Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Sunday, August 29, 2010
He was there, Dad, he touched me on the shoulder. Memory flashes back reflexively and I remember the nurse pulling the feeding tube out. The blue leather hospital chair squeaked under my weight, next the breathing tube came out. His frail body twisted uncomfortably and his mindless mouth moaned. I held his hand, skin dry and rough. I tried to open my mouth, just tell him what he meant to me. But I knew he couldn’t hear, that he was already gone, so we just sat in silence.
Memories crack in my brain and I’m snapped back to reality. I wipe the wetness from my eyes and put Pat’s Lab back the way I found it. Before I know it I’m sliding between the cool sheets beside Laina as the first hints of light paint the dark sky.
The buzz of the alarm wakes me. Shit, I slept for ninety minutes and now I’ve got a full day of work ahead of me. The warm shower water doesn’t wake me up, so I turn the knob labeled “Cold”. When that doesn’t work I give up and push forward anyhow. That restless, focusless, sleep drained distance fills me.
Laina is all bubbles and smiles as she examines her belly in the mirror. Smooshing it out, sucking it back in, then pushing it back out again. She stares at her navel like she has x-ray vision that lets her see the baby growing inside.
My lips touch her forehead. “Off to work Hun.”
Scattered, distant, hunger less, I ride out the day. Nothing breaks, nothing crashes, no meetings, five o’clock creeps its way to me. Any coherent thoughts I slide together are of my Father. I wonder, will I have changed anything? Do I dare hope that somehow I’ve changed my reality? I decide not to think about it, which only makes me think about it more.
Six thirty, dinner time. Laina hums as she sets a casserole on the kitchen table. I shove the first spoonful in my mouth and my phone rings.
I hear about ten seconds of empty breathing, then a haunting voice “I’ll always love you.” It’s Amber.
My face turns ghost white, jaw drops. I have no poker face. Laina is looking at my quizzically. “Can I help you with something?” I try to recover.
“Just promise that you’ll be happy. I can never be happy without you.” She laughs desperately. “Just promise that you’ll always remember what we used to have?”
“I… I promise.”
“Do you believe in Hell?”
“Hell, you know, do you believe in Hell?” The tone in her voice shifts and her words come slowly, calculatedly.
“I, er, I don’t know, I guess.”
“I don’t.” Amber sighs. “I just want you to know that this is all your fault.” A small sob escapes her lips.
The desperation in her voice sends a chill of understanding up my spine. “Wait, what? Don’t do anything. Where are you?”
“You know where I am.” Pause. “I’ve… God…“ She lets out a sob soaked chuckle. “I love you. Goodbye.”
Click. The phone goes dead.
Still-lives-with-his-parents me looks down; I’m holding something in my hand. It’s a rejection letter from a job application. I look up; the wooden desktop is filled with rejection letters.
“Thank you, but we have filled the position.”
“We have found another candidate for the job.”
“Thank you for your time.”
“Overqualified for this position.”
“We will keep your resume on file for the future.”
“Good luck in your future endeavors.”
A lot of pretty words that all translate into fuck off. I stand up and walk over to my dresser. I slide a ringer t-shirt on and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I’m pale, scraggly hair. Instead of my normal love handles I have fat rolls. Rejected-me has sure let himself go.
I head down the familiar steps, chubby bare feet thumping on every other step. I turn the corner in the hallway and step into the kitchen. At a long rectangular table sits Mom and Dad. I feel immediate elation, after three years gone, after the pain and hurt and loss he’s sitting right in front of me.
They can see the look on Rejected-me’s face and their hopeful smiles turn to concerned frowns.
“Something will come up Bud.” Dad reassures me as I shrug and grab a bowl of cereal.
My eyes fall into the bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats as I shrug. Damn it, all I want to do is reach over and hug Dad, tell him how much I missed him, tell him I love him. I want my eyes to well with tears, I want to wrap both arms around him and never let go. But I can’t, I have no control and it tears me to pieces.
Mom is reading through the newspaper, “Hmmm… the classifieds just aren’t what they used to be.”
“It’s okay Mom, I’ll keep looking online.” I push an especially crunchy Mini-Wheat into the milk and scoop a soggy one onto my spoon.
I feel Dad’s large warm hand on my shoulder, he squeezes just a bit. It feels so great, but Rejected me just shrugs it off. “I’m going out.” I stand up, dropping my spoon into the milk. White 2% splashes onto Mom’s gaudy tablecloth.
I feel the expectant jerk around my waist, the grey clouds form around my eyes and in an instant I’m alone in Pat’s lab.
“It’s my life to throw away!” I spat back, standing across from him.
“We decided you’d finish Grad school before you got married!” he was waving his hands around. He always did that when he got really frustrated.
“I decided! Plans change!” I was pointing my finger at him, the wrong move to make.
“Don’t point your finger at me! Don’t talk to me like I’m your buddy, I’m your Father!” Sweat beaded on his bald forehead.
“I’ll do whatever the hell I want to! This is my life, my decision!” The fight wasn’t about Grad school, it was about control. “I’m twenty-three; I’m not a child anymore, stop treating me like one!”
“I’ll treat you like an adult when you start acting like one!” His eyes were on fire. The icy blue orbs raged with anger.
My shoulders pulled up and forward, tense and knotted. My knees were locked, legs tight, every muscle in my body felt like it’d burst. We stood there, staring at each other for a long moment, eyes locked, breathing heavily, each waiting for the next to move, to speak, to look away.
He leaned forward, fists balled up, knuckles turning red. His mouth tightened and I could almost hear his teeth grind as he resigned. “Fine! Ruin your life, you are going to regret this and when you don’t have the life you want, you will always remember this day! You will regret this day for the rest of your life!”
He twisted, grabbed his car keys off a nearby hook and stomped out the door. The thin white door slammed behind him, shaking the walls. A picture of our family fell to the floor, the glass shattered and sprayed across the linoleum. I sat down, body trembling, a sudden tiredness washed over me. I had won, but it didn’t feel like it.
I can’t remember how much time had passed, but I’ll never forget the hollow knock on the front door. I could see the men in blue uniforms standing outside, hats off. My hand pulled the knob hesitantly.
“We're sorry…” and they meant it. Eyes heavy, words slowly measured and weighed before they spoke. Dad had been speeding, as he was passing another car someone pulled out into the road. It was a blind alley, it was just an accident. He was in the hospital, but it didn’t look good. It was like listening to a story about someone else, but it wasn’t, it was about my family, my Dad.
A tear wells up in the corner of my eye as the machine hums to life, I feel my body vibrate and lunge forward into what could be.
I’m on autopilot, not thinking about the consequences of my actions or even my actions themselves. All that matters is the choice, the choice I’ve already made. To keep my mind off of it I notice the details in everything. Why is that fire hydrant painted green? Aren’t they usually red? Damn, there are a lot of stars out tonight; I thought it was supposed to rain. I wonder who takes care of the ivy that runs up all these old buildings. I wonder if he hates his job.
Before I know it, I slide my key into the lock, click it open and let the heavy wooden door slam behind me. I flip the light switch and florescent lights throw fuzzy white around the room. My hands twist knobs and set dials, the machine is prepped. I slip the rubber gloves on and slide the helmet on. I hold the goggles out in front of my face and pause.
“What the fuck am I doing?”
I don’t care. I reach over, hit the final switch and snap the dark glass goggles over my tired eyes. I focus on the memory. The memory of tear filled hugs of sorrow, of police knocking on the door, the angry pacing, car starting, door slamming, raised voices, broken glass and torn steel.
“I’m pregnant!” A smile crosses her face as she takes one bounce toward me and wraps her arms around my neck. She pulls me close and hugs me tightly. “I never thought this could happen. I mean for us! We tried so hard! I’m so happy.”
I wrap my arms around her waist and return the warm embrace. For a split second everything disappears and I forget about the cold empty feelings, the despair and the bloody knuckles. We’ve tried for years, constant disappointment, charted on calendars, took temperatures, discarded home pregnancy tests. All of that disappears as I lift Laina and spin her around once.
“That’s great news honey!” The too good to be true bubble bursts, “Wait, when did you find out?”
Her brow furrows at my tone, “What do you mean?”
“When, when did you find out, when did it happen?” I push her back slightly, holding her at arm’s length.
“I found out today, I just took the test.” She holds up a pink and white plastic stick with two thin lines running across it.
I mask my face in a smile, burying my concern, and hug her once again, “I’m so happy Honey.”
After a few hours discussing baby names, Laina falls asleep easily. I don’t. This is the machine, it has to be. She’s wanted a baby for so long. I bet she saw a reality where we had a baby, a reality where it all worked out so naturally, where everything seemed perfect. I turn my head toward her sleeping form, her soft skin almost glows in the darkness, her body rises and falls with every even breath. Even if it was the machine, isn’t that okay? Doesn’t she deserve it? Don’t we deserve it? With all the heartache and trouble caused by Amber, maybe Laina deserves something good from all of this.
I finally fall asleep promising myself that I won’t tell Laina about the art or Amber or anything. I tell myself that I’m done with Pat’s machine; we have our blessing, our happy ending and that now it’s all over. I tell myself everything is fine and now we are moving forward. Even after all the self convincing, I fall asleep with a knot in the pit of my stomach because I know it’s all bullshit.
I can’t stay still, I get out of the car and sit at a picnic table. I stare down at the wood, painted, faded, repainted, faded again. Dozens of names carved sloppily into the wood. Jack + Diane, people hoping to leave their mark on the world by digging into a picnic table with a dull Swiss Army knife.
Hands reach into my thick hair, fingers clench and I pull. If only I could pull my thoughts out, organize them neatly on the table, maybe I could figure it out. Laina, Amber, the hotel, the goddamn machine, all today, all on the day my Dad died. My Dad…
I reach into my khakis and pull The List out of my pocket. There it is, staring up at me from the Never See column. Taunting my in neat blue ink; Dad. Never See. Fingers run over the ink, like somehow just touching the word will give me peace.
I stand and pace, still staring at The List. Still running my fingers over the word; Dad. Lips curl into a snarl; fingers tighten, crumpling The List into a ball.
“Fuck!” The rage and confusions fills me, the world disappears around me and I give in. I let loose, swinging a balled fist into a nearby oak. I don’t even feel the pain. I punch. Tears well up in the corners of my eyes. I punch. My voice raw as I scream incoherently at no one. I punch. The skin on my knuckles tears. I punch. Blood seeps from my knuckles and spatters the bark. I punch.
Until there is nothing left. Until the screams are gone. Until there is no more strength in my arms. I crumble at the base of the tree and give in to despair.
I don’t know how much time passes, but it’s dark when I get up and head back to the car. The trip home is spent in deep reflection. I’ve made enough mistakes, I’ve messed enough things up. I can’t get back in the machine again. I can no longer risk the consequences of seeing what could have been.
My hands hurt so bad.
I step into the house, the low drone of the television echoes from the living room. For a moment everything seems normal. The moment is short lived.
Laina hears me come in, she steps into the hallway. The corner of her mouth curls up slightly; there is a glow about her, a sparkle in her eyes that’s been missing for so long. She doesn’t even notice my bloodshot eyes or skinned up hands.
She looks me dead in the eyes, steps toward me and announces, “I’m pregnant.”
For a moment I’m not sure how to react, the kiss so dangerous it makes my lips tingle, so soothing I feel the tension suddenly drop from my shoulders. My arms wrap around her waist, I close my eyes and begin giving into the desire. Her moist tongue slips into my mouth and like a rubber band being snapped against my wrist I am pulled back into reality.
I grab her slender shoulders and shove her back; my eyes open wide, heart threatening to pound out of my chest. Her face is twisted in pain and confusion.
“Amber… I, I can’t.”
She looks down at the floor and plops down on the bed dejectedly. “I knew this would happen.”
“I’m sorry, I wish I could explain how this all happened, but I’m sorry, I can’t do this.” I feel my stomach twist like its High School and we are breaking up all over again.
Her brown eyes still stare down at the short green hotel room carpet. “I always knew this wouldn’t last. I… I… I’m such an idiot.” She buries her face in her hands, tears seep from between fingers ending in polished nails.
I take half a step forward and reach my hand out to touch her shoulder. I desperately want to comfort her. Something stops me, awkwardly half stepped, arm half outstretched, like someone just hit the pause button on my life. “I’m, I’m sorr-“.
“Just go, just leave.” The sobbing increases.
One step back, I turn to the door, hands shaking, legs like jelly I open it. The warm air rushes to fill the cool vacuum caused by the room’s air conditioner. It’s dusk, but still warm, too warm for night, too warm for all of this. I wish it would rain.
“Just settle down a little.” Pat’s slender hands are clasped together, fingernails too long and poorly manicured.
“Don’t tell me to settle down! My life is totally fucked right now!” I grip the arm of my chair like my life depends on it.
“I didn’t think going a second time would be a good idea. We just didn’t have all the data.” He stares at a clipboard, deciphering mystical scientific information.
“What about the first time!? What’s happening to me? Why is this happening?” I lean forward, anxious, still gripping the arm rest.
Pat scratches his adam’s apple with his thumb and forefinger, “It’s hard to say, it’s possible that residual matter from the other dimensions somehow attached to you and affected our current ‘prime’ time-line. Or it’s possible that by viewing the alternate time line you have somehow corrupted it and merged time lines. It’s still…er.” Pat hesitates.
“What? What is it?”
“Well, scientifically speaking the most obvious answer is…” he chooses his words carefully, a rare thing for Pat, “… that you could already draw and that, um… you’ve been having an affair all along.”
I slap myself in the forehead with the palm of my hand, “Pat, I’m pretty sure I’d know if I was a gifted artist who’s been banging his ex-girlfriend in the evening.”
“I’m just saying, when was your last psychiatric evaluation?”
“Jesus man, are you kidding me? Focus! You stuck me in your machine and now my world is screwed up!"
Pat nods solemnly, his eyes look serious, but it might just be fear. I think I’m going a little over the top here.
I look down at my watch, “Shit, I’ve gotta go.” I stand, finally releasing my death grip on the arm rest. “Find me some answers Pat!” I yell over my shoulder as I let the door slam shut behind me.
I grab my cell phone: “Laina. It’s me; I’ve got to stay late tonight. Server crash. Yeah, real bad. I’m not sure, maybe a few hours, maybe more. It all depends on how bad it is. Huh? Yep. Love you too.”
The sun is gorgeous as I speed to the hotel. The spring breeze is just warm enough and the smell of fresh cut grass and flowers blooming fills the air. Today would be perfect if my whole world wasn’t covered in shit. It’s the worst kind of day, where every other asshole is happy and the planet Earth just delights in reminding you that apparently you are the only miserable bastard alive.
I stop my compact car between the fading yellow lines, pull the hand break and open the door. A million thoughts race through my mind as I make my way up the stairs around the outside of the hotel. Shitty hotels always have stairs on the outside.
I step up to the door and without any hesitation knock three times. I hear the lock snap open and see the door knob turn.
“You sound surprised! Is your wife around?” Her voice seeps with anger.
“No. Surprised? Yeah, a little. Why are you calling me?”
“Why am I calling you?” I hate when people repeat questions back to you, “You stood me up twice and then never answer your phone. I waited in the hotel for hours!”
I have no clue what she’s talking about, my brain starts to wrap around the puzzle quickly. “Holy shit, we are having an affair!”
“Jesus Christ! Of course we are! What are you trying to pull anyway?” I am really pissing her off.
I stop for a moment, take a deep breath and try to reason this out. I went to a reality where I could draw and now I can. I went to a reality where I was with Amber and now I am. Kind of, I'm also with my actual wife, this situation is totally fucked.
The pause lasts too long “Are you there? I can hear you breathing.” I can picture her in my head, mouth small and frowning, thin eyebrows furrowed. “Listen, I’m not going to play games with you. Meet me at the hotel tonight at six or we are through.”
“Which hotel?” Why am I even asking her?
“We’ve been going there for three years and now you need the address?”
She gives me the address in the rudest most exacerbated way possible before hanging up on me.
I slide the phone into my pocket, stomach knotted, palms sweaty. I’m not sure what to make of the entire thing. I tell my boss I’m sick and need the afternoon off. After leaving the meeting abruptly, he doesn’t ask many questions.
I haul ass over to Pat’s lab, ignoring all traffic signs, I almost get hit by a car. In some reality I probably do get hit and die. Suddenly that reality doesn’t seem so bad. Moments later I burst through the thick wooden lab door, the knob smashes into the brick wall behind the door loudly.
Pat is wearing a long white lab coat, clear rubber safety goggles strapped to his face. Two assistants stand behind him with clipboards in hand. He’s holding a mangy brown and white cat over a glass box filled with poisonous green gas. They all stop and stare at me blankly.
“Pat! What the fuck did you do to me?”
Thursday, June 17, 2010
“I know how to read the damned dice!” The dark haired man snapped as once again a pile of gold was raked away from him. “Barmaid, I need more to drink.”
A lovely middle aged woman approached, “Don’t ya think you’ve had enough, luv?”
He darted one of his large hands out and yanked a tankard out of the woman’s hand. “I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough, bitch!”
An old man reached down for the dice. Angrily the dark haired man grabbed the dice away, “I’m not finished old man! Double or nothing once again!”
Clavius froze as blood splattered across his body, his jaw dropped.
“Clavius, we’ve got him on the ropes, grab his left flank!” The Knight commanded as he dodged a razor sharp talon.
Emptiness was all that the squire felt, the adrenaline was gone; all that remained was a hole in the pit of his stomach. The world slowed down and everything felt like a dream, Clavius felt he was watching the scene from outside himself.
“Damn it Clavius! Hurry! We can’t hold him much longer!” The Knight pleaded.
At that moment one of the Wyrm’s taloned fingers pierced Anders. It sank through his chest like a hot knife through butter. The Dragon retracted his talon and you could see the forest through the hole in Anders chest as his body sank to the ground.
The table was silent as the dice fell to reveal seven once again, no one spoke, no one moved, all eyes were fixed upon the black haired man as he grabbed the dice angrily and shouted, “Again! Double or nothing!”
“C’mon you bitch!” The Knight yelled as the Great Red Wyrm brought its full focus down on the armored man. A dry burning smell filled the glade as a jet of searing flame erupted from the Dragon’s maw. The flames engulfed the Knight, hair burned, skin seared, flesh separated from bone, and when it was over all that remained was scorched, melted steel.
Clavius stood, his feet rooted to the ground as the Wyrm eyed him thoughtfully. It brought its head down slowly until their eyes met. The beasts deep ebony eyes penetrated into the Squire’s soul. For what seemed an eternity the Dragon stared at the man, digging into the depths of his soul, revealing every inadequacy, every flaw, every cowardly feeling, every failure, and baring it like a hot brand.
The dice fell once more, a six and a one. The dark haired man took another long drink, finishing his tankard. His jaw was set tight, his face red; his head swam in anger and alcohol. He reached up and ran a finger along a scar which ran down the left side of his face from cheek to jaw.
“Again!” The dark haired man spat.
Warm urine trickled down the Squire’s chain pants and dripped down to the ground. The Dragon sniffed for a moment and chuckled; it slowly brought its front claw forward and extended one of its razor talons. The point of the talon just pierced Clavius’s cheek; blood seeped slowly from the wound as the Wyrm sliced carefully down to the Squire’s jaw. The Beast slowly retracted itself from the cowardly Squire, turned its back on the carnage of the clearing and flew off into the blue morning sky.
“Clavius!” one of the gamblers barked. A burly man with broad shoulders and a protruding belly, he scowled at the dark haired man. “You can’t roll again, you’re out of money!”
“Damn you Hector! I’ll play on credit!” The dark haired man stood up, his seat tumbled behind him.
“You’ve got no more credit here. Take what little dignity you have left and call it a night.”
“Is that a challenge? I’ll fucking gut you!” Clavius reached to his belt for a dagger, but a night of drinking had taken its toll and his hand missed its mark. The moment of hesitation was all Hector needed, the burly man lunged at Clavius, wrapped his arms around the drunken gambler and drug him across the hard wooden floor of the tavern.
Hector opened the tavern door with one hand, and with the other spun Clavius out into the street. “You make me sick. Don’t come back here until you pay off your debts.”
“Go fuck yourself.” The dark haired man spat as he tumbled onto the cobblestone street. His head swam as the world spun too fast, for a moment he thought he’d be sick, but he managed to choke down a mouthful of vomit before weariness took him over the world turned dark.
Camp fire laughter.
Dinner table conversations.
Dad’s firm hand on my shoulder.
Phone rings as I step out of the car, Blocked Caller, again. I silence the call.
The day goes by at a crawl, every phone conversation, every discussion, every email typed or instant message answered is done through a grey fog of fatigue. I feel disconnected, far away.
I sit down in a thousand year old chair covered in orange fabric and brace myself for the three o clock “Weekly Service Production Change Management Team Meeting”. Any meeting involving more than five people always devolves into a train wreck of badly worded ideas and snarky comments, this one has fourteen attendees.
Lost in the droning voice of poorly thought out arguments and ridiculous bullet points, my mind wanders and I start doodling. I feel a tingle in the back of my neck as the entire meeting melts around me and I feel and think of nothing. An invisible bubble forms around me, sealing in the pain and anguish, the hurt and confusion. Everything disappears and at the same time appears vividly. Laina’s distance, my confusion, the trips to different realities, my Father’s death, it all swirls around me like a vortex.
The wave soon passes and the bubble pops, I lean back in my chair and lift my head, eyes focus as I snap back to reality. It’s sitting there in front of me, my meeting agenda, once a clean sheet of paper with a stack of talking points, now a perfect drawing of Laina and my Father looking up at me. It’s a pure work of art leaked from the end of my ball point pen. I can’t draw; I haven’t doodled more than stick figures since High School. The image staring up at me was something created by a real artists with years of experience, with training and practice and purpose.
It is something drawn by Stoner-Artist-Me.
Overcome by fear I stand from my old shitty chair and leave in the middle of the meeting. I pace back and forth in the hallway, my mind racing with questions.
My phone rings, without even thinking I pick it up.
“What?” Agitation seeps from my voice.
“Why have you been avoiding my calls?” It’s a woman’s voice, vaguely familiar, yet I can't seem to place it.
“Who the hell is this?” I am in no mood for mystery.
“Don’t ignore me for a week and then pretend like you don’t know who I am!”
It hits me like a flood; her tear filled eyes, straight brown hair, awkward smile. “Amber?”
Just as I contemplate trying to shut the machine down, it’s over. The electric hum weakens, Laina jerks suddenly. She yanks the gloves and helmet off; they fall to the cold cement. She gags and unleashes a stream of vomit onto her shirt. Two towels and a glass of yellowish tap water later and she’s cleaned up.
I can’t hold it any longer, “What did you see?”
She stares straight ahead, like she’s looking past everything, through concrete walls, through time and into infinity.
“I… I saw…” her tiny hands ball up, her arms wrap around her waist, she breaks down, crying uncontrollably.
We leave the lab exactly as we found it. I can’t take my eyes off of her the entire ride home; she just stares out the window.
Three days pass, she won’t talk about it. After some unsuccessfully coaxing I give up. We soon avoid the subject completely and try to pretend it never happened. I wear a mask over my concern, it’s a thin veil and every touch or sigh threatens to shatter it. The awkward silence is the worst, I pray for any distraction and dread our time alone together.
I wake up to my phone ringing, Blocked Caller. I silence the call; it’s the fifteenth time since Laina’s vision. Groggy eyes shoot to my alarm clock, red glowing numbers laugh at me, ten minutes until the buzzer will erupt to cut the stillness of morning. I stare at the ceiling, normally white, but it's now colorless in the dark. For a moment I try to forget what day it is. Then I feel my wife’s warm hand run through my thick hair.
“Are you okay?” her voice full of concern.
I hesitate, telling a lie would be easy. “No, I’m not”, the truth stings my dry lips as it leaves my mouth. I dread this day every year. Like an old wound that acts up, it’s the pain that never goes away, the sadness that tightens around your heart.
My eyes close and I remember, sitting in the hospital. The half sterile smell of sickness, everything is white. Tall slender machines beep, the lights always dim. Thick sheets that never smell clean or dirty. Flowers everywhere, flowers trying to bring life to the lifeless. His hand feels small in mine, it used to feel big, strong. Now it’s frail and limp.
Tubes climb up his cheeks and into his nostrils. I want to hope but I can’t. His face is gaunt. Lips spread by plastic tubing as gruel drips into his throat. The sad stillness breaks occasionally when his mindless body flails in pain as unseen specters haunt him.
I open my eyes again. The ceiling still colorless, my heart filled with anguish. Today is the day, three years ago that my Father died.
The feeling is all over my face as I walk through the front door of my house. My wife is standing in front of me, arms crossed, expectant look upon her face, she knows I wasn’t helping Pat with yard work.
“So, where were you?” My stretched, creased, stained work boots sit on the linoleum in front of her, my work gloves crossed neatly atop the boots.
I sigh and rub by eyes, shifting uncomfortably. Then, like an explosion I tell her the entire story. Hearing my own words, it sounds a little hard to swallow, even after everything that has happened to me. I finish and she is silent for a long time. Her eyes pierce me, then flick to the floor, then once again to me. Every breath is suspended in air as time freezes.
“Show me.” Is all she says.
Except where necessary, we spend the rest of the evening in silence. It’s obvious she barely believes me, but the story is just too outlandish to be made up. I spend at least two hours twisting the stolen brass lab key over and over in cold, sweaty hands before I attempt sleep.
We both toss and turn all night. Ice cold bed sheets. The house sounds empty except for the whirling clatter of the ceiling fan over our bed. In the morning I contemplate calling Pat, but I know he won’t be happy. He barely let me go in the machine a second time; there is no way he’ll let me send Laina in his parallel dimension machine.
During the car ride to campus I break the silence. I tell her all she needs to know; about the falling sensation, the overwhelming sensory input, the inability to act, and the sickness after. Everything I wish someone had told me.
It’s Sunday, so campus is pretty empty, we don’t see anyone on the way to the lab. I feel the betrayal as I slide the stolen key into the locked door. The click of the locking mechanism is an audible echo of breaking Pat’s trust.
Just as the door swings open, my phone rings, Give me back that Filet-O-Fish-, damn that is annoying, I have to change my ringer. The LCD reads Blocked Caller; I silence the hunk of singing plastic and slide it back into my pocket.
I sit Laina in the uncomfortable seat and gently strap her into the contraption. I’m careful not to pull or pinch anything. When she’s properly attached, I double check everything. I’ve never been on this side of the Wizard’s curtain and I’m suddenly afraid I could make a mistake. What would happen? Would the machine just not work, or could I destroy the space time continuum?
I chuckle out loud, it sound so ridiculous.
“What?” My wife flinches, her eyes covered by the giant goggles.
“Nothing honey, just… nothing.” I compose myself.
“You scared me. Don’t do that, it scares me. I can’t see anything.” Her voice cracks nervously.
I take a deep breath and run through everything I’ve seen Pat do to start the machine. After I’ve gone over it twice I begin warming it up. Hands shaking, with slow, calculated moves I start the machine. My finger hovers over the final switch.
“Now remember, you have to picture the moment of the outcome very carefully.”
My trembling fingers flick the switch.
After an uncountable amount of time an air horn blasts and all the machinery stops. I walk off the floor and grab my jacket, waving goodbye to a few bored looking men. Out in the parking lot I open a squeaky truck door and hop in. The key turns in the ignition, the starter grinds for a few seconds too long and the engine groans to life.
Rolling out of the parking lot I flick on the stock stereo; a few minutes of sports scores, some right wing political talk and then classic rock. Blue collar me pulls into a gravel driveway and parks the faded blue truck beside a good sized old home. It’s an old farmhouse that was moved to its current location decades ago. The kind of house that only stays standing because the man who lives there pours his blood and sweat into it. I open the white, paint chipped, front door; it opens too fast, probably because the spring in the door wore out long ago.
Inside light bulbs glow yellow, just enough to throw brown shadows onto the walls. Three kids meet me at the door with crooked teeth, big hugs and hand me down clothes. Mop heads full of brown hair they shout “Daddy!” as their tiny limbs wrap around me. I might not have children and these might be Blue collar me’s kids, but I feel an instant warmth and connection to them. I try to guess their ages; I say eight, five and three. Two boys and a baby girl.
The smell of macaroni and cheese hangs in the air and it takes me a moment to make it out over the smells of the factory that hang in my nose. I look up and in the painted trim doorway between the living room and the kitchen stands Amber. She looks almost exactly as I remember her, straight long brown hair, thin arms and fingers. The only differences are the small crow’s feet cropping up on the edges of her eyes and the slight bulge in her belly. Another kid on the way? Blue collar me is a busy guy.
I open my mouth to speak and I feel a tingle around my shoulders. It’s almost over. I try to stay, I want to see more. Then it happens, the yank pulls me back into the uncomfortable chair in the shitty lab. My stomach wrenches, I feel bile creep up my throat. I’m prepared this time and choke it down as Pat pulls the helmet from my head.
“But why?” her young voice trembled.
It was a valid question, I didn’t really know the answer then and I’m not sure I know it now. Was it getting too serious? Was I bored? Did I know it just wouldn’t last and now was as good a time as any?
“It’s not you.” Generic answers work best in these situations. “I’ve just, I’ve got a lot going on, I’m just not ready for all of this.”
“I can’t believe this, I… we…” her cold fingers grabbed my chin softly, our eyes met. I could see down into her soul, the hurt, despair and rejection. I felt like such an ass.
“We’ll still be friends”, no we wouldn’t, “we’ll talk”, we’d ignore each other for the next two years, “we’ll always be close”, she’d loathe me.
“I love you.” Her red lips quivered. She was wearing lipstick; she always looked funny wearing lipstick.
“We... we… were…” firsts, that’s what destroyed her. Trembling fingers, foggy car windows, nervous breathing, young pale skin. She thought we were forever, fairytale, happily ever after storybook bullshit. I knew better. We were too different; two different families with two different lives and it would never end happily.
The tears welled up in her eyes. She opened the door, wordless she turned her head away from me and her worn sneakers hit the driveway. The door slammed closed behind her and I was alone.
A deep breath filled my lungs and I pulled the shifter into drive.
Six months after we broke up she was pregnant with her new boyfriend. I always felt guilty, responsible. Having a baby that young, it must have changed her life forever, now I’ll see what my life would be like if I hadn’t left her.
I spend time making adjustments to my list, prioritizing, categorizing, it turns into two lists. One list of things I’ll see and another list of things that I won’t see. Some of the things are too painful, some are just silly, but I vow not to erase anything from the list. The List becomes a constant interruption to my day, a nagging itch, a burn on the tip of my tongue. I pull it out of my pocket constantly and jot down changes. Little wholes are forming along the folds and the edges are tearing, but I don’t care. This is The List.
It’s noon on Saturday, the rain is gray with the wind whipping droplets of water onto the windows. I tell my wife that I’m going to help Pat with some yard work. The steering wheel feels tiny in my hand; the wind threatens to tear my tiny car off the highway. My mind rushes with anticipation as I pull between the yellow lines and lift the parking brake.
The halls are empty, most of the lights turned off; I nod to a janitor who nods back before sighing and plopping his wet mop on the old tiled floors. A few minutes later I’m at the door to Pat’s lab, the door is locked, blackness on the other side of the window. I look down at my watch, it’s 12:45, I’m early.
Each second ticks by slowly as I lean back against the white brick walls, painted and repainted so many times the walls are starting to look plastic. Finally I hear the jingle of keys and Pat’s dragging feet, I look up and there he is, giving me an awkward wave.
Pat slides the jagged key into the door and clacks it open. He tosses the key on a nearby table and hits the light switch; bright florescent lights burn my eyes after being in the dark hallway. We exchange small talk. Pat turns his back on me and starts warming up The Machine. My eye is drawn to the small brass key lying on the table. Without thinking I slide my hand out and palm the key into my pocket. I’m not a thief; it just seems like what I should do.
Before I can decide to put it back Pat turns around. “Everything is ready.”
I hop into the uncomfortable chair and Pat straps the gadgets to me.
“Now remember, you have to picture the moment of the outcome very carefully.”
I close my eyes; in the darkness between my brain and my eyelids I conjure up an image of a girl with straight brown hair, a youthful smile and a tendency to mispronounce the word ketchup.
I haven’t told anyone yet, who would believe me? I sure wouldn’t. It feels good knowing I made the right decision and turned down Art School. Still, I am now haunted by the knowledge that I can see the repercussions of my choices. As an adult you are eventually forced to stop looking back at your youth and wondering what may have happened. People who live with those daily regrets end up depressed drunks or pill poppers. However, with the new opportunity, my brain swims in possibilities.
Without thinking I speed dial Pat.
“Yeah?” Cordial as ever.
“I want to go in the machine again.” It just spills out of my mouth.
“I haven’t sifted through all the data from last time.”
“So?” I’m rarely this pushy.
Pat gives me a long drawn out sigh, “Meet me Saturday at one.”
Saturday is two more days away; my stomach starts to tingle, butterflies of excitement. What should I go see? I grab a piece of scrap paper and a blue pen. For a long while I stare at the white sheet, suddenly every fear, every doubt and every possibility flows from my arm through the pen and onto the page. In a matter of moments the sterile white page becomes a mess of blue scribbles.
I drop the pen and stare down at the list. A dead quiet overcomes me and I can hear the seconds tick by on my watch. Two deep breaths later I fold the paper into quarters and shove it in my pocket.
Two more days.
“TV, again!?” A woman’s voice makes my head turn. It’s a girl in her early to mid twenties, black hair with a streak of pink, lip pierced, twice. Must be my girlfriend. The first word that comes to mind is thick.
“Yeah.” Stoner-me mumbles.
“Did you finish those commissions?”
“Not yet”, warm smoke fills my lungs; I hold it for a moment then exhale, “I haven’t found my inspiration yet.”
She struts over, using that walk that only big girls can use, and drops a stack of bills in my lap. At the top of the stack is the rent bill and it’s three months past due.
“Jesus woman!” I snap, “You think this is easy? I can’t just draw, I have to feel it!” Wow Stoner-me is a lazy prick.
“Feel your way to some groceries then!” Her face starts to turn red. “Look at you! I thought you were going to be something, you had such ambition, but now, you don’t do shit! Just sit there and smoke weed all day.” Her chubby fingers grab a stack of drawings off a nearby desk. Wow, they look good, Stoner-me turned into a pretty good artist.
Apparently this upsets me because I stand up off the couch, “Don’t, don’t do that.”
She doesn’t listen; Thick Girlfriend tears the handful of drawings in two and tosses them into a dented garbage can. “I guess your Dad was right!” The words leave her mouth before she can think about them and the look on her face means she immediately regrets them.
I stand, silent for a moment, even though I can’t control Artist-me, I can feel the rage building. The redness that turns vision into haze and rational thought into irrational action. I reel back, ball my hand into a fist and punch a hole in the drywall. I can feel the tear of skin on my knuckles, I pull back and let my foot fly, kicking over a poorly constructed bookshelf.
“You shut your goddamn mouth! Who do you think you are!? Don’t ever talk to me like –“
I’m cut off as clouds of darkness fill my vision; I feel a yank around my waist pulling my upward.
Everything goes dark and my body shakes uncontrollably for a moment.
I’m in the uncomfortable chair, I can feel the goggles heavy on my face, my stomach churns. Hands pull the black circles from my eyes, next thing I feel is the ground under my palms and acidy chunks in my mouth as I vomit on the concrete floor of the lab.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
“I can’t see anything through these goggles.”
“You will, you will.” I can hear Pat step back over to his monitors and controls. I feel like Frankenstein’s monster, waiting to be electrocuted into existence.
“Now what?” I lean back in the chair; the air hums lowly with the sound of electronics coming to life.
“I need you to think, very specifically about a decision you made, or something you did that could have turned out differently. It can be anything, small or large, but it has to be really clear, you have to be able to picture it perfectly in your head.”
I go silent for a moment, while perfectly confident that this crazy machine will never work, on the off chance that it does I need to be prepared. It comes quickly though, I remember it perfectly, the day I gave up my dream for comfort.
“I’m ready.” My voice exudes confidence.
I hear knobs turning and something starts clicking behind me, an annoying click, like someone adjusting the arm rest on their chair. It starts slowly, I feel my body begin vibrating.
“Um, Pat?” then it’s too late, I feel myself falling through darkness. Suddenly, with a yank, like there is a rope tied around my waist, I stop. Dangling in emptiness clouds of white appear before my eyes.
A room appears in focus, it’s an apartment, a shitty apartment. Around me, feels… soft, I’m on a frumpy, tattered couch. Wisps of smoke, there is a joint in my hand, I’m…high. I try turning my head, standing up, putting the joint down, I can’t. All I can do is watch out of glazed over eyes. I can feel everything, but I can’t do anything.
I look stupefied.
“Every time an event happens that could have different outcomes, each possible outcome occurs, creating a new reality for each one.”
I think for a moment, “Oh, like that show, Sliders?”
“No, not like –“ Pat stops for a moment, I can see his brain working, trying to think of a way to explain quantum physics to a guy who got an IT Degree so he didn’t have to take Calculus. Apparently you either get it or you don’t. “Yeah, just like Sliders.” He utters defeatedly.
“So, it’s a wormhole machine?” I mock.
Pat plants his face in his palms. “No, just let me explain.”
I lean against the not-suicide-not-wormhole machine.
“If this experiment succeeds, this machine will allow you to view your own alternate realities. Any choice you made, anything you tried to do, you can view the alternate outcomes.”
We stand in silence for a long moment, when I’m sure Ashton Kutcher isn’t going to jump out, I say the only thing a rational person would say; “Get the fuck out of here.”
“I’m serious,” Pat assures me, “do I ever bullshit?”
“You said Spider Man 3 would be good.”
“You know what I mean.” And I do, Pat is always dead serious when it comes to mad scientist stuff.
“Well, now what happens?” I shift uncomfortably.
“You get into the machine and I observe you viewing one of your alternate lives.”
“So, there is going to be a reality where I get in the machine and a reality where I don’t?”
“Now you’ve got the idea.” Pat steps over to a set of monitors and strange controls.
I guess in this reality I get in the machine.
“Pat!” I drop my bag and sprint over to the machine, flipping the oversized red switch labeled Off. “What the hell are you doing?!”
He looks at me quizzically, “What?
“Are you seriously asking me?” he stares back at me blankly. It’s one of those times when there is no explaining. Where the person on the other end either gets it or they don’t and there is no logical way to make them understand.
“You have a loaded shotgun pointed at your head!”
“Oh, yeah, of course, it’s a Quantum Suicide Experiment.” Pat states calmly.
“You could have killed yourself.”
“Technically I did.”
“What?” I can hear the exacerbation in my own voice.
“Five times.” He holds up five fingers.
“You still look alive to me.”
“I died in five alternate realities though.” Pat gets out of the Quantum Suicide Chair and starts looking at a monitor full of numbers.
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
“I’m not.” He shoots over his shoulder, furiously typing on a keyboard.
“Is this what you wanted to show me?” I’m ready to just leave and politely ignore all future phone calls from him.
“Huh?” I’ve interrupted his train of thought. “Oh, no, follow me.”
We leave Lab 207, taking a shortcut through the break room and into a white brick room. It smells horrible.
“What is that smell, like dead anima-“
“That’s the Schrödinger's cats.” Pat explains, as if I have any clue what that means.
He leads me over to another chair-like contraption with a helmet and goggles. It looks like something out of a low budget sci-fi mini-series.
“Another shotgun machine?” I quip.
“Well, what does this thing do?”
My phone rings, Give me back that Filet-O-Fish, give me that-
“Yeah?” I answer cutting off my ringtone.
“Dude, it’s me. Are you still on campus?”
“Yeah, it’s like 3 in the afternoon, I’m working.” I work at a University, in IT, I run email servers, it’s an okay job.
“Well get over here, I have to show you something?” the voice on the other end of the phone is Pat, he’s a Quantum Physicists, he’s a nice guy but I never know what the fuck he’s talking about.
“I’m still working, I get out at 4:30, I’ll swing by then.”
Click. That’s Pat for you, big on science, small on social graces.
The clock strikes 4:30, do clocks really strike anymore? I think about that as I pack up for the day and head across campus to Pat’s office. The University is filled with those old sturdy brick buildings, the kind that are forever old and look kind of sad. I get to the Science building and head through the dimly lit hallways to Pat’s office. I pass by labs crammed with college kids, young, trim, tight t-shirts, jeans just barely sagging, khaki shorts. Enjoy your youth motherfuckers.
I make it to Pat’s office and the door is closed, there is a sign crudely written on printer paper with a purple Sharpie, “In Lab 207”. Who uses purple Sharpie? With a sigh I make it down to lab 207 and open the door.
The scene laid out before me is difficult to describe. There sits Pat in a metal chair four feet off the ground, imagine Doc Brown in his late 20's. The chair is surrounded by crazy steel arms with lenses and gauges attached at odd angels. Then imagine that attached to one of the arms is a loaded double barreled shotgun pointed directly at the person sitting in the chair.
What if? It’s a question so many people ask themselves every day. What if I hadn’t been so shy in High School? What if I actually had started a band? What if I had followed this dream, or asked this girl out, or not messed up that relationship? It’s a life full of missed opportunities, regrets and failed endeavors.
You wonder if even the happiest, richest, most successful person in the world looks back and is happy with every decision. Even if you are happy, there is always that one party where you could have hooked up with that one girl that one time, man you should have done that.
What if you had the chance to see what would have happened? What if you could live your current life but got to peek at every other life that could have been yours had you made different choices? Would you want to? Would you be upset if another you was happier than you are now?
What if, by doing all this peeking you fucked everything up?