Thirty Tiny Stories
by Kyle Barnhart
1 November 2021 - 30 November 2021
Jump to Latest
1. Real Hot |
2. Fucking Goofy |
3. Transactional |
4. Your common interest has served its purpose |
5. Enjoy This Free Upgrade |
6. The Babysitter |
7. Referral Letter |
8. D.A.N.C.E. |
9. Aurora Borealis |
10. Just One |
11. The Parade |
12. Active vs. Passive Grilling |
13. Assume An Astronaut of Uniform Density |
14. Applicycline |
15. Runaway |
16. The Perfect Pair |
17. When Tomorrow Comes |
18. Ah, There You Are |
19. And Another Thing |
20. Something Borrowed |
21. Listen |
22. The Waiting |
23. Ghost in the Chat |
24. Big Baby |
25. Florida Bird |
26. National Cognition Reserve |
27. Never Alone, Inc. |
28. Temp Job |
29. American Sentimental |
Hello! I’ve been writing again. I’ve been journaling my accomplishments and recording my goals as part of a mindset-changing practice. I’ve been relegating my feelings to the pages of Wirecutter’s favorite A5 notebook. And I’ve plotted out some stories, too.
I want to try something new. I want to focus on creating stories with the expressed intention of sharing them, instead of writing solely for myself and sharing any completed work that happens to fall out. I want to imagine my audience and entertain them and guide them to feel feelings and offer some thoughtful reprieve from the sort of content they’re probably used to consuming. I want to edit ruthlessly. I want to do it for you.
So grit your teeth with me and bear the endearing, earnest excitement: I’m doing a month-long writing challenge.
For the next thirty days, I’ll be presenting to you thirty tiny stories. I’ll be publishing a new one every day in November. Some will be longer than others. Some will be incredibly short. Some will be guided vibes with no ending at all, like waking up in a brain you haven’t inhabited for years, if ever. Others will be scaffolded with acts and structure and intention, as best I can manage in the time I have to plan all this out.
Oh, and no downers! This should be fun(ish). Enjoy!
1. Real Hot
When Marcus was a kid, three local firefighters visited his class to show off their powerful tools of destruction, like metal axes and jaws of life and, ostensibly, they were there to teach children about fire safety, too. One of those firefighters told the students that backdraft is when “a fire goes fast from bein’ hot to bein’ real fuckin’ hot,” before catching his mistake and trying to apologize to Ms. Austin under the deafening noise of thirty hooting and hollering and laughing fourth graders.
Marcus was sixteen now and he thought about backdraft a lot. He thought about backdraft as he pushed his way out from the air conditioned administrative building every afternoon and entered the sweltering soak of late Florida summer. He thought about backdraft as his soles softened on the walk across the mostly-empty parking lot to his car. And he thought about it as he gingerly and quickly pulled up on the searing door handle of his 2010 Corolla, thrust his arm inside and blindly inserted the key into the ignition.
As it did on all the other days before, the superheated air inside his car sent Marcus wincing backwards as the door shut behind him, like an action hero diving away from a bomb blast. He looked back toward the school and wondered if he looked so awesome and so strong to the classmate who was making her way across the parking lot.
Probably not, he thought. He recognized Katie and her tall, athletic figure and her long ponytail. She was splitting attention between her phone and looking back up toward Marcus. Why would Katie pay any attention to this random dude standing out in the parking lot in the late afternoon, he thought. But she did keep looking back up at him.
It was at that moment Marcus realized that her 2014 Ford Focus was parked in the spot behind his in this otherwise empty lot.
It wasn’t unusual to start your car and wait for it to cool down— not in this part of the South. Did she know that, he wondered. She was from Minnesota. Her family had settled down here partway through sophomore year. Did they have a cold-weather analogue up there? Maybe waiting for your car to heat up during the winter? Are cars colder on the inside than the air outside when they’ve been parked in the snow?
Marcus was deep into considering the optics of the situation and not considering her proximity when she called to him by name. With all the enthusiasm and energy remaining in her midwestern bones after an hour and a half of basketball practice, she said, “hey, Marcus.”
His eyes lifted and met hers.
“You’re not usually here this late,” she noted, stopping for a moment to dig around in her bag for her car keys.
“Nah, not usually. I had to talk through some plans for the class trip with Mr. Kamp.”
“Oh yeah,” Katie recalled. “I heard you are like basically planning the entire trip yourself now!”
Marcus smiled. Word was getting out, as it is wont to do in high school.
“I want everyone to have a good time, and I don’t exactly, uh, trust our class reps to make that happen, y’know?”
“Oh, I know,” Katie offered. “Bella didn’t show up to our last two games. Like no way she could do class president things. Like, plan a trip for fifty people? El oh el.”
Marcus chuckled, and Katie found herself smiling back. They both moved toward their respective trunks and threw down their backpacks with an unintentional choreography. Marcus noticed that Katie’s trunk was a matted strata of various athletic gear and loose-leaf notebook paper. Katie wondered if Marcus had ever used his trunk before today.
“I’m fucking punished,” Katie said after a moment, then adding one of those exaggerated teenage groans. “I am gonna go home now and eat all the spaghetti in the world.”
“Sounds good,” Marcus replied. “I think my car is probably cooler than a volcano by now.”
“I was wondering why you were standing around out here.”
“Cause it was real fuckin’ hot in there,” Marcus emphasized, motioning to his Corolla.
“I just do this.”
Katie held down a button on her key fob and all of her car windows rolled down at the same time.
“Neat trick,” Marcus teased.
The two teens said goodbye and, in unison, moved to leave. Marcus opened his car a little less gingerly than before and threw himself into the driver’s seat. Immediately, he closed his eyes and relished the full-blast air conditioning pushing beads of sweat off his face and out of his hair and down his neck. The whurrr of calming white noise filled the cab.
He thought about the school trip, and what kind of places Katie would like to visit. He thought maybe she would have a unique perspective to offer. All the other kids in the class and most of the chaperones wanted to see a Brooks and Dunn reunion in Orlando because that was the best idea anyone had so far. He thought maybe he could—
Marcus’ eyes snapped open to a terrible, urgent beating on the window inches from his head. It was Katie and she looked frantic.
“Marcus! Hey! My car just died!”
Without thinking, or really moving much at all, he pointed at his front passenger seat. And without thinking, she dashed around to the other side of the car and stuffed herself inside.
“I was gonna ask if you could take a look,” Katie said, pausing for a moment to appreciate the reprieve from the heat. “Or jump it or whatever. I figured you were probably good with cars.”
“I don’t know anything about cars,” he conceded. “But…”
A pause. A little tension. Marcus considered his next words carefully, and the two high school students transitioned from looking toward one another to looking at one another.
“But,” Macus continued, “I know an Olive Garden where we can get you some spaghetti. Y’know, while we get this car thing figured out.”
Katie was too tired and too hungry to hold back her excitement. She smiled with her cheeks all red and pulled taught and said, “Marcus, I love that. That’s—”
“Don’t say it.”
“That is real fuckin’ hot!”
2. Fucking Goofy
To this day you’re always asking people if they remember their first “fuck.” Hearing it, not doing it. Because even more than the first time they do it, you believe that the first time a person hears that word and understands it, it kind of sets the tone for the rest of their life.
Your thinking is, the word “fuck” gets used in a lot of ways. Someone might remember hearing it used blithely and inconsequentially, the way some people use “um” or “uh,” and they’re suddenly desensitized to one of English’s most important and consequential words. They might have heard their parents say it out of frustration over money problems or in the heat of an argument about what’s for dinner. That’s a hell of a lot of trauma to load into a word at such a young age, you reckon.
You believe that a person’s Fuck Primacy (as you call it when this comes up in bars and on first dates) is foundational to how they interpret the emotions of others and how they themselves are seen by the rest of the world.
Your Fuck Primacy was established at Walt Disney World. You were eight years old. When you close your eyes you can still remember the sights and sounds of that first Disney vacation. The weight of the all-access pass strapped onto your tiny wrist. The enormity of that giant golf ball thing when you stepped foot into EPCOT. You would hear these distant rumbles followed by distant screams and you knew you must be approaching another twenty-minute wait for a three-minute thrill.
You and the rest of your family had ventured midway into Magic Kingdom on day two of this particular vacation. You were already sweating under the midday sun, but your Mickey cap— the one with the ears— was keeping both the sweat and the sun out of your eyes. Your mom’s hand was gripped around yours as you all rounded a particular corner of Fantasyland and before you could process what was unfolding, you heard the words.
“—from fucking Goofy.”
You saw a skinny-fat, corn-fed man in a T-shirt that depicted Mickey Mouse on a Harley Davidson, flying the Thin Blue Line American flag behind him. You knew the man was angry. He was pointing his finger at Goofy in a bad way. His other arm was being held back by who you assumed was the man’s wife, who was wearing the same shirt but tighter and cropped to expose her midriff. It was too early in the confrontation for camera-phones to be deployed, yet, but you remember nearby guests were reaching into their bags and pockets to form the paparazzi scrum.
To this day you don’t know what “from fucking Goofy,” whether this man wasn’t going to take orders from Goofy or if Goofy was leering at this guy’s wife. The whole scene was discordant and mind-numbing. No one, including park staff or physically capable passerbys, moved to stop the situation unfolding before you; no one could understand why a grown-ass man would be yelling at the physical manifestation of a beloved cartoon character.
“You know what,” you heard a decidedly non-Goofy voice growl from inside Goofy. “I don’t need this shit and I don’t need this fucking job!”
You already knew what “shit” was, and that it was a bad word, because your dad said it sometimes. He didn’t put the same effort into not saying shit that he put into not saying fuck. But there was that word again, punctuating an anger about the unrecognized value of artistic expression, the American labor market, the hostility of customers, and the dignity of the worker that you would only begin to unpack as an adult.
“You fucked up. Fucking Goofy ‘bout to fuck you up.”
Goofy was calm. You watched as Goofy lurched toward the guest, awkwardly but with so much power in those exaggerated goosesteps. The look on the other man’s face conveyed a thousand awful feelings. He fucked up, you thought. Goofy is about to fuck that guy up, you thought.
You looked up at your mom, with the same big, grown-up eyes as her and you said, “oh, fuck.”
Candice had decided that this morning was going to be a good morning, damn it, so she carefully considered her options while picking out a playlist for today’s shift. This was not a Daily Mix 3 sort of morning, nor was it the cliched 1990s Easy Alt playlist that her boss thought she should be playing for their customers.
Flicking through the list-of-lists on the shop's iPad, Candice found a hand-crafted classic called “Chill-o-Matic.” It clocked in at just over six hours, which would carry her until Paul took over around lunchtime. The vibe was unassuming enough to please the customers who just wanted to sip coffee and relax, and esoteric enough to please the aging hipsters who might ask, “who’s this by?” while waiting for their flat white.
And so, with an exaggerated tap on the screen, the room filled and the morning began.
Shortly after 9am, Candice returned from the storeroom to find the entire coffee shop had emptied out, save for one woman who’d been hammering at her laptop since daylight broke. Whatever she was working on had carved intense ridges into her brow and locked her jaw into the sort of serious scowl usually reserved for stern parents meting out punishment.
The woman didn’t regard Candice at all as she approached.
“Can I top you off?”
“Huh? Oh,” the woman fumbled, lifting her eyes from the screen after a few moments. “Uh, sure. Yeah. That’d be great. Thanks.”
When Candice returned with the woman’s mug, she was greeted by a different, less composed face.
“Everything okay?” Candice asked. “Can I get you anything else?”
The woman didn’t waste a moment.
“I am, um.” She sighed, rested her palms on her cheeks, took a deep breath through her hands, and started over. “I’ve been working on this presentation since four AM and it’s just—”
“You’re burned out.”
“Yeah. It’s like I’m not even reading the words anymore.”
“I am a barista,” Candice said. “And I have a BA in English to prove it. I could take a look if you just need, like, a grammar check.”
The woman immediately began apologizing.
“No no, you don’t have to do that! I wasn’t asking!”
Candice told her it was no big deal and that reviewing her work would be a nice change of pace from restocking paper cups and hauling out compostable coffee grounds. The woman relented, turned the laptop around to face Candice, then finally introduced herself as Mira.
The presentation was some sort of quarterly report to investors that Candice only marginally understood. There were graphs going up and graphs going down, and there were incredibly dense slides describing creditors and returns and auditing and compliance. It was a copy editor’s dream, because it made absolutely no sense to the copy editor.
Mira occupied herself by scrolling through her emails on her phone, doing her best not to look at Candice as she clicked and typed her way through the twenty-slide deck.
“Well,” Candice began, turning the laptop back to Mira. “I fixed a few things and put some notes in other places. But there really wasn’t much to change.”
Mira scrolled through the slides, nodding at each issue Candice had flagged.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Mira said, reaching into her purse. “Let me—”
“No, no no no. You don’t have to!”
Candice didn’t want this moment to be transactional. Lefty and labor-oriented as she may be, the barista held this absolutely backwards notion that she owed Mira.
“You did valuable work for me!” Mira countered. “I have to give you something!”
Candice took the laptop back and began clicking and tapping once again. Mira just watched, puzzled but patient, while the grin on Candice’s face grew wider and opened up.
Candice turned the screen around again and pointed to her final edit: A small line added to the bottom of the last slide.
Special thanks to my editor, Candice.
4. Your common interest has served its purpose
The bright yellows and pinks and cyans of the 2018 Houston Comic Con spilled like paint from the convention center at sunset. Streetlights erupted and teased out unintended hues from the smeared makeup and hand-sewn costumes as convention-goers creeped into the nearby streets to find drinks and dinner and arrogantly test the patience of this not-so-small Texas town.
Three strangers found themselves standing with their backs against a brick wall, looking like they belonged together but certainly not there. To one side was the to-go window of a downtown taco place— the kind of place that locals rave about to one another but, thank god, never shows up on the first page of a Google search.
Either by way of keen information or total, bumbling happenstance, they were there, waiting for tacos.
“Y’all in from out of town?” a human-sized but proportionally accurate Pikachu asked no one in particular.
“Nah,” Hatsune Miku replied. “I live in Katy.”
“Midtown,” Gwen Stacy added, sort of motioning south with her white-gloved hand.
“That’s cool,” Pikachu said. “I drove over from San Marcos.”
“Guess you must have a pretty big trunk to fit that costume head in there.”
“Convertible,” Pikachu snapped back. Everyone chuckled.
“I’d probably wreck my car if I saw a god-damn Pokemon driving down two-ninety with the top down.”
“You guys,” Miku said, pushing herself away from the wall to face the other two. “Y’all wanna grab some tallboys and go eat these tacos in the park?”
Pikachu shrugged with his tiny little arms.
Miku introduced herself as Elana. Pikachu was Henry. Gwen was Abby.
After their orders were up, the three human beings stopped in at the Valero on the corner and grabbed six tall Tacates and split them over the course of two hours at Discovery Green. And they didn’t talk about anime or comics or cartoons once in those two hours.
They put all that away, for a while.
5. Enjoy This Free Upgrade
All commercially-operated electric scooters in the District of Columbia must limit their top speed to fifteen miles per hour. Riders will feel themselves bump against that limit when they’re rolling down Georgia Avenue near Howard University. Or worse— that stretch of 15th Street right next to Malcolm X Park, where slowing down means locking eyes with the breathless misery on every uphill-biker’s face.
These limits exist for several reasons. The scooters are designed for a certain power output, and capping the speed helps them achieve maximum efficiency. The speed cap also guarantees that one battery charge will see the scooter through an entire day of use, at least on days that aren’t drinking holidays. And then there’s the safety issue.
“Ma’am,” an analyst at Lyft’s glass-and-screens, underground Scooter Operations Center shouts over his shoulder to his supervisor. “Did you authorize a Knoxville in Northwest Washington?”
Paula Freeman, Head of Scooter Operations for the Northeast Corridor, smashes the polished concrete with each click of her heels as she approaches. The other analysts, dispersed across numerous workstations in the cavernous room, wince with each step.
“If I’d authorized a Knoxville, it would be on the big board,” she replies, motioning up at the giant screen at the front of the room.
The big board shows a map of the entire east coast, dense with a cloud of tiny dots signifying all of the scooters in motion this particular evening, along with some brighter, more sparse yellow dots signifying potential anomalies. A chart to the right of the map displays a list of approved exceptions.
High-paying VIPs, investors and Lyft engineers can request exceptions to the speed limits imposed on the scooters. Sometimes the engineers want to gather performance data and sometimes a VIP just wants to make it to a dentist appointment on time. Tonight there are a dozen or so Margera-class exceptions in motion: All short-lived and relatively low-risk.
“So why am I tracking a scooter going forty miles-per-hour on a main thoroughfare?” the curious analyst asks in earnest.
“Are you new?” Ms. Freeman answers with disdain. “That scooter must be in the back of a pick-up truck. Simple theft. Happens all the time.”
Unfazed, the analyst makes a few emphatic button-presses on his terminal until the big board zooms in on this particular anomale. Ms. Freeman and the rest of the Scooter Operations Center can now see some odd diagnostics: The electric motor is spinning twice as fast as usual for that model, the battery is draining rapidly, and someone is squeezing the handlebar grips like their life depends on it.
Ms. Freeman doesn’t waste a moment. She looks back down at the analyst and shouts, “page the Engineering on-call! Tell them to stop that scooter!”
“He’s already dialed into the main line,” another analyst at a nearby workstation says. “I’ll put him on.”
The video call connects and a very tired-looking man lit by the unflattering glow of a Macbook Pro looks down upon everyone in the SOC. Under the window is the man’s name: Frank Tran.
“Frank, what the fuck did you all do?”
“I have no idea,” Frank begins, fully on the defense. “I got an automated call about an unapproved Steve-o and—”
“It’s not just a Steve-o,” Ms. Freeman interrupts. “It’s a goddamn Knoxville in Washington, D.C., and it’s headed down 16th, about a mile out from the White House. Shut it down!”
In that moment, with those words, the gravity of the situation suddenly shows itself on every analyst’s face. Jaws go slack. Hands reach up to grab foreheads. This situation is no longer a danger to just the rider. This incident could become too high-profile to contain through the usual channels.
“This is bad,” Frank’s voice echoes through the SOC. “That scooter shouldn’t even be on the road. It’s a prototype.” On-screen, Frank is moving his eyes back and forth as he reviews numbers and figures on his end of the call.
“Shut it down,” Ms. Freeman repeats.
“I— can’t. My admin tools can’t talk to it. It must be using a new control protocol.”
In the SOC, one of the analysts toward the front of the room offers a suggestion.
“I can direct our ride-share drivers downtown to intercept the scooter,” she says coldly to the room.
“Do it,” Ms. Freeman says. “We have to stop that thing.”
Twenty pink dots on the big board are suddenly illuminated, and their routes change from various destinations across downtown Washington to a single point in the middle of an intersection.
“I’ve directed them to 16th and M,” the analyst says, proudly, “with a $150 Amazon gift card bonus.”
The bonus would ensure that any nearby drivers accepted the “pickup.” Nevermind the strange, specific instructions to stop and wait in the middle of a busy road— drivers were used to taking strange, specific instructions from riders. Being told to stop their cars for a pickup in the middle of a busy road wouldn't even register as bizarre or relatively unsafe on a Friday night in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t their problem.
“How long until they intercept the scooter?” Ms. Freeman asks the room, pacing loudly from workstation to workstation.
Three different analysts answer, “less than sixty seconds” and “about a minute” and “one minute.”
“Uh,” Frank nervously booms throughout the SOC, “so this prototype is, um, really…”
Ms. Freeman moves her attention from the map to Frank, throws her arms up and says, “what?”
“Let me show you.”
On the big board, Frank’s tired face is replaced by a computer rendering of an otherwise normal-looking electric scooter, apparently called “the X-65.” At the bottom of the image, the company logo appears next to the insignias for DARPA, the US Air Force, and Lockheed Martin. New and improved product features are called out in the diagram, including one that Frank has specifically highlighted.
There is a tense silence, before Frank finally speaks again.
“But the weapons aren’t installed! Yet.”
They aren’t. But the AI-assisted obstacle-avoidance computer certainly is— that’s how this scooter has navigated its two intrepid passengers past twenty blocks of Northwest Washington congestion and throngs of gawking onlookers on a Friday evening. That computer was now honking at the couple about a major obstacle at the next intersection.
“Why is the street blocked off?” a man with his hands clenched tightly around his date shouts at the woman with her hands clenched tightly around the scooter’s handlebars. “Protest or somethin’?”
“Computing new solution,” the computer says as they zoom down into the underground bypass at Scott Circle.
“Probably! Should we stop?”
“Computing ballistic trajectory,” the computer says as they begin to exit the bypass.
“Solution available. Continue?”
The driver tells the computer, “yes!”
Near the uphill crest of the Scott Circle bypass, the couple can barely see the tops of the cars parked in the street ahead. Their grips tighten as the scooter begins to pull away from the asphalt. The man looks down to see two cylindrical rocket engines have ignited on either side of the scooter. He curses in a good, fun way as he, his date, and their military-grade, solid-fueled scooter ascend into the night sky.
In front of them, the Washington Monument is fully illuminated and lined up behind The White House. He’s thinking about that iconic view of Washington when you approach Reagan National from the west for a night landing. She’s thinking about how she hasn’t had this much fun on a date in a while, and that maybe online dating can lead to good outcomes, if not always good dates. Neither is thinking about where they’re going to land, yet.
From the roof of The White House, there’s a flash of light. A spotlight, she thinks. Then there’s another light— a glimmer of red. It heads straight up, then corrects itself and accelerates toward the couple.
“Deploying countermeasures,” the onboard computer tells them.
The rockets to either side of the scooter glow brighter, and a hundred tiny gems of burning metal spray downward. The man and the woman, who until this night had only communicated over a dozen or so clunky text messages, can feel themselves moving higher and faster. On the ground, onlookers revel at the beautiful display of fireworks painted over Lafayette Square. The bright light that erupted from the White House zooms past the couple and the man shouts, “that was a fucking missle!”
“What?” the driver yells back at him.
“Nothing!” he says. “This is great!”
The scooter is dipping downward now. The rocket nozzles are pointed forward and burning in bursts to slow the ascent onto the National Mall. Below them, on Constitution Avenue, many blue and red lights have been activated to welcome their arrival. The couple can see distant helicopters approaching from every direction.
Upon landing at the base of the Washington Monument, the couple falls into a kiss so photogenic and passionate, that one nearby Secret Service agent observing the pair from the ranging scope of his anti-material rifle pauses to remark on how he wishes he could feel something so deep and so real, if just for one fleeting moment in his life.
“I had a really good time tonight,” the man offers first, heart racing and face flushed.
“Me, too,” the woman says. “I hope I get to see you again.”
The woman’s phone is buzzing, asking her to take a photo of the scooter parked in a safe location.
Resigned to their ending, the two take their places on the ground— bellies down, legs spread apart, and fingers laced together against the back of their heads. They share a final smile as throngs of paramilitary force charge upwards from the road.
6. The Babysitter
All of your friends are tripping on mushrooms and you’re not.
That’s how this works, after all. Someone has to abstain so everyone else can really, really partake. They’ve done it for you before. And you know how quickly a glowing, transcendental experience at a music festival can turn into a pitch-dark, unstoppable nightmare. Four human beings on mushrooms cannot guarantee their own satisfaction, but one sober empath can keep them all corralled in the Good Vibes Zone.
And you invoke the word “sober” very, very loosely here. You’re downright lit by most reasonable standards, but light beers and skinny joints simply prime you to be a better Babysitter.
Like right now, Don is asking you for the seventh time in the past hour if you have seen which way “it” went. No one, probably not including Don, knows what “it” is, but he keeps asking about “it.”
A stone-cold sober Babysitter might become annoyed at this point and start asking Don questions like what exactly he’s looking for. That would be bad. That would send Don spiraling for sure.
Right now, you know better. You’re a good Babysitter. You know this job is about having things under control, and you’re just high and drunk enough to actually believe you have things under control. So you know exactly what you need to say.
“I saw it and it’s good,” you say.
Don smiles and tells you that he’s glad you know and that you’re the most purple-glowing person in the whole world.
And that means a lot to you, the Babysitter.
7. Referral Letter
To Whoever Finds This Letter,
My name is Ezekiel Robins. In these final moments, I am recording my misfortunes so that the world may know my mistakes and learn from them.
I was referred to a therapist by my primary care physician. And so, on a cold and rainy November day many months ago, I shuffled along those cobblestone streets in the old part of town to the street numbers I’d been provided.
A well-dressed, young man greeted me from behind a glass divider. I told him, I am here to see Doctor Aberdeen. My personal physician spoke to Doctor Aberdeen on the phone and told me to come here on this date and at this time.
“Yes,” I recall the assistant said, with a menacing smile. “You are all set, and your insurance has covered this initial consultation. Please, have a seat and the doctor will be with you shortly.”
How sinister, I thought. I sat down, picked up an issue of Highlights for Kids to catch up on current events in these troubled times, and waited in that otherwise empty room. Eventually, a bright and cheery man with a large red beard emerged from the back office and beckoned me to join him.
In his office, I took a seat on the couch opposite Doctor Aberdeen’s well-worn leather armchair. He looked at me and said, “I always like to start with this question: Why are you here today?”
I chuckled and said, well, because my physician told me to come here.
“Yes, I spoke with Doctor Susser-Tod. He said you’re struggling with anxiety and depression.”
Well, I wouldn’t say struggling, I said. I don’t know what I would do without them.
Doctor Aberdeen laughed, then shifted to a more puzzled look after a moment.
Yes, Doctor, I said. They’ve been a part of me so long, I don’t know if I would even recognize myself without them.
“I tend to help people manage these difficult and chronic conditions. I would hope to minimize their impact on your life, so that you may pursue a more fulfilling and productive existence.”
At this point my heart began to race. I could no longer keep eye contact with the Doctor, and I kept moving my attention between the door at the other end of the room and my feet fidgeting on the ground.
I told him there must be some mistake. I don’t want that.
“Why not?” he asked.
No! I screamed aloud. This is how they trick you!
“Mr. Robins,” the Doctor was pleading with his palms suspended in midair. “I’m not trying to trick you! I’d like to help you!”
They ask you questions! To make you realize how shallow and circular and reinforcing all your misery really is!
“Mr. Robbins, please calm down!”
I don’t want that kind of help, I was shouting through tears. I read about CBT on Wikipedia!
“What if you just… talked to me? You’re here already. I would like to know your story, and how you became so entrenched in your negative thought patterns.”
A big sniffle punctuated my curiosity. I stopped sobbing and composed myself a bit, and loosened my grip on the big white pillow I had unconsciously pulled to my chest.
Y— you promise you won’t make me better? I asked him in a weak and unsure voice.
“There’s no way I could make you better in just one visit,” he assured me. “I just want to listen to you today.”
For the next hour, my words grew to a courageous roar as I described my world. How unfairly I’d been treated by my teachers in grade school! No one recognizes my kindness! Based on what I see online, everyone else is so happy and yet I am so unfulfilled!
I was midway through describing how I’d come to understand the depths of my parents’ disdain for me on Christmas Day when I was eight years old when he put up his palms again.
“That’s enough for today,” Doctor Aberdeen said. “Why don’t you come back next week? We can continue where we left off.”
And so I did. Again and again, week after week, I visited this Doctor. Through this process I began to understand my life and my pain and my sadness and my concerns as part of a narrative I could shape and control.
Today is my last day of therapy. And I was right about one thing: I don’t recognize the person I was anymore.
My roommate was looking at me from across the couch, making the same terrible, mocking expression I’d imagined he would make.
“You… haven’t danced?” he repeated, as a question.
“It’s not like I didn’t want to dance,” I said. “I’ve just never, uh, had the opportunity.”
My roommate picked himself up out of the cushions and leaned in closer. He didn’t say anything. He just continued making that face, so I told him to fuck off and turned my attention back to the television.
“No, no,” he relented in earnest. “I just, I’ve never thought about dancing like that. Like, dancing as something that has to happen to you.”
“Of course it happens to you,” I corrected. “You don’t just ask strangers off the street if they wanna dance. You need a framework. You need an excuse.”
“You mean, like a prom or a homecoming? Or a, uh, discoteque?”
My roommate stood up off the couch and took his phone from the coffee table. A few taps and swipes and suddenly our little apartment grew electric with the muted crescendo of Daft Punk’s late 90’s hit, “Around The World.” His shoulders pushed his head back and forth to the beat, a little harder as the treble caught up with the bass.
“Here’s your excuse,” he said, pulling his half-clenched fists in and out.
I was laughing at this point— maybe nervously— still held inside the couch’s deep, old cushions. My roommate was picking his feet up to tap one-and-two-and-three-and-four to the ethereal wahs and robotic twangs.
“Seriously?” I finally asked, then added, “it’s like two in the afternoon,” knowing that was neither relevant nor a particularly good excuse to not indulge him.
“I am gonna steal your first dance,” he threatened, smiling. “I’m gonna steal it for the sake of all the dances to come.”
Even though we hadn’t known each other for that long, I am sure he had gauged my susceptibility to facts and reason. There was a twisted logic in his proposal. I took a wide stance on the opposite side of our tiny common room and emulated his movements as best I could.
My roommate half-watched me and half-danced as he had been, loosening a bit with fewer exaggerated flourishes so that he could really observe me.
“Okay, okay,” he finally said, midway through the song. “Not bad.”
I could feel two opposing forces battling inside my stomach: The urge to let loose the collected energy of every smile and whoop and cheer I’d ever made as a rapturous laugh, and a sickly spectre of embarrassment and shame and guilt that made me want to collapse into a puddle of tears and snot. My heart was heavy with everything. My ass hurt a little bit, because I’d been clenching my cheeks for a solid minute and I didn’t understand why.
Underpinning it all was this sense that my roommate really was onto something.
“Now,” he said, “let me see how you dance.” He stopped and let me continue for a few more bars on my own while he selected a different song.
The “collapse” compulsion took the upper hand in the aforementioned battle for my emotional core. I couldn’t hear any music over the car horns and the gnashing mandibles of giant spiders and the pleading screams of tortured souls all inside my brain. I was the center of attention, being pulled apart from every direction.
“Hey. How about this one?”
His voice pulled me outside of my head and this time, I heard the first bars of Alice Deejay’s 1999 smash “Better Off Alone.”
Now, this is a song that I’d heard a thousand times before, in movies and television shows and on the radio back when that was a thing. It was a romantic relic of an era that had come and gone before I could deign to participate. It was a memory with neuronic tendrils touching skate rinks and arcades, where others might have remembered sweat-drenched Benelux nightclubs.
I remembered there was a time that I wished I was older, so I could do things like make adult memories to trance music. Well, that was now. I found the borderlands between the real memories and the imagined potential, and anxiety could not find me.
My hands were in the air above my head, then pumping from side to side. My hair moved with my head moved with my shoulders moved with my hips moved with my feet. I inhabited that little bit of room next to our secondhand television and our shitty coffee table and within it I shuffled and locked and whipped.
At some point my roommate had moved closer, and then we were dancing together. At some point the song changed. At some point the song changed again. We danced for a solid hour, with no framework and with no good excuse.
9. Aurora Borealis
There’s this trope about professional-managerial men like me wiping their bank accounts and leaving their families at some point in their late 30s or early 40s, upon discovering that they are, at their core, hollow and unsatisfied. It was called a “mid-life crisis” in 90s sitcoms. By comparison, my mid-life crisis was relatively tame and inexpensive. I just decided that I needed to see an aurora borealis.
So I went online and purchased a week-long stay at a boutique treehouse cabin in Swedish Lapland. The entire trip took less than an evening to plan.
“I’m going to Sweden next week,” I told my wife.
I’d been worried that she would be jealous or ask why she wasn’t invited to join me. But, no. She had no questions about the trip. She didn’t particularly care what an aurora borealis is, or how it works, or why I wanted to see it.
“I’m glad you’re doing this for yourself,” she did say.
The following day, I loaded my Amazon cart with gear from Wirecutter’s top-rated guides to skiing and snowshoeing and traveling internationally. I subscribed to a month of Duolingo so that I might be able to count to “toilet, please” by the time I landed in Stockholm. I told my boss I would be gone for a week, and he asked me to bring my laptop just in case. I watched a ton of videos about how to experience Northern Lights, most of which explain that they aren’t that amazing without a camera and an extended exposure.
Eventually, the day of my flight arrived. I took my business-class window seat— a treat to myself, purchased with reward points— and ordered the first whiskey cocktail that came to mind when the attendant stopped by. The next three or so hours I spent watching action films on the seatback entertainment console. They were both movies that fell squarely in that category of things you want to watch when you see the trailer but can’t be bothered to vouch for when it’s couples movie night.
I’m not a very good sleeper even in the best of times, and certainly not when my body still thinks it’s early evening. There was just enough random turbulence on this flight to ensure I would be thoroughly jetlagged when we landed in Stockholm.
Jetlag was okay, though. I’d purposefully not made plans for the first two days to give myself time to acclimate to the time change. While other, more seasoned passengers queued up at the bathrooms to brush their teeth and began to kick their shoes off, I sat with my chin on my palm, staring out the big porthole window.
Below us was a black expanse of ocean flecked with the shadows of even darker clouds floating between us. The sky held gradients of gray and flecks of blues and golds that I don’t think I’d ever seen with my own eyes before. It was not a washed-out night. It was a bold night and I watched it for over an hour.
The cabin was quiet and outside was still and calm and for a moment, I swear to you I saw a wisp of green light at the horizon. It was the aurora borealis. The Northern Lights. It must have been. I smiled and moved closer to the window and opened my eyes as wide as I could.
And again. A ripple. An emerald column barely distinguishable against the stars. Whether from all the staring or the understated beauty of it or maybe something else, my eyes began to well up. I felt detached. I felt small. My first thought was, “hey, at least you can say you saw the aurora, if nothing else works out.”
I felt something else. I wanted more. I wanted to see the sky on fire. I’d spent a week lowering my expectations and all that preparation began to unravel in an instant. My first thought was replaced with a second though: “I want to really see the aurora.”
I leaned back and went straight to sleep.
10. Just One
I was in New Orleans one summer a few years back, three sheets to the wind or however the expression goes. It was only Friday evening and I’d already lost my friends and my hotel and there was no telling if I would be finding either before Saturday’s charter boat reservation. But I had my wallet and a clear vision of what I wanted and what I wanted was a pack of cigarettes.
The thing is, I’ve never professed to have quit smoking. I’m still in my 20s and even if I don’t smoke as much as I used to, I smoke often enough to never tell people I’ve quit. That’s what makes these little indulgences a lot easier on my conscience. I can look at my friends when they give me shit about it and say, look, I know it’s bad but I like it and I’m being honest with you and with myself. So who’s really getting hurt here, besides me? It’s just one cigarette now and then.
And anyways, my friends weren’t there to give me shit. I was a man unchained.
From what I can recall, I ducked into this smoke shop and didn’t regard anyone outside or inside. There was just me and the cashier, standing behind a glass case of voodoo-themed hash pipes and bubblers, sizing me up to guess if I was too drunk to convey my desires.
“Whatcha lookin’ for, son?”
“Mmm,” I said, like I was thinking about it really carefully and intelligently with my eyes crossed the way they were and my legs refusing to keep me still for more than two seconds. “Better uh, heh, get me a pack of the uh, hummm. Yeah. The teal ones today!”
“American Spirits?” the cashier asked, placing his hand on the stack of cartons. “The, uh, teal American Spirits?”
I nodded emphatically and with the sort of smile that conveyed nothing but the anima of a selfish wretch. The poor cashier probably thought I was going to projectile vomit and die right there in front of him. I don’t imagine I was the drunkest person who’d ever stumbled into his store, but maybe I was.
I pushed my entire wallet across the counter very slowly, pressing down with one finger and still smiling at the cashier. I never broke eye contact. He considered how to proceed, then withdrew a crisp twenty from inside and rang up the purchase. After that he stuffed my change into the billfold and placed my cigarettes along with my wallet back onto the glass countertop.
“Ah-dieu!” I slurred slowly, self-satisfied because that’s French, and I walked out of the store.
Where there hadn’t been a person before there was now a person sitting on the edge of the street outside. He was older than me, but not old, I’d say. He could have been mid-thirties or could have been pushing fifty. I remember feeling like I was looking at myself from the future, even though this guy looked nothing like me.
I guess I was curious about what a guy would be doing down there on a night like this in a place like the French Quarter. And as I got closer I noticed he was sobbing in the most terrible, quiet way. He was crying like he’d broken a rib, with these seething, tense pulls of air paired with slow, breathy wimpers that just stank like physical pain. I wanted to buy him a drink and make it stop.
Stuffing my wallet into my shirt pocket like an absolutely insane person, I asked the man if I could join him there on the edge of the road. He looked up at me with the most twisted, sad face I’d ever seen and moved his mouth in what I assumed to be the affirmative.
And just like that, my ass hit the concrete.
“What’s wrong, stranger?” I prompted the man in a familiar way.
“Fuck, man,” he replied after a moment. This gave me time to find the little pull tab on the plastic wrapper around my purchase. “Like right now?”
I remember he sounded not-local and a little haughty.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, very focused on the wrapper. “What’s wrong right now?”
“Well, I was about to go in there and buy some cigarettes but...”
His gaze was centered on the asphalt, so he didn’t notice the excitement growing across my face as the serendipity and the providence all connected. But at least he had stopped sobbing.
“Cigarettes! span>” I exclaimed. “You don’t need to buy cigarettes!”
He sighed quite loudly before I could explain why he didn’t need to buy cigarettes. The sad man told me his ex-husband had helped him quit smoking ten years prior.
“Did he die?” I asked.
“No,” the man said, punctuated with a sniffle. “He left me.”
“Well fuck that guy,” I shouted angrily into the night. “You don’t need him and that judgement and you don’t need to buy cigarettes...”
“That’s very nice but—”
“...because you can have one of mine!”
I pushed the pack in front of his eyes and rattled it back and forth. That’s when I saved that man’s life, I think.
He took a cigarette from me and I drew one of my own and we sat there on the edge of the road, talking for ten minutes about absolutely nothing consequential. The Saints, I think.
At one point some peacock of a woman walked down the road holding hands with a goddamn chimpanzee and we just looked at each other and laughed for a solid minute. It was like watching this man learn how to laugh again.
“Jason, hey, you dumb bastard!” I heard someone call out from one end of the street, and I saw all my friends. Before they could move much closer, the no-longer-sad man beside me stood up, thanked me for the one cigarette of mine that he smoked, and rushed off before I could say anything else. And I’m not sure I would have said anything else.
So he didn’t buy that pack of cigarettes. I did and I’m glad it worked out that way.
11. The Parade
“We’re having a parade.”
Veronica looked up and saw a few of her co-workers crowded in the hallway around her cubicle. They were adorned with costumes and accessories they’d fashioned out of copy paper: A tall drum major’s hat, a baton, a trumpet, and a drum. They were all pretty good imitations of the real thing.
“Oh, fuck yeah!”
“Wanna be the clown?” one of the junior engineers asked. He offered Veronica a company-branded stress ball that had been gutted and sliced down the side, then colored-in red with a Sharpie. She considered the option for a moment.
“I think I’d rather be part of the cheer squad.”
“Makes sense. She is literally a gymnast,” another developer added.
Veronica grabbed a pair of stuffed bears off her shelf to use as pom-poms and the parade continued. They marched forward through the cube farm, now with a glorified cheer squad.
“Is it someone’s birthday?” the next member of the parade asked, as he took the clown nose.
“Nah,” Veronica answered, as if she hadn’t just joined this endeavor moments ago. “It’s just a parade.”
With the billable rate of each employee taken into account— the developers, the analysts, and the project managers— this parade was now verging on a $2000 overall impact to the organization’s projected daily revenue.
12. Active vs. Passive Grilling
Elle’s cowboy boots make a clomp, clomp, clomp against the rooftop deck as she approaches the grill. Elle, the grillmaster. Elle, the Texan. Elle, complete with the plaid button-down and the jean shorts, showing off the massive rose tattoo on her thigh she’s been meaning to get colored-in for a couple years now.
The grill in question is unassuming and charcoal-burning. Simple. It has small wire shelves on either side to host the kielbasa and 85% ground chuck patties and two little Beyond burgers relegated to their own plate. She can handle this. No problem. She—
“You gonna know what to do with those?” someone jokes, pointing their can of Natty Boh at the conspicuously circular vegetarian option.
Elle rolls her eyes and doesn’t say anything.
“Sorry, sorry,” the joker continues, a little more friendly now. He draws a Thermopen from his pocket and sets it beside the to-grill items.
“Oh, wow,” Elle remarks. “Look at you and the gadgets.”
“Beef medium is around 140,” he says, proudly. “Thought it might come in handy.”
Elle shrugs. She holds her hand about an inch over the grate, trying to gauge whether the coals have burned themselves to the right heat. If you can hold your hand over the grill for a second without wincing, it ain’t hot enough yet. These coals are in fact hot enough.
“So whose flipping method do you use?” someone else is asking her now. “Kenji’s? Alton Brown’s?”
“Who?” Elle says, looking back up at the four dudebros who have now formed an audience around the other side of the grill. “Y’all sure ask a lot of questions.”
The bros all look at each other, obviously disarmed and each waiting for the other to launch a comeback, or an apology, or any kind of response at all.
“Just trying to be friendly,” one of them says
There’s that word, Elle thinks to herself. Friendly. Conversations are friendly. Compliments are friendly. Introductions are friendly. Elle reckons these guys aren’t friendly at all. They’re nosey and snobbish and rude.
And yet Elle’s the one who got pulled aside before the party by her co-worker— the one friend she’s made since moving up here— and told, “try to be friendly, okay?”
“So let’s get some names, then,” she tells the boys. “Mine’s Elle.”
“Like the letter?”
“Like the definite article in Spanish.”
The bros chuckle at that. They follow-up with introductions: Vivek (“Rebecca’s boyfriend”), Jean (“John, but spelled like Jean”), Ron, and Arnold (“but you can call me Arnie”).
On the other side of the grill, Elle snags a kielbasa between a pair of tongs and places it over the coals. Then another. Then the rest. She estimates these will need a little sear before heading to the edge of the grill to finish while the burgers cook.
“Eyes up here, gents,” Elle says, snapping the tongs in front of her face. All the boys move their attention from the sausages back to her.
“Sorry,” Jean says. “Becca really played up the whole ‘a Texan is gonna grill for us tonight’ thing and I guess…”
“You know how men are when there’s meat and there’s fire,” Vivek adds. “Like moths.”
Elle takes pull of Shiner and nods.
“Yeah me and my roommates back in Austin, we used to grill for our apartment every weekend. B-Y-O-P, we called it. Bring your own protein. We would go through a whole tank of gas every weekend over the summer.”
“Wait,” Ron says, “I thought Texans hated propane. I thought charcoal—”
“No. No, that’s a misconception perpetuated by an otherwise accurate and wonderful cartoon show.”
“See, I fuckin’ knew that. Read that on R-grilling a while back.”
“You’re part of a grilling subreddit?” Elle asks, smirking through her winced eyes.
There’s a healthy cadence to the banter now, and Elle moves the conversation back toward life in Austin as a grad student. The bros listen. She tells them about late nights at Kirby Diner and the gentrification of food trucks and how, yes, Franklin’s and The Salt Lick are good if you want to go bragging about Austin to people outside of Austin but if you want real barbecue you’re better off taking a day-long hajj out to Luling in real Hill Country.
Elle has finished the first round of burgers along with the requisite minute-long American cheese melt on top. She’s working on the second round of patties along with the Beyond burgers.
“So yeah, that’s when I started swipin’ left on anybody with Alamo Drafthouse in their profile,” Elle is saying as those finish up, too. “Hey, can you take these over to the table?”
“Ah, yeah, I got it, Elle,” Arnie says, grabbing the plated stack of finished sausages and burgers. He sets it on the folding card table with the Utz chips and the rounds of tomato and onion and the packs of Martin’s rolls.
One of the guests catches a glimpse of the spread and says, “God damn,” and all the other guests milling about on the roof take notice.
“This looks super pro,” Rebecca remarks. She’s been lurking within earshot, listening to the tail end of Elle’s conversation. “Did those boys drive you crazy with questions about your Texas technique or whatever?”
“They were certainly inclined to.”
“They’re such fucking nerds.” Rebecca is hiding her face behind her hand and nodding slowly.
“Oh, they’re harmless,” Elle says. “They just needed to learn the art of passive grillin’.”
13. Assume An Astronaut of Uniform Density
This particular meeting of the Northside High School Rocket Club was a special one, because this particular meeting would feature a special guest: Lindsay Alverez, a young, flight-eligible NASA astronaut and former club member.
Of course, it would be super fucked up for an active-duty NASA astronaut to only address the Rocket Club. The public relations team wouldn’t let her step foot on a school campus without talking to an auditorium full of students about the experience of pissing and shitting into a diaper-lined tube for two to ten weeks. This was Lindsay’s role in recruiting the next generation of American engineers, scientists, and architects.
And so Lindsay, the astronaut, played that role. She led another one of those auditorium town halls and she smiled through another meet-and-greet with district officials and she endured a rather lackluster catered lunch from Jason’s Deli.
After all these requisite activities, Lindsay was eager to sit down and talk to the kids who actually gave a shit. These were the kids that might become astronauts themselves one day. She’d reviewed some of her old physics and astronomy textbooks the night before, anticipating questions about weightlessness and delta-V and freeze-dried ice cream.
They were all seated and at attention when Lindsay walked into this particular meeting of the Northside High School Rocket Club.
“Hello, everyone,” she greeted. The class was a refreshing mix of demographics and identities.
The students returned her greeting with an unexpectedly enthusiastic variety of his and hellos. Lindsay skipped the boilerplate introduction that the students heard earlier in the day and launched right into an actual, off-the-cuff conversation.
“So,” she said, “did any of you come with questions for me?”
One student stood up and introduced themselves as Taylor.
“Do you feel like being in space changed your relationship with your husband?” they asked.
Lindsay opened her mouth to answer before the deeply personal nature of the question could even sink in. She wanted to say yes, but instead she closed her mouth and made big “help me” eyes with the faculty coordinator of the Northside High School Rocket Club. The coordinator just shrugged.
“Um, well,” Lindsay stammered. “I think he was a little bit jealous that I got to go to space, if that’s what you mean. But he’s a former Air Force pilot, and…”
Lindsay was becoming quieter with each word, as she limped to the end of her answer.
“...and he’s been behind the controls of some really cool aircraft, so, I mean, I guess we had to work through that in a way we didn’t before I went to space.”
“Huh,” Taylor said. “So it brought some problems forward, it sounds like, and you had to deal with those.”
“I think that’s going to be true in any relationship where there’s an objective power imbalance,” another student chimed in.
“What about your own insignificance? Can you talk about feeling meaningless after seeing the Earth from space?”
Lindsay could feel the pits of her shirt sticking to her sweat-soaked skin. It hadn’t even been a minute since she’d walked into the classroom, and her mind was recoiling back to her astronaut training. She was using her abs and obliques to draw and hold heavy breaths. The muscles in her neck tightened to keep the blood in her head from draining to her feet.
“I don’t— I mean, it is intense. I talk to a staff psychologist at regular intervals, even when I’m in space, to process my feelings and keep my mind focused on the mission.”
That was better, she thought. She was moored. The student who asked the question looked pretty disappointed.
“Do you wish that humanity’s future in space was less dependent on vanity projects run by craven billionaires?”
“Yes,” Lindsay answered, almost reflexively. “Though the space program used to be dependent on the military-industrial complex, so moving from cluster bomb manufacturers to capitalist god-kings is a moral wash, I think.”
Across the room, eyes began to refocus on Linsday. They liked that answer. The club coordinator gave her a thumbs up.
“Do you think the head of NASA should be a scientist instead of a donor to the president’s political party?”
“Should humanity even be doing spaceflight right now, given its impact on the environment?”
“Do you ever just not want to come back down here?”
Lindsay smiled. She wasn’t used to these questions. She wasn’t prepared to answer all of these questions. But, Lindsay thought to herself, you can’t deny these are all the right questions to be asking if you’re 16 years old and talking to an astronaut.
You’re holding your new dumbphone in your left hand. The screen is old-school green and grey and it says the time is 19:58.
It’s almost time for your first dose.
You’re thinking about what your doctor said when you broke down crying in his office and told him you needed help with Application Addictive Disorder (AAD). He said it was okay. He said there are treatment options now. It’s not like with your parents, where they were lost to their social media addictions forever.
He handed you a pamphlet titled “Return to Reality with Applicycline and the 3D Program.”
You read all about the three Ds.
Downgrade - At the soonest opportunity, downgrade your mobile device. Use a phone with limited Internet-enabled features, a monochrome LCD display, and, preferably, with Snake installed.
Deactivate - Deactivate your social media accounts. Ask a trusted real-life acquaintance or your doctor to help you if you can’t do this on your own.
Disconnect - After speaking with your doctor about treating your AAD with Applicycline, plan a vacation in a remote, rural destination, away from technology, for at least one week.
And so here you are, with a dumb phone to tell time and provide a lifeline outside this remote rental cabin you’ll be calling home for a week. Just you, Snake, a bunch of dusty, worn books, and this bottle of fourteen pills that should deprogram the social media addiction from your brain. Should. Hopefully.
You pop a pill into your mouth the moment the phone says it’s eight o’clock. You set the orange bottle back into this rustic cabin’s medicine cabinet and take a seat by the unlit fireplace and open a copy of Phillip K. Dick short stories you remembered enjoying when you were in college.
College. Gosh, what a great time that was! Remember all those great times you photographed and uploaded to Facebook? Gosh, you’re wondering what all your exes are up to right now. Remember how great it feels to just scroll through years worth of pictures of you and your exes together at parties and hiking together and being dumb in bed together that you posted on Facebook?
You’re gritting your teeth and wincing your eyes closed, and little tears are starting to climb down the crow’s feet on each side of your face. This is why you haven’t been able to work for nearly a month. This is why all of your exes have blocked you, along with several of your own friends. This is why you need to get this addiction under control.
It’s 20:07 now. You’re on the floor of the cabin, sobbing. All you can think about is staring at a screen, experiencing your past and present through swipes and taps and pinches. God, what you wouldn’t give to scroll a feed right now. Any feed. Hell, you’d go for home listings on Zillow just to get a fix.
You’re wondering if you could operate your car right now. Maybe one of your old friends would bring a phone out here. It’s just a two-hour drive. They sell smartphones at gas stations.
Maybe Audel would do it, you think. He ended up on the wrong side of an addictive user experience, just like you. He knows what this addiction is like— though maybe not to the same depths that you experience it.
You’re remembering when you met Audel, at your first job right after college. He took you to lunch on your first day. He bought you a beer, at lunch, on your first day! You remember thinking wow, how scandalous!
And as you’re remembering this experience and the thrill and the kindness of it all, you’re not thinking about social media. You’re not accessing this memory and these feelings through adjacent, overwhelming memories of pictures or posts or upvotes. You’re not remembering Audel’s Facebook profile picture or Spotify playlists.
You’re just remembering Audel, this really nice guy you used to work with.
Huh. That’s weird, you think. The experience of your life has been woven so tightly into the experience of using apps for years now. But you just had this totally pure and exhilarating memory and it was not played back to you on a phone screen in your mind. It just… was.
You try another one. You’re 26 years old, and you’re talking to a girl named Cassie at a bar. You never do that. And you’re talking about your hobbies and music and, yeah, you’re not thinking about Tinder or OKCupid or gleaning as much information as you could about her from her Instagram profile.
You are thinking about the couple other dates you went on with Cassie and all those hilarious jokes you traded back and forth over those couple weeks you were dating her. You’re just remembering a good, if fleeting, time in your life with another human being.
You note the time— it’s half-past eight. You’re sobbing again but for a different reason than before. You’re glad you talked to your doctor and asked if Applicycline was right for you. You’re thinking that once you pick yourself back up off the floor of this cabin, you’ll climb back into that chair and tackle that collection of short stories.
Nights like any other are actually quite common. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most romantic night of a lifetime often begins as a night like any other.
The most romantic night of Ben’s life had such humble beginnings. That most romantic night wasn’t even in the first few months of his relationship with Sadie! At seven months, Ben and Sadie were a perfectly normal couple in their late 20s experiencing all the perks and all the hangups of being that settled and that young.
And so it happened one night in April, Ben and Sadie joined a few other couples for drinks at a particular neighborhood bar in Montrose— one with a jukebox that wasn’t a computer.
“What do we wanna hear?” Ben shouted back towards his friends from halfway across the bar.
“Nothing!” some stranger yelled back, soliciting a few errant chuckles.
“Do they have anything from college?”
Ben smashed the PAGE + button a few times to move through the decades, passing from THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN to DANGER ZONE to NOBODY KNOWS IT BUT ME as fast as the mechanism could flip the catalog. And when he arrived at the beginning of the 2010s, Ben immediately zeroed in on his top two choices.
It would have been easy for Ben to pick KIDS. He, like many millennials, had been very thoroughly brain-poisoned by Oracular Spectacular. He believed in the power of youth and the significance of dancing shirtless at music festivals, in no small part thanks to that album. KIDS possesses both indie credibility and ubiquity to this day, all but ensuring that the patrons at the bar that night would sing along.
However, there was another option.
In 2010, Kanye West unleashed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy upon the world. It was an album that launched and re-launched a salvo of musical careers, marked the apogee of Yeezy’s artistic and commercial influence, and sampled Aphex Twin into mainstream consciousness, for god’s sake. It was an audacious smorgasbord of every loud, strong emotion a human being can project. Ben regarded the album, like Oracular Spectacular, as a mooring point for his late-college memories.
And so, there was RUNAWAY, a nine-minute celebration of being objectively selfish and the ninth track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There it was, available for Ben to play on the jukebox. The choice was clear. He mashed a few more buttons and let the unmistakable, sparse piano notes play him back to his seat.
Sadie was beaming, both at the song and at Ben’s goofy moves. She had similar memories moored to Kanye, though at a different college with a different set of far-flung friends. That was what made Ben so special to Sadie: She could depend on not being surprised by their similarities.
“And I always find, yeah I always find something wrong,” the song began, and Ben and Sadie and everyone else at the table sang that first lyric like a pledge. The bartender was singing it. Other patrons were singing it. The guy who heckled Ben earlier was singing it. For almost an entire minute, the whole building was toasting to scumbags and assholes and jerkoffs who never take work off.
With their firsts clenched and voices crooning, Sadie and Ben leaned into one another and sang, “baby I got a plan, run away fast as you can!”
If the song had just stopped there, it would have been a truly magical memory for everyone— the bartender, the other patrons, Ben, Sadie, and all of their friends. But the real magic began to shine with the first verse. Everyone else was falling away from the song, but Ben and Sadie stayed with Ye.
It was Sadie who really owned that first verse, belting out a story of emails and females and good girls. Ben knew the lyrics, too, and both of them were singing through their big grins.
“Do you think they practiced this?” one of their friends said to his spouse, who immediately hushed him. Everyone else was watching with stunned silence.
How much of this song could two people remember, anyways?
By the time Ben and Sadie had made it through the second iteration of the chorus along with Pusha T’s verse, their friends had already posted multiple stories to Instagram capturing the couple cheesing it up. Other patrons had taken notice and pulled up the lyrics on their phones, scoring the accuracy of the sing-along as each line whizzed by. As far as they were concerned, it was an S-rank performance so far, akin to the perfect game of Dance Dance Revolution.
When Kanye returned toward the end of the song, the couple climbed out of their seats and began dancing to the last verse. Ben was moving around an invisible mic on an invisible mic stand. Sadie was altering the earth’s rotation with her hips. When Kanye said the word “eyes,” they found each others’ eyes again and didn’t dare release them.
I guessin' you're at an advantage
'Cause you could blame me for everything
And I don't know how I'ma manage
If one day you just up and leave
Something was welling up inside of Ben before the final chorus. He was overcome with joy and amazement and love for Sadie. Some other feeling was mixed in there, too— something love-adjacent. It was the sex where everyone is smiling, or the laughter cojured from nowhere after a terrible day, or the two hands clasped together before diving down a snow drift. Ben felt all of that, except bigger.
At that moment, Ben acknowledged this as the most romantic night of his life. This was a shared experience. A spectacle. A surprise similarity. A musical memory. A deeply personal affirmation. It was all of these things, rolled into one absolutely unconventional moment. He didn’t dare to imagine how something could be more romantic than singing along, line for line, fully and completely, to a song he’d never, ever talked to Sadie about before that night.
They finished singing the last intelligible line, and the piano played them into those last minutes of static and spoken word.
“What the fuck just happened?” Sadie asked him through a shaky, strained throat.
That question would linger on the fringes of Ben’s mind for the rest of his life.
16. The Perfect Pair
Sal had been reading about jeans too much.
He knew, at least in theory, that normal people didn’t have particularly strong feelings about the fit, cut, stretch or rise of a pair of denim jeans. Normal people wanted their jeans to fit and normal people didn’t spend nights jumping from Facebook ads to reddit to fashion blogs and back to reddit trying to discern which pair of jeans was their perfect pair of jeans.
Knowing all of this in theory didn’t stop Sal from purchasing nearly $1000 worth of jeans from five different online retailers over the course of a week in August. He hoped he could get them all tried-on and the rejects returned by the time his next credit card payment came due— Sal’s Visa was pretty close to maxed out for the first time in his life.
The first pair to arrive was the last pair he’d ordered. They were way too distressed-looking for his taste, despite fitting fairly well. He couldn’t even squeeze into the second pair. A few days passed before the third and fourth pair were dropped onto the doorstep outside his apartment. Those, like the first pair, didn’t look much like the photos online.
When Sal ripped open the plastic shipping bag to reveal the last pair of jeans, he was heartbroken. He lifted the garment with both hands to inspect it. He turned it from front to back. He was holding a perfectly indigo, crisply-hemmed, fashionably-worn denim jacket.
It was at this point that Sal started looking into buying a sewing machine. He watched a few DIYers on YouTube and quickly convinced himself that hemming and altering a pair of jeans was totally within his skillset. He just had to find the perfect sewing machine first.
17. When Tomorrow Comes
Mr. Sinclair spent his entire career warning anyone who would listen about these lazy, unproductive cretins. Leeches were a scourge upon the country he loved. But he had to admit to himself, as he leapt across the threshold into his panic room, that these Leeches sure could run fast.
A two inch-thick steel door slammed shut behind him and immediately Mr. Sinclair could hear them pounding on it with their crude, makeshift weapons. This panic room was constructed specifically for a situation like this. The room was military-grade and indestructible. Everything inside the room was military-grade and indestructible. Pound away, Mr. Sinclair mused to himself. Tire yourselves out!
A control panel displayed the scene unfolding across his estate. From the safety of his refuge, Mr. Sinclair watched the so-called revolutionaries relishing his opulent wealth through a number of well-concealed security cameras. They smashed vases and tore into priceless artwork with their rusty old tools. They uncorked the rare vintages. They snapped selfies sitting on the golden toilet in his bedroom and posing in front of the microphone in his recording studio
Pathetic, Mr. Sinclair thought. Such empty malice. Such destruction. These so-called revolutionaries were proving all the points Mr. Sinclair had been making for years now. All they could do was take, take, take.
Come out here, you bastard! Show us your face!
Mr. Sinclair smiled at their pitiful, desperate pleas. He was used to ignoring the Leeches. Why start listening now?
He looked around for some way to drown them out. Where was his phone? Had Tatiana taken it during the chase? Ah, no matter. Surely this expensive panic room had a Bose surround system built-in, right? He fumbled around the control panel looking for some sort of music player, but could only find the estate intercom system.
Well, Mr. Sinclair thought, it was a panic room, after all. Not a panic resort. He resigned himself to a bit of discomfort for the sake of safety, at least until he could be rescued.
With the press of a button, a Murphy bed folded away from the wall. Mr. Sinclair crawled onto the bed, tucked his head under the soft, downy pillow, and tried to escape the exhaustion and the chaos of the so-called revolution.
He only found an hour of respite.
Wake up, Mr. Sinclair.
The old man in the panic room shot up from the bed so fast he nearly crashed his head into the ceiling. That gravely, Valley Girl voice was unmistakable— The Red Lady, one of the prominent voices of the so-called revolution.
Mr. Sinclair, are you alive in there? Did you kill yourself like a coward?
How was she talking over the intercom?
If you’re alive, give us a knock on the door.
He saw no danger in mocking them with his resilience. Shave-and-a-hair-cut-
Ho-ly shit! You are alive. So you’re not that kind of coward. You’re just a normal kind of coward.
Keep talking, bitch, Mr. Sinclair thought. It was only a matter of time until his loyalist friends stormed in to save him.
Mr. Sinclair glanced at the security monitor. The scene outside the panic room had changed dramatically in an hour. The so-called revolutionaries had set up defensive positions behind knocked-over desks and tables. Someone had pulled apart the keypad to the panic room door and run a cord to a ruggedized laptop, which in turn was connected to a phone receiver, which in turn was connected to The Red Lady.
I’m told we probably can’t force this door open tonight. I’m told we probably can’t hack our way in without a supercomputer. If we want you to come out— and we do want you to come out— you’re going to be the one to open the door.
Mr. Sinclair was laughing inside the panic room. He was not going to come out.
So I am going to do my best to convince you to come out. I can be quite convincing, and I hardly ever have such a, hah, captive audience. I will take such pleasure in changing your mind!
Mr. Sinclair noticed that all of the other video feeds on the monitor were black static. The so-called revolutionaries had control of the intercom and security system. A twinge of panic set in. Loss of control. His shrinking world felt just a little bit smaller.
I considered summary executions of your loved ones right outside this room. I considered killing them, one by one, facing that camera—
The Red Lady pointed at Mr. Sinclair through the monitor.
—until you could not stand it anymore. But that’s the thing! I don’t think you would trade your life for anyone else’s! And besides, the people deserve to see your criminal friends and criminal family endure very public and very fair trials for their crimes. That’s the world we are going to build, Mr. Sinclair.
Fair trials. Psh. Mr. Sinclair had long disposed of the notion of justice as anything but a way to exercise power. Courts were just frills and lace lashed to the side of a gun barrel.
I want to tell you about this world we’re building, Mr. Sinclair. Because I’m sure if you understand it, you will open the door and come outside.
Mr. Sinclair had heard quite enough from The Red Lady. He looked around for the heaviest, hardest object in reach— a bar of gold from his bug-out bag would do nicely— and began smashing it into the control panel. The steel-lined control panel. The bulletproof control panel. The scratch-resistant, matte control panel. He made a few little dents and a few little scapes, but The Red Lady’s voice continued to fill the room.
And the great thing is, I don’t have to stand here and talk to you all night to make you understand. Did you know I’ve recorded three-hundred episodes of my podcast?
Oh, no, Mr. Sinclair thought.
It is quite an accomplishment to have as many listeners as I have in a country where unlicensed podcasting is illegal. And yet people seek out my revolutionary message. They love it. After all, I have more listeners than your state-sponsored podcast!
No, no, no, no, Mr. Sinclair thought over and over.
So while I attend to setting up a new government and capturing more figureheads of your regime, please enjoy listening to the entire back catalogue, on repeat. Someone will be waiting for you when you’re ready to join us revolutionaries.
18. Ah, There You Are
You are looking up at Golconda, arguably the most iconic work on display in the museum. You’re waiting for your date to arrive.
She knows you appreciate art— you’re not an expert, but you are an appreciator of aesthetics— and so she suggested The Menil would be a great place to kick off a Saturday together.
Where should I find you, you asked.
“Here’s a hint,” she replied. “It’s raining men.”
And so there you are, holding a single tulip you plucked from your little garden on the way out this morning, soaked in this sweater-on-oxford, mousse-in-your-hair veneer that feels more aspirational than honest. That’s the point of being here at an art museum, you think.
Art reflects people better than people project themselves. Art tests your patience. You both want to share a sober, thoughtful moment before the clock strikes noon and you start ordering beers with brunch. You want to see how long she will stare into a Rothko before moving on to the next exhibit. You want to see whether she is drawn to the Cattelan sculptures or the Flavin installations.
She wants to pick you out among all the other men in Golconda.
When she arrives, she asks you: Do you think they’re floating or falling?
19. And Another Thing
I ain’t ever been one to relish the satisfaction of a job well done. Maybe it’s my brain. Or maybe my brain is fine and it’s the whole concept of a job that’s rotten. The thing I like more than an attaboy and a pat on the back at the end of my shift is a paycheck. I’m a practical guy with simple desires, and they can all be bought with money.
So you can imagine how I felt when my boss asked me to take an unpaid after-hours call a few months back. I owed him one and my boss knew it, too. And he knew he’d be cashing in that favor by askin’ me of all people to forgo payment.
He had his reasons to send me.
I loaded up my tools and set out for the ‘burbs around 7 o’clock that night.
An hour later I rolled up to this stucco mansion and before I could pop open the door to step out, this George Costanza lookin’ motherfucker was standin’ in the driveway shouting at me. ‘Bout scared me to death.
“Took you long enough,” he hollered at me.
Listen. I’ve been afforded real kindness and grace and patience by people with much bigger problems in much more dire circumstances. Did an emergency call at a Chinese restaurant once, owned by a family on the brink of financial ruin. They didn’t stand over my shoulder while I snaked four pounds of Sour Skittles out from their side of the sewer line. They didn’t tell me I was takin’ too long. Hell, they sent me home with dinner that night!
But as far as I knew, this guy had a clogged kitchen sink. That’s all. That’s what my boss said. I don’t believe a clogged kitchen sink is grounds for bein’ an asshole. Yet there he was, in the driveway, perpetuatin’ negative stereotypes about middle-aged suburban men needin’ an attitude adjustment.
I nodded at him and walked straight back to grab my toolbox and the business end of my snake. No need to engage, I thought. Just get the job done. The customer led me inside and I got to work on that sink half-full of murky water. It took me the better part of ten minutes to fix.
“Welp, that’s that,” I said from under the sink as I tightened the last fastener back onto the garbage disposal. I pulled myself out and was again startled by the customer’s unexpected proximity— this time, standin’ over me.
He was holdin’ a laptop computer, open and upside-down.
“Can you take a look at this while you’re here?”
I told him I know less about computers than most toddlers at this point in history, which is not true at all but I wanted to go home and feed my dogs.
“Please. It’ll just take a second. The last guy I called couldn’t figure it out.”
With my hand planted firmly, I pushed myself up off the ground and grew large and tall and told the man no, my work here is done. Please sign this work order and I’ll be on my way, I said.
“And another thing. What about this?”
He dropped the laptop on the ground and shuffled over to his refrigerator. The word “no” was forming on my lips when the customer yanked open the door and spilled acrid horror all over the kitchen. Inside the fridge was uninterrupted, unyielding decay. I instinctively wretched, and given my profession I have a pretty high tolerance for that sort of thing.
“Stupid thing hasn’t worked for years. Maybe you can fix it!”
I was wearing my elbow over my face as I stormed out of the kitchen, holding onto my toolkit and snake line as best I could. Somehow, the customer was in front of me again, pointin’ at a swirlin’ vortex of pure evil erupting from the middle of his living room.
“What about hauntings? You know anything about exorcisms?”
I dodged the little man and kept movin’ at a full gallop toward the front door, which was also broken and didn’t give much resistance as I crashed through it on the way out.
As I drove away, I swear the guy was cursin’ something about “the problem” bein’ that no one does anyone a favor anymore.
20. Something Borrowed
Author’s note: This story returns several words that were lent to me through a poll of my Instagram followers.
Oscar had missed weddings.
He stood to the side of the open bar, soaking in the geroezemoes of the revelers and the incandescence of the Edison bulbs under the pergola. Giggly girls in their finest Forever 21 dresses moved from high-top to high-top, snapping selfies and spreading their contagious, bright smiles. On the dance floor, the transition from chicken dance to slow dance spurred a sudden parthenogenesis, as individuals extemporaneously became intertwined couples.
“Fuckin’ rental tux,” a familiar voice said. Oscar turned back. It was Jose, pulling at the perineum of his slacks.
“Ain’t that a sight for sore eyes.”
“Sore is right,” Jose lamented. “These pants are trying to climb up and swallow my goddamn spleen.”
“I guess they don’t make ‘em for asses so—”
“Yeah,” Oscar nodded. “Obtuse.”
The two men turned to regard the party and stared out, far beyond it, in the same direction.
“Oscar, the fuck you been, man?” Jose asked pointedly after a few moments.
“No more than ten feet from this bar since the reception started.”
“You know what I mean.” Jose tipped his Corona to motion at the reception playing out before them. “I ain’t seen you at one of these in years.”
Oscar sighed and allowed the friendly, warm smile to slide away from his face. He’d anticipated this question for all of those aforementioned years without landing on a satisfactory way to answer it. Sometimes he wanted to apologize to everyone. Other times, like this particular night, he wanted to demand an apology.
“You’d have to ask the people sending invites out to these,” Oscar replied, imitating Jose’s gesture with his neat whiskey.
“Bullshit,” Oscar’s old friend countered. “Nobody hears from you anymore, man.”
“Nobody asks!” Oscar shot back, flabbergasted and defensive.
The two men were quiet again. Across the reception, Oscar watched as pairs and crowds and tables and families all laughed and toasted, naturally and effortlessly. Jose noticed energetic, inspired extroverts acting to defenestrate the shy loners from the black mirrors of their smartphones into the slowly-swaying mass on the dance floor.
“Well,” Jose finally said. “I’m glad you’re back now.”
Oscar turned to regard Jose.
And so, the reception continued. Brides endured jokes about fetus formation and motherhood. Grooms endured jokes about masculine emotional capacity. There were more toasts and more drinks and more songs that should have been on the no-play list. Oscar and Jose stood together for an hour, sometimes talking and sometimes not talking.
“Can I borrow your friend?” a young woman asked Jose through wine-stained teeth, pulling Oscar by the sleeve.
“My friend?” Jose says pointedly, narrowing his eyes at Oscar, then smirking. “Yeah, you can borrow my friend. But you have to return him.”
That’s the sound friends always make when I cook for them. I’ve been hearing that my whole life. It’s a nice sound. But recently, I started listening a little bit closer. There’s a power in that sound. It stirs me to consider new possibilities.
That’s the sound a boss makes when I turn in a deliverable at work— also a familiar sound. But the harder I listen to that sound and try to understand that sound, the less I can hear. It rings hollow inside me, with all the force of an infant chucking a binky into her bedsheets.
That’s the sound a dad makes when I share my plans. That’s the sound of disappointing dreams and impossible possibilities. That’s the sound a dad makes at a kid who doesn’t appreciate sacrifices and what it took to get here.
That’s the sound of the door hitting my ass on the way out. That’s what quitting sounds like.
That’s the sound my hand makes against the loan officer’s hand when we shake. It is an impulse echoing inside me, transforming into a thunderous applause. It is an objective validation and a standing ovation.
That’s the sound the little bell makes when my first customer walks through the door. That’s a new sound. That’s a novel sound. I could get used to that sound.
That’s the sound my dad makes the first time he visits the shop. No, wait, that’s me. He’s just standing there, smiling, taking it all in.
22. The Waiting
“So um,” you begin, with a tone that projects an ambiguous mix of confusion and insecurity. “You want me to make the messages go faster?”
“Eye,” the pilot replies confidently, like he was born wearing that mustache and those aviator sunglasses and those Air Force coveralls. He’s leaning on your console, above where it says Lead Comms Engineer. “This thirty minutes round-trip bullshit is just not workin’ for me.”
It’s very odd that this guy is on the floor of Mission Control talking to you right now, you think— even if he is a Mars-bound astronaut’s husband. When the medical staff asked you for this favor, you were imagining a conversation in a conference room or even a walk-and-talk around the campus.
The other flight controllers are watching you from behind this dude’s power pose. They’re all smart enough to know what you’re going to say next, but they’re curious how you’re going to say it.
You decide to go with a question. Best not to assume his intelligence, you reckon. These Air Force officers live on a diet of provigil and ritalin.
“You know those messages are traveling at the speed of light, right?”
The man’s brow retreats deeper into his sunglasses. You think he didn’t like that question.
“Isn’t there like, some delay? Like...” He’s searching for an analogy, and finds one in his wheelhouse of interests. “Like with the Super Bowl halftime show? Don’t y’all like, put a delay in the feed so you can catch and censor wildcard shit?”
What kind of so-called “wildcard shit” does he think NASA needs to censor between Mars-bound astronauts and their families back home, you wonder. Profanity? Nudity? Aliens? You decide to keep this conversation moving instead of digging into his basis of his fantastic assumptions.
“Ah, uh, no. When you send a message, it gets routed immediately to a pair of satellites with big lasers that beam the—”
He throws up both of his hands and looks at you like you just shit yourself.
“Alright, alright. Spare me the science, Einstein. I got it.”
The pilot pivots his head back and forth. Anxiously, you think, like he’s still got something on his mind. He wants to ask you something else.
“Is Lindsay, er, uh, Commander Alverez,” you say in a quieter, hushed voice. “Is she doing okay?”
The pilot smiles and launches into a fully-automated defense instinct. He’s getting louder.
“Lindsay? Oh, she’s doing great! This far from her husband, she’s probably doing great!” He chuckles and looks around at all the other flight engineers, who retreat like shy little children back into their own consoles.
“Are you doing okay, uh, Mr. Alvarez?”
It’s not your business to read the contents of every message that flies between Earth and the Mars-bound astronauts, or the ones that come back to Earth, either. There are other people at NASA whose job it is to do that, but that’s not your job.
It is your business to make sure outbound messages are being processed in a timely manner, though, so you know that for every one message that Lindsay sends to her husband, he will send up to twenty back. And that’s why this is your problem, too. This is why you agreed to talk with him.
Shit, you think to yourself. You know he has a rank in the Air Force but you have no idea what it is. Major? Calling him mister was probably wrong.
Luckily, he doesn’t seem too concerned with the lapse in decorum. He’s leaning in closer now.
“Between you and me,” he says, pulling down his sunglasses to show you his eyes. They’re tired and beedy. “This has been the hardest couple weeks of my life.”
“Why?” you ask instinctively.
Finally, Mr. Alvarez takes the empty seat next to you. You think he looks uncomfortable sitting down and you consider asking him to stand up again.
“I dunno, scared? It’s a crazy thing they’re doin’. Nobody’s done it before.”
You agree that Mr. Alvarez is scared, but you don’t think he’s scared for Lindsay.
“How does it usually work,” you ask, “when Lindsay is on an orbital mission and you’re down here? Do you send a lot of text messages?”
“So many text messages,” he replies, brighter at the thought. “I send her every dumb, borin’ thing that crosses my mind, and she sends me every dumb, borin’ thing that crosses her mind.”
That sounds right to you. You know that manned spaceflight is mostly tedium and checklists and procedures if everyone’s doing their job correctly. Lindsay probably has a lot of boring things on her mind while she’s in space.
“Well, uh, maybe you should try something else.” You add, “because physics is sort of a limiting factor here. Have you thought about writing letters?”
You make the suggestion so blithely and so easily that you assume you’ve offended Mr. Alvarez when he immediately recoils.
“I mean, that’s what humans do when they’re separated by great distances and time,” you add. “They write letters.”
“We ain’t ever tried to do that,” Mr. Alvarez admits. “Sounds kind of romantic, though. Like in that movie—”
Letters from Iwo Jima? The Lake House?
“Yeah, exactly,” you say.
The hot-shot Air Force pilot stands up, adjusts his jumpsuit, pulls his aviators back over his eyes, and puts a strong arm on your shoulder.
“Thanks, Einstein,” he says.
“No problem, uh…”
“Call me Tom.”
23. Ghost in the Chat
Melody had notable self-control when it came to limiting her digital screen time. When she needed to get shit done, she would lock her phone into her desk cabinet— key and all— and wait until lunchtime to scroll through the accumulated notifications. It’s a good system for staying on task, but terrible for keeping up with catty bullshit in her group chats. And Melody loved her some catty bullshit.
Melody anticipated some serious catty bullshit was afoot when she unlocked her phone and saw 139 missed messages in the group chat. But another notification caught her eye: One direct text from “Johnny’s Mom.”
Oh, fuck, she thought.
She played out her assumptions before reading the message. Thinking he’s finally gone. A sob and a hand raised to her mouth a little too late to contain it. A sniffle and a rush from her cubicle to the closest stairwell to let out a few more sobs. A few tears dotted on her sweater sleeve. Then, finally, unlocking her phone with shaking hands and opening that text from Johnny’s Mom.
Hello Melody. I wanted to share some good news and let you know that Johnny completed pairing today. When you’re ready, you can talk to him again on iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp, and email. All on his old number and email address. Hope you’re well.
Oh. Fuck, she thought.
Melody’s first instinct was to open the group chat, so she did, and Johnny was indeed the topic of discussion.
I don’t think it’s productive to talk about this here any more.
I need time to process this.
We can zoom about it tonight. I’ll send a link.
Phrases like Frankenstein shit and he’s our friend and he was our friend extracted more sobs from Melody as she scrolled up and up and up to play back the conversation she’d missed. She felt guilty. She felt like she should have been a part of this when it was happening.
Melody was Johnny’s girlfriend, after all. Was.
Realizing the workday was entirely shot, Melody told her boss she’d received some distressing personal news and caught the next train home. She tried to stay away from the group chat by zipping her phone into the most nested pocket of her purse, inside her backpack and under her coat. Two stops later, she was flipping through the chat again, following links her friends had posted earlier in the day to articles and reddit threads and tweets about this breakthrough in modern medicine.
Man in coma for eight years now texting with family using brain-computer interface
John Greenwood miracle prompts immediate Supreme Court injunction; Congress to reconvene Wednesday
Johnny Greenwood: “What did I miss?”
The question on Melody’s mind was not a question of ethics or law or the future. She didn’t consider what she would say to him, personally. The question on Melody’s mind was, should I invite him into the group chat?
That’s how Johnny’s old best friend, Mikhail, started the video call that evening. His wife— who Johnny had never met before— was on the call, too, rubbing her husband’s back in a way that Melody found performative and off-putting.
“I think we treat this like any other invite in any other group chat,” Samantha, another drinking buddy from college, chimed in. That suggestion was met with a few on-screen nods. “We wait until everyone agrees. He doesn’t get an automatic invite.”
“That’s fucked up.”
No one said anything for a few moments. Melody thought maybe her internet had died, before she realized she was the one who said, “that’s fucked up.” Everyone was waiting for her to continue.
“I mean, how else is he going to feel anything like normal again? Look at who he’s talked to since they wired him up. Tech billionaires and doctors and his family.”
“My definition of hell,” someone cut in jokingly. No one laughed.
“I’m serious,” Melody continued. “I think we invite him in.”
“We could start a second group chat.”
“I like that,” Mikhail agreed. “That way he doesn’t get the chat history. Might be traumatic for him.”
Melody was shaking under a tight scowl. To her, this was all bullshit and whether to invite Johnny to the group chat was self-evident. But she knew her friends and she knew that Mikhail had that sort of rational appeal and that her suggestions would seem emotionally-rooted and—
“What are you so scared of him seeing, anyways?” Melody asked.
Mikhail’s wife leaned in toward the camera to give Melody a look, digitally.
“Oh, come on, Mel. You want John to see us joking about all your exes?” Mikhail moved closer to the camera, too. “All those hookups? And how soon they happened after his accident?”
“Yes!” Melody shouted. “I want him to see all of that!”
Everyone was quiet again.
“I think our trust and our friendship means more to him than anything that happened while he was gone.”
Through the twelve grainy little boxes on her laptop screen, Melody could see her old friends growing older. She thought that her last point would comfort and convince them to bring Johnny back into their group. She thought it would stir them to courage. Instead, it crushed them.
“That sounds like a lot.”
“I just don’t know.”
“Maybe we should table this for a few weeks.”
“I like that. Maybe we all chat with Johnny one-on-one first, for a while.”
Before she knew it, Melody was all alone in her apartment again, staring at the words CALL ENDED. She glanced over and saw the notifications pouring into her phone. Direct texts and side texts piled up on top of each other. Little groups of two or three friends, all wishing her well and hoping she’s okay. No new messages on the big group chat, she noted.
Melody pulled her legs up against her chest and squeezed out a sigh. Maybe there was wisdom in waiting, she thought. Maybe she was, in fact, caught up in the idea of returning to something long gone. Maybe she was trying to do penance for something she didn’t do wrong. It was all very nebulous and tangled in her mind, but Melody could see those possibilities.
So, Melody didn’t do anything drastic that night. She made a Sleepytime tea and went to bed early. And when she woke up the next morning, Melody had a better idea of what she wanted to say to Johnny— and just Johnny.
24. Big Baby
Baby’s name is self-evident. She’s got a certain roundness in her legs and doughy brown eyes that will instantly disarm anyone who hasn’t been warned— Baby is seventy pounds of pure chaos.
No one warned Aaron, though, because Aaron is a dog park interloper. He’s a dog lover without a dog. Recently, he’s started stashing a small bag of treats in his back pocket before he sets out on his morning jog. It turns out that friendly guys with dog treats are more than welcome at the dog park, sans-canine, especially if they’re willing to lend an unencumbered set of hands for ball-throwing, gate-closing, or head-scratching.
About a block away from the park, Aaron hears shouting.
“My Baby! My Baby!”
Dogs are growling and barking at the commotion nearby. Aaron quite reasonably assumes something terrible has happened. He’s moving to help as fast as he can. And as he rounds the corner and the park comes into view, Aaron sees a dense ball of black and brown fur barrelling down the sidewalk in the other direction with its leash in tow.
“Somebody catch my Baby!”
Aaron is the only somebody who can help, as Baby’s owner and all of the other dogs and their owners are crammed into the little two-door gated entrance to the park trying to move past one another. He’s booking it. Baby is, too.
The gap between Aaron and the runaway widens as Baby finds her stride on those chonky sausages she calls legs. Her tongue is dangling out to one side.
“Hey!” Aaron shouts, stern as he can manage in a full sprint.
There’s a skip in Baby’s step as she glances back for just a moment, allowing Aaron to close the distance by a few dog-lengths. She sees her pursuer and immediately shifts into a higher gear. An arc of slobber whips up and back, shimmering in the morning sun.
Aaron focuses ahead of the dog as it approaches the next intersection. It’s a four-way stop. Baby scampers right through it and on to the next block. A few moments later, Aaron throws his arms up and yells as he blindly dashes across the street.
Baby is having a great time. With the right motivation, a dog will open up the throttle and experience real speed. Baby has never had a chance to run quite like this.
Neither has Aaron. Running is an activity he does for exercise; he is motivated by an elevated risk of heart disease in his family. Now, Aaron is riding a cocktail of hormones and brain chemicals to his body’s absolute limit. It’s often remarked in clickbait articles of dubious veracity that humanity’s real evolutionary advantage over the animal kingdom wasn’t our big brains, but our endurance. Aaron remembers this maybe-fact as the distance to Baby’s leash begins to close again.
Aaron looks ahead. Stoplights and walk signs and cars speeding by. Baby can feel her little legs starting to lose steam, but she keeps moving.
This is Baby’s chance.
For what? No one can say. But she wants to keep running and so she runs.
This is Aaron’s chance. This is his chance to stop Baby.
He pushes into the ground with his right leg and lunges forward. He’s diving. He’s diving for the leash with his left hand as physically far from his body as it can possibly be.
Baby leaps, too. She jumps from the curb and feels all four paws lift from the ground as she rides the air into the intersection. She flies and she flies and her head doesn’t turn to see the truck.
The leash goes taught. Baby’s paws pivot up and forward as the leash holds her head mere inches from the white flash of the passing vehicle. She flips around, lands on her paws, and immediately runs back toward Aaron.
He’s gripping that leash like a trophy.
25. Florida Bird
Ben warned Sadie over the course of several months that his family took Thanksgiving seriously. He would say things like, “make sure you have your weapon picked out for Thanksgiving” and “if you value your life, don’t get between my dad and the bird.” She would laugh and he would smile and the conversation would turn to something else.
Then, in the autumn, they began planning for their first holiday season together. A mix of practical logistics and regional snowfall forecasts dictated that the couple would spend Christmas with Sadie’s family and travel to Ben’s hometown for Turkey Day. That’s around the time that his words of caution became downright grave.
“Y’know, I was serious,” he said one evening before their flight to Florida. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
Sadie wouldn’t let it go this time. She turned from under the sheets to face him and asked what all of this foreboding was really about.
“I’m telling you,” Ben said, sitting up in bed. “My entire family goes nuts on Thanksgiving.”
“Like, imagine an atomic bomb, but instead of uranium you’ve got this critical mass of Floridians. Shit gets broken, elbows fly, and, I dunno, it’s fucking dumb redneck shit. Every year.”
Sadie squinted at him.
“That sounds amazing.”
Sadie reassured Ben that Thanksgiving would be fine and normal and that he was probably just nervous about her meeting his big, dumb, redneck family. This seemed at least partially plausible to Ben, and he agreed to stop bringing it up.
And so, Sadie did fly to Florida with Ben and met his lovely, overly-hospitable, medium-sized, not-too-dumb, undeniably-redneck family in person for the first time. His five-member nuclear household was supplemented with in-laws, a few aunts, a few uncles, and a few cousins, all of whom lived close by. They were in and out of Ben’s modest little childhood home over the course of the week leading up to Thanksgiving.
By Thursday, Sadie was on a first-name basis with all of the dinner attendees. Or rather, she was calling everyone else by their first name, and they were all calling her “sweetie.” The possibility of dumb redneck shit didn’t cross Sadie’s mind all morning— she was too busy helping blind-bake pie crusts and tracking four different timers on her phone so she’d know when to pull the yams and when to throw the corn muffins in and so on and so on.
The day was Florida cool and overcast. Ben was out back with his cousins under tall, sparse pine trees, Jai Alai in-hand as they watched a large pot of oil heat up on a gas burner. From inside, Sadie could hear them erupt into hehs and oh words and shit mans in a relaxed drawl that Sadie had never heard from Ben before this trip. Ben’s dad was showing off his old BB gun to the grade school kids in attendance. The littlest one was running around naked, eating tiny fistfulls of French’s fried onion topping right out of the tin.
It was all very charming to Sadie, in moderation.
And that’s the lesson that Sadie the yankee had yet to learn— there’s nothing more dangerous in this world than a simple, charming moment in Florida. Nature tends to counterbalance simple southern charm with dumb redneck shit.
“Hey, Pa,” Sadie heard Ben shout. “What was that boat called, that you went out on with Chuck a few weekends back?”
Ben’s dad smiled, handed his battle-weathered Red Rider to the most responsible-looking 8-year-old in the group, and waddled over to join the young men around the turkey fryer.
Sadie was eager to eavesdrop on whatever story Ben’s dad was about to tell, so she didn’t notice the child at the edge of the backyard taking aim high into the trees. She heard neither the characteristic clack of the spring in the BB gun nor the single, tiny lead ball whizzing upwards on a downright impossible trajectory. She didn’t see the young pelican go limp, but she did see the unmistakable silhouette of a water fowl taking one final dive, directly into the turkey fryer.
The bird did not stick the landing. Instead, a fine mist of hot peanut oil erupted into a beautiful, pyrotechnic conflagration.
“Woo, yeah!” one of Ben’s uncles hollered like clockwork.
Ben’s mom heard the hollerin’ and ran to the back door.
“Dennis!” she yelled at her husband, who had fallen to the ground.
He looked away from the hypnotizing glow of the fire and the mystery bird floating atop the fryer and just shrugged. The kids on the other side of the backyard were running and screaming. The toddler with the onion topping was running and screaming. Ben’s older cousins were looking at each other and laughing and clanking their beers together.
From outside, Ben yelled to Sadie, “under the sink!”
Sadie grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran past Ben’s mom and got between Ben’s dad and the bird and blasted the flames. Ben then moved to close the valve on the propane tank.
Everyone was staring at Sadie. Sadie was staring into the mess of foam and lightly-fried feathers, on the lookout for any errant flames that might pop back up. Ben took the extinguisher from her hands and lifted her into a spinning bear hug while the rest of Ben’s family hooted and cheered and clapped in celebration of some truly dumb redneck shit.
26. National Cognition Reserve
One of the great things about Washington, D.C., is that you will find yourself at the most amazing places one way or another, even when you get lost. Take one wrong turn downtown and, oops, you’re at some other breathtaking testament to American Exceptionalism told in marble and stone. Drive a little too far and, uh oh, you’re at an unintended but still wonderful green space or park or historic neighborhood.
The Underwoods took one wrong turn and ended up in the cramped lobby of something called the National Cognition Reserve. Tonya, Ronnie, and Dale Jr. stood silently and poked through their phones under a sign that said Please Wait For The Tour Guide.
Dale moved throughout the room, reading all of the little informational placards lashed to the wall.
Fun Fact: The NCR lowers the median American IQ by thirty points.
Did You Know? The cognitive side effects of High-Fructose Corn Syrup were discovered by NCR scientists in 1977.
The NCR has sold at least five trillion dollars worth of cognition to China in the past decade!
And so on.
“Well, are you all ready for the tour?”
A mustached man in a white Tyvek clean-room suit and goggles smiled at them from the other side of the velvet rope. He drew the rope aside and beckoned them through the open doorway. With a gentle tap on their backs, Dale nudged his family forward and into a long, narrow hallway.
“My name is Grant,” the tour guide introduced himself courteously. “I’ve been working here at the National Cognition Reserve for eleven years now, so I should be able to answer any questions you have on the tour today!”
The walls of the hallway were cluttered with pipes and buttons and panels. Little lights blinked and flashed and pulsed alongside safety values and cut-offs and emergency stops. Some of it appeared to be functional, and other pieces were vestiges of a time long passed.
“The facility we’re entering now was the first phase of the NCR, which we call the Edison Wing. The NCR has had three expansion phases: The Edison Wing, then the Eisenhower Wing, and finally the Gore Wing.”
Grant stopped at the door at the end of the hallway, and regarded the intrigued Dale and the other, disengaged members of his family.
“Now, who can tell me why we call the first wing of the NCR the Edison Wing?”
Dale’s wife, daughter and son were silent. Dale waited a courteous moment before answering.
“Uh, I think I read that Thomas Edison was the guy who came up with it.”
“Exactly right!” Grant said with a smile and a congratulatory finger-wag. He pushed slowly on the door behind him. “American inventor, entrepreneur, and industrialist Thomas Edison developed the Cognition Sink back in 1896 as a way to steal ideas and brainpower from his rival, Nikola Tesla.”
The door behind Grant swung back to reveal a vast, cavernous cistern the size of a football field. Corroded copper wires snaked along the bowed-out walls of the cistern and coiled around the supporting columns like petrified vines.
“While he may have lost the War of Currents, Edison was able to repurpose this technology at the behest of his financial backers, Andrew Carnegie and J.P Morgan. This,” Grant said, gesturing with his hands outstretched, “was the very first National Cognition Reserve, and it made Washington, D.C., very stupid.”
Dale ran his fingers along the outside wall and asked, “how much brainpower could you hold in this thing?”
“Before they started refining it and concentrating it, this room could hold about ten years’ worth of Congressional cognition. By 1920, they had built three more, just like this one, and it was effectively draining and storing the smarts of all of Congress and all of the various government agencies in Downtown D.C.”
“Amazing…” Dale said, in amazement.
“Yeah, but remember, at this point they were just storing it.”
The tour continued through the still, cool air of the cistern. Whether it was the lingering genius leaching from the walls, or perhaps the lack of cell phone signal in this particular location, something compelled the rest of the family to put their phones away and listen to Grant’s history lesson.
Beyond the cistern was a gallery of scientific instruments and historical knick-knacks paying homage to the Geniuses of World War II.
Grant told them the thrilling story about how Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard wrote a letter to FDR suggesting the Cognition Drain process could be reversed, leading to the development of the Cognition Emitter. The Cognition Emitter was then used to supercharge the brains of the scientists working on the first first atomic weapons and the engineers developing the first jet fighters and long-range strategic bombers.
This was the letter to FDR, signed by Einstein and Szilard.
This was a Genius Helmet. These were worn by scientists working on the Manhattan Project. It contained a Cognition Emitter and a small vial of reserved brainpower.
Did you know? J. Robert Oppenheimer had no interest in Eastern philosophy until he wore the Cognition Helmet, eventually leading to his famous quote, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” following the Trinity test in 1945.
“Once we had the Cognition Emitter figured out, it became clear we were going to need a lot more brainpower in reserve than what could be harvested from D.C. And that’s where Eisenhower comes in.”
The next room was a smaller one, containing a wall-sized map of the US Interstate Highway System from its introduction in the 1950s.
“Who knows what this is?”
“The US Interstate Highway System,” Tonya Underwood said, nodding proudly.
“That’s right! Does anyone know what else it is?”
“Phase two of the National Cognition Reserve?” Dale guessed.
“Bingo!” Grant shouted, giddy at all of these correct answers. “Not everyone gets that one, good job!”
Grant once again opened his arms to emphasize the size and scope of the project implied by the wall-mounted map. As he told it, the Interstate Highway System was not only a way to move cars and trucks and goods and people and nuclear weapons and tanks and soldiers across the country— it was also the backbone of a nationwide network of Cognitive Sinks, Cognitive Emitters, Brainpower Refineries and massive, underground reserves of concentrated genius.
“The Eisenhower Wing was more than just a new building on this D.C. campus,” Grant conceded. “It was a massive undertaking. But you know where it got us?”
Everyone looked into Grant’s eyes with eager anticipation. He pointed upwards, through the ceiling and to the heavens. The Underwoods all made various ooh and aah faces.
“That’s right. Space. The freakin’ moon— pardon my French.”
“Speaking of space,” Dale Jr. spoke up, “all these reserves must take up a lot of space if it’s being collected from everywhere now. Where do you keep it all?”
Grant laughed and gave the boy a pat on his shoulder.
“That’s a great question, and, thanks to Al Gore, a question we didn’t have to ever answer! Let me show you.”
One final door. This one was steel and heavy, like a bank vault. Grant punched a few numbers on an adjacent keypad and the door came loose with an audible clank. With a heave and a grunt, Grant cracked an opening wide enough for everyone to follow through. Another dimly-lit hallway lined with blue curtains awaited on the other side.
“Al Gore recognized not only the potential for the NCR to regulate American intelligence and overall quality of life— he also saw the potential for a new commodity. Let me show you where we are today.”
The curtains on either side of the hallway lifted to reveal floor-to-ceiling glass windows. To their left was a massive, open control room. It contained hundreds of workers, all dressed like Grant, milling about under a gigantic projection of the world. On their right was another room, but this one contained people who decidedly did not look like Grant. They were all dressed in suits and ties, shouting into phones under a massive projection of prices and graphs and charts.
“This is the Gore Wing,” Grant said from the center of the hallway, with his hands open toward the two massive rooms.
“On this side, you’ve got the Global Cognition Pipeline, which pumps accumulated American brainpower all over the world. And on this side,” he continued, motioning with his other hand, “is the Global Cognition Marketplace, which manages the price and allocation of all that American brainpower to the countries who want to buy it.”
Ronnie stared into the Marketplace.
“That’s so cool. How do I get a job doing that?”
“Oh, I’ve got a recruiting pamphlet for you at the end of the tour, if you’re interested,” Grant offered, proudly.
Dale moved his head back and forth, watching the two rooms closely. He could see how the tenor in one room changed the mood in the other and vice versa. It was beautiful and Dale wanted to cry.
Grant put his arm around Dale Underwood.
“It’s a lot, I know. This is an amazing place. Truly, the pinnacle of human achievement. I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
27. Never Alone, Inc.
The SWAP began in a booth at Elliot’s favorite bar, surrounded by his closest pals from college, a few drinks after celebrating his new job in Northern Virginia and lamenting the requisite relocation to Northern Virginia.
“Oh, yeah, so, what do y’all think about the whole friend transplant thing?” he asked his boys.
Everyone had questions. Otto asked if they had to stop talking to Elliot after he moved. Allen asked if they had to talk to anyone beforehand. Gary was quiet, but looked unsure.
“Shit, wait, actually,” Elliot interrupted. He pulled up an email on his phone that he had received from Never Alone, the facilitators of this benefit provided by his new employer, and began to read the words aloud.
“We’re excited to embark on The SWAP— Social Wellbeing Assignment Process— with you. Moving to a new city is scary!”
He paused for a moment and made a startled face, sending the lads laughing into their drinks.
“...but with new friends waiting in your new home, we’re confident that you will feel settled, happy, and, most importantly, productive, in no time.”
“You had like, none of those things living here,” Otto joked.
Elliot sucked down a third of his lager and continued. First, there was a set of ground rules that Elliot had to obey, by way of a number of contracts between himself, his employer, and Never Alone. He could keep talking to his old friends, insofar as he didn’t interfere with The SWAP for his replacement. He would make a good-faith effort to engage in activities with his new friends in Arlington. He would report any hazing, stalking, threats, or physical violence by members of the new friend group to Never Alone and not to local law enforcement.
“Over 98% of our SWAPs are successful without a second relocation.”
“Fuckin’ hell, really?” Allen was incredulous.
“That’s what it says,” Elliot replied, pointing at the phone.
“That’s better odds than Tinder.”
“Can they, uh,” Gary interjected, “can they send us a single, blonde twink who likes trip-hop, maybe?”
More laughs around the table.
Next, Elliot pulled up a second email that contained a SWAP dossier on all his new friends. He passed his phone around and let everyone scroll through their profiles.
“Huh,” Allen commented. “They have a good algorithm, I’ll give ‘em that.”
An engaged, gender nonconforming couple that runs a community garden and an influencer-tier TikTok account for their dogs. A boring Internet Person working a not-described job for the Department of Defense who lists his only hobbies as grilling and crossfit. A single, well-connected lobbyist for solar energy interests who organizes weekend hiking trips. A widowed dad of a three-year-old who does storytelling and slam poetry.
“I think you’re getting the better end of the deal here, dude,” Otto said as he swiped through the list. “But I think this Samuel guy might be a serial killer.”
“He probably flies drones or something.”
“Still,” Elliot admitted, “could be a useful person to know. Trust the algorithm, is what I’m thinking.”
“And so, who do we get?”
Elliot hid his immediate discomfort behind a quick pull at his pint. He had the third and final email containing his replacement’s profile. But…
“Are you sure you want to know? With me here?”
“Why wouldn’t we?” Allen asked, looking a little confused. “We should all be on the same page about this person, right?”
Elliot stalled. He slid out of his seat and told the table he needed to take a piss before the grand reveal. In the bathroom, he thumbed through the profile with one hand, feeling a little smaller with every word. It was all so familiar to him now, as it had been the night before and the night before that, when he was up late scrutinizing every detail of this person’s life.
When he returned, Elliot was wearing a sort of faux excitement that his close friends recognized immediately. Otto got up and ran to the bar before Elliot could start again.
“Four shots of Bulleit Rye, Sal.”
Otto returned with stubby chodes of whiskey on a charcuterie board.
“To Elliot,” Otto toasted with his shot raised. “A guy who won’t be replaced!”
“Here, here!” Gary and Allen cheered.
Elliot felt truly appreciated for the first time that evening. He smiled and threw his shot back with the other boys and waited for every face to un-pucker before turning his phone to face them.
“Huh,” Allen said first, squinting into the screen.
“Seems… fine,” Gary added.
“He’s definitely not you,” Otto reassured Elliot.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out,” Elliot said, watching his friends as they all lost themselves in the profile. “He’s definitely not me. But then, how is he a match?”
Everyone had a different theory. Gary assumed the SWAP algorithm was broken in some way. Allen took issue with that assertion, since the algorithm was so perfect in matching Elliot to his new friends. The best guess Allen could come up with was that Doug was a very malleable person, and would fit into any group of friends.
“I think that’s close to right,” Otto admitted with a shrug. “I’m thinking about how those folks in Arlington probably feel right now, about you. Maybe that’s the trick.”
“How do you mean?” Elliot asked.
Otto smiled at Elliot.
“As long as the new guy feels like his new friends are cool, he’ll always put in the effort to make it work.”
28. Temp Job
Your eyes are bouncing over the photos on display behind the Senior Hiring Manager. She’s got a few ski trips, a few cold hikes, a few warm hikes— all with a handsome family that you can’t help but covet just a little bit. Look how happy they all are, not working, in exotic locales and faraway places! Look at their smiles!
“I’m sorry, this is probably all so boring for you,” she apologizes earnestly, trying to pull your attention back to the interview.
“Let’s be honest,” you reply. “You won’t be the one making the decision whether I get this job or not.”
She nods and purses her lips together in a flat line. She’s trying to be courteous, even though you’re the one who steamrolled her morning by showing up thirty minutes before the scheduled interview time.
“That is generally how positions at this level work, yes. But we have to go through the motions. You understand.”
You don’t really understand.
“Can you talk a little bit about your time as a private consultant before your current job?”
You look down at the copy of the resume she’s provided to you. It says you ran your own LLC for a while, as a Founder and Principal Strategy Consultant. Interesting.
You’re picturing it all in your mind. You’re enjoying the freedom of working from a home office, on video conference calls totally naked from the waist down. You’re meeting your clients for expensive lunches at downtown steakhouses and washing down blackened grouper with a third martini, all on their dime. You’re waltzing into conference rooms and putting terror into the faces of redundant middle-managers with your mere presence.
“That was a transcendental period in my career,” you explain. “You can only learn so much about executive leadership from facing the leaders.” You lean in, toward the Senior Hiring Manager, to great effect. “So I created an opportunity to sit on the other side of the desk, with the leaders, by consulting them.”
“And how were you consulting them? Can you talk about a few of your projects?” She watches your face curl in a little bit, then adds, “...generally speaking, of course.”
You’re picturing it in your mind. Executive teams asking you how to structure the organization to optimize for growth. Boards begging for your guidance on building a new executive team. Investment firms falling over themselves, pleading with you to audit the composition of the board. It all seems very plausible, to you, the Founder and Principal Strategy Consultant.
“Right, right. I advised a lot of executive teams on composition and membership. Helped them to devise quarterly and yearly goals for their organizations. I remember—”
And you lean back, lost in a reverie, again, for effect.
“—I remember one contract, where I was asked to develop a year-long plan for growing an engineering organization at a startup in their third round of funding. I devised new roles for some of their tenured employees and developed the quantitative benchmarks for rolling out the plan.”
She’s looking at you with one eyebrow lowered just a bit. This might not be working, you think. You might not be deploying those buzzwords correctly, you think.
“Sounds very similar to the growth period we’re experiencing here right now.”
“Yes, well, I thought that might be relevant,” you say, smiling.
The Senior Hiring Manager’s phone shakes her desk with a notification. She’s trying to be courteous and ignore it like a professional, so she doesn’t move to touch it, but her eyes cannot help themselves. She catches a glance at the screen, looks back at you, then looks at the screen again.
Her eyes return to you, but this time with the shock and anxiety that always signals the end of these interviews.
“Don’t worry, I’m not dangerous,” you say, lifting your palms upward. “I’ll see myself right out.”
“Wait,” she says.
She moves between you and her corner office door, blocking your path.
You roll your eyes and look down at the Senior Hiring Manager. You’re well aware that if you don’t see yourself out promptly, whoever sent that message will be arriving with a rent-a-cop— or maybe a real cop— to help you see yourself out.
But you appreciate that she doesn’t think you’re going to hurt her. Not everyone extends you that courtesy.
“I don’t understand. Why go through all this trouble, just to sit through someone else’s interview?”
“Because I like to feel important,” you say, “and it’s easier than being important.”
29. American Sentimental
On a small farm in the middle of America, a Father and Mother raised their Son in the tradition of their forebears. The Son joined his Father in the fields before daybreak every morning operating tractors and dusting the crops with pesticides. The Mother gathered eggs from the henhouse and milked the dairy cows, all manually, because she believed in hard work and an antiquated notion of household responsibilities.
In the afternoons, the Mother would teach her Son the basics of American life by reading him scripture from the Bible, stories from a dog-eared copy of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, and news sourced exclusively from Reader’s Digest magazine. As the boy grew, so did his thirst for knowledge, and so his parents reluctantly purchased a laptop computer for the family.
At first, the laptop enriched every member of the household. The Mother would spend her few moments of spare time every day posting about fostering dogs but never doing it herself. The Father found a renewed sense of community online, and spent his evenings arguing in the comments section of the local newspaper about the cabal of Chinese globalists indoctrinating children through the Common Core curriculum.
When the Son was seventeen years old, he began behaving strangely. His hair turned from bright blonde and tight-cut to long and teal. He would ask his parents pointed questions at the dinner table, such as the difference between the agricultural subsidies that kept them fed and socialism. And at night, he would escape into his bedroom with the family laptop and lock the door.
“What are you doin’ in there, Son?” the Father would ask after a few impatient knocks.
“I’m playing Call of Duty! The World War II one, not the modern ones where America gets invaded by Russia and gays can serve openly in the military.”
“Alright. I love you, Son. And God loves you. And Congress loves you,” the Father would say. Misty-eyed but never crying, he would retreat to his bed, which was separate from the Mother’s bed.
Eventually, the Father’s curiosity got the better of him. He talked to the family Pastor, who encouraged the Father to tear his son’s entire room apart, and cut into his mattress looking for contraband.
“If you really trust your Son,” the Pastor advised, “you have to trust him to love you after a total, dehumanizing invasion of his privacy.”
This made sense to the Father, and it wasn’t just a convenient justification for something he knew was wrong in his heart. While his Son was out working on the combine tractor one afternoon, the Father rifled through his belongings.
The Son was startled when the Father stormed into the workshop, holding a copy of Marx’s Capital.
“What is this?” the Father shouted. “This is communism!”
“That’s right, Dad,” the Son replied, crying in a way that seemed fake and manipulative to the Father. “And I’m a communist! I have been for a while!”
“No Son of mine—”
“Dad, the tenets of class struggle and permanent revolution make a whole lot more sense to me than anything I learned from you or Mom.”
“I ain’t gonna hear this under my own roof!”
“Dad, the American people put the roof over your head! Their tax dollars keep this farm running!”
“Get out of here!”
“Fine,” the Son said, indignantly, hopping into the 1964 Ford Thunderbird that the two had restored and painted fire engine red together. “I’m moving to Brooklyn to pursue my real dream of becoming a leftist podcaster and Twitter celebrity with fifty-thousand followers!”
“You can’t cancel culture me! Not if I cancel culture you first!” the Father screamed, drawing one of the three firearms concealed on his person and leveling it at the Thunderbird. “I don’t ever want to see your face around here again!”
“You might not see my face, but you’ll hear my voice when Joe Rogan invites me on to debate Ben Shapiro!”
“I don’t know what any of that means!”
The father emptied the magazine of his weapon into the roof of the workshop, sobbing, while his only Son kicked up dust on the dirt roads leading out of Middle America.
Many years passed. The Son was indeed talented at spreading the traitorous, poison-soaked lies of communism and critical race theory to his peers. He quickly achieved the notoriety he so desired. Growing up on a farm lent the Son a credibility that the trust fund-endowed hosts of other leftists podcasts did not have, and so he was invited on many shows and streams to share his personal journey.
One day, a bald eagle knocked on the door of the zero-bedroom, four square foot apartment where the Son lived in Brooklyn. In his beak he held a handwritten letter addressed to the Son from the Mother. Unfortunately, the Son was not home, because he was on the roof smoking marijuana with the fifteen other hip, young people in his polycule. The eagle waited for seven days before slipping the note under his door and flying back to Heaven, where bald eagles live.
When the Son finally returned home, he read the note.
Your Father has fallen ill with a disease that I suspect to be 5G signal poisoning but also shares a lot of symptoms with long-term exposure to agricultural pesticides that have been deemed unsafe in every country of the world except the United States. The doctors say that God will scoop him up from this world in no less than seven days. Please put your differences aside and say goodbye to your Father. He has something for you.
The Son cried like a woman at the news, because he had become emotional and soft living in the Big Apple. It took him ten days to return to his childhood home in his new electric car. He’d traded the 1964 Thunderbird for a Toyota Prius and used the extra cash to purchase NFTs and OnlyFans subscriptions.
“Mom? Dad?” the Son shouted as he ungratefully invited himself in through the front door of his childhood home, holding a sling of dirty laundry over his shoulder. The family Pastor stood on the other side of the door, eyes closed and shaking his head from side to side.
“I’m afraid you’re too late, Son,” the Pastor said. “He died this morning from complications that look a lot like a very specific and rare form of cancer with one cause that doctors are not legally allowed to diagnose in this state.”
“Oh, no!” the Son cried.
“And that’s not all. Your mother, heartbroken and without your support, also died. Incidentally she was also suffering from the same health issues as your father, but the doctors and spokesperson from Bayer AG assured us that it was heartbreak that did her in.”
The Son fell to the floor, painted nails stretched to the sky, and sobbed a thunderous sob.
“Oh God, is there anything I can do?”
“No,” the Pastor replied, in a matter-of-fact way. “You are a stain on this great nation. You will never find salvation through Christ or by any other means. But here, I was supposed to give you this.”
The Pastor handed the Son a note— a note from his Father. It was the same note his Mother had mentioned in her letter.
Gingerly and effeminately, the Son opened the letter and read his Father’s words.
I have spent many years feeling guilty for the way we left things. I love you no matter what, and would die a happy and satisfied man if you knew that, too. I must confess that I am AnimeTiddies420, your biggest backer on Patreon and the most faithful moderator on your podcast’s Discord server. You have a great talent and I am proud of what you have built, even if it is terrible and anti-American. I just hope we can reconcile our differences before I die.
The Son let out another sob, then continued reading.
PS: The farm is yours, of course. You are my Son no matter what. My last will and testament is in the 1964 Thunderbird that we restored together, that I know you would never sell because it is a physical embodiment of our masculine love for one another. That is the only copy of my will.
The Son curled into a fetal position on the floor, heaving with sadness.
The Pastor, disgusted by the whole scene, stepped outside and whistled with two fingers. The eagle from earlier in the story swooped down from Heaven, picked up the Pastor, and took him to a local megachurch, where he preached the Prosperity Gospel to a congregation of impoverished farmhands and became a multimillionaire.
Kyle woke up feelin’ like shit. His head was splitting to the rhythm of his heart, his hands were fastened behind his back, and a single bright spotlight fried his eyeballs from under an otherwise dark and impossibly vast ceiling.
“We need to talk,” a familiar voice told him, with a hollow sort of confidence.
“No we don’t!”
The sounds of fidgeting, stepping, stomping and tapping closed in from every direction. Kyle was surrounded and very, very much not alone.
“First off, stop inserting yourself into the story,” a woman said. “You know how bad that is for you. You know how bad that is for us.”
“And think of the poor audience.”
“You’re not the star of this show,” someone growled from behind the thick, padded mask of a costume.
“So cut that shit out. Then, we’ll talk.”
Me, I mean I, I mean Kyle, felt, or did feel, or is feeling, the deafening whine inside his head growing louder and louder and louder. This was, or is, unsustainable. It continues to be unhealthy. He will do, or did, whatever these people want to escape this feeling.
All right! Fine!
The author under the spotlight was no longer a specific person, but instead the narrator you’ve been imagining throughout the month of November. Maybe the narrator looks like someone or maybe they look like nothing at all to you. They can be old or young, genderless or full of gender, with a disposition somewhere between your best friend and your worst enemy.
The person under the spotlight was definitely not Kyle. They were the author.
“Nope. We’ve got some things to say to you.”
The spotlight dimmed and the author could finally perceive the form standing over them. It was Elle, from Story 12, still wearing those cowboy boots and that plaid button-down shirt from before, and still gripping a burger-flipping spatula.
“You shoulda made me less of a stereotype,” she said.
I know, the author lamented. That’s a problem with short stories. With enough time, I could have described you at home after the party where your story takes place, angry about feeling trapped in a persona that didn’t feel authentic. But I didn’t have time for that. I’m sorry.
“You owed us more time, too,” Pikachu— er, Henry— said, stepping into the author’s view along with the other costumed characters from Story 4.
I know. Every story could have used more time and more exposition to make them exciting and compelling. I could have used that time to edit my own work more critically. I wanted the audience to look forward to reading these stories, but there’s only so much I can do from day to day.
And that was kind of the point, the author added after a dramatic pause. I wanted to get used to being imperfect— not only for my creative craft, but in my own life as well. I’m so often critical of myself to the point of only anticipating failure, and that stops me from trying a lot of things I would otherwise try. It stops me from taking active control of my life, because what if I fuck it up?
This has been an exercise in mediocrity, the author said with Dunning-Kruger levels of confidence. I think I wrote some bad, boring stuff, and I wrote some really great stuff that I’m really proud of. And I survived the month, knowing that I would rather do things and be wrong sometimes than do nothing and only be clinically boring.
“So you were using us,” Sadie and Ben, from Stories 15 and 25, said in unison.
Yes, the author replied. I was using the characters I invented and the stories I wrote to work through my shit and grow a little bit. I was writing these stories to become a better writer and a better person.
“Did we, like, do all that?” Katie, from Story 1, asked the author.
I think so.
The black void overhead awakened into a deep, blue sky. Warm, midday sunshine enveloped the author. The cast of characters erupted into earnest, genuine applause.
“Congratulations!” everyone shouted in unison.
Thanks. Thanks for everything.