After Image

Splintering, alternate realities come to you just around the bend, like a train down a subway tunnel, lights shining, horns blaring, but it’s a doppler effect–sound warping before and after, and what it feels like to realize that the thing is never really the thing.

It’s experiencing a population bottleneck, soil polluted, seeds ungrowing, waters fetid and stationary. It’s going away, always away, to find something that always eludes, a staircase that adds stairs the more you climb. Taking a bus to a destination unplanned, cloudy-headed, foggy-brained, and yet seeing things so clearly, the beginner’s mind, shapes and places unfolding organically around you till you can almost see the pop-in of the simulation loading.

It’s hiding the real story inside the story you present, the bubble worlds you make yourself live in, worlds where suffering is allowed to be a concept and not an all-encompassing reality. It’s being hit by thoughts and memories of the past, breath hitching, eyes clouding into their own bubble world, having to go to the bathroom to turn on the fan

and stand

and breathe

and remind yourself that you are alive. You’re here, and you haven’t died, although you almost did, haven’t left this planet even though it sometimes feels like you’re only renting your body.

And this is the reality that we don’t want to face, this meat-sack body we’re all stuck in, making the most of it, thinking of passersby as nothing more than NPCs but knowing (hopefully knowing) deep down somewhere that they all have stories as rich and varied as our own, perhaps more rich and varied, stories that we can never possibly know (unless we ask), stories that we only catch passing snatches of, in phone conversations and whispered self-talk and childhood songs hummed anew.

This is what we mean by living, this listening in on states (both internal and external), or not, not listening and so moving always toward or away from something else. There’s launching mental states into the deep past or future, anywhere but here, while waiting in line at your local coffee shop. The woman in the apron sweeping after patrons is thinking about her family back home, the people she hasn’t seen in years, and this propels her to another image, of barbacoa and surf smell, water frothing on beaches that look like moving postcards, sitting in hamacas with friends and swaying, swaying to the beat of a tune she can barely hear anymore. Because when she recalls it, it isn’t the tune itself she’s recalling but instead it’s her last recollection of it, this permutation of memory from single-celled original recall to vertebrate myth, a story that becomes itself, separated from the truth of the occurrence, whatever that can be described as being, because the thing once gone is not the thing any longer. Not the thing itself but an after image, a double-exposed photo that you might’ve once discarded but instead,

here,

now,

you crop and touch up and frame and display.

YOU ARE READING

He is breathing. His nostrils’ diameters are increasing and decreasing along with his shallow inhalations and labored exhalations. He is sitting in a room that was built by someone else a long time ago, in a house that was built by still another person. This house is located in a country, which in turn is located on this planet. Each country on this planet is made up of people whose nostril diameters are fluctuating constantly. The ones whose nostrils remain still are either burned up or put in the ground.

His body is processing the food he ate last night, and will soon complain about the fact that he’s neglected to consume more food in a timely manner. But his heart is undeterred, and pumps more oxygenated blood through his body without confirmation of more fuel-food to come.

He is alive at this moment, but just a few decades prior he was not. He doesn’t know where he was before he was alive, or where he’ll go when he stops being alive, and no one else on the planet knows either. A few of the top minds are working on solving that problem, but it doesn’t look promising.

Every part of his body is changing right now, as is everything else around him. In a short span of time, he and everything around him will be very different.

His heart beats and pumps oxygenated blood through his body at a faster or slower rate depending on what’s going on inside of his mind. This temporarily varied rate of speed doesn’t affect his body in the short term, but in the long term it will.

The planet he is on is turning very quickly in its orbit around the sun that gives it life. If it stopped making this regular orbit, he would no longer be alive, and the individual components that make up his body would be transmuted into something else.

There is an itch on his nose, which is part of a sense organ on his face. If he scratches the location of his nose that the sensation insists itches, then the sensation will go away.

Thinking about the various possibilities that might befall him after he eventually stops living bothers him sometimes, which makes it difficult for his mind to concentrate on completing tasks that will contribute to the homeostasis that his body requires.

He notices that by simply focusing on the rhythmic changes in his nostril diameter and breath intake, he can stop noticing every irrelevant thing going on around him and just be.

He is taking a deep breath, from his diaphragm.

He is alive.

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THE DAY EARTH KNEW PEACE

The day that Earth would know peace had been seen and foretold ahead of time. But true to our era, it wasn’t predicted by a religious zealot, but a scientist. It was all very simple, really, or at least according to him it was. A week from his announcement, oxygen levels in the atmosphere were set to spike for reasons that even he couldn’t understand. But this spike in oxygen content would enrich the brains of humans the world over, humans that had been conditioned to only take in 21% oxygen, and lead to such benefits as decreased stress, improved blood flow, and, the scientist prophesied, the temporary cessation of all violent and aggressive behavior.

According to him, all of our moral failings as humans had nothing to do with original sin, or damaged psyches, or mental disturbances. Everything from murder to family strife could be blamed on oxygen deficiency. His findings, he said, were conclusive, and given his standing in the scientific world (one pundit famously likened him to Tyson, Kaku, Hawking, Sagan, and Einstein all rolled into one), people believed him.

The announcement spread quickly throughout the world, variously translated and transcribed into every language, sent to every corner of the globe, till everyone was collectively awaiting The Day of Peace.

There was no special marker when the day arrived. No procession of angels in gilded chariots, no booming announcement from the heavens. The sun rose along with the people, just like any other day.

But right from the start, things had changed. Neighbors who had never even met before came out, shook hands, started talking to one another. Porches were occupied by friends and stories alike. Spontaneous block parties started springing up, without any prior planning or notice.

Reports started coming in, city by city, that the numbers for violent crime had dropped significantly, maybe even reached zero. Other reports of people the world over taking the day off to spend time with family and loved ones filtered in.

And then the reports themselves stopped coming in–newscasters began announcing on air that they had nothing to report, that they’d rather enjoy the day and go off the air than continue to peddle their heart rate-quickening stories.

Live shows went down first, then even the taped ones (commercials too), as even TV station employees decided they had better things to do. Those who had homes and food brought in those who didn’t, and those who had less took only what they needed from supermarkets, the workers there helping them load in their free groceries before taking the day off, officers refusing to arrest them before themselves going home to be with their families.

At protests and picket lines, one by one people turned away, both protesters and police alike, most of them joining together in their common humanity, sharing jokes and stories about where they grew up, what their families were like.

Soldiers threw down their arms with ease–they’d all seemed to realize the inherent pointlessness in conflict and walked away from it. Commanding officers relieved themselves of their duty just as swiftly.

Child laborers were let go, human traffickers gave up their trade. Rockets stopped falling in Gaza. Troops stopped filing into Ukraine. Drones stopped attacking their targets. Imprisoned journalists were freed.

Political prisoners were let go en masse, the exiled were allowed back into their respective homelands. North Korean labor camps were shut down, and food distributed to its people. Guantanamo Bay was vacated.

Wall Street became a ghost town. All debts were forgiven. All grievances, whether personal or international, forgiven too.

The killers stopped killing, and the haters stopped hating. All religions made their peace with one another. Massive celebrations sprang up in all the major cities, with millions of happy people cheering, and meeting, and singing, and dancing.

This went on for the rest of the day, without a single hitch anywhere. No one did anything they weren’t supposed to, without exception, and instead went out of their way to help others. To be kind to others.

But the next day eventually came. And with it, a return to the old ways. People went back to work. Crime returned. TVs came back on. Millions challenged the scientist’s claims, distraught that the effect didn’t last longer.

And so, he begrudgingly appeared on TV. Took the talk show hosts’ slamming accusations in stride, until finally one began wondering where the scientist’s evidence was, his evidence that no one had asked for before. The scientist took a moment, and a breath along with it. He calmly replied.

“Well that’s because there isn’t any.”

“Any what?”

“Any evidence.”

“What do you mean?”

A calm smile.

“I made it all up.”

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM

Droplets form at the corners of the cosmos, dripping, glittering things that dance and silhouette in gold as their rivulets flutter and vanish and reappear.

Ease yourself away and you’ll see them there, little friends as we buzz and whir and bleep and bloop. Faithful little friends that have always been there in the center of you.

Wind rushes from nowhere in that happy void, colors of amber and merlot, twisting colors that smell of sandalwood and kiss your buds as you taste them.

And the ones who came before are all there inside, and haven’t left, and are buzzing and whirring and bleeping and blooping just the same as they did before, just in a different way.

This breath is the only breath, the next a dream and a wish till it’s inhaled, till it fills up the machine and refreshes the tiny cosmos.

Future is nothing, a silly little whimper on a cold morning telling you what it thinks, but it’s blind. Has eyes but doesn’t use them.

Past is nothing, a frittering game of closed doors and drawers, of comings and goings, but it’s mute. Has a mouth but doesn’t use it.

Here is now, and the birds know this. Here is now, and the plants know this. Here is now and the stars know this as they glimmer and wink and fill your cosmos with their own.

Little whispered kisses go earbound and hot breath meets them there, a rendezvous. More are sprouting all the time, it’s impossible to count them all.

Humored dogs open mouths and wag tails and lap at pools and sun and speak as the whole thing just goes on and on and on andonandonandon.

Sparkling touches sent between two halves of the whole, lightning at the fingers and at the toes too. There’s enough to start a new cosmos, which will always happen in time, and always will.

Little winked looks go eyebound and rose-tinted smiles meet them there, a rendezvous. Furtive ones are sprouting all the time, and they’re getting more bold.

And it was then and you were there with your little pack and your wide eyes and your sight in the dark with dizzying peaks speaking your name just as long as you listened.

Your name is not your own but just borrowed for a time, just handed to you for a spell so you can wear it out and give it a rest for the next one.

You is you is you is you is you is you is you is you isyouisyouisyouisyouisyouisyouisyouisyouisyou.

The words don’t matter, but the sounds do, tell them all that and see what they’ll say with their looks and their smiles and their thoughts kept crypted betwixt two hanging earlobes.

Say it a million times and a million more, any word will do, and you’ll see for yourself. Yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes.

Cause all we are is twisting and turning things for a while before the intermission comes, cause all we are is dancing in the sun till we’ve had enough and want to try another game.

And you and me and everyone we see is inside, within, locked deep and sent to sleep within a cold and a fact and a training and a listen.

Mind is. That’s all folks is what you heard then and it’s all you’ll hear now, and that’s just fine because it’s all a dance. And no one ever dances to get to the other side of the room.

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SOUP AND A SMILE

The world as we know it was forever changed by a smile. This is how it happened.

There was a man who felt invisible. Like he didn’t matter, like no one cared. This feeling was only made worse by the fact that he took the el every day and not once had a single person looked his way.

So on a particularly depressing night he sat on the train, and stewed quietly to himself, and thought: this is the night I do It. And he was turning over the possible ways to do It and how others might respond when a man sitting across from him looked his way, smiled, and nodded. He got off at the next stop and that was that.

The man who wanted to do It went home, and instead of doing It, he decided that things couldn’t be all that bad if a man could smile and nod his way. So in the morning he abandoned thoughts of doing It and went to the soup kitchen, to help out more people who might feel invisible.

And before long, he was not just visible, he was recognized. He gave his own smile with every meal he handed over, and soon became known as the Soup-and-a-Smile Guy.

The good deeds built, until he was volunteering every day. Until he was going out on the street and smiling, going out and talking to people. He never did this before.

Soon the local news caught wind of this soup-and-a-smile do-gooder and ran a story, intending for it only to be a mild heart-warmer in between all the heaviness. But it took off. Volunteers crowded the soup kitchens, doing their own rendition and clamoring to meet the man who started it all.

The support was pouring in, and soon enough the man was able to quit his job and help others full time. He made no money apart from donations, but he didn’t need money. He was seen. He was helping.

He started the Soup And A Smile Foundation, which very quickly expanded beyond the homeless. Needy children around the world were sent full meals and a picture along with them of the smiling do-gooder.

Soon he was a legend in those parts of the world, revered beside deities though that was the last thing he wanted. He was on talk shows, radio stations, commercials, and those in need were always the priority.

He gave up his home, turned it into a refuge for at-risk teens. Only wore what he needed, gave up the rest of his possessions to those who could use them and became a happy wanderer.

Wherever he went, happiness followed. All it took was a smile from him, and he’d instantly made a new friend. He joined action groups, peaceful protests, walks to end all sorts of diseases, and all the while his group of followers grew.

Those in charge were afraid. He was too powerful. And what’s more, he advocated peace and minimalistic living and community. He was a threat.

They arrested him at a peaceful protest, tazed him and pepper-sprayed him too. And all the while he didn’t fight at all. All the while he kept smiling for his friends’ sake. It was all caught on camera, as you can imagine, and it spread. Got so there was nothing else on social media but his smile. He became a rallying cry. A hero.

Cities fell first. Not a drop of blood shed, just a horde of people who took over city halls in the name of a soup and a smile.

And it spread like that, one big wave of peaceful discontent, until police departments surrendered and governors put their hands up to provocateurs with no weapons.

They stormed his prison, overwhelmed the place by sheer numbers and refused to flinch when they were fired on. Just kept smiling, to return the favor to him.

He was freed that day, the same day the President resigned and Congress quit the capitol.

The people wanted him in charge, but he refused. It wasn’t for him to rule, or anyone else for that matter. It was for the people to govern themselves. To give to those who were in need, to help as many people as they could.

There was no more business. No war. No industry. No debt. Technological progress came to a halt, but the people were happy. They lived simple lives in harmony with each other and gave what they could.

No one knows where he is today, but that’s okay. Because a part of him will never be gone, will always be there to offer a soup and a smile.

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OUT HERE

Out here the sky’s as big as the world, and all the rain’s a drop of you and me and everything we see.

Out here the wind blows skyward and takes a piece of us with it as it dances in the field.

Out here there’s room for dreams and wishes, love abounds and glitters on the lightning bugs’ wings.

Out here there is no lost, no posted flyers for the world to see.

Out here the sun laughs as it rises, it kisses the pregnant clouds as they drip their dew.

Out here there’s elephants in trees and sounds in your hair, bright sounds that smell of cinnamon.

Out here there is no could have or should have, but only the breath of the bugs on the grassblades.

Out here the world doesn’t stop or go, and what you see is inside you.

Out here the flickers come from your fingertips and linger a while like pixies on the moon.

Out here there’s water on the wind and rivers in the sky, ten miles long and twisting things.

Out here the mud will clean you and the water will muck you up.

Out here there are sights to see and people to be and it’s all just over there.

Out here you can climb on the air and sing on the hills, the only one who will stop you is you.

Out here the clocks drip slowly and flutter away when they’ve had enough.

Out here the books line the streets and call out to you when you pass them by.

Out here the souls are crisp and line-dried and chamomile-scented.

Out here there’s a buzz in all the people near and far, a silly little hum they look at from time to time.

Out here the sprouts shed their seeds and let them float off beside them for another one to catch.

Out here there’s a willow branch on a man’s head and it’s just as tall as can be.

Out here there’s room for it all and more, and the sunshine evaporates on your tongue.

Out here the childhoods rush back like waves, but calm against the break.

Out here you are who you are, whenever and wherever you are.

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EXPIRATION DATE

He was out in the crisp, thin air of the Smokies when he found the universe’s expiration date.

It was just hovering there, kind of floating if you will, a tag the same as the kind you might get a government warning against removing from your average mattress.

He’d been hiking so long in an off-limits thicket of Clingman’s Dome with barely enough oxygen to sate his lungs’ appetite that he figured he must be hallucinating.

But when he pulled and tugged, and yes even hung in midair from this floating tag, he was convinced.

It was a simple tag, efficient. All it had on it was:

PRODUCT: UNIVERSE

And below that, a “BEST BY” date that corresponded to two weeks in the future.

Naturally, he figured that should the tag be removed, whoever was in charge of throwing away the universe wouldn’t know just when it had expired, so he pulled on the tag some more. Bit at it, ripped at it, even hacked at it with his pocket knife, but nothing worked. That tag was stubborn.

And so he went home. Didn’t tell a soul what he’d seen for fear of ridicule. Kept it to himself and sat and worried over it till it got so he was always sweating. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day he was thinking about that expiration date. There was no escaping it. It wasn’t an expiration date for him, or the Smokies, or even the world itself, but for the whole universe. If the whole universe was about to be tossed in the trash, then what way out was there? And why did he have to be the one with the privileged information?

He stewed like that for a whole week, till his head was always hot from thinking, till his eyes were black from lack of sleep, till he knew that he couldn’t live like this anymore, for the last week of his and everyone else’s life.

So he went outside.

He sat in his rickety old chair on his rickety old porch and he watched. He listened. He heard his heart pumping just as fast as it could, watched the goldfinch across the street build her nest as the morning dew evaporated on his lawn. Saw the nearby willows sway in the breeze, pockets of light shining through and dancing in the field over chipmunks whose default setting was scurry. Watched the petals of a daisy dip way down low and threaten to graze a nearby anthill as a chubby honeybee plied its trade.

He saw things, and he heard things, and he felt them in his bones. He breathed and watched and waited and didn’t have a care in his soul for what was going to happen.

Another week went by after that, with his heart and soul lifted and fluttering on the breeze. And try as he might, he couldn’t locate the Great Garbage Can they’d all be thrown away into. Everything carried on just the same as before.

So he hiked back to Clingman’s Dome and pushed on through those thickets. Checked his compass and the angle of the sun both, but try as he might he couldn’t find that tag again. Here was the clearing where he’d found it, all the nearby landmarks the same, but it was gone. Removed. Maybe never there in the first place.

But that deep calm of his didn’t go with it. No, it stayed and hasn’t left once. Probably never will.

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