An Island in the Stream of Time
Cucumbers are a wonderfully straightforward piece of food prep. I might get a strange piece of satisfaction out of striping them with the peeler before cutting them into chubby little oversized coins, but the mechanic is just simple repetitive slicing. It’s not like trying to prep broccoli where you are constantly weighing whether you are either cutting too little, leaving a huge jaw-cracking portion for someone to cram into their mouth, or cutting too much, being left with a pile of sad little broccoli crumbs.
Yes, cucumbers are easy, and I’m nearly done with this gargantuan vegetable tray that we’re planning on laying out for today’s party. Just a couple more cucumbers.
They should be back soon with balloons and…
That strange sensation when you know that you’ve cut yourself, but it’s more intellectual than physical because your brain seems to shy away from experiencing pain under circumstances like this. Better expressed through a simple shout of “Dammit!”
I find myself cradling the injured thumb, not exactly excited to pull away my hand to see what kind of damage I have managed to inflict upon myself. It could have been worse. The flap of skin that had once been the tip of my thumb was still clinging to the position that it had once held so naturally by a healthy portion of remaining flesh. The observation quick, owing to the ooze of blood that immediately began to roll down my hand as soon as I removed the pressure applied by its uninjured brother.
I reapply the pressure and make my way down the hall to the bathroom. The first aid kit has taken a vacation from its normal wanderings, as I swing open the closet door and find it in plain sight rather than nesting among towels or cowering behind a colony of dietary supplements. Its newfound generous nature does not extend to cooperation with the complicated bit of three-fingered unzipping that is involved in continuing to apply pressure while rooting out an appropriate bandage for this self-inflicted…
”What. the. hell?” I drop the knife, reflexively shedding the tool that had so recently caused me harm.
I’m back in the kitchen, and there is no blood. My hand is whole, and what in the world just happened? I check myself, patting myself down to make sure I really am all in one piece, stemming not from any physical sensation, but from a complete lack of anything else to do.
The change in setting is a jolt to the system, the kitchen taking on an air of alienness simply by not being the room that I was standing in just moments before. It is otherwise just as I would expect it to be, zip-lock bags of carrots, broccoli, and peppers pushed to the side of the counter awaiting the cucumbers that would soon be joining them.
My gaze shifts to the place where I dropped the knife alongside the cutting board which was currently playing host to the first of three… but hadn’t I just been finishing up the second when I cut myself?
It was hard to be sure, but I could have…
There it was again. The knife was back in my hand.
When we talk about all of the things that we take for granted, our thoughts tend to drift toward things like a roof over our heads, food on the table, or health. What we almost never seem to consider is how much we take for granted the relative order of our physical world. Part of me wants to grab onto the counter for fear of floating away even though gravity isn’t the basic building block of my existence that has decided to stop working.
I drop the knife again, slowly backing away from the counter then turning to tear out of the house. I burst through the door gulping fresh air on my front step. When I raise my head to look around, I’m not alone, I see neighbors up and down the street coming out of their homes looking at the world around them like they had never seen it before.
The birds are acting every bit as odd like they were lost in the sky. The feeling of displacement seemed to permeate everything around me. I would be willing to believe that the grass was feeling disoriented by this sudden shift in the status quo.
I raise my hand in preparation to flag down my next-door neighbor when I …
Find myself back in my kitchen.
Whirling away from the counter, I make a mad dash for the front door. I am through and flying along the front walk, taking the moderate shortcut of hopping the retaining wall toward my goal of the neighbor’s front door. When I materialize on his front step, it’s as if none of the intervening steps had even happened. My fist rains blows on his front door, the kind of knocking that we partition off in our minds to the worlds of horror stories, and normally wouldn’t dare indulge in polite society.
Maybe polite society had gone out the window along with whatever else this is. I’m fairly certain that polite society spends most of its time propped up on the sill just waiting to head out the window.
In contrast to the sprint over here, the wait at the door seems nearly interminable, but finally, the storm door still rattling in its frame, my neighbor opened the inner door. There was a dazed look on his face, like wherever he had gone, he wasn’t currently residing behind his own eyes.
“What… what’s going on.” The words tumbled from his lips, an act of gravity rather than a force of will.
“I don’t know,” the words escaped in a manic rush. “Look at this. I cut my hand just a minute ago, and look.”
I waved my unharmed hand in front of his still vacant eyes, a hysterical motion that was driving him deeper into his shell if it was evoking any reaction at all.
My head snapped to the side as eruptions of activity burst up and down the block, neighbors shouting themselves hoarse from their front yards, crying out for someone, anyone to fix this thing that had broken.
And suddenly silence. The silence was jarring, like a power outage where life is going along at full speed until suddenly everything stops. The knife is in my hand, but the abrupt change in stimuli has knocked me off-kilter. I find myself swaying on the spot for just a moment until my brain decides that it has rebooted.
I lay the knife down again, certain that I am in no state at the moment to be wielding a sharp object, no matter how quickly an unfortunate accident might be corrected.
This is a time loop, I try to decide whether a life filled with utopian science fiction and Bill Murray movies has made what is happening more or less believable. I come to the conclusion that it is probably a wash, then decide to move on to something more pressing like… I actually don’t know. This is so far outside of my reference for the possible that normal categories like “why” and “what now” seem out of reach. I haven’t been given a prologue painting me as a despicable person in need of redemption, or a basket full of technobabble that will allow me to pull a god out of a box.
And here I am with that damn knife back in my hand again. The effect of being reset was significantly diminished this time around, hardly any shock to the system at all, just the press of the knife in my hand without reaching to pick it up. If I am going to think, being stationary is probably the best bet. My consciousness seems to be continuous within the loop, it’s just the physical that slams back into place every time we reset.
It is we. It definitely isn’t just me. The whole neighborhood as far as I could see was bubbling with chaos the last time I was out there.
It hits me like a ton of bricks and suddenly I’m the biggest asshole on the face of the Earth.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been caught in this loop, but it is far too long to have failed to spare a single thought for my family, and how this has to be affecting them as well. I’m a grown man by himself in his own home and I’ve been freaking out. I can’t imagine what my kids must be thinking, this has to be terrifying for them, and my wife doesn’t have the luxury of simply taking care of herself.
I reach for my phone in the corner and quickly tap my way to my wife’s spot on my contact list. It’s late in the cycle, so we may not get a chance to talk, but I can’t not try to get through.
It immediately connects.
“You have reached the voicemail of…
My attention is yanked from the voicemail recording and the cell phone is replaced once again by the knife in my hand. I feel a brief bubbling of rage beginning to stir in my chest, but I don’t have time to entertain it. I take a deep breath and press it down, latching onto a temporary false calm that is going to push me through these next few moments.
My hand darts once again for my phone in the corner, wishing for just a moment that the paranoid weirdo who turned off the voice controls on my phone would have seen fit to hand me back these couple seconds. My shaky hands manage to botch the thumb scanner on the first try, but also manage not to dash the phone against a wall after doing so… and I’m in. A pair of swipes and three taps has the phone reaching out again… ringing this time.
“Come on, pick up, pick up.” I find myself chanting it to myself as it rings once, twice, three times, and voicemail again.
That’s too soon. I may avoid phone calls like the plague, but I know her phone doesn’t go to voicemail that quickly. I hang up and redial.
“You have reached the voicemail of…”
I lay down the knife and set to pacing.
The motion isn’t manic, at least I hope it isn’t, just contemplative.
Under what circumstances would a phone go straight to voicemail?
The phone was destroyed in a terrible accident and my whole family is dead.
This whole thing is really stressful and she just turned the phone off.
My call distracted her at a crucial moment causing her to get into a horrific accident.
I’ve killed my family… but if that’s true it only happened that last time.
Bad cell phone coverage.
What kind of effect does a time loop even have on technology like a cell phone?
This is wishful thinking. I have no reason to think that they are okay, and while I have no concrete evidence that something has happened to them, I have every reason to believe that they are in danger. I’ve been thrown off balance just bouncing back to my kitchen, if they are in the car driving, there is every chance that the roads have turned into an absolute meat grinder.
My imagination starts feeding me worst-case scenarios and is refusing to provide me with anything that might resemble a thought that could debunk any of them. I have no way of knowing, and I was right before when it occurred to me that trying to make contact might only make things worse.
I slump to the counter, head in my hands…
But immediately, I find myself upright again, standing stupidly over a cutting board playing host to a half-dismembered cucumber.
I’m not exactly sure what takes me over, maybe just a craving for normalcy, maybe I’m simply running from all of the possible implications of what may have just happened, but I start cutting the cucumbers again. Quickly polishing off the first, then removing the ends of the second, I found myself rushing through it, threatening to cut myself again.
I push aside the finished, though somewhat mangled remains of the second cucumber and move to the third. With quick jerky motions, I slice the ends off of this last cucumber, when…
Time resets again and the same job lies before me.
I rush right back into it again, convincing myself that these cucumbers are the hurdle I must clear to set the world right again.
I feel like the pixelated avatar in an old video game who, having worked through all of the logical ways to work through a puzzle, has resorted to stupid things that can’t possibly be the solution. In those worlds, sometimes the stupid thing works after all, and aren’t I little more than an infinitely respawning avatar at this point?
The cut, but not particularly presentable, cucumbers sit in front of me and I stare at them with a misguided satisfaction that would rival that of a toddler who has just completed a crayon masterpiece all over the living room wall.
A moment of disorientation, then rage.
My arm pulls back and flings the knife across the kitchen and through the dining room where it deflects off the window and clatters to the floor.
Okay, I lost it there for a second.
The adrenaline dumped into my system after that outburst has my whole body shaking on the spot. I find myself pacing the kitchen just to burn off some of the nervous energy. The anxiety that had at least temporarily hidden itself under the veneer of the calm and reason that I preferred to bring to the situation had ridden the anger to take control of the situation, and like the idiot son of the owner who has now become your boss, it had no business being in charge of anything.
I was in no condition to figure how long I had been trapped in this loop, but some optimistic part of my spirit seemed to think that I had done well to make it this far before I cracked.
And just like that, nearly all of my panic dissipated. I had the knife in my hand again, but the impulse to chuck it at things had passed. The cycle had reset and with it, the internal chemistry of my body had returned to its baseline. I’m not ready to call it a happy side-effect of the time loop, but it is kind of nice that I’m not even now struggling to bring myself down from a runaway rage.
It has been a little while since I have stuck my head outside, at least in a relative sense when time literally has ceased to have any meaning. The urgency has leaked out of my movements as I drift through the house to the front door. Where I was rushing with abandon just minutes ago… it seems impossible that only minutes have passed, I am seeking now to merely get a taste of what is going on outside of my own walls.
Standing on my front step, it could hardly be any more different from how it was the last time I had ventured outdoors. Where chaos threatened to tear the neighborhood apart then, the current scene was the picture of serenity. The quiet calm of what met me at the door was every bit as unsettling as the panic in the air before.
I stood there allowing the barrenness of the landscape to envelope me, the realization of what it all meant sinking in…
As the knife reappeared in my hand, and I was once again encased in the walls of my kitchen.
I was going to have to see what happened, and something told me that once that decision was made, it was going to keep being made… over and over again.
But not right now. That was not a bandaid that I was going to be able to immediately pull off. I would do it next time. Next time I would have my head together enough to do it.
I backpedaled and sagged into the opposite corner of the kitchen next to the stove, just a few seconds to pull myself together, and then I would do it.
It wasn’t really necessary, was it? If I knew, had worked it out in my head, I didn’t have to actually experience it, right?
There are certainly much worse situations to deceive yourself about. What would I gain, really? I would have the lay of the land, but how much could that matter? I have no capability of existing in that land, how could the lay of it matter?
This was silly. I would do it.
And just like that, the time had come.
I calmly set the knife back down on the counter and moved with a measured determined pace back through the living room to the front door. The confrontation of the doorway led to the slightest of hesitations, but I pushed through and retook my place on the front step.
The first thing I saw was the birds. If I am being honest with myself, I knew it would be. A sick part of me has to stifle a laugh as the lyrics to an old Cake song decide to surface in my head. The birds were falling from the sky like stones or small loaves of bread, but not one of them made the decision to halt their descent with a last-minute flutter of their wings.
I’m pulled out of my inappropriate indulgence in popular cultural irony when I hear the first pop on the horizon. That first one is far off, but it’s not unexpected, and if I continue to be right, it is about to be joined by others.
The far-off ones remain pops, but they are accompanied by closer bangs and, my stomach falls, a crash three doors down. The quiet returns and all that I can do is allow it to press in on me until I feel like I am almost suffocated by it. I can’t help but to give in to it and allow it to do with me what it will for the eternity of seconds that remain until I return to the beginning again.
It doesn’t let go. Tears begin to stream down my face and I collapse onto the cool tile floor.
My body has decided to fight back against that silence with loud out of controlling sobbing, and there is no pulling myself back together. My hot tears fight a separate war against the cold ceramic against my cheek and there is not enough of my conscious mind present to care who wins.
And time loops and I do it all over again.
And there is every possibility that this will never stop.
How do you get past a horror that is always present?
Is it even worth getting past if nothing can possibly matter anymore?
The anguish just feeds on itself as that thought reminds me that every one of those pops, bangs, and crashes was a person who had reached that conclusion just a little quicker than I had.
If I had the means, I would probably join them, dying a handful of seconds at a time, but I will have to suffice with my tears.
I will offer my grief to eternity and pour it out fresh every time it fills itself back up.
A House on a High, High Road
A dirt road wound down around the moore and up towards the very essence of dismal dreariness. The night was far from young, and the moon hung high. She shone a pale yellow-white, a beacon to her twinkling cousins, reflecting a mood of eternal melancholy. Her song reached the trees, rustling branches, and whistling back at the birds. The road was damp and only lit by the pale light of the sky; it twisted and turned, tree roots burst from the ground, warning all who attempted the visit to turn back, to go far away and never return.
At the end of the road, above the moore sat a lone house, shrouded by unkempt bushes and ivy. The front door was of a peculiar wood, rather unpleasing, as though the wood were either the strongest in the world, or about to crumble at any given moment. The song of the moon did not reach this high, for all was dead and silent but the faint crackling of a slowly dying fire.
The air was cold, yet the wind dared not intrude on this property. In fact, hardly anything dared trespass except for one. A single woman in a white dress walked along the treacherous path, avoiding the tree roots and rocks with ease. She reached the door, robed in snowy white, and she knocked a single eery knock.
Inside the house a man awoke with a start, flask in hand, sitting in a faded arm chair facing the front door. He sprung out of his seat immediately, throwing the flask across the room and stumbling forward. He reached the door, head pressed against it, eyes squeezed shut. With a creak, the door inched open until the two were face to face. He sank to his knees letting out a strangled cry, tears tracing the curves of his nose down a rugged face.
The woman just smiled. She stood there, stoic and stately, eyes drowning in forgotten sorrows.
Slowly he began to rise, weak with shock and disbelief. The woman extended her hands as if she were a dove stretching her wings in an expression of peace, a goddess reaching down from the heavens to drag the unfortunate mortal out of his engulfing misery. The moon shone especially bright on the woman whose beauty and fair skin rivaled that of the heavens themselves. For a moment, the man made no move, it was almost as if he was rejecting her offer, until he interlocked his hand with hers, a familiar motion. With this, all seemed to relax so that the noises of the moore were hardly audible.
Hand in hand the two began to depart the dismal house, toward a grassy patch below the stars. She led him forward like a siren to the sea, face lit and eyes glistening. She danced in front of him, a delicate dancing nymph among the tree until they reached the quiet picnic destination. A silvery-blue blanket lay smooth across the grass, and the picnic basket’s contents were meticulously placed atop.
Releasing the rugged hand, the woman took her place on the blanket and motioned for the man to do the same. With less grace, he took his seat as well. Neither made a motion for food. One faced the moore and the other sat staring at her glowing figure. She turned to face him once more, laid a hand atop his and spoke in a gentle yet warning tone, “My love, Wake up”.
The man blinked once, long and hard and when his eyes opened at last, the woman was no longer in front of him. He glanced down at his hand which still felt the pressure of her grasp. To his great surprise, he found not the blanket below his hand. He saw not the glorious feast that had been in front of him merely a moment prior.
Instead, below his hand was grass covering a hard earth. He raised head slightly, and his eyes grew wide with realization and misery. In front of him sat a gray stone, a headstone.
Scrambling to his feet, the man began to run, run toward the cliff overlooking the moore. He reached the edge, heart caught in his throat and swallowed. Suddenly, the wind had overcome its fear of the property and joined the man on the cliff, whispering in his ear words of poisonous encouragement.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, a familiar, moonlit hand. Yet, in front of him appeared another hand, outstretched in an offering of eternal bliss, relief from misery. Thousands of whispers made the formerly quiet moore excruciatingly loud. Torn in two equally miserable directions, he fell. He fell to knees above the moore and shut his eyes, shut them forever.
The Girl On the Bed
I look through the window in the door. A fragile girl is on the bed, dead. Gone for five minutes. The grieving faces of three around, the rest of her family, not in town. She is a girl who could have had a better life. She looks innocent on the small bed, in the small room. But I know her better. She procrastinates. Perhaps, if she had tried, her grades could've been all A's. She's lazy. She's disobedient. She's manipulative. And she's dishonest. And the biggest thing. She made a mistake, which led to another. One which people say it's not her fault, but she knows that it is. The things with the guy should have never ended, they should have never started. She's not as innocent as she makes it sound. I walk out.
"Mili?" I turn around. My brother. I smile. "I love you," I say, not expecting him to say it back. He never says it back. If he's nice he'll say I love you a little bit. "I love you too," he says, and comes and hugs me. "I thought you were dead." I hug him back, I've always loved his rare hugs. I ruffle his hair and step back. "There's something I have to do." I turn and start to leave, repeating the addresses in my head. "But Mom, and Dad." I look back. "I'll be back." I walk. I don't feel a thing. I walk until I'm familiar again with the streets, and I go back to my house. The small city I loathed at once, was much better than the big one. I open the garage and let myself in. It's my house, I remind myself, taking the image of the dead girl out of my head. I can't be dead. I have too many regrets. I go to my room. It's messy, unkept, and untouched. I grab my now broken phone from my desk and my wallet. I call an uber. He comes and drops me off without many words. I look up at the house. I check my phone. It's Wednesday, she's at her mom's. The cars are all there, including hers. I nearly smile. I knock. The first door opens. Sara. "Oh my god, I thought you were dead," she opens the clear door. I see the tears fall as she leans for a hug. "I'm still here, How's Conner?" My usual question. She retracts. "He's fine, his usual," she says nodding. "How are you...?" I shake my head. "I came to say I'm sorry. For the times I wasn't all there, for the times I ignored you, my best friend. You were always there. I love you and Conner together, and I understand that you're not always going to be all there for me either. I'm sorry I was jealous. But you truly are my best friend, and a great one too. I love you, I'm sorry." She then comes forth and says things too, her regrets and decisions. She's sorry too. I then say I have to go, that there's something else I need to do.
I look at the small house. Not eager to go in. The drive over here was a haul. And I'm pretty sure my card is nearly out of money. The door opens. I don't move from my spot on the street. "Mili?" I just stare. Sim. He runs over. "I thought I lost you." He starts for a hug, then retracts, remembering how we ended. "Are you okay?" He doesn't know I'm dead. I shudder at my thoughts. "I'm better now," I reply, unconsciously and nearly smile. What am I doing? Just as he's turning down towards me, I move. "No, this isn't what I came for. I need to speak, and I need you to please listen." "You have my full attention." "I'm sorry from the beginning. I wasn't really that much into you. Later I was into you, but I also don't appreciate what you did. I wasn't ready. And I'm sorry for not trying to stay with you, it just wasn't the time. I'm not in love with you, but I have respect for you, and I'm sorry I didn't tell you this sooner." My eyes had wandered, me unable to meet his eyes. I already know the words before they come out of his mouth. "Well that hurt," he says, taking a step back. "I'm glad you were honest." I look up and remember the boy I used to love. If I tried, I know I could still love him. But my life is gone. And I've only ever caused him pain. "I'm sorry for making you believe you had a chance and for breaking up with you 9 times after saying I was committed." He closes his eyes. "It's alright Miliana, I'm just glad you're okay." I nod and turn, happy that the confession is out. I should have done this a long time ago. Back when I was alive. I shake my head and start walking away. “Hug?” I turn around, thinking back to that one time. I smile and lean into him. I’m forgiven. Was that so hard? I shake my head at the fact that I was unable to do this before. Before disappearing from his view, I turn back around and see the boy who thought he would marry me. Months ago, I would have agreed. Weeks ago, I’d deny I ever loved him. Now, I know there’s not a chance. I went back to my house, put my card and phone back. And arrive at the hospital. I call out my brother's name. He’s a few feet ahead of me. He doesn’t turn around. I call out again, fearing I’m too late. Please. No. I‘m gone. The images of laughter, the thoughts of me not being able to see him grow up. My friends. My life. It’s all gone, but my regrets, I have fixed. I sent a text out, explaining everything I’ve ever done wrong. I apologized for giving people the wrong impression of Sim, the wrong impression of me. I’m the one that’s fake. And while I do have peace, and know I am forgiven. I still wish I could go back. And all at once, everything goes blank.
A shred of red silk was nailed to a white wall beneath a picture framed in simple black. The phrase ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ woven on a soft quilt behind the glass. In the corner she stood. An amalgamation of terror grafted on blasphemous flesh. An oily substance poured from the apparition, and collected as a pool at defiled feet levitating mere inches above the ground.
He held the broom like a cross ahead of him, as if to ward off the das Dämonische’an evil.
‘’I get fifty percent of your estate, plus child support. This does not include transportation to and from school, swimming lessons, and trips to visit my parents. Oh, and you only get to see them once a week.’
‘BACK YOU DEVIL! BACK!’ He shouted with the white of his knuckles.
Chili with Dad
We sat at a picnic table beside our favorite camping spot by a creek. The water gurgled quietly, clear ripples dancing over smooth pebbles as it went on its way. The smell of chili had my mouth watering. Dad liked it spicy, loaded in dried red peppers.
He looked up at me, and said, "Believe in yourself. Your story was wonderful. It took me to another world, of magic and strife and childhood wishes. I was a boy again, with my mother beside me reading from a favorite book. The one I would ask for again and again."
I reached across to touch his battered hand. Gnarled with scars, and arthritis gleaned over a lifetime of hard work, it grasped mine in a grip which never diminished as he aged. He smiled and ran a napkin over his multi-colored beard with his other hand. More white than anything else now, his whiskers framed a wide smile of approval. Prophecy's Promise lay on table beside our bowls, bound in a bright blue binder, with double sided printed eight by eleven sheets paper on the three rings inside. One of five copies my husband had printed for me so my family could read it, his praise brought tears to my eyes.
"You're my best girl. Believe in yourself. Remember I know you can be whatever you put your mind to." The message wasn't new. Dad was always the one who encouraged me to explore the new. To always learn. To be myself. It made me wonder what led him to my mother's often bitter and angry side.
"I love her. I love the survivor. I see her in you."
His words left a chill on my skin. I never told them of the terror, the guilt, and the blame I took so many years ago. How did he know?
"Ah, child I have to go. It's time for me to find the light." He never did believe in God, or so he always insisted.
"The light we all come from, and must return to." Again he squeezed my hand, and his body seemed somehow fragile. Tears came unbidden. How could this be goodbye?
"Don't shed them for me. For I am free," He reached across to gently wipe the drops from my cheeks. His slate grey eyes with silvers of pale blue glowed with contentment. "This life has been all I could have asked for. Your sister has much to learn. Be there when the lessons finally get through. You have more love to share and heart which is made to forgive." He floated up. His body young once more.
The Dad I remember from before work broke his back, from before black lung took his breath, from before my sister was born stood there. His beard with only one dramatic white swirl in with the black, the blonde, and the red. His blonde hair, the same shade as mine gleaming in the summer sun, shimmering gold.
The phone was ringing. I slipped out of bed, walked out to the living room where our one land line receiver stood on its charging stand and picked it up. I knew what the call was.
"Karin, I'm so sorry," Mom's voice choked on the other end.
I knew what she was going to say, so I said it instead. "I know. Daddy's gone."
The Phone Call
I didn't expect to get a call. I never get phone calls. But after hitting a perfect serve and going to get water, my phone starts going off. I have no idea who it is. I decline the call and start packing up. It rings again. I decline again. I'm almost at my car when it rings again. The caller is persistent.
"Hello?" I give in.
"Alana." His voice. I get chills, and I nearly hang up. "Please, don't hang up." Frustrated, I dump my things inside the car, just as another car ups in. One of the guys is here to play tennis.
"What do you want," I say, as the guy gets out and gives me a nod. I nod back and get inside my car.
"I just wanted to hear your-"
"Don't pull that crap, please, don't pull that crap," I interrupt. I hear a sigh from the other side. "I blocked you, this isn't your number, what do you want?"
"Maybe an explanation?" he replies. I freeze. The one thing I didn't want to talk about, the thing I haven't talked about for months. I start to laugh. "You called me... for an explanation?" I ask as if he were the idiot, and I wasn't the one who messed up.
"Alana..." he sighs, "Okay, fine, talk, about anything please." There's something about his voice that indicates pain, and if anything, I do owe him. "Okay," I breathed. "Where are you?" I ask, I always ask. I want to visually see what's around him and what his facial reactions will be as I talk. "I don't think you want to know," he says softly. "Liam," I start. "Alana," he says back. "Where are you?" I question, again, nervously. "I had a car accident."
"What?" No, no, no. "Are you good? Did you call someone?"
"I'm alright, I'm talking to you am I not?" "Liam, this is serious, are you okay?" I ask, I don't even notice the tears that fall off my face until I catch my reflection in the review mirror. "Alana, I called someone, but I don't feel anything, I'm not sure if...I'd make it."
"Liam," my voice cracks, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry-"
"Alana, just talk, please?" I give him what he wants, and I talk about my day, about the previous days, about everything, and anything new. It's not a lot. "Liam? I love you. I'm sorry." But I don't get a response from him. It's a man instead.
"He's lost a lot of blood, do CPR."
Into the phone, "Hello? Is someone there?"
"Will he be alright?" I question. There's a pause as if he were looking up at one of his men.
"I don't know," he says softly and hangs up.
That Which We Call a Rose
Should I continue to wait for my blind date? Should I bolt out of Garibaldi’s? It was eight thirty. It didn't seem that my date, Atticus, would be joining me. I quickly decided to stay and enjoy dinner along. I'd already ordered the bottle of wine, and I could use a glass of it for multiple reasons, so this was an easy fix. The hell with Atticus.
My friend, Phoebe, had arranged tonight’s blind date. I'd agreed because of his name: Atticus. Ever since I was young, I'd been secretly in love with Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. No, I didn't long for tall men in three-piece suits with horn-rimmed spectacles adorning their faces as they sweltered in the summer heat, but I did want a man who wasn't afraid to stand up for his ideals and for others.
A bit later, the waiter approached. Was I ready to order? Yes, please. The grouper a side salad. I'd been looking forward to this meal all afternoon. Atticus would not ruin it.
Glancing at my watch, I learned it was now eight forty-five. Having given up all hope of seeing Atticus, I still pulled out my phone. Nada, zippo, nothing.
I glanced up to find a man approaching my table. He stopped.
“Atticus?” I croaked in disbelief.
“No,” he laughed “I’m Mike. May I join you? I see that you may have had greater expectations, too, this evening.”
I returned his easy smile and laughed. “Whoever would have thought it of a man named Atticus?”
“Atticus?! Therein lies your problem. Who’s named Atticus these days? He was probably eighty and walked with a cane – far too old! Of course, my date's name was Pippi.”
“As in Pippi Longstocking? My date might have been eighty with a cane, but you would have been babysitting and pulling bubblegum out of Pippi's braids tonight!”
We laughed, merriment easing the newness of our acquaintance.
“Would you like a glass of Merlot, Mike?” I asked with a smile.
I learned that Mike was a Pro Bono, Civil Rights’ lawyer, who practiced in the city of Charleston. I nearly choked on my wine.
“You cannot be serious?!”
But Mike said he was absolutely and utterly serious and I could call him ’Atticus” if I wanted. Pure, unadulterated irony.
Later, after I insisted upon paying my own bill, Mike walked me to my car. He commented that he considered this ‘first date’ with me to be fortuitous. Could he please see me again?
I eagerly agreed.
Driving home, I couldn't stop smiling. I wouldn't have imagined that a blind date with a man named Atticus would ever be such a flop, while someone with a common name like Mike would be so amazing. Such propensities had likely encouraged Shakespeare to pen his famous prose:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
And right now, Mike smelled far sweeter than Atticus ever could!
Ain’t That Some Sh*t
I can't say I like it
But I'm, what's that trending cliché phrase? Oh yes, " I'm built different ".
Although from the outside you can't tell.
I have a power, like a super power; But I gotta say it's pretty shitty.... I mean that Literally and Literally is used in the non "woke" way to actually mean Literally and does not include figuratively though I could call it figuratively because my opinion is it is shitty as well. For this instance though I mean literal.
Its shit. I mean I can with a passing glance at any distance and in any circumstance make someone shit their pants if I simply think to.
It is. It's gnarly and surprizingly unique to each victim I do it to. How gross is decided by a number of things the main one being what their last meal was and it is multiplied by how publicly the "doo doo" occurs.
I used to think it was a curse.
I mean I'll never forget how crazy I felt when my pre-k teacher upset me by taking my blanket away saying that "it's a blanket not a cape!" and then she did the weirdest display of behaviors.
She halted mid stride and cinched at her knees and looked like she might be about to sneeze but turning a bright rubicon red and starting to sweat a little. She did a hap hazard Plie¹ and swayed in her stance until, looking mortified she had to lean on a bookcase. Suddenly the classroom was filled with a smell like toxic waste and our teacher forgot any concept of protocol and she scuttled rapidly to the door and off into the hall without a word to anybody.
It was weird because I felt guilty and I had no clue that I should have done just that.
So my power is inflicting defecation nonconsentually.
Now immediately following that happening I did not actually grasp my part in it and naturally it took several instances before the trend hit me as stand out at all.
Why when I'm ticked off do all of these people violently poop themselves? The faces they make are the best part but the worst is the smells.
So, I've known for a long time and I never tell anyone. Ever.
I mean what could I say to explain that were I to endeavor to make you relieve yourself wherever you stood what might you think? Would you call me a freak and shun me? Be friendly but dishonestly, joking to not trigger whatever unknown Part of me controlls the crap trigger and that would basically ruin any enjoyment I get from being social.
Well lets just say this next part of my story is some unexpected shit, and I mean that in more ways than one.
I'm early in my twenties when World War 4 had broken out and world leaders are picketing about why they should get more out of leading their countries to kill one another.
Anyway, today was a pivitol moment, to act as a fulcrum that could prove to be the deciding factor of the war being won and speeches consisted of vernal cannon fodder blasting derogatory hearsay left and right and everyone wss invited to try to fight one another and no peace was to be had.
It got REALLY bad and suddenly from behind the podium the world's leaders leap, they cleared the short distances between them and violently met with one another in an altercation. Ever world leader from every nation all hog-wild fighting fisticuffs in a riotous rampage!
It was then that I thought of it, the thought that saved the world that day.
A flatulant noise squield out and surprisingly echoed from center stage. You could have heard a pin drop as the mob in the middle stayed totally still quite suddenly. They stopped on the spot and as fast as it had started momentarily minutes ago.
A hush over took the vast atrium and you could see the sign language translators holding their arms out with their thumbs and each finger floating readily. Much like a conductor conveying the count at the orchestra in the beginning of a symphony.
Cacophonous now the sound we heard, echos and though none could see what had stopped everyone. You heard the president state aloud "gotta run; seriously!" And with all the dignity he could muster he held his lower back conspicuously, and at a quickened pace made hi way back stahe and ultimately I knew he was heading to the restroom.
It would turn out that the room of shocked elite folks were all mortified and perhaps it was just what the world needed as it was revoked, the order for war.
They had all trauma bonded and embarrassed at their explosive asses they'd worked together to more or less mitigate their losses of social standing, having to stand while 100 % covered inside their slacks was their feces. As a group they came together to usurp societies judgements as the audience hadnt been phased and would be less likely to understand, once a whiff of the poop of an unexpected nature came over them in a haze of nasty smelling, conflict quelling stench rolled on them.
From that day forward all of them had that as a reference to their fellow political figure heads humanity and this effect has bled down through the cogs of society bringing peace between countries and opening mentalities to be more accepting of our differences cause when we look back it's maintained that be us black white brown tan or red; We all poop the same.
I waited an hour before I called. Didn't want to be needy, clingy. I'd ruined too many friendships that way. With desperation. Mania. Not this time.
Okay, so it wasn't quite an hour. I only made it 58 minutes. But that's fine. It was close enough.
Damn it. I fucked up. Do I call again? Send a text? Is that weird?
I type out a text. The safer route.
No, that's too desperate. Tone it down. You don't want to be that person again.
Never mind. Don't text. Just sit and wait like a normal person. You're going to scare them away. Just like last time. And the time before that.
Maybe I did it again. Just another casualty of my codependency. Great work.
"Are you waiting on someone?"
"Yes." My voice sounds all wrong. Pull yourself together. No more of this wishy washy bullshit.
"Do you want a coffee while you wait?"
I stand up.
"I'm okay. I think I'll just come back later."
The waitress offers me a sad smile. She thinks I've been stood up. I haven't. I don't think I have. Have I?
The road seems to crumble around me, asphalt shifting and twisting below my wheels as I start the car. Yellow lines blurred together with tears.
I did it again. I did it again. This always fucking happens.
Step on the gas. Tires peeling away, layers of my sadness staining the street a burnt black. No more. Let it all go. Let it all—
Shattered glass. Head slammed into the steering wheel. Blood that's mine. Blood that isn't. Too fast. I was going too fast. I'm still going too fast, even after I've stopped moving it all keeps going, red and blue, blood and a cerulean shirt slowly stained black by blood and grease, cop cars and screaming and...
Oh my god. I know that car. I recognize the white finish and the out of state license plate. It's their car.
My phone buzzes.
Three fucking letters.
And everything goes black.
I’m starting to rethink the wisdom behind the decision to take a half day today rather than burning an entire day of PTO. Between waiting until lunch to hustle out of work today and the type of public transportation that enables entire authoritarian regimes to rise to power, I am going to be late.
My tardiness is going to do nothing to combat the perceived flakiness of artists, even if the hope that my planned professional demeanor would combat that reputation was the kind of baseless optimism that can easily lead to accusations of flakiness in its own right. The place of the artist in society, in as much as we have a place at all, has been relegated to such a dusty corner of eccentricity that being considered flaky is probably a generous upgrade from the assumption of madness.
Art itself may not be madness, but still considering yourself an artist after all that has happened probably comes close. Look at me now, I’ve been thrown the smallest scrap of something that looks marginally like the future that I had pictured for myself and here I am tearing through the streets like, yes, a mad woman.
All of this rushing manages to have me rolling into the lobby at something resembling on time, even if I do still have an elevator ride, and a trek down the hallway in front of me that will qualify me as late, but not seriously so. That elevator ride turns out to be a blessedly solitary one that can be used to take several deep calming breaths to rein in my out-of-control nervous system, and a few dabs at my forehead with a tissue to keep the glow of my commute to a minimum.
By the time the elevator dinged at my destination on the seventh floor, I had managed to recapture the majority of the composure that had been leaking out of me over the last several blocks of my commute. The me who walked across the threshold into the waiting room for my appointment was a reasonable facsimile of the one who I hoped would show up here today.
It’s more crowded than expected and I lower myself into a chair next to a man, nearly as well-worn as his chipboard guitar case, who is sporting a balding scalp that still insisted on clinging to a rope of stone-gray ponytail. Ugh, musicians.
“Hi, I’m Jessica.” I turn to him and smile, “I’m a little late, they haven’t called me yet, have they?”
“No, you’re good. It’s not like they’re ever punctual themselves.” I must have disguised my initial distaste well because he seems like he’s just happy that someone has noticed that he isn’t part of the furniture.
I try to relax into the waiting room chair. It’s one of those ergonomic models that envisions that all people are the same shape and size, so rather than relax before my appointment, I find myself fighting off a chair back that seems intent on stabbing me in the spine.
“So, let me guess, a writer?” The musician is fighting a battle of his own, attempting to retain his brief promotion to fellow sentient being.
“Nope, I’m an artist.” I try not to be too offended by the pitying look that crosses his face as if anyone sitting in this room is in a better position than anyone else.
We are both rescued from this tortured interaction as a woman toting an iPad comes through an inner door and calls my name, “Jessica Wells?”
By way of answer, I pull myself out of the monstrosity masquerading as a chair and follow her into the adjoining room in the office. She motions me to a chair, a brother to those in the waiting room, and sits down on the opposite side of a utilitarian laminate-covered gray desk. I cringe inwardly as I notice that she is shackled to one of these chairs on a daily basis.
“Just a few questions before we start. Can you confirm that you are indeed Jessica Wells and that this is your first time contributing to Consort?” She stares at the tablet computer ready to tick the boxes that verify that I am who I say I am and that I am not here under false pretenses.
“Have you, in the last five years, contributed to any entities who you know to be in direct competitor with Consort or any of its subsidiary corporations?”
“No, not to the best of my knowledge.”
“And you are aware that in agreeing to this commission, that Consort will retain all rights to the final product as well as a six-month right of first refusal for future work?”
“Good, please sign here.” She turns the tablet to me where I awkwardly scrawl an approximation of my signature with my finger.
“Okay, follow me, and we’ll get you set up.”
She guides me into a long hallway of monochromatic dark gray, doors with brushed stainless steel knobs dotted the walls on either side at regular intervals. The low pile carpet of the hallway, likewise gray, swallows up the sound of our footsteps as we move to the far end of the corridor.
“You are going to be in room seventeen.” She opens the door and motions for me to go in first.
I take in the room, which is small and retains the same utilitarian lack of charm as the rest of the office but has the advantage of being stocked with brand-new art supplies. I take in the stack of heavily textured luxuriously thick paper, an assortment of graphite pencils, and best of all, a fresh set of pastels.
“Does everything seem to be to your liking?” She asked in such a way that in no way betrayed that this was a rhetorical question meant to elicit nothing but an answer in the affirmative.
“I think I have everything I need, thank you,” I said, fulfilling my end of the transaction.
“If you need anything else, just press the call button next to the door, and we’ll send someone down to help you. Take a few minutes to set up, your model should be here shortly.” She retreated to the hallway, closing the door behind her, leaving me alone to make this place my own.
It was curious to think that this was what passed for an art space. Nothing in the way of natural light, and aside from the tools of the trade, bright sticks of pigment almost glowing from their box, the room was a testament to sterility. It was something that had to be intentional because a space used by artists, especially a space designed to be used by artists, couldn’t help but pick up character, but there were no careless drips of paint on the floor or the table that held the supplies. The tilt-top desk that I would be working on showed none of the accidental cuts and scratches, smudges of graphite fingerprints, or the faded remnants of pigment that had been mostly but not quite cleaned away.
In a way, as much as it is shocking to the senses, it shouldn’t be surprising that this place wasn’t made with artists in mind. Artists are hardly more than an afterthought in the world at large, which is probably the biggest reason that I’m in this bleak lifeless room today. I should maybe just count my blessings that they haven’t moved to cubicles yet.
There was a thunk followed by two quick taps to announce the arrival of the model that I would be working with today. The awkwardness of the arrangement chose that moment to wash over me, culminating in a startled gasp that I did my best to transform into an invitation to enter. The part of my mind that I could trust in the moment attempted to sort the figure who emerged into the color palette that I would need to assemble for the project ahead of us.
He closed the door behind him and turned to find my hand offered in greeting, “Hi, I’m Jessica.”
“Marcus,” he said as he grasped my hand with a quick shake. If anything he seemed like he might be finding this more awkward than I was. His eyes darted around the cramped space searching for something to anchor himself to. “Do you have any idea how this is supposed to work?”
“Oh, so you’re a newbie to all of this, too. I think it’s pretty straightforward, you can sit over there on that stool, and I’ll adjust some lighting then we can get started.” I said, trying to exert some control over the situation. This might be far outside of the norm for me, and apparently him, but at its base, it is still just art, which I know.
I turned to see how Marcus was getting acquainted with the room only to have the question of his own timidity answered as I found him pulling his black t-shirt over his head exposing a lean and muscled midsection.
“Marcus, I don’t know what they told you, but it’s not that kind of modeling.”
“Oh, oh, I just assumed…” he stammered as he lowered his shirt. “I guess I was just thinking, you know back in art school, figure study classes, that kind of thing.” He was embarrassed but was playing it off better than I would have been able to manage if our roles had been reversed.
“You’re a fellow art school refugee, then?” I asked thinking that we may have found something to keep us afloat through this session. The prospect of spending the next couple hours sitting here quietly staring at each other hadn’t been a pleasant one.
“Kind of. I only took a semester or so of classes. Saw the way the wind was blowing, you know.”
“Yeah… that wind didn’t really start to kick up until my last semester, so I think I may have the distinction of being part of the most unemployable graduating class of what has stereotypically been an unemployable education.” It was the kind of gallows humor that is only really funny to someone else who has seen the rope swinging. He clearly got it though, there was a sadness in his dark eyes that communicated an anticipated future that had been pulled out from under him, even if he had at least been spared some of the heavier doses of student loan debt.
“That’s definitely been the reputation, my parents were always supportive, but you could tell it was that kind of support that was against their own better judgment. My Mom was just a little too happy when I decided to start nursing school.” I found myself adjusting my perception of the man in front of me. I wasn’t wrong about the sadness that I had seen a moment before but there was steel behind his eyes as well that I could recognize in the lack that I saw in myself.
“Sounds about right. Up until the very end, my parents were trying to convince me that art would be something that I could do on the side after I figured out something more practical to do with my life. To their credit, they weren’t too unbearable when it turned out that they were right, though I’m fairly certain that even their most pessimistic take on the field wasn’t anywhere near as bad as where we ended up.” I’ve always hated the word bitter, it’s a word that seems to contain within its own definition a judgment against the validity of your feelings. A bitterness really can be found underlying my own story, though, because there actually is a sagging beam that undergirds who I am now that constantly feels like it’s threatening to allow me to collapse in on myself.
“Okay, so yeah, you can sit there on the stool.” I decided to allow the work to fill up the silence that had settled between us. “It’s mostly just going to be a head and shoulders composition, but if you could lean forward and rest your chin on your hand. From what I understand they can never get enough hands.” As he settled into the pose, I adjusted the lighting to provide something a little more dynamic than the harsh office lighting that we had been dumped into.
“Like this?” He slumped forward into a heavy brooding pose of contemplation before he relaxed into a good-natured smile.
“Perfect, but just relax, give me something natural.” And he did, the goofiness fell off of him and I was left with the hurt yet resilient young man that I had perceived in the short interaction that we had muddled through so far.
I retreated to the tilt-top desk on the opposite side of our cramped little room and started to quickly lay down a preliminary sketch. Once I got the pose and the basic contours established I could let Marcus relax a little bit from the pose. I’m not sure exactly what they look for in their models, but he made an interesting subject, the tight curls of his hair contrasting with the sharper lines and angles of his face, and his long thin fingers offering something almost surreal to the composition.
I felt myself falling into a rhythm. This was a process that I worried might have become foreign to me, but my hand and eye were every bit as coordinated as the pair had been when putting pencil to paper was a daily exercise. The basic lines and shapes of the composition were coming together and I could feel an anticipation start to build as I was about to transition over to color.
“You can relax, I’m done with the initial sketch.” His relative amateur status as a model had been starting to show as I could start to see the stiffness setting into his shoulders, and the discomfort starting to creep into his face. “So, how did you get roped into modeling?”
“I still have six months or so until I’ll be out of school, and money has been pretty nonexistent in the meantime. My brain still goes back to art, even if it isn’t really my own art, and this didn’t seem like it would be too taxing with my school schedule. What do you do with your time when you’re not living out your dreams?” There’s a hint of a teasing smile in that question that I feel compelled to answer with an equally teasing glare of annoyance.
“It turns out that even though they hide us behind a labyrinth of text bots and menu options, they still haven’t found a computer program that people can satisfyingly berate. I work in customer service for a health insurance company. They’ve managed to automate or offshore most of the routine issues, so my days are filled with people whose medications we refuse to pay for even though we’ve been paying for them for the last decade, others who aren’t suffering quite enough for the operations they need until they have jumped through a few more hoops, and the people who realize that they pay several times their deductible each year in premiums for an insurance policy that acts like little more than a coupon booklet. Then we are required to ask if they would “pretty please” fill out a survey to tell us how unendingly satisfied they are with our service only to be called into quality assurance meetings every month because, of course, they are never remotely satisfied. Why would they be?” This rant served as background music for the laying down of the reds and oranges and purples that were ultimately going to shine through to the finished portrait. I continued blending with the tip of my finger and working the pigment into the heavy grain of the paper as the diatribe rolled over Marcus.
“Wow, that’s a lot… and how do you keep yourself sane dealing with that every day?” He’s trying to keep things light while affirming that my life does indeed seem like it sucks. A tricky balance.
“I do this, well not this, not the commission. I create, you may laugh but continuing to paint really does keep me from tipping over the edge.” It’s been a long time since I have done something even remotely like this and the intimacy of it is likely what is prompting all of the oversharing.
We fall back into another pause in our conversation as I have Marcus resume his pose so that I can fine-tune some of the deeper shadows. The medium lends itself to the soft-focused colors of a dream, but Marcus is demanding a work of contrasts and the rigid deep shadows are going to play an outsized role in a composition that will flow organically otherwise.
“So, just for yourself?” He breaks the silence, still wondering how I’ve held onto art despite all momentum moving in the opposite direction. He is maybe even searching to see if there might be a way for it to work for him again.
“No, I’ve never been able to create just for myself. People will say that the only audience that matters when it comes to art is ourselves, but that has never made any sense to me. Sure, a large part of art is obviously sel-expression, so I need to be satisfied with the final product, but art is meant to communicate and I’ve never been satisfied with talking to myself.” I start to layer in the rich multifaceted browns and the muted grays, the yellows where I will start to build the highlights.
“Then, where do you find your audience?” There really is a pining nature that has crept into the question, like I am about to give him the answer to keeping art alive in an artless world.
“You’ll laugh,” I say, sure that he will.
“I won’t.” Dead serious, equally confident that he won’t.
“Do you know that park near the corner of Fifth and Penn?” I ask, hoping he follows me.
“Yeah, it was never my park, but I grew up a few streets down.” The interest still in his eyes.
“Sidewalk chalk. There’s a path through the playground from the parking lot to the tennis courts, after work and in the morning most weekends I draw there. Sometimes it’s fantasy landscapes for the kids. Other times I might have a bored parent put up with me using them for inspiration. Every once in a while someone will toss me a couple dollars, I started bringing a hat. It lets me fool myself into thinking that I’m actually a professional.” I didn’t notice myself doing it, but I had paused my work on the portrait as I started sketching out instead the part of my life that I had managed to steal back from the world that had no real use for it. “It’s actually how I ended up here. One of the dads from the private school up the street was waiting for his daughter and had a connection where he was able to pull a string or two for me.”
A look of disappointment, or maybe confusion crosses his face, though he’s courteous enough to try to hide it once he realizes what he’s doing.
“Look, I get it. I’m pretty much a street… a sidewalk performer, but it’s what I have available to me.” I pointedly return to the painting, focusing on the sad persistent eyes that had captured me so soon after we first met. The dual nature of them calling out both to the damaged part of me that stubbornly refuses to heal because allowing the wound to close feels like a betrayal, and the hopeful aspect that says that there may be new dreams and fresh narratives on the other side of pain. The beauty is held in the tension between the two.
“The last thing I want to do is discourage you. I’m glad that you have found a way to continue creating even with the limited options left available to us. It just never stops being sad that we have allowed ourselves to be reduced to this.” That tension breaks for a moment and his eyes give in to despair, one that he has convinced himself that he hasn’t been running away from.
“What you are doing is still wortwhile. It’s not as though there’s any nobility lacking in training to help people who are sick and hurting.” I find myself in the unlikely role of trying to rekindle the hope in those captivating eyes. The work itself is coming to a head as the hidden depth starts to reveal itself in the highlights that I’m adding to his curves and angles. It’s work that comes together in a way that I hadn’t noticed it never quite does on a sidewalk.
“Marcus, I lose sight of it more often than not, but I really do believe that we can’t continue in the direction that we’re going. People are eventually going to realize that they are missing something vital from their lives, and the pendulum will start swinging back in our direction again. I want to be here for it when it does.” That seems to do the trick. While I’m not entirely sure that I have enough optimism in me to believe what I just told him, I have clearly just reminded him that he believes it.
“Thanks, Jessica, I needed that.” He moves to get up from his stool, and I nod for him to come over.
Marcus leans over my shoulder taking in the image of himself as I see him and as my hand has translated that vision to the page. I look up at him and see that he doesn’t entirely recognize himself. Not that I have missed the likeness, but that there is a part of himself that he has never really been able to see with his own eye, but has saturated the page in my representation of him. He sees who he can be to people and how it would have been a gift in the world that he imagined for himself, but will work every bit as well in the one that he will actually exist in.
It was then that inspiration hit me, “Just one more thing.”
Grabbing a small palette of colors, I start to rework the edge of the hand draped across his face, adding the slightest hint of a knuckle for a sixth finger to its contour.
“Wait, what is…” his confusion turned to delight as it hit him and he let out a small but satisfied laugh. “That’s perfect. Really though, this is beautiful work.”
And because it was work, just a side hustle for the both of us, we took that opportunity to part even though something significant had passed between us in the short time that we had spent together. Marcus departed and left me alone again in the room. I did a little light compulsive cleaning even though I knew that it was pointless. They would begin the process of erasing any evidence that I had been here before I even made it out of the building.
I was spraying some of the provided fixative to the painting, so that Marcus would stay where he was on the page, noting that this happened to be far from the well-ventilated area required for doing this when another knock came at the door.
It was a different employee, not the one who had shown me in, though the similarity was striking. As if the company was striving for a certain level of uniformity in their workforce, which of course, they probably were.
“If you are finished, we can head to my office and get everything finalized.” She said with a posture that subtly, but definitely, was encouraging me to leave.
As slowly as her patience would likely allow, I completed the final satisfying step in the process and pulled up the tape, leaving clean white borders along the edge, one of my favorite rituals of the finished work. I rose from my chair and stepped through the door, leaving behind that drab room that had for a short time been anything but.
I trailed the corporate doppelgänger down the hall to her office, passing once again the nondescript doors that assuredly led to identical nondescript rooms. When I entered her office, I handed over the painting, laying it on the desk in such a way that I could take it in one more time before I left.
“Was your experience satisfactory?” The employee, still conspicuously lacking anything like a name tag or identifying marker on her person or within the office, met my eyes after the most fleeting of glances at the work in front of her.
“Yeah, everything was great.” The stock answer that came so easily to the lips when you know that you are completing a question in a survey where you are being asked to lie.
“You provided a direct deposit account in your initial paperwork, so you should see your payment within the next three to seven days. If you don’t have any further questions or comments, you are free to go. We will be in contact if we require any future work from you.” She made eye contact just long enough to verify that I had processed my dismissal. She gave me a small strained smile that added any needed punctuation to the remark.
As I was gathering myself to leave, she snatched the painting from the desk and moved to the back of the office where a large flatbed scanner was housed. I watched as she placed it face down on the glass and closed the lid. She tapped a few buttons and the curiously loud whir of a high-resolution scan started.
I lingered a bit longer than was probably wise, but I found it impossible to uproot myself from the spot, almost as if I would be leaving my work abandoned if I were able to pull myself away from this desk. The whirring scanner came to a stop, and the employee gave a quick glance at a nearby monitor to verify that the scan had been successful.
She removed the painting from the scanner and with a fluid decisive motion she folded it in half, Marcus reduced to his curls and those eyes. She took two steps to her left and fed it into what I can only assume is a particularly heavy-duty paper shredder, the face that I had studied for the day disappearing into the machine, having been reduced to what must have been some impressively colorful strips of paper, left to mingle with brothers and sisters who would join him in never seeing the light of day.
I had definitely overstayed my welcome, so I made my way back out of the office and through the door at the end of the hallway, back through the waiting room that had significantly thinned since my brief stay in it. My eyes swept the room and found a face or two that still contained the life that I had found in Marcus, but mostly what I found were echoes of myself. People just trying to hold on, grasping onto whatever opportunities still existed to be this thing that they had so thoroughly grounded their identity in.
As I exited the building and passed a drone freshening up the graffiti in the adjoining alleyway, I thought of the park, the little handhold in the world that I had carved out for myself, and wondered how long I would be able to hold on. I thought of the Marcus in the painting, the one whose eyes brought me hope and I wondered how much of that was in him and how much of it I had pulled out of him because it was what I needed to see.
Maybe it didn’t matter.
Maybe one of those vital things that we have lost by letting go of the reins of art is the ability to give breath to things that we know to be true even if we can’t see them. I needed to see hope, and with pastel and page, I had crafted it into existence. Those hopeful eyes would carry me into the future, and they promise that I will find art there.