Were it not for the ever-present beat of my circadian rhythm and the reliable commotion of traffic filtering through the flimsy walls of my one-bedroom apartment, I don't think I would have gotten out of bed today. Don't worry, I'm not depressed. I'm just a loser with no direction in life who got himself dumped last night. Still, gotta be a human right? So after a few minutes of staring at the ceiling and praying that the last 24 hours had all been a dream, I got out of bed and put on some pants on a Saturday morning at 10:00 am.
I know, I'm an American hero.
I checked my phone, and sure enough, there was the dreaded text message. "I don't c this going any where, Ted, so it's time we both moved on.. sorry" Frowny face. Brocken heart emoji.
It would have stung less if she hadn't also stood me up on our anniversary. The bad grammar added insult to injury... And the emojis. And the fact that she decided to end a year-long relationship with a text message shorter than most of her tweets. I'm pretty sure that she was drunk when she sent it, but considering she hasn't responded to any of my messages since, I'm also pretty sure she meant it.
Sighing, I tossed the phone onto the bed and trudged into the kitchen only to discover that I had run out of coffee. Blinking stupidly at the empty bag, I was about to go back to bed because there was the point in living in a world without coffee. Then there was a knock at the door. A feeling of dread washed over me wondering who the hell it could be. Any hope that they would just go away disappeared when I heard another more insistent knock a few seconds later. I answered the door.
I was greeted by the face of a friend my girlfr- my ex had always hated. She gave me a sad little smile and said, "Hey, you're up!" Like it was an accomplishment.
I grunted, unenthusiastically rubbing my eyes. She held up two coffee cups and a box of donuts and offered, "Want to talk about it? Or play some Halo?"
At that moment, I felt like I had been trapped underground, and she had just dug me out. I could have kissed her. Instead, I took the coffee and said, "Halo."
Note to Self: Dragons. Are. Pricks.
Finally, stumbling upon a small rocky outcropping for shelter, I dragged my master in from the storm and away from the edge of the cliff. He wasn't breathing. I removed his armor, slapped him hard across the face, and searched for a pulse. Don't know why I bothered; he was obviously dead as soon as the lightning struck, and I was no miracle worker. Besides, I didn't even like the guy. Just another master.
I eyed the scroll he still held clutched in his hand. All this fuss and hundreds of miles for a piece of paper. Legend or not, I couldn't imagine that it was worth it. I mean they had all died - every last one in the band of heroes who had set out to discover the wisdom of the dragon and ascend to conquer heaven. Horrifically killed. That's hubris for you. And now I - a lowly slave boy - I alone was left with the most powerful and sacred text known to man.
I thought about just chucking it since it was clearly cursed. My master had been struck down by heaven itself seconds after breaking the seal. I glanced around at my meager shelter. It probably wouldn't be enough to protect me, but maybe it didn't need to. The seal was already broken, and the storm outside... was it calming down?
"No." I said aloud, "No way am I touching that thing." I really don't know who I was trying to convince.
I went through my late master's pockets and retrieved some coins. Leaving the clunky too-big armor, I relieved him of his short sword and satchel. With the food and water it contained, I might just survive long enough to... go back to the same old dingy, thieving life I had before I was a slave.
This gave me pause for some reason. Inexplicably, that thought bothered me now. After all, why go back to begging and scrapping, when the jackpot was sitting right there in front of me? How much would someone pay for eternal life and divine power?
I must have stared at the scroll for a handful of minutes before saying, "Fleck it," and prying it loose from the dead man's hands. Just in case there was one more deadly surprise, I carefully laid it out on the ground and coaxed it open with the sword sheath.
There, written on shimmering silver paper, it read:
"If you are reading this scroll, odds are you have traveled long and far through many a trial and obstacle.
You have great aspirations.
You have proven your potential.
And yet it is not enough...
It never will be. You self-absorbed twit. Those who possess great ambition are seldom great people. In fact, in my vast experience over the centuries, I have found they usually end up being assholes. You are no exception, and your path inevitably leads to ruin. So here is my advice to you, be the kind of asshole you can live with because the satisfaction you seek is beyond you.
Regards and Condolences,
Great Black Dragon, Sarkath The Soulless"
For a moment, all I could do was sit there dumbfounded. Then I laughed. I laughed my bleeding heart out. "Some flecking wisdom! I could have told you that, ya bastard!"
In my dark fit of mirth, I picked up the scroll and turned it over, fully expecting it to be blank, but it wasn't. Instead, I found one line of text that floated off the page and seemed to hang in the air right in front of me even after I dropped the accursed paper in shock.
I heard the deafening sound of thunder and only had time for half a curse before the world went white. Only the floating words remained, still hovering in the center of my vision.
"Congratulations!" It said, "You have reached Level 2."
All My Work
It was one of those Tuesday afternoons where nothing seems to be going right and you feel convinced that nothing you do will make it a better day, so you just begrudgingly shlog through the rest of the day. Late to wake up, late catching the train, and late coming back at the office after lunch. I was sure that my boss would lecture me jeering, "Alex! Next time, might you have the decency to skip lunch after such a lazy morning? Or better yet, skip showing up at all next time," leering as only a spoiled twenty-something-year-old brat can.
Checking my watch I curse and pick up my pace as I scurry through the main lobby. I pause between the entrance to the stairway and the one elevator in the building, briefly deliberating. Then I heard a ding as the elevator doors opened and there were only two other people waiting. I turned away from the stairs and sprinted the last dozen feet onto the lift.
Wheezing slightly, I smiled a bit at the others to reassure them that I wasn't a weirdo. A young blonde woman returned my smile with a polite nod, and the old lady who held on to her arm smiled warmly. I pressed the button for the 32nd floor and the close button. After what felt like a full minute, I was about to throw my arms up and go back to the stairs when the ugly metal doors finally creaked shut.
I sighed and turned to say, "I really hope they fix this piece of junk soon."
It's funny what you notice about other people on a long elevator ride. I noticed them bickering under their breath and what kind of shoes they were wearing. I was beginning to make up a little story in my head about them when the lights flickered to black. I couldn't help but curse again. The red emergency lights switched on mercifully not long after. The sudden complete darkness had been unsettling, to say the least. Then I heard a thud behind me. Whipping around I saw the old lady crumpled on the ground breathing heavily.
"Gran!" her companion cried out. We both immediately knelt beside her, though it was abundantly clear that neither of us knew what to do in a situation like this.
"Should we call an ambulance?" I asked.
She nodded vigorously but had her eyes concernedly fixed on her grandmother's face. So I pulled out my phone and dialed 911. I told the dispatcher all the relevant information I could think of and hung up. Then I took off my jacket and covered the poor woman as her granddaughter maneuvered her to rest more comfortably in her lap. I explained that help was on the way, but it might take a while. The old woman's breathing slowed down enough for her to speak a minute or so later.
"I knew it would end like this, eventually." She mused.
"What are you talking about, Gran?" her granddaughter responded.
"All my work comes back to haunt me. I knew it would."
"You'll be fine. Don't worry, Gran."
"You don't understand, child." The grandmother blinked in confusion, "They've found me." She pried away from the younger woman whose gentle protests were brushed aside and she sat up against the wall. "I have to tell you," she wheezed., "Have to set the record straight." I shifted uncomfortably. A few minutes ago, I was just late for work. Now I'm about to hear this random lady's last will and testament. I Fucking hate Tuesdays.
"You remember, I told you I worked for the newspaper when I was young. Well, I only got the job because I had to after I killed Earl. And - "
"You what?" I blurted.
"Killed my husband, honey, keep up! Anyway, I only - "
"Gran you killed him? You said Grandad got hit by the mob!"
"Look, I'll die before I finish the story at this rate, so unless you want me to haunt you with this you better let me speak. I killed Earl because he hurt me and he tried to hurt my baby! I told them it was self-defense, but they didn't believe or didn't care. Domestic Abuse didn't count as assault at the time. So I went to prison until I won an appeal two years later. Your mother was living in foster care, already 10 years old. The social worker said that there was a chance I could regain custody if I could find a job that could sustain us both."
"I sent out applications right and left, but no one would give me the time of day. A woman? A convict? No chance! That's when I realized I would never win if I kept playing by their rules. So I made my own. I went to the foster parent's house and took my daughter back and we ran like hell, changed our names and I got a job cleaning at some little publication in Texas. That's where I got the letters."
"You see, the paper had an advice column called Dear Chelsea, and readers wrote in their problems in these letters. There was a team of people who read them deciding what they could use and what was scrap. Some letters were responded to publicly in the column, others were handled privately, but many were just thrown out and sent generic apology letters. I found them in the trash one evening, and once I started reading them. I couldn't stop."
"They were mostly sent from women and children. Some of them were crazy threats and gibberish, but most were cries for help from desperate people... and they just threw them out. It wasn't right, women have the right to live unharassed. I thought about Earl, and how miserable he made our family. After a while, I couldn't contain my anger. So I made a new rule. I would never turn my back on a desperate woman again. So I used the letters to track down their demons and slay them, just like I did with mine."
"I had to move and change our names a few more times, but eventually I figured out a different way to cover my tracks, and I never gave up until your mother had you. I wanted to keep an eye on you, to protect you, that was all that mattered. But they've finally found me. It's over. I'm sorry..."
She drifted off then. I sat in stilted silence in a box bathed in red. Haunted by a stranger's past.
I have a journal I barely use. It is strange, for I have always filled my journals in the past. This one is different. It defies me to write in it whenever I look at it. Has the writer changed? Or can the equipment be to blame? I remember I used to love to write, but something is wrong. The words escape me; the words are wrong. What exactly are they running from? Perhaps at long last, I have discovered that deep in my heart of hearts, I have nothing left to say.
How Human are We?
I was raised on the notion that deeply embedded in every soul there is an ugly thing - an inescapable wretchedness. It is born of a hundred thousand inconsequential, long-forgotten injustices. It is a thing that calls out for love in whatever form it can get and howls in rage when fate throws unexpected trials in our way. It beats against all our ideals and ideas of self worth and the worth of others until there is nothing left but a wound in need of some kind of dressing. A toxic love can cover this wound and hide it from the world, but it is not clean. It will fester. Make our blood boil. Make our minds go numb. Make our hearts feel lost. How intoxicating a thing like this can be - how wholesome in its imperfection - beautifully dire - horrifically dysfunctional - how human.
A Night for Adventure
You don't realize how dirty you can get on an adventure until you find yourself in the thick of it. I was no stranger to dirt or sweat when I went on my own sort of adventure, but there is something about the security and constancy of home that encourages bathing and hygiene in a way that is absent out there in the wild world. Mind you, you hardly care what you smell like while running for your life, but I digress. Suffice it to say when I stumbled into a modest little motel covered in blood and all sorts, I was made keenly aware of the issue by the expression of the young man behind the counter. Before he picked his jaw up from the floor, I managed to compose myself and calmly say, "One room, one night, please."
I never could quite distinguish the color of his eyes; they were deep-set and small, almost beady, and the light was always either too dim or too bright to allow for such details to be noticed. I should have known then not to trust such eyes. He was always winking too, as though he had a secret he wanted to tell me. Looking back, it's almost as though he couldn't bear to meet my gaze directly. I could not tell what color his eyes were, but I can't forget the glint of shame in them. I sorely wish I could.
Point for Inspiration
I would strike the idea of determining fairness down as a null point regardless of the outcome of any debate. The concept of advantage and disadvantage implies unfairness, inequality, disproportionate odds of success; however, fairness, or the lack thereof, has little consequence in the universe we live in. But someone clever once wrote about how creativity thrives on limitations, and though their name escapes me now, I am reminded of the contents of that article.
For instance, if a group of filmmakers only has one day to make a ten minute film that only uses ten words with a limited budget, they sometimes create a masterpiece because of how much extra thought and consideration is required to accomplish the task with the time and resources available, but if you give the same group a year to make an hour long movie with a limitless budget and no restrictions, you might well end up with a billion-dollar flop because the artistic vision of the group relied on the limitations to give them focus and direction.
That was the gist of the article and the evidence presented in it. One could certainly argue that the original group was at a disadvantage to the later group as far as resources, but they were ultimately more successful anyway. I find it curious how disadvantage can actually stimulate success in the realm of art. On the surface it is a great contradiction to what we've learned about the nature of success and fairness, but culturally speaking, it makes sense. Why else would we always root for the underdog? To triumph in the face of insurmountable odds is an inspiring notion, and inspiration can tip the scales in all kinds of unexpected ways.
Live, give, find
Laugh, because you can. Live to learn. Make no excuses. Give no quarter. They will find out who you are.
I had reached the point where I figured I must be unlovable; either because I was too ugly on the inside or because I simply wouldn't let people get close. The result was the same. How can you love someone if they don't let you? Thusly, it was decided that I was unlovable. He didn't understand for the longest time, and for some reason, I didn't cut him out of my life when it became clear that he wanted to love me. It is natural to want to be loved, but it is not right to lead someone on. I wanted to love him too, but I didn't you see. I couldn't. My head and my heart went to war over it. Stupid. The truth is that I cannot be touched without unleashing chaos. I sent an apology and then lost his number. Good thing too. I am too weak to resist the prospect of being seen and being loved even when I cannot be touched.