he sped crazily away.

The car turned a curb into a speed bump as he swerved onto the main road and avoided both the lava lakes and what he was now absolutely sure was in fact the living dead.

“Does today line up with any ancient prophecies you’re aware of?”

“Seems like it’s lined up with all of them. Just keep driving!”

Something about being in the driver’s seat gave him the courage he was wanting at dinner. Not to mention the fact that his audience was fairly captive. So:

“Sorry for making an ass out of myself with the whole love thing. That was weird, right?”

“I’d say so.”

“It’s safe to say that I don’t love you, don’t worry. I mean, that’s not to say I wouldn’t in the future. You seem fairly lovable. It’s just that–”

“I get it.”

He deftly swerved around a crack in the street that went miles deep and opened his door on a zombie who had clung to the car. She seemed impressed.

“If we make it through all this, I’ll make it up to you. Would roses be too cliche…? Anyway, there’ll be no love stuff and no shitty small talk. Pinky swear.”

“Amused” would best describe her smile.

“I’ll think about it.”

But she wouldn’t have time to think about it, as the road ahead was blocked by mangled cars and behind them scores of ghouls were making a Thriller-esque approach. And just to complete the image, our dude connected his iPod and started up the song.

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t know, but whatever I do it’ll be cooler this way.”

He scanned all directions, but there was no way out. In the rearview, he could’ve sworn he saw the zombies shuffle in time to the beat, but he had no time to revel in that fact.

It was then that an opportune meteorite flattened the front of a nearby car up ahead, almost giving it the appearance of a rickety ramp. It didn’t look like his car had any chance of clearing it, but he looked her way anyway. He wasn’t met with disapproval, so he gunned it. Used every iota of concentration to make the jump. Closed his eyes like Luke taking out the Death Star. And when his eyes opened again they were airborne, their car clear of the blockade and about to touch down.

She gave him directions to her house as the chaos began to die down, as the calm after the storm finally arrived. He pulled up in front of her place, her whole block littered with apocalyptic aftermath. Both were out of breath.

“So… What do you say? Same time next week?”

She surveyed the wreckage of the world for a while, finally smiled.

“Sure.”

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BOOKSTORE OF LOVE

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

“You come here often?”

“Uh, yeah. That’s kind of necessary when you work at a place.”

“Oh, I’m… Didn’t see your nametag. Melissa, huh?”

“That’s what my parents named me.”

“I’m Jay. Look, I… We didn’t get off to a good start. I’m not a creep. I mean, I read and everything. See? You read this one before?”

“It was assigned to me freshman year, yes.”

“Such a good book. Harold Caulfield was a great protagonist.”

“Holden.”

“Hmm?”

“Never mind. Sorry, but I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Oh, uh, yeah. Okay.”

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR

“Oh, it’s… It’s you.”

“You seem pleased to see me again.”

“Thrilled.”

“Just finished this one. Really heavy stuff. Please tell me you’ve read it.”

“Required reading when I was a sophomore. At least we’re getting closer.”

“Tell me it’s not the best damn dystopia you’ve read.”

“I would be impressed by your proper use of the term dystopia if I didn’t have the sneaking suspicion that you googled it like point five seconds before walking in the store.”

“Guilty as charged.”

“…”

“Hey, at least I’m honest. I read it, though, for real! Umm… ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree / I sold you and you sold me. / There lie they, and here lie we / Under the spreading chestnut tree.’ Come on… don’t walk away. You know that was impressive.”

HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD

“Me again.”

“…”

“Wait wait wait. Before you storm off and alphabetize, I simply need to know whether you’ve read this one or not.”

“Murakami, huh?”

“You like him?”

“He’s one of my favorite magical realists, actually. Not bad. More on the obscure side, too.”

“Impressive, right?”

“Meh. That old aphorism about broken timepieces periodically being correct comes to mind.”

“One of my favorite aspects of the book was the use of the present tense in the ‘End of the World’ section. I think that was the right call on the translator’s part, since the formal and informal versions of ‘you’, watashi and boku, don’t necessarily translate too well from the Japanese.”

“I can’t believe I’m actually agreeing with you, but yeah. Alfred Birnbaum is the only person I trust with translating Murakami’s work. I mean, 1Q84 wasn’t bad, but Jay Rubin didn’t give it the same linguistic flair that Birnbaum did this one.”

“1Q84? You mean 1984, right? That was last week’s read. Get with the program, Melissa.”

“Missed it by that much. Should’ve quit while you were still ahead.”

“Wait… what?”

“Look, it’s my lunch break and I’d like to spend it lunching. Shoo.”

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ

“You’ve got a thing for dystopias, huh?”

“Only the good ones. You approve?”

“I suppose you get the Melissa seal of approval for this one. Although when it comes to post-apocalyptic anachronisms I tend to think Russell Hoban did it best with–“

“Riddley Walker? I completely agree. He clouds his deep-seated intellectualism in a story with such heart in a way that Miller doesn’t quite achieve.”

“Yeah, totally. I’m of the variety that points the finger at the use of language, at least if you’re going to compare them. Miller’s great, don’t get me wrong, but he veers a little too far into ‘Look ma, no hands’ territory at times.”

“Yeah, but you’ve got to grant that Riddley’s hobbled English would’ve fallen flat in the wrong hands. I mean, it already did in The Book of Dave. I like Will Self, and if you’re gonna crib someone you might as well crib Hoban, but at least do something with the genre we haven’t seen before ad nauseum.”

“Oh, I know. And don’t even get me started on the ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ section of Cloud Atlas, if we’re going to talk about cribbing Hoban. The constant apostrophes killed the entire atmosphere Mitchell was trying to achieve. I felt like I was being elbow-nudged more than I was being told a story.”

“God, yes. I’m glad someone else gets it. But anyway, I’ve got to let you do your job. There’s a line. Could you just ring me up on these ones?”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Thanks.”

“Here’s your change.”

“Until next week, mademoiselle Melissa.”

“Yep, uh, yeah. Until next week.”

INFINITE JEST

“Okay, you did not read that in a week. Jesus, did you?”

“Not in a week, but I did. Read it, I mean. Footnotes and all, I’ll have you know.”

“And…?”

“It’s the truest exploration of the human condition I’ve ever read.”

“Right?!”

“And sure, if there’s anyone who can be accused of veering into ‘Look ma, no hands’ territory as you so eloquently put it last week, it’s DFW, but good Lord does the story’s heart make up for it.”

“I cried when I read the last line. I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

“I’d be worried if you didn’t!”

“And I don’t give two shits, frankly, if some people think he left it too open-ended. Did they honestly think that DFW, the author who famously ended a novel mid-sentence, would wrap everything up in a tidy little bow and tuck them into bed?”

“Yes, yes, and more yes. I’d kiss you if it wouldn’t get me kicked out of this place.”

“…”

“…”

“The book’s great.”

“Yep, uh, yeah.”

“So…”

“So, what would you say to – and you don’t have to say yes, mind you – but what would you say to maybe lunch once your shift’s up? I am quite the luncher, let me tell you.”

“Yeah.”

“Wait, really?”

“Yeah, really.”

“Oh wow. Oh… I mean, cool. Awesome. So it’s a date, then…?”

“Yeah. It’s a date.”

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WHISKED AWAY

He had to write a story and it had to be good. Or at least interesting. Something that might make someone smile, maybe whisk them away to a rarely visited part of their brain. You get the idea.

He didn’t.

The world for him right then was stale and boring and devoid of anything that might have story potential. He chewed pencils, balled paper, and drank water. Nothing.

The window was opened. A sandwich was prepared, cut into neat halves and eaten. The wingdings alphabet was analyzed extensively. And yet no story would come. There was truly nothing to write about.

There was this little squishy ball Earth he kept in his top drawer just for occasions like this. He took it out. Looked it over. Squished it.

As soon as he did, the sky outside his window folded in on itself; a couple clouds burst from the pressure. Our guy didn’t notice.

He held the ball in the palm of his hand and contemplated squishing it harder. Didn’t. Instead, he studied how his lamp shined onto the miniature North America in front of him.

He turned the squishy planet Antarctica-up. No one ever paid enough attention to that place.

As he turned the Earth in his hands, the sun whooshed out of the sky in a hurry and plunged everything into premature night. I shit you not. Our guy noticed that one, alright.

He brought North America back to the top, into the light. The sun returned to the sky as if it never left.

There followed a period where he sat immaculately still, just staring at the planet. But something had to be done. And naturally he figured that something was for him to turn off his lamp.

Nighttime. Pitch black.

Turned it back on: blinding sunlight.

He hovered his pinky finger over the U-shape of Lake Michigan, searched for Chicago at the left side of the U’s curve. He looked out his window, but he knew what he’d see. A finger that was the sky itself, its fingerprint a snaking, twisting, inverted mountain range that’d make Everest look like a bunny hill.

He pulled his finger away. The sky was clear again. He yanked open his second drawer then, rifled through its contents as the other, Earth-cradling hand remained perfectly still. Finally found what he was looking for: tweezers.

Brought the tweezers back over that familiar U-shape, until twin metal monstrosities hovered in the sky, dangerously close to his house. To his opened window.

He looked at the tweezer tips, both in his hand and looming in his periphery. Thought it over. He edged the tweezers closer, till their tips were grazing the back of his shirt. Before he could tell himself not to, he clamped down tight and whisked himself away.

And the whisker got whisked away.

And the whisker’s whisker got whisked away.

And the whisker’s whisker’s whisker got whisked away.

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THE STORY OF THE MAN WHO HAD A QUARTER LIFE CRISIS AND PROCEEDED TO TOSS AWAY ALL THE SHIT IN HIS LIFE AND LIVE SIMPLY WITHOUT ANY ULTERIOR MOTIVES OF LOOKING COOL OR ELSE PRETENDING TO BE ENLIGHTENED BUT INSTEAD JUST MADE PEACE WITH THOSE HE WRONGED AND WHO WRONGED HIM AND CAME TO THE REALIZATION THAT WE’RE ALL JUST INDIVIDUAL TENDRILS OF AN ALL-ENCOMPASSING CONSCIOUSNESS AND THAT ALL EXPERIENCE IS GOOD EXPERIENCE IN THE LONG RUN, THAT THERE’S COMFORT TO BE TAKEN IN THE FACT THAT ALL SUFFERING IS TEMPORARY AND AS NOTHING AFTER WE SHUFFLE OFF THIS MORTAL COIL, THAT OUR PERCEPTION OF TIME AND SPACE IS AN ILLUSION AND THAT WE’RE ALL SENTIENT FORMS OF ENERGY CAPABLE OF PEEKING BEHIND THE CURTAIN OF REALITY, ALL OF US JOINED TOGETHER IN ONE BODY, AS CELLS IN A GIANT BRAIN, THAT ALL THAT HAPPENS IN A MICROCOSMIC WAY HAPPENS JUST THE SAME IN A MACROCOSMIC ONE, THAT MONEY AND POSSESSIONS AND PURSUIT OF POWER ARE LESS THAN MEANINGLESS AND THAT IT’S OUR DUTY TO SIMPLY LOVE AND CARE FOR ONE ANOTHER WHILE WE’RE WITHIN THIS FLESHY HUMAN CASING, THAT THIS IS NOT ONLY NOT A NAIVE PURSUIT BUT IS THE ONLY WAY TO TRUE HAPPINESS

He died a happy man.

 

CONSCIOUS OF THE SELF VARIETY

So we’re here. Here, here. Like, together. As in, I asked her if she’d like to consume food somewhere in my presence, and she ignored my dorky habit of doctoring up my vocab for humor and said yes. The sweat, too. She ignored the sweat that accumulated on my brow, the same kind that always forms whenever I’m around her. She’s gracious like that.

I’m sweating now, too. Only problem is it has nothing to do with her pulchritude and everything to do with the goddamn cold I seem to be coming down with. Seriously, universe? Of all the times you could’ve chosen to do your thing illness-wise, you choose now? When She’s here? The One? Her Pulchritude in the Flesh, and Every Other Capitalized Title You Could Think Of?

The snot’s already forming at the top of my nasal cavity. Dangling over the edge, really, like some kid who’s teasing his mom as she tells him to get down from there, wherever there is.

Anyway, she’s telling a great story right now, and I can tell it’s getting to the climax. To the big joke that’ll top it off, and with it an opportunity to laugh and look in each other’s eyes and maybe even be capped off by her putting her hand on mine or something. I know it sounds hokey, shut up. You’d wish for the same thing if you saw her the way I do.

But I’ll laugh, and the snot will fly, and it’ll get all over her food and be The Most Disgusting Thing of All Time, and I’ll just about die right here in my seat and just sort of be internally vaporized by the embarrassment.

Oh God, the snot’s already running. Code red.

Napkin’s too obvious. Out of the question. Pretending to scratch my face won’t work either.

I could bring curled forefinger to upper lip and thumb to chin in mock thoughtful contemplation. True, she’s telling a joke right now and that reaction might seem just a little fucking weird, but what other choice do I have? Stoic thinker it is.

Every move I’m making is wrong and awkward and terrible, and there’s no possible way she likes me at this point. I wish I was anyone else but me right now. Someone who could be as cool and calm as she is, and not have to deal with dangling nasal brats in the process.

I have to sneeze. I can’t stop it. And…

I feel surprisingly lighter. The cold seems like it went away, too. It was probably all in my head. Yeah, you know what? She totally digs me. Why wouldn’t she? I’m fairly diggable. And that wide-eyed look on her face, like she’s seeing me for the first time… Like all along she knew me as the dorky guy in accounting and only now that I’ve had this post-sneeze epiphany and gained confidence in my self has that self-confidence oozed out of my skin to show her who I really am.

But is that fear in her eyes? And why is everyone else in the restaurant staring?

“What’s wrong?”

My voice comes out as a weird falsetto, and I bring my hand to my mouth as if to stop the sound before it reaches her ears. My fingers feel a lot softer and daintier than what I’m used to. And when I pull the hand back, five delicately painted nails gleam back at me.

Her eyes go to my nails, then to my face, then back again. She reaches into her purse, pulls out a mirror, and shows it to me. At least I assume it’s supposed to be a mirror, even though I see her reflection in it.

Oh shit. The wish.

“Look, I…”

My falsetto is throwing me off, but I need to tell her. I plug my ears. Or rather, hers… on me… look, it’s kind of confusing, but this is what I say to her as I plug my ears like some crazy person:

“Look, I really like you. Like a lot. I don’t want to blow this, but it seems like I already have since I’ve turned into you and everything, so I’ll say this anyway. You make me nervous and unsure of myself, and that sounds bad, I’ll admit, but I mean it in the best possible way.”

I’m still plugging my ears.

“Anyway, I kind of wished I could be someone cooler, to impress you. It’s stupid and childish, I know, but at least now we have proof that I think you’re cool.”

Silence.

“So there’s that…”

Another sneeze comes. I don’t bother to hide it this time. It’s hopeless.

“Right. I’m gonna just go away now. Forever.”

“Wait.”

She actually puts her hand on mine. Like, actual physical contact. On my hand. And my fingernails are conspicuously nail polish-less. I’m me again. Holy shit, I’m in a Disney movie.

She takes her hand off of me and looks me over for a second, as if she might just see her double again at any moment.

“I say we start over from the beginning.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“This time with you being you and me being me. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Story by Chris Piszczek
Written by Nicholas Olson

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THE UNITED CITIZEN-STATES OF AMERICA

“The chairman of the UCSA moves to give the floor to the state of John Brangus.”

“Thank you Mr. Chairman, but the state of JB moves to be known as the state of Johnny Brangus henceforth.”

“The chairman acknowledges and apologizes. Continue.”

“Mr. Chairman, Ms. Speaker, fellow citizen-states of the United Citizen-States of America, I move to grant a new holiday entitled USA day, to commemorate the time when our nation was still comprised of fifty locational states and each citizen was not yet granted his or her own statehood.”

“The motion has been heard. All those in favor?”

“Nah.”

“Meh.”

“Why bother?”

“The motion has been denied. The chairman moves to give the floor to the state of Molly Peably.”

“Juice box! Juice box mommy!”

“The chairman recognizes that the state of MP has brought a translator. Will the state of Rachel Peably kindly translate for the rest of the assembly?”

“Certainly, Mr. Chairman. The state of Molly Peably moves to open a line of trade with her fellow citizen-states in supplies of juice boxes.”

“And what can the state of MP offer in return for these juice boxes?”

“Horsie!”

“Mr. Chairman, the aforementioned state is prepared to trade in small figurines of horses.”

“Can the state of MP ensure that supplies of equine figurines are sufficient for interstate trade?”

“Mr. Chairman, Molly–the state of MP–has enough figurines to take up the entirety of this state’s garage, much to the annoyance of the state of Richard Peably.”

“Very well. Trade will be opened. Are there any citizen-states interested in this line of trade?”

“Ooh, ooh!”

“Me me me me me!”

“Mommy can I have one?”

“The chairman recognizes that lines of trade have been opened. Would any other citizen-states wish to take the floor?”

“Nope.”

“Not really.”

“Can I go home and play xbox now?”

“Very well. This adjourns today’s meeting of the United Citizen-States of America. Tomorrow’s meeting will focus on state lines and refreshments will kindly be made available by the state of Ethel Smith. Adjourned.”

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CATACOMBS

Most people would probably consider visiting the catacombs the creepiest part of making the rounds in Rome, but I think it’s pretty damn cool. Granted, I was raised on Night of the Living Dead and Tales from the Crypt, and my idea of a good time involves lots of red-dyed corn syrup, a couple friends and a camcorder, but still.

Funny enough, our tour guide looks the spitting image of Dario Argento, and his Italian comes out a lot more rapidly and incomprehensible than you’d expect for a guide, so after a while I just sort of tune him out and keep my eyes on the scenery. There are skulls everywhere. Centuries-old dust collects in wisps here and there, the kind that’ll make you sneeze uncontrollably if you breathe in even just a little too quickly. In its own way, it controls the very air you breathe.

There’s a chubby-paunched tourist who talks loudly on his cellphone while his other hand awkwardly clutches the sort of camera you’d see purchased by someone who wants the attention of being a photographer without doing any of the work, or else this guy. The Argento guide doesn’t pay him any mind as he zips along with his warp speed Italian, he must be all too used to this shit by now. He doesn’t even bat an eye when chubby-paunch drops his camera, which camera’s flash goes off all horror-movie-like and shines on one figure in particular as the tourist reverts to a Tourettic state.

The tourist picks up his camera and swears some more under his breath as its flashbulb dangles from a little wire. Our group moves up, until that figure I saw is directly ahead and foreboding as all get out.

Argento rounds a corner, speaking even faster as he goes as if the rapidity of his speech is dependent on making turns. The rest of the group marches on with chubby-paunch taking up the rear, but I stay behind. That creepy figure’s too damn awesome to just pass up.

The figure is a robed skeleton with neatly lined and ordered skulls behind him as if to intensify the impression he makes. The figure itself is well over six feet tall, and his billowing robe is a dark, dusky black that seems like it’s been cut out of the darkness itself. And there at the top of the robe, the figure’s skull stares through eye sockets that haven’t had eyes in them in well over two thousand years at least.

I feel at my shoulder, but I don’t have to: I find the strap of my backpack. My nearly empty backpack. Just the right size, one might say, for a pilfered skull, perhaps. I look this way and that, but no one’s watching. The only signs of life are the faint sounds of Argento’s lightning-fast speech and chubby-paunch’s loud cellular convo.

The skull comes off with a satisfying snap and sends up the same nefarious dust I told you about earlier. I cough and wheeze as it enters my lungs, some kind of instant karma or something. But curses be damned: before long I’ve got old giant Roman’s cranium in my backpack and I’m running along down the narrow corridor to catch up with my group.

I pant as I go, and move to round an upcoming corner. As I do, I slam hard into something and topple over on the ground. I look up, and there’s a skeleton with a sword in its bony hand, fully clad in Roman-appropriate armor. Its eye sockets light up with a fire when it sees me, and it’s all I can do to not let out the contents of my bladder and bowels all at once.

I get up slowly and kind of back away from the thing. Its hand reaches toward the wall as I do, and it clutches a weird lever of some sort as I turn and start to run away. And then, before I even know what the hell’s going on, a trapdoor’s opened up and I’m freefalling into pure darkness.

THUD.

I’m still alive. Thank Romero. But the fuzzy feelings fade when I turn on my phone’s flashlight app and realize what it is that’s broken my fall: the belly of a once-snoring but now very awake Cyclops.

The big guy jumps up with a start, which sends my sorry ass down and off of him with a far more painful thud than the one you just read about. Faint torchlight sends glimpses of the beast’s form my way, but I kind of wish it didn’t, as that whole bladder-emptying thing I told you about has already taken effect and I’m worried the bowels will come next.

The behemoth swings for me and just barely misses my head as I drop down onto my stomach. His swing catches a mummified Roman warrior instead, and said warrior’s sword goes airborne and lands dangerously close to my face. I get up to my feet and pick the sword up. I suddenly remember the Odyssey. I knew there was a reason I read that dusty old thing. I dodge the next swing just as narrowly as the first and run around to the beast’s back. Using its back hair as handholds, I scurry up to its head and plunge my blade deep into its solitary eyeball. As he cries out in pain, he grabs me and flings me up into the air, and by some lucky twist of fate I soar right through the same trapdoor I came down.

I’m not taking any chances this time. I run my ass right out of there and don’t stop till I see daylight.

I pause for a moment at the entrance to the catacombs, my breath ragged. I grab the skull out of my backpack, toss it back in like it’s the plague crafted into skull form, and hightail it out of there. A flash blinds me as I run away–good old chubby-paunch.

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LEAVE A REVIEW

It had to be just before I walked in the door, of course. The slush seeped in through the metal-edged holes which all Converse have on either side, those holes that are all too helpful in the summer but which aren’t nearly as useful when you’re facing your average Chicago winter.

I hung my soggy socks to dry and navigated over to Amazon, found a reasonably priced pair of boots that had excellent reviews. The shipping speed was lightning quick, it seemed.

Immediately after I clicked that little checkout button, my doorbell rang. A car sped off right after, out of sight before I even opened the door. And there, sitting right on my doorstep was a box from Amazon.

It couldn’t be. It must be something else I ordered earlier. But my order history didn’t lie–those boots were the last thing I’d ordered in the past six months. I fetched a box cutter and braced for impact as I opened the thing up.

The boots seemed to glow as they sat there in the box, laces woven from golden thread that looked nothing like string; the rubberized coating of the boot’s outer shell looked as if it could withstand a flood of biblical proportions. But that was it. No packing list, no ads for the brand–the boots’ tongues didn’t even show the size.

But I wouldn’t need to know the size, it seemed, as I slipped the boots on. They conformed to every square inch of my feet perfectly, my toes felt as warm and cozy as if they’d been tucked securely into their own miniature beds. I looked out the window, at the flurries and mounds of snow that the Windy City had to offer. There could be no other option.

Nothing could stop these boots. Slush, snow, brackish puddle water… they stood up to everything. They might even be able to walk on air.

I checked that no one was watching–they weren’t. I put my right foot in the air, mimed as if I’d just taken a step toward the sky. But when I went to put my foot down, it crunched against the air as if I’d just stepped in snow. I lifted up the left foot–it crunched just as satisfyingly as my right one had. I looked down, and my eyes seemed to lie as they took in the fact that I was now hovering a foot in the air.

I took another step up. And then another. Within seconds I was moving past treetops, ascending beyond the pitted roofs of musty storefronts, walking up some sort of invisible staircase in the sky.

The people below were like ants in the distance as I leapt up the invisible steps two at a time, my boots crunching the air-snow and compacting it with each step. Before long I was above even the twin antennae of the Sears Tower (real Chicagoans don’t call it Willis), and the sun sent out blinding rays from dead ahead. It was like a guiding star as I headed up and straight for it, my hand shielding my eyes all the while.

The crunching stopped. So did my labored breathing. I looked down.

Earth hovered beneath me, encased in its little blue bubble–a bubble that I was no longer a part of as I floated weightless in space. Despite the lack of air, my body felt refreshed and oxygenated. None of it made any sense, but then again neither did a pair of boots that allowed their wearer to climb an actual stairway to heaven.

I pushed on, the sound of crunching unable to be carried without the medium of air but no less satisfying as the vibrations buzzed up my miracle boots and into my toes that were still snuggled up securely in their little beds.

The stairs abruptly ended; they opened up to an invisible floor that stretched on in every direction, limitless. I ran forward and jumped, let the sun’s pull guide me in–an elliptical force that whipped me around at speed like the rock in David’s sling. I throttled on at incomprehensible speed, curved around the sun’s surface even as nuclear fusion occurred millimeters from my outstretched fingertips. I felt the heat but none of the incineration.

And then it happened.

A micrometeorite struck me in the chest, knocked the wind out of me as forcefully as it propelled the boots off my feet. I watched helplessly as they toppled end-over-end away from me, the weightlessness returning to me as my miracle boots slipped away.

This was it. I’d die in space, adrift beside the star that was responsible for my birth in the first place.

But no. There had to be a way back. If the boots took me here, I could take myself back. I concentrated intently, tried to channel a bit of the wise old Spirituality prof from my undergrad days as I meditated weightless in space. My forehead tingled as I willed myself to believe that I could get back home. It was true. It needed to be true.

I hurtled through space in an instant, by the power of my thoughts alone, toward the pale blue dot I’d always called home. Within seconds I was in the atmosphere, burning up as I guided myself over the familiar form of North America. I found the “U” of Lake Michigan through my squinting eyes, adjusted my feet like rudders until my city, my neighborhood, my street were all in sight.

I crashed right through my front window; the glass didn’t shatter so much as melt away. I hit my beanbag chair with an emphatic thump and tumbled over onto the floor.

I breathed in slow and steady, the sound that reached my ears more satisfying than it ever had been before. I looked to my computer’s monitor.

A pop-up had appeared next to a picture of the miracle boots: “Satisfied with your purchase? Leave a review!”

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