She didn’t show up. Not all that shocking, really, given that it’s been so long. This is a lovely place anyways, so it’s not a total loss. It’s strangely quiet here...the three ladies on the other side and the college kids all have their heads down. In a city cafe like this, I’d expect it’d be busy at this hour...I’m not complaining though. This is just serene. Not what I expected- I came here hoping to catch up- but it's not a total loss.
I do wish she’d shown up though.
We hit it off pretty quickly. It normally takes me a while to get to where we were. She was more energetic than my ‘type’, whatever that is, although she wasn’t bossy or high strung or anything. It was more like a zeal for life. She didn’t need coffee in the morning, which just seemed weird to me. I don’t feel like a real person until my first cup.
She always drove when we went anywhere. I like driving, but the truth is that I’m an awful driver and she was a very safe driver. Her driving record was immaculate. I think I was responsible for the only blemish on her record, actually, and I don’t know if that was ever really counted against her. The only time she’d speed up was if I started whispering dirty talk in her ear.
We used to have some great chats after sex, I think. I don’t remember any of them specifically, so it’s hard to say. It’s been a long time, much longer than it feels. I think I tend to remember sex being better, the longer it’s been since I had it. In the same way that the greatness of heroes gradually lessens as they approach the era of their writer, so too is it with my sex life. When I was younger I hit on Helen of Troy herself, and have since lowered my standards to ‘normal’ people. She’s a throwback to an imaginary era when I was still dating immortals.
Things ended abruptly with her. She moved out to Kansas City for a job, really a much better job than she or I had ever had. And in the scheme of things, we hadn’t been together all that long. I guess...I just wish I’d gotten to see her again. I wonder if I’d even recognize her. I think there will always be a small part of me that wishes she hadn’t moved out to Kansas.
- - - - - -
I guess I’m not surprised that he didn’t show up. It’s been over ten years since I saw him last. We haven’t really talked in nine, aside from the two minutes we spent planning this yesterday. It’s a shame too, given the coffee...he was always a prude when it came to his coffee, and they make a good cup here. And it’s got a good view of the city, and he appreciated a good view. He was a bit of a prude, and he would’ve liked this cafe.
His hair was always well kept and had a clean part, and I loved to run my hands through it and mess it all up. I loved messing up his perfect, silky hair. In bed, it’d end up all frayed looking and sticking out like he was a stray dog or something. My stray dog, at least for a little while. That was about the only time he didn’t care about how his hair looked, and really, we were both so sweaty by that point...keeping up appearances wasn’t all that important. I miss a lot more about him than just the sex, but I certainly do miss the sex. Then again, it’s been so long, and who the hell really knows at this point. Maybe I just want to remember him as a sexual savant.
He had the sweetest dimples, and when I laughed he laughed, and then I’d see his dimples and I’d laugh even harder. I don’t think I ever saw him in a t-shirt, not once. He didn’t wear PJ’s...it was either a collared shirt or nothing at all. He always brushed his teeth twice every day, no matter what. That’s just how he was. Even if we stumbled back to one of our places after a long night of drinking (at the very least), he’d take the time to brush his teeth when I’d already passed out.
He made the single best breakfasts I’ve ever had. The rest of his cooking was forgettable, but the man could make an omelet like no one else. He could elevate the simple pancake into an art form. Lazy mornings in bed were perfect with his cooking and a favorite old book. But as I said, after eleven in the morning, his food became entirely forgettable.
I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to end things well with the people I’ve been with. It’s often a slow, masochistic process that involves a lot of verbal vitriol and post-break-up sex. With him it was clean, amicable, and...sweet. There wasn’t a lot to say. We knew the time had come, and we just separated.
The people seem dead here...normally, I feel like there’s a lot going on in cafes...people are actively involved in something. The two old ladies next to me...the bearded man out by the window...even the college kids in the corner...it just feels stagnant. Lethargic. Not like him. I really do miss him, I think. I don’t regret it, really, but...I often look back and playfully wonder if I shouldn’t have moved out to Kansas City.
I’m a small child and I’m at a birthday party. Maybe it’s my birthday. There are balloons and ribbons strewn about the carpet. I reach out my
hand. I’m a passenger on an airplane. My hands are wrinkled and my skin is paper white and almost translucent. I look at the old man sleeping next to me. His skin is also nearly translucent. This old dress I'm wearing is getting to be too tight. I look out the window. Thick currents of air flow across
the sky. I hear thunder as my friends and I play rugby in a large field. We should go in soon, but we’re muddy and the rain would give us a nice wash. My legs burn and sweat drips as I stand motionlessly. I think I'll prepare
the equipment. I’m on a small wooden boat in a large, clear ocean. I’m a teenager out working with my father, who is trying to impart some life skills to his stubborn son. My hand covers my brow as the sun gleams off the calm ocean into my eyes. I squint
and focus as best I can. Traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see. I’m listening to classical music, and my dark hands tap along to the rhythm of the orchestra. It forms an oasis of tranquility amidst the incessant honking outside. I feel
smoothness against my hands. It’s the soft skin of a lover. She’s beautiful. She’s looking at me I think, but we’re so close and I’m looking at her loose black curls and can’t tell for sure. Our breath is
getting louder. The fireworks show is about to begin its crescendo, and the crowd around me takes a deep breath and braces for the spectacle that is about to befall them. In this moment of darkness and anticipation, I can't see myself or those around me. I feel free. A tiny thud and a red dot shoots into the sky. Any second it will
She floated in from the deep in the middle of the night. She washed in, between the cold, rocky cliffs, with bits of driftwood and crooked wire. Seagulls cackled over her still, leaden shoulders, and her body slipped back and forth with the whims of the briny waves. Her numb hands rested on benign seaweed that gently slipped between her fingers. Beyond the seaweed lay broken seashells and glass; a mosaic of dulled teeth that littered the tiny beach. On either side loomed miles of black basalt walls that defied the frigid, hungry ocean. Clouds hung in the sky, left untouched by the sharp winds that darted between the tangled legions of foamy waves.
She lay there for a while. It could have been minutes, or hours, or even days. Her body danced with the currents in an unconscious duet that seemed bound to the shores of that tiny beach; always moving, but never going anywhere. The in and out of the tides set the rhythm to their comatose choreography. Day and night melded together into an eternal dusk, blurring the ethereal Milky Way and brilliant sun into a single trail of endless light.
If anyone had seen her, they would’ve assumed she was a corpse.
But then her water-logged fingers began to move on their own, without the help of the currents. Her pupils dilated in her caramel eyes, and she brushed away the sand that caked her eyelids. Expression poured into her gaunt cheeks. Slowly, her legs found the rocky earth below them, and pushed her away from the water’s perpetual turbulence. She dragged herself to the shore, out of the shallows, and breathed deeply as the coast slowly came into focus.
Whatever her clothes had been, they’d been reduced to rags. The color had been bled out of them, and they had become loose and full of holes. Her shirt flapped aimlessly in the wind. Her soggy shoes squished with every cautious step away from the sea, as she ascended the cliffs to the forest above them.
She sat under a tree on the shoreline, her mind a haze of half-ideas and empty thoughts. The rocks felt foreign. The trees were like nothing she could remember. The briny smell of the ocean was ineffably different. Everything seemed alien. Her mind felt hollow, and she seemed unable to find the words to say anything. A single memory- her only memory- danced at her mind’s periphery, but she pushed it aside as she tried to come to terms with the world around her. She had no idea if she was on an island or a peninsula. Maybe neither.
She heard voices coming from the rocks and the wind. She didn’t understand a word of their sharp, crackly language, and yet their message seemed clear: “You are dead. Unequivocally dead. Regardless of whether this is some sort of afterlife or stray neurons in a dying fit, you are dead. Somewhere in the world, you lie rotting.” More voices joined in the inanimate chorus, until the world had devolved into an endless ensemble of mouths. Everything spoke in unison.
It was only when she realized that her throat felt like sandpaper that it dawned on her; she hadn’t had food or water in days. Her eyes slowly turned to the woods, through the tall ferns and unending patches of thick, thorny brambles. Maybe there was a stream in there, somewhere. She lifted herself up, back onto her feet. The branches watched on indifferently as she stumbled beneath their perforated canopy. As the distance between her and the ocean grew, the sharp, salty smell of the brine faded away. In its place she smelled pollen, and pine, and dead leaves. The voices of the rocks, and sea breeze, and waves were replaced by those of quivering leaves and chattering birds.
The stream sounded like music as she approached it, and she quickened her pace as the lapping currents grew louder and louder. When she arrived at its bank and touched the cool, clear water, the voices seemed to fade. When she cupped her hands and poured the water between her leathery, dry lips, they dwindled even more. When she felt sick from drinking so much, the voices evaporated altogether. Regardless of whether they were right or wrong, their message wasn’t lost on her.
Sprawled out on the soft clay of the stream bank, she turned back to that singular memory from before the beach cliffs. Everything had been black. There was no smell, no sound. She couldn’t feel her own limbs. Lost in a senseless limbo, there was nothing. She simply was. Maybe the voices were right. Maybe she was dead.
The murmuring ripples of the stream sang lullabies as she dwelled on her only memory, and before long she was asleep.
She had no idea how long she’d been asleep for, but the sun was in the middle of the sky when she awoke. She spent most of the day gathering raspberries, whose vines formed huge, tangled mats of prickers. By the end of the day, her hands were covered in scratches and her stomach was full.
She meandered back to the cliffs and the ocean, her state of mind much clearer than before. From the cliffs, she could see everything she’d missed in her ascent from the waves. There were water-logged boxes, and bits of plastic, and metal containers that littered the small beach. The sun was starting to set, and there wasn’t much time to pilfer through the debris. Everything was a formless husk of whatever it had once been, and there was nothing she could find of any use. She’d given up hope of finding anything, when her gaze turned to a red box swaying with the waves. A plastic first aid box.
She waited until she was back at the top of the cliffs before she opened her prize. The insides of the box were dry, and she found band-aids, antiseptic, matches, and...a gun? No...wait...a flare gun. The sun had set, and the sky glowed orange. By the time it was dark, she’d lit a small fire. She ran her fingers along the smooth metallic surface of the gun’s chamber, debating whether she should wait before she fired it. There were three flares in total. Nightmare scenarios played out in her head, where boats floated by in the distance and she was out of flares.
She fired a flare above the cliffs, and marveled at the violent red dot hovering in the sky. She remembered a similar dot flickering above her when she’d been in the dark nothingness. She’d looked up and seen the fiery beacon, though it was warped...like looking through an old window. There were silhouettes as well, of strange shapes and sizes. Some of them moved, forming the echoes of trails in their wake. She could see her limbs then, illuminated in neon red. She'd suddenly felt very cold; the ocean was pulling her down. She’d pushed up, resisting the shadow of the ocean below, pushing away from the cold, empty nothingness.
She couldn’t remember if she’d made it to the surface. She could hear the muffled whispers of the inanimate, their voices slowly growing in strength again. She looked back up at the flare as its chemical radiance began to dim. She still had no idea if she was alive or not, or if any of this was real.
Flashlights. A small army of flashlights pierced through the thick foliage of the forest, quickly advancing towards her. She heard voices, real voices, and she could see the growing silhouettes of people. They’d see her in less than a minute.
Not knowing whether to expect the living or the dead, she waited in silence.
Is that what your teacher said? That’s why you’re upset? Well, it’s a great question. But...before I answer it, your Grandpap is going to tell you a story from a long while back, when he was your age:
Well, we had a dog, a fat old mutt named Chestnut, who spent most of his time sitting under the kitchen table looking for scraps. He wasn’t the smartest to be honest...he didn’t know any tricks or anything. I mean we tried to teach him, but he...well he just wasn’t very smart. We loved him though. If we were in the kitchen, a cold cut always found itself “accidentally” dropped on the floor. He was such a fat dog.
Anyways, we had him tied up out back one night. He always loved being out on hot summer nights, which I never understood because there were so many bugs out. You stayed still for a few seconds and your face was just covered in bugs. But regardless, he loved sitting out there. So on this night, I hear Chestnut barking like crazy, so I go out to see what’s got him so wound up. Well there was no mistaking what was driving him so nuts; the full moon was out. I’d never put much thought into it, you know I’d always figured a dog barking at the moon was just something that was only true in the movies and comic books.
But the thing is, it happened the next night too, and the night after that. The dog just went wild, and his eyes were just...just fixed on the moon. This is coming from the lazy old farty dog I’d known as long as I could remember, so as you might imagine, I was a little confused. This went on for four nights, and I remember my parents were furious. My brother and sisters and I were in a panic over the dog. But on the fifth night, we didn’t hear a peep, and we all looked out back to see what the dog was doing. He was gone! He’d freed himself somehow, and ran away.
We were all scared for him and worried for a few days, but then...something happened. Something, well it’s just about the strangest thing I’ve ever experienced. We looked up at the moon, and it was all chewed up! Before then, before that day, the moon was just a big white circle in the sky, nothing really distinctive about it. But if you look up at it now, it looks all chewed up, right? Turns out Chestnut had chased down the moon and gnawed on it a little. Scientists were all baffled.
And it didn’t stop there. A few weeks later, some astronomers saw that one of Mars’ moons, Phobos, had a big bite taken out of it. And a few weeks after that, Uranus seemed to have been tilted on its side, like something had pushed it around a little. And this kept happening over the years with stars and nebulae and all sorts of things, and of course it was all our fat old dog.
So, back to your question. Your science teacher was right, our Milky Way galaxy is on a crash course with the larger Andromeda galaxy, and in a few billion years there may be fiery and cataclysmic collision. What your science teacher didn’t tell you- what she didn’t know- is that between our galaxy and Andromeda is Chestnut, and I suspect he’s developed an even bigger appetite after snacking on moons and planets. You’ve got nothing to worry about.
“Sorry,” I say, although I’m not quite sure why. I say ‘sorry’ more than I should, and I think it sort of kills the word. Daisy sits across from me, her eyes on the fried calamari platter lurking between us. We’re just friends I think. Or anyway, this isn’t a date. It’s too casual. If it was a date, I’d try to seem less apologetic.
I don’t think she even hears my stale apology, which is good. The restaurant is loud and we’ve had a bit of beer. The waitress appears and asks if we’d like more drinks, and we order up.
“More of the same, please, thank you.”
There’s a weird kind of camaraderie with weekday drinking; somehow it’s okay when you know you won’t be the only one at work tomorrow with a headache. My last few drinks are slowly starting to slither their way into my bloodstream, and...what was I thinking about?
Oh, Daisy. Daisy strikes me as a rural name, which is at odds with the fact that she’s lived in cities all her life. Moved here from New York. Normally she’s got something clever to say- much more clever than anything I’m capable of- but right now she’s just totally hypnotized by this calamari.
And damn, that is good calamari. She brought us here just for it, so I assumed it was well above average. Fried seafood is just...
My phone vibrates. I discretely check to see who’s messaging me. I’m never comfortable with phone etiquette, it’s always changing and relies on the mood- something I’m awful at gauging- and it’s just an awkward thing. It’s a text from Eileen. Something about maybe getting together this weekend or something. It looks like the kind of pseudo-nonchalant text I’d painstakingly construct over ten unsure minutes, but maybe she really is indifferent.
“What’s up?” Daisy’s eyes are on me now.
I realize my cheeks have bloomed red, and my mouth hangs open for a few seconds before I reply.
“Your cheeks are red,” she says. She’s got a wry grin on her face.
I think I’m being indicted.
“Sorry,” I reply. “You were right, this calamari’s great!”
My nighttime ritual hasn’t changed at all since I’ve been single. Contacts out. Teeth brushed. Listen to the classics and let Led Zeppelin serenade me to sleep. All of these things seem to coagulate into a three minute drunken sprint around my apartment. Now I’m in bed. I’ve got the blankets wedged under me, forming an insulated cocoon of sorts. It’s January and I’m not sharing my bed, so that’s what I do.
I close my eyes.
I’m in an old colonial house. Feels like my childhood house, but…my childhood house was different, I think. There are massive footprints on the carpet, but the place seems to be empty. The shapes in the wallpaper change every time I look at them, and I make a game out of it for a little while.
I stop when the wall goes blank. My footsteps echo off the cold linoleum floor as I enter the next room. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure what room I was just in. This is the kitchen, or I think it is anyway. It has everything except for a refrigerator. I can smell the faint whisper of something baked…a dessert of some kind. Something sweet.
Eileen’s standing there in a gorgeous green dress, and she’s got Sinatra playing. I haven’t heard this song before. Her hair is all done up and she’s got lipstick and everything. Everything about this feels timeless. I hold her waist and we dance slowly, our bodies swaying together in rhythm with the music. We dance closer together, and I lean in and we kiss. A broad, stupid grin forms across my face as I playfully bite her lip, but I don’t care. I feel her warm breath against my lips and my stupid smile grows even wider. It feels like we’ve only started, but her lipstick is smeared a little like we’ve been kissing for a while. I pull back and Daisy is sitting at a restaurant table next to us, looking at us with a bitter kind of amusement. I jolt and take a few steps back, embarrassed and...ashamed. I don’t exactly know why though. Daisy’s pretty, but I just always assumed...
Eileen and Daisy are talking now; Eileen’s taken a seat at the table. Was that table always there? They’re talking and laughing about something, although I can’t exactly make out what. I lean toward them to chime in, but they stop talking and look at me with indignation.
I back off and lean against the oven.
It’s hot. It doesn’t burn, but I can smell smoke. I turn around and there’s a small fire on the stovetop. My mind goes wild, and my eyes dart around the room for something to kill the fire and it seems like the more I think, the larger the fire grows and within seconds the entire house has been engulfed and Daisy, Eileen, and the table are gone and I stand in place, paralyzed, as I try to think of some way to put out the fire but it’s towering above me and it’s devouring everything and I’m shaking with fear and it’s growing and growing and growing and-
My eyes snap open. I look at my alarm; ten minutes until it goes off. I hate when this happens. Those last few minutes are always spent trying to enjoy the time remaining, but how can you, really? For every minute you feel has gone by, the clock says it’s been three.
I forgot to get more cereal. What am I going to do for breakfast? I don’t think I have time for anything on the stove.
I had a weird dream last night. Something about changing wallpaper I think. And something else…it's all really hazy. I was in a kitchen, and-
Damnit, there’s the alarm already. Normally I manage to turn it off right before it goes off, but...
Time to get up.
(based on MC.1993's breathtaking illustration, The Blind King)
Long ago, before the close embrace of history and myth had been pried apart, there was a Great King. A former general who had proven himself a worthy leader, his name carried weight throughout the land. He ruled with wisdom for many years, and was dearly loved by his people. His military prowess was unmatched, and his wealth towered above all others. His great citadel was the epicenter of culture and art, and all who entered gaped in awe of its magnificence. His accomplishments were so great that rumors began to spread, connecting his ancestry to the gods themselves.
And while the Great King cared dearly for his land and people, they were overshadowed by a deeper love: his love of family. He had only one son, a youthful adolescent, whose bright, naive eyes and brazen curiosity reminded the king of his late wife. The son, while sweet, was unremarkable; he was neither foolish nor gifted, neither meek nor strong. The Great King, far from disappointed, saw this as an opportunity; the boy was a blank slate unto which a king would be fashioned. This vision of the son inheriting the empire remained engraved in the mind of the Great King, influencing his every decision. His aspirations for his son remained steadfast until the very moment the Great King suddenly, inexplicably died.
The Great King’s son was immediately crowned the new sovereign and was placed upon the golden throne. The radiant crown was too large and heavy for him, and it often sank below his forehead. Frustrated and embarrassed, he flipped the golden headpiece so that it sat on his head upside down, where it rested comfortably. He saw his illustrious court through the emeralds and sapphires that adorned his sublime crown, and slowly learned to govern his kingdom like his father before him. In this way, the son of the Great King became known as the Crowned King.
One day, a diplomat arrived from a subservient neighboring kingdom to the north. An arrangement had been made under the Great King, that the neighboring kingdom would pay tribute every few years to avoid terrible military wrath. The diplomat bowed deeply before the Crowned King with a chest full of luminescent gold and jewels, and said, “These treasures are the finest in our land, and we give them to you, Crowned King. Do you accept our payment?”
But the king was acclimated to the gleam of such riches, since they perpetually covered his eyes and surrounded his head. Through the colorful film of his jewels, the Crowned King saw only an unremarkable lump of vaguely glimmering trinkets. “This is a pathetic collection of trifles,” he replied, “and I will require more, if this is how you intend to pay me.”
The confused diplomat was sent on his way, and the Crowned King indifferently relaxed on his throne.
On another day, a local governor arrived at the royal hall. His clothes were ragged, his skin pale and sickly, and his face gaunt. “Dearest Crowned King,” begged the governor, “a terrible famine has taken hold across the land. My subjects are starving, and even us noble folk are struggling to survive. Won’t you please help us?”
The Crowned King looked over the governor; from his bejeweled perspective, the governor appeared to be absolutely fine. “Governor,” replied the king, “I fear you are over-exaggerating your plight. Your cheeks look youthful, your skin glows, and your clothing is refined. If this is what you consider starving, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a while longer before I give you any aid.”
Shocked by the callousness of his king, the governor left in silence.
On another day, a beautiful, graceful bride was presented to the Crowned King from an allied kingdom to the west. He waved her away before a word had been spoken; from behind his mask of jewels, he could not see her true beauty.
On another day, news arrived that the neighboring northern kingdom had declared war upon the Crowned King. His apathetic insults and rejection of their tribute had defiled their honor, and their army was already on the move. The king called his minister of war into the room, and asked him, “How will we destroy these impudent trespassers? Have you mustered our army?”
The minister replied, “I am sorry my king, but our army is starving, and has already been routed. There is nothing between their soldiers and our great citadel!”
“What of our ally?” asked the king.
“They were insulted by your rude dismissal of their bride, and will not help us in our time of need.”
And so the enemy army surrounded the great citadel, and began to build siege weapons for the imminent battle. The Crowned King made his way up to the imposing stone walls that protected him, and looked out at his invaders. Unfortunately, the jewels covering his eyes had made him incredibly short-sighted, and he could not see a single soldier. “Let me out through the front gate!” insisted the king.
His subjects tried their best to dissuade him, but the Crowned King was vehement. “I cannot see the enemy,” he stated, “and must confirm this threat with my own eyes.”
The enemy soldiers, dumbstruck that the Crowned King had simply strolled out from his walls, did nothing as he obliviously walked past them. Even their hushed murmurs failed to reach his ears. His eyes did not detect a single soldier, and he pressed further and further away from the citadel in search of his foe. Eventually, he turned around and saw nothing; he and his kingdom were lost.
His citadel fell without a single drop of blood.
The Crowned King, lost in his reverie of gold and emeralds and sapphires, fell into the clutches of madness. He roamed the countryside for the rest of his life, fruitlessly yelling orders at any unfortunate soul who managed to catch his attention. It is said that his short-sightedness rendered him nearly blind, and that one day, the Crowned King met his end by inadvertently walking off a cliff. Such a fall- so they say- was the only way for the cursed crown to be removed from his incurable head.