Open Blue

They told me, years later, that the guy had an entire galaxy in his mind. It was populated by nebulae and stars, planets and moons, some of them harboring life, others barren and wasted. He spent essentially all of his life cataloging his inner galaxy, and for all intents and purposes he was catatonic. His family took him for a vegetable. They’d pack him into the car for family trips and do things like sit him in front of mountain views, dip his feet in flowing streams, anything to get him back to the world, back to them, none of them realizing that he already had a world, or rather several trillion of them, and that every ounce of brainpower he had in him had to be devoted to exploring this galaxy, or else he’d be lost and insensate for the rest of his life. He’d tried to blind himself to the galaxy before, to come out and into the world, but he’d seen nothing but unending, featureless black. Heard nothing but the howling of an infinite wind. So he went back to his inner planets.

I guess I met him in 2005 or thereabouts, back when I was a grad student complete with bright eyes and bushy tail. They’d never gotten him beyond the occasional blink of his eyes, over there, at the center he’d been moved to, when his family had had enough of the family trips and the visits with experts and the hope that something would change. I’d take a lot of notes at first, observe vitals, notate scans, but eventually I just started coming to visit.

A lot of the technology was still nascent, and I remember picturing to myself, there at the foot of his bed, what this room might’ve looked like under the same circumstances 10, 20, 50 years before. What help could be given him, if it’d even be given. The doctors now did these scans mostly to placate the family, to assuage the inevitable guilt they’d accumulated after placing him in a home and coming first to visit daily, then weekly, then monthly, then only on holidays. I took to coming in on my days off from class, reading to him first from Kafka, then Wallace, then Murakami.

At that geologic scale of minute fluctuations of the body and micromovements, you begin to assemble in your mind a mental timelapse of the hours you’ve spent with the person, translating every twitch into something meaningful, prophetic even.

Sometimes I’d come in with a cheap bottle of gut rot and tell him about my day, pretend that he was drinking with me and commiserating, all the while popping mints after a finished bottle and accepting coffee when the nurses would offer it, not really needing it but not wanting them to smell the alcohol on me, to realize just how pathetic I was to be drinking midday and not facing any of my problems.

I’d been in and out of school, never settling on one thing in particular. Married and divorced before age 30. Aimlessly wandering in general, while doing my best to convince myself that the answer was right there, around the corner, or maybe after the next drink.

I knew this guy couldn’t really hear me, that even if he could it’s not like he could relate, but I kept coming anyway. I’d get a good feel for the nurses and orderlies as they’d come and go over the years, which ones actually gave a shit and which would be a problem–the ones who’d put him at risk of bedsores or worse. It sounds stupid, maybe, but he became like a little brother to me. I didn’t have any siblings of my own and had cut off all contact with my parents, so I guess he was really the only family I had.

He retreated from the world, physically left it, by degrees, intentionally, so that he could live in the world of his mind. I mean that in the literal sense. He didn’t wither so much as disappear gradually, nearly imperceptibly, to the point where I can hardly describe it even now, all these years later. But he did, he left of his own accord, bit by bit, until one day I came in and he was gone. He’d faded to the world inside his mind, physically departed, unalterably escaped, and he’d left me a note. Not a physical one, mind you. A mental note. He told me to find him. He didn’t leave coordinates; he left activities. He said I could find him in a night walk just past the edge of town. He’d be in the tire track of a motorcycle ride under open blue sky. Clear and vivid in the otherwise fading remnants of a dream broken by daybreak.

 

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You Again

Metamorphosis

“No, I don’t mean it in like a metaphorical sense. I mean you’re literally, actually, a different person.”

You look in the mirror. Open your mouth. Check your gums.

“See?”

There’s no change whatsoever. It’s you there, staring back at you.

“I was halfway about to call the police, but then you got up and started talking. You still talk like you.”

You go back to looking in the mirror. You could use a shave. Other than that: fine. Other than that: you.

“Did you just read The Metamorphosis? Are you trying to Kafka me?”

“See? You used Kafka as a verb. It’s you.”

* * *

She refuses to be seen with you anywhere. People might think she’s cheating. You call off work. Try to make yourself scarce.

It comes in stages. Your nose. Your lips. Not quite right. Not quite you. She sees you.

“Your nose is back! Your mouth, kinda.”

As you change, so does she. She waits in anticipation like a kid on Christmas morning. You “change back” slowly, then all at once.

You stand in front of the mirror, her behind you, you somebody else.

“See? It’s you again.”

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The Nature of Falling

portal

He woke up falling. The world around him, when he was sure he wasn’t blind and was seeing very clearly, was the color of ink blooming in the pocket of a pair of pants. He wasn’t certain, but he assumed he was falling at terminal velocity. He could only just make out his hands. They seemed to be more hinted at than fully existent.

When he attempted to turn to look up, there was a loud screeching in his ears that stopped him from trying. He wondered when he would hit bottom.

It occurred to him to pray. He wasn’t sure just who he should pray to, or how. He was born Catholic but had lapsed in his later years. He became a C & E parishioner and then nothing at all. He had had a brush with Buddhism. But then did the Buddhists pray? And if so, to whom? He might be wrong, but he didn’t think the Buddha was revered as a deity. There were the many gods and goddesses of Buddhism’s big brother Hinduism. Would any of them bother helping an old man falling into nothing?

Was he sure he was awake? They say pinch yourself to–yes. Very much awake.

Maybe there were walls just out of sight. If he could adjust his angle, maybe he could fall towards one of them. He attempted to adjust his body but was greeted with screeching once again.

Change. There it is, the change. He reached into his pocket and pulled out change. Tossed it as far as he could, and: Nothing. Either the walls were vastly far away or they were nonexistent. The old man ventured to guess the latter.

Was this some sort of punishment for sins unknown to him? Could this be his version of hell? He’d never really been much of a sinner, and falling didn’t scare him any more than it did the next man. That is to say there wouldn’t be a special reason for his hell to be falling forever. And besides, there weren’t any distant screams to be heard. But still, there was the screeching, strategically used to discourage peeking behind the curtain.

So someone or something was behind this. But who?

Could he be hallucinating, hearing the screeching when there’s nothing there? Or was this whole falling bit nothing more than a drug trip he couldn’t remember starting? But he hadn’t been on anything in years and wouldn’t start back up again now.

Isolation tanks. He’d read about them, about how they induced hallucinations by cutting off sensory input. But that wouldn’t explain not remembering ever stepping into one.

There. Memory. What’s the last thing he could remember? He found his memory to be like the ripped pages of a journal: He could remember last week, but anything more recent was ragged and missing.

He had gotten up, gone to work, gotten up, gone to work.

But then. There was a man. A man he met while sitting on a bench, watching commuters pass by on a bridge, stealing away at the sun climbing and blinding its way down into the river below. He could not know for certain, but he was sure he was thinking the same exact thoughts as the other man on the bench. They passed many minutes like that, saying nothing, only watching. Only thinking the same thoughts. The other man broke the silence first. He said his name was Mr. Black. That he’d been waiting for this man, our protagonist who is presently falling. It appeared they didn’t share the same thoughts after all. OP inquired what MB had been waiting for.

For you to fall into my lap. OP stared into MB’s beady eyes which were black marbles descending into nothing. He said…

Nothing. That’s all he could remember. Still he fell into nothing, the fall having not so much a sound as the absence of sound. He maneuvered so as to look up, bracing for the screeching sound. It never came.

What did come was the giant face of Mr. Black, laughing a laugh so deafening it seemed to shake the air all around OP. Mr. Black reached down into the hole and plucked OP by the leg. Mr. Black was the size of a planet, maybe larger. Each pore on his face could house an ocean. OP could feel the blood rushing to his head as he was being dangled.

The experiment is complete, MB boomed. He pulled OP out of the hole, and as he came out, MB became normal-sized again. Suddenly they were back on the bench, utterly normal. Mr. Black stood up, said Good day, and walked away.

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Where the Sun Used to Be

He woke up on the bathroom floor of his room in the locked ward. His legs, when he could move them, had strings tied around them, at the ankles. The strings rose up to the ceiling and stopped in the far right corner of the room. The tension on the strings was great, as if a team of elephants were pulling them in the opposite direction.

He could see a sliver of light coming through his bedroom’s sole window if he crawled away from the bathroom, but a sliver is all it was. He scratched and clawed at the strings and his legs as if he were a wild animal stuck in a trap.

He could see the light, but not the source of it. He was filled with the knowledge that the sun wasn’t merely out of sight, but it was out of existence. He called for help, but his parched mouth couldn’t utter a syllable. He was naked and so attempted to cover his shame behind the curtain that separated bedroom from bathroom, but this was not effective.

For a moment, all he saw was his room filled with water, over his head and nearly touching the ceiling. When his vision became antediluvian again, he found that the unbreakable strings had been given some slack. Even so, he couldn’t pull pants over them, so instead he put on his largest shirt and tugged on the bottom of it until he was decent.

The ward was empty. Not in the figurative sense of there only being a couple nurses and patients, but empty empty.

Every time he got near an exit, the strings pulled him back. He found a pair of scissors at the nurses’ station and tried again to free himself, but the strings withstood even the sharpest of blades.

When he looked out the solitary window in his room, the passing cars and people moved like they were fighting their way out of quicksand: slow and morphing into their surroundings. Coming back to his room one day, he looked for his window but it was gone. The section of wall that covered where it was looked like it had been there since the hospital opened.

He ran the water to wash his face, but the water avoided his hands like a cat hunkering down to avoid a pet. When he put both hands directly under the faucet, the water ran upwards and settled at the ceiling.

The next day, he woke to see portraits covering the room’s walls. They were all of him, usually sleeping but also trying to break free of his strings. The paint on all of them was dry, and each portrait appeared to be very old. Every night he took them down, and every morning they appeared on the wall again. If he destroyed a painting, the painted carcass would be gone by dawn with two more in its place. He thought of the mythical Hydra.

He let the ceiling-bound water go until it covered his head. This was no use, though, as a drain opened on the ceiling and sucked up all the water. When he stopped eating for weeks, he’d wake up with a full belly.

Once he rolled his ankle and could not move. Next morning, his foot was outfitted with a professionally secured ankle brace.

All the while, the unbreakable strings remained. He tried to tangle the strings by walking from room to room, crisscrossing here and there. Not only did the strings not tear, they began following him like a leash that could go taut at any moment.

He searched inside for fear, but there wasn’t any. There was a feeling like a cup condensing on the outside while bone dry inside. He spent days recalling words that fired at random in his brain:

Raisin–Dried, wrinkled. Can be eaten.

Sunset–Milky window. Fades away.

Time–Fluid and unruly. Can’t be trusted.

The next morning, he came to on a cold tile floor that left a grid on his back. The people had returned, but they couldn’t see him. He took his things and left the hospital.

He no longer had a name. He no longer had a shadow. But he’d always have the strings, stretching up, higher now, perfectly straight, up past the clouds and beyond where the sun used to be.

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THE INVISIBLE ONES

He wasn’t walking to work so much as marching, his polished-smooth black loafers clicking and resounding noisily against chewing-gum-laden pavement. He had his briefcase, and his tie, and his shirt pressed crisp till it looked like it might crack at the seams.

He felt important.

The train ride over had been slightly unusual–his Brahms-blasting headphones had stopped him from hearing anyone on board, but he was sure he didn’t see anyone either. And he was especially sure that the conductor never came by to check his ticket.

But no matter.

His mind was set on the tasks for the day. As usual, his day would consist largely of ensuring profits for his employers. And yes, said profits were ensured through foreclosing on honest, hard-working people, but the ethics involved weren’t for him to mull over. And after all, the orders were coming from above.

The train was one thing–he’d on occasion seen a car or two barren, had trips that were conductor-less, but the streets were another thing entirely.

There was no one walking anywhere. At all. Not a soul on the sidewalk, not even a pitiful-looking vagrant standing by the street corner.

But again, a logical explanation could readily be found, he was sure. Perhaps today happened to be some obscure holiday he’d never heard of, a holiday that even the hobos observed.

And so he walked on, still with his Brahms providing an amniotic lull from the outside world he was forced to pass through.

The confusion began to set in when he arrived at the office, confusion thick as a fog that billowed in from nowhere when there was no receptionist to greet him, no shoeshiner to polish his ever-dulling loafers. The situation was dire enough that the Brahms had to come out.

But it was all in his head after all. There was the familiar clicking on keyboards, the other important voices on important calls with important clients. It was fine.

But still, he saw no one ambling about the office with their equally-polished loafers and their ties and their shirts pressed so crisp they seemed like they might crack at the seams.

And so he got up. His polished-smooth black loafers clicked and resounded noisily through the office as he searched for signs of life.

It seemed like–but no, surely that was a foolish idea. But if he were indulging in thoughts that verged on foolish, he’d have to admit that there was no one in the office–at least no one visible. He could hear hands on keyboards and important voices chatting away, but he saw no one.

Maybe if he went back outside and checked–but no, that would be silly. Besides, he was sure to see someone soon enough.

But as the hours passed and still he saw no one, curiosity got the better of him. He marched back outside and scanned once more for signs of life.

Now, in the Brahms-less outside world, the full reality of his situation hit him with the force of Beethoven’s Ninth. There were conversations, deafening out here in the city, and lesser shoes walking, and cars honking, but no people. Not a soul in sight.

Voices all around him, harsh and cacophonous, laughing and tittering too. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say it was a taunting laughter.

But there–a car! He raced to the street’s edge, loafers clicking noisily, and what he saw sent him over the edge of reality.

There was no one driving the car. It accelerated and decelerated just fine, turned even, but there was no one behind the wheel.

Another car, also driver-less, passed by. And then another. And another.

His breath came in stuttered gasps, hollow and unable to satisfy his lungs’ demands. That was when he called out:

“Is anyone there?”

More laughter. Damning laughter.

“I can’t see you! I can’t see anyone!”

Deafening staccatos all around. Coming from everywhere.

“Please help me. I just need…”

And he was on the ground then, up against a wall. His loafers’ tips were frayed, ripped. And there was something in his hands. Something he was proffering to the people who were not there.

“I just need…”

He didn’t want to look at the something in his hands. Couldn’t bear to.

“I just need…”

He forced his eyes to look. To see. They made purchase with a faded and torn document. He looked closer. It was a notice of foreclosure.

Of his foreclosure.

“I just need… a little change.”

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