Instagram finally has some competition: an image sharing application programed by demons, setting out to torment users through touch screens, cursing cameras, and casting voodoo onto viewfinders. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this photo viewer sees exactly what makes users so impure.
This is an invitation to hear a sales pitch from another dimension. A place where the technology we take for granted takes more than we bargained for. A place of vanity and disappear. Tune in, because the advertisement you’re about to listen to is coming straight from the Twilight Zone.
Submitted for your approval, a photo application with a very unique function. Through its lens, you’ll see into another world. A world not too far from our own, where vanity is condemned with words but embraced with pictures, where self esteem depends on the perception of one’s peers. There’s only one subtle difference; this app goes beneath the skin to bring our true selves to the surface.
The subject can try to hide, show their most symmetrical side, cock their hip to look slender, but our digital mirror will make the facts clear. It erases slight squints, sucked in cheeks, and upturned chins. It takes fish lips, frog tongues, and duck faces off the menu. It shows the cracks beneath the glamour, the sadness beneath the humor, and the cowardice beneath the peacock feathers. It expands the frame to show the whole picture.
While most photo applications are exhibitions of vacant expressions, ours is a gallery full of empathy. Each portrait invites the viewer to peer through the windows of the subject’s soul, to see through the eyes of their storm, to get lost in the surrealistic cyclones swirling in their thought clouds. Other platforms distill those dark spots, ours shines a light on them, our only filter is the truth.
While Instagram has users staging candids, rehearsing off the cuff poses, and engineering their all natural looks, Insta-Damn shows their spirits. They can go through the chore of looking like they’re having fun, pain themselves to seem laid back, inflate themselves to seem down to earth, but Insta-Damn shows users for what they really are.
These are not the aura pictures you get at the fair. These portraits lay all of your personality’s deformities bare.
Early adopters have little reason to embrace the humiliation, but when they see everyone in their feeds using it, they’ll come. If peer pressure doesn’t get to them, curiosity will. Who doesn’t want to know what they look like on the inside? Who doesn’t want to see their ideas take shape? Who doesn’t want the purity of their heart graded?
It’s been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Insta-Damn sees you with eyes that are utterly clear.
Submitted for your perusal: your dirty little soul. Look upon it at your own risk, because these selfies come straight from the Twilight Zone.
May I present Part 2 of my Obscure Horror movies suggestions series:
Reality Warping Reels and Romance from the Twilight Zone
Hardcore horror movies can be a little too spicy for some viewers. That’s why I put together a list of suggestions that are more cerebral than gory, and for those of you with a zero tolerance policy for all things scary, I’ve put together a list of obscure supernatural romantic movies.
If you’re brave enough to explore the spicier side of horror check out Part 1:
Depression has been a pressing issue on the news these days, with newscasters talking about mental illness like outside observers, despite the fact that 1 out of 4 people experience some form of it in their lifetimes. I won’t claim to have insight on the individuals they’re discussing, I can’t tell you what Robin Williams was thinking, but I can offer a metaphor to explain why some of us don’t come forward.
There’s a gremlin on my wing, pulling out the systems I need to function. He’s dug beneath my skin, undermining my self-esteem. He’s ripping out memories I have no need to see, bringing things to the surface I’d prefer to leave buried.
Whenever I venture outside of my comfort zone, he tampers with my fuel gage, convincing me I don’t have what it takes to go the distance. Whenever I get off to a flying start, he tinkers with my propeller, convincing me I’ll crash and burn the longer I keep talking. Whenever I’m riding high on possibilities, he brings me down to sputter out, crashing on my pillowcase alone.
Between my neckline and my clavicle he’s dug his claws in, a hijacker issuing demands. He’s got me in a holding pattern and I can’t seem to shake him. He wants to go south with the conversation. He wants to go nowhere fast. He wants to go crazy. He’s my first class saboteur, my snark passenger, my very important burden. He’s a collar crawler, a nightmare at five-foot-four, the Depression on my shoulder.
He puts new acquaintances on standby, when I actually have the time for them. He leaves copilots out on the tarmac, when I could use some direction. He cuts off my support systems, when I could use help navigating the turbulence. His no fly list is ever expanding, banning ex-room mates, ex-coworkers, and ex-girl friends from getting anywhere near his captain.
Waving his security wand, Depression scrutinizes everyone. He finds contraband in the form of narcissistic tendencies, codependency, and disloyalty. He uses x-rays to detect second faces. He performs cavity searches of micro-expressions.
He says, “We’ve already got too much baggage. As it stands, this craft is only equip for fair weather. These people will just bring us down. We have to fly solo until it’s safe to start letting people in.”
I want to offer my friends a shoulder to cry on, but its occupied at the moment. I want to offer a sympathetic ear, but someone’s whispering into it. I want to offer stability, but my rudder is off balance.
Marking up the flight maps with negative associations, Depression says, “The girl who stood you up goes to that coffee shop, now it’s in a no fly zone, so is the club that wouldn’t take your card, and the bar that made you feel your age. Oh, and don’t bother going home for Christmas, that whole area is in hostile airspace.”
Bad News Flies First Class
Bad news travels at supersonic speeds. It’s Depression’s fuel, it’s his inflight entertainment. It’s what he’s got up on all of my instruments. The displays play an in memoriam montage without end. There go beloved childhood icons, actors, and musicians in their prime. There go fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives. There go captains who took directions from their gremlins.
Depression stares at me from the aisle, with a microphone wrapped around his fingers, his face set aglow by a backseat screen.
“This is your Depression speaking, please turn on all cell phones and automatic devices. Then get on social media, because tragedy is trending. To your left you’ll see an ongoing story that will make you feel like you’re losing your faith in humanity, and to your right you’ll see comments that will help you lose it completely.”
The world is in chaos. There are so many headlines stacked up on the window, I can’t see the horizon. I’m internalizing the external, flying blind. It’s not that Depression lies, it’s that it isn’t very well informed. It senses patterns in limited information, then speculates with confidence. It finds scary stories to reinforce its suspicions, then emerges emboldened.
Depression booms over the speakers, “According to the radar it isn’t safe to land anywhere. The ice caps are melting. The runways are flooding, and people are rioting. They’re invading everywhere. They’re shooting planes right out of the sky. It’s open season on anyone with a pilot’s license.”
He walks down the cabin, pulling things out of the overhead compartments: unfinished screenplays, lyrics I never sang to girlfriends, and manuscripts I never had the courage to send. Depression performs a one man show for his captive audience, mixing and matching lines from what he’s found.
He’s got me facing the wrong direction.
I make my way for the dining trays, chowing down on whatever’s around. Whether it’s cheese slices straight from the wrapper, pepperonis from the bag, or Ben & Jerry’s, the in-flight meal is always my feelings.
Depression at 20,000 Feet
Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.
He says, “If you were any kind of pilot, we’d be there already. Instead we’re lost in the storm.”
I grip the controls a little tighter. “Sometimes the only way out is through.”
Depression grunts. “Or in circles, apparently. How’s that tailspin working out for you?”
He’s the peanut gallery I carry with me. My own private Friars Club. My personal heckler. He’s a passive aggressive parasite, a bullying barnacle, a foot on the coattails of my ego. He’s the alpha male dominating the conversation, the monkey stabbing me in the back, the jockey that’s riding me.
His stigma allows him to get away with his destruction. No one else sees him, because no one is looking.
I’m afraid to yell, “There’s something on the wing!” because sometimes there’s no sign of him. Sometimes I forget, there was ever turbulence. I keep the truth buried in my black box.
My friends might not see him, but whenever I examine myself his big ugly mug is staring right at me. I’m afraid to call attention to the damage he’s done, for fear I’ll run out of places to land.
I’m afraid to yell, “There’s something on the wing!” because whoever’s listening might bind my hands, giving Depression free rein to pull me apart in silence.
I want to shine a light on him, to hit him with the flare gun, I just don’t want to lose cabin pressure in the process.
I’ve learned to live with him, to adjust for the added weight, to divert energy into other systems, to compensate. The things that come easily for others, take more fuel than you might expect for me. The things others do to stave off boredom, I do just to keep myself functioning. The things others think are routine, I do with all of my engines firing.
He’s the reason it’s not so easy to straighten up and fly right, to man up and snap myself out of it. My Depression, my gremlin, my stigmatized stowaway.
There’s something on my wing. You might not see it, but I assure you, it’s out there.
Struggling with a hostile work environment, Mark imagines the perfect hideaway, only to find it expanding into his real life.
Mark’s footfalls echoed into the distance. The hall had the dressings of a ballroom, and the length of a tunnel. No matter how far he went, the point at the end never changed shape. The banner beneath the ceiling must have stretched for miles.
Rays of light cut through the curtains, setting the tiles aglow. Walking with his eyes shut, he felt the sunshine on his nose. He could go on this way, counting windows without ever running into anything, or anyone.
The help was on holiday. There was no dust to polish, the sheets tucked themselves in, and the meals came out of their trays prepared. This gave Mark the freedom to ride the banisters down the stairs, to line couch cushions like dominos, to juggle Faberge eggs, ming vases, and leather bound first editions.
Wearing two story drapes like capes, Mark was a bachelor in a castle, an emperor of emptiness, the king of a kingdom known to no one.
The grounds were too vast to cross in a day. Mark had to set up camp in an uncharted guest room before finding the strength to press on. He had to traverse the deserts of the zen garden, the hilly expanse of the miniature golf course, and the pine highways of the bowling alley.
With each trek through the building, Mark discovered something. Feeling droplets on his forehead, he looked up to see water sculptures shooting streams through the chandeliers. He climbed staircases so wide, he mistook the steps for rows in a theater.
Crossing the library, Mark happened upon a fleet of fire engines labeled with the dewey decimal system. He didn’t understand their function, until he needed a ladder to get something.
To save time, Mark rode a dirt bike across the courtyard, weaving around gazebos, hedge sculptures of video game characters, and a pride of bronze lions covered in bird droppings. He could’ve used the field for crops, for football games, or as a landing strip for commercial planes; instead he filled it with street signs to give himself an idea of where he was going. There was always a new path to explore.
The estate was ever expanding, but there were no contractors, no designs to sign off on. Mark didn’t have to suffer the sight of plumbers’ cracks, the sound of catcalls, or radios blaring. This was his project. He was the surveyor, the engineer, and the foreman.
He didn’t break his back carrying the stones up the mountain. He didn’t run a wheel barrel full of mortar across the foot bridge, or dig the trenches to fill the reflecting pools.
Mark’s castle wasn’t built from the ground up, it was composited. The parts weren’t airlifted in, they materialized from it.
In the city, Mark’s studio apartment shared its walls with shouting brawls. Arguments echoed from floor to ceiling. He fell asleep to surround sound domestic disputes, quadrophonic make up sex, and the off tempo rhythm of creaking mattresses. Counting backwards on his pillow, Mark wasn’t sure if he ever lost consciousness.
In the morning meeting, Mark made the coffee hoping no one would call on him. His eyes stung every moment they were exposed to oxygen. They felt heavy enough to sink into his skull. Collecting cups, he was a satellite orbiting his coworkers.
Lee, his boss, followed close behind, tapping each employee on the shoulder, in a variation of Duck Duck Goose.
“So what’s your goal for the day?” Lee breathed down the staff’s necks until he got an answer.
Crouching, Mark cradled the cups in his arms.
Lee moved onto his next victim, “What do you aspire to learn today?”
Reaching for a napkin, Mark’s stack toppled over. His security blanket rolled across the floor. Panicking, he clutched for the cups.
There was a tap on his shoulder.
Lee smiled, he’d found his goose. “So Mark, what could you do differently to achieve success today?”
Mark looked to the ellipsis in his thought cloud. “Not drop the cups?”
Lee tossed him a line, Mark left him to tow it back in. Unlike the sales team, Mark had no figures to beat, no positive encounters to share, no acknowledgments to give.
Passing by a senior staff meeting, Mark heard Lee refer to him as an “Automated automaton. Good with numbers, but unable to compute casual conversation.”
Filling his thermos at home, Mark avoided the water cooler. He couldn’t understand emotional reactions to the weather, pride in parking spaces, or interest in other people’s children. He managed big accounts, but small talk went over his head.
When Lee mandated psychological assessments, Mark feared it was to uncover his glitch.
Sitting outside the therapist’s office, Mark paged through an issue of Home magazine, a catalogue of living room layouts, throw pillows, and patio furniture. Reading an article on Feng Shui, Mark scanned the waiting room.
Opening the door to her office, Dr. Jennings found Mark dragging a fern to the other side of the chairs.
Wiping the dirt from his palms, Mark only spread it around. When Dr. Jennings offered her hand, he went in for a hug, careful not to pat her on the back. When she directed him to a love seat, he lay across the armrests.
Dr. Jennings squint to hide her amusement. “Don’t worry. This is an informal chat, a way to gage the team’s overall satisfaction. Management thought this would be a little more personal than a survey.”
Nodding, Mark changed his position.
Settling in, Dr. Jennings read her chart. “How do you see yourself fitting in among your peers?
Mark shrugged. “The tall person in the back of the group photo.”
Dr. Jennings shook her head. “I’m not looking for a literal answer. Think of this office as a family. Which member are you? Do you see yourself in the driver’s seat, on the sidelines of a soccer game, or are you sneaking in a cartoon when you should be doing homework?”
Mark rolled his eyes, “I’m haunting the attic. I’m not sure if anyone even knows I’m there.”
Mark never had the courage to see a therapist. Now one had been delivered to him. He made the most of this captive audience. Thinking it essential to give Dr. Jennings the whole picture, he got abstract. Over-sharing, he linked childhood humiliation to emotional scars left by ex-girlfriends. Looking at Dr. Jennings notepad, Mark watched her fine script devolve into automatic writing.
Running out of pages, Dr. Jennings decided to switch mediums, inviting Mark to try guided meditation. She came up with the scenario, leaving just enough space for him to fill the holes.
Dr. Jennings chose her words carefully, “I want to give your thoughts a beginning, middle, and end.” placing an emphasis on the word “end.”
Hesitant to sacrifice his hour, Mark was a reluctant participant. Entering the wilderness of his imagination, he was told to picture an animal jumping into his path. He described a badger sniffing the air, climbing up his leg, and settling on his shoulder.
The badger said, “How do you feel about your output today? Is this your finest work, or could you aspire to do better?”
Dr. Jennings suggested Mark keep his answers to himself until the end of the session.
Leading her patient to a clearing, Dr. Jennings instructed him to fill it with something. “A treehouse, a log cabin, a beached submarine, it doesn’t matter, just the first thing that comes to mind.”
Watching a breeze draw circles in the grass, Mark felt it against his cheeks. Smelling the dewdrops, he took in the steady drone of the grass hoppers, rustling trees, and chirping birds.
Clouds rolled across the landscape. Their shadows morphed into geometric shapes, getting darker as they got smaller. Realizing why, Mark acted in the knick of time. He leapt from his position just as a support beam crashed down where he was standing.
A row of metal rained across the field. The dirt shift, propping the beams up, aligning each one into place. The ground embraced whatever the sky had to throw at it.
Staring into the sun, Mark watched its rays transform into amber arches, saffron spires, and scarlet shingles. Sprouting in spring-like formations, vines caught pillars on their way down. Bricks fell into perfect stacks. Leaves popped out from between them. Overgrowth ran up the building, before the roof had even come in.
In another world, Dr. Jennings continued giving her directions. She told Mark to go inside, she said something about a cup, its size and shape having some importance, but Mark didn’t hear her. He was busy moving in.
Crossing the estate, Mark bent time and space, moving from the top of the world to sea level without going down a single hill. One door spat him out in a tropical climate, while another spat him out in a snow covered forrest.
The porch overlooked a mountain range, while the parlor overlooked a beach front.
Each session took him someplace new.
Mark lay in a hammock as long as a fishing net, high up in the meditation chamber, a glass dome, with a view unpolluted by city lights.
Star gazing, he found the Andromeda galaxy, then the long streak of the Milky Way. Dimming the lamps, he waited for the Northern Lights to make an appearance.
Mark found his way to the dream house on his own. Pacing the apartment, he crossed over with his eyes open. Flicking the kitchen light, he watched torches spark to life. The banquet hall stretched out before him. Running the tap, he watched streams rise from the great fountain, feeling bubbles and coins beneath his feet. Taking a shower, the steam cleared to reveal the heap of coals in the palace sauna.
The real world was full of secret passageways to the other one. Smelling oak barrels the moment he stepped into the cubicle, Mark discovered a wine cellar beneath his desk.
Waiting in line at the bank, Mark listened to the Christmas music playing over the speakers. Closing his eyes, he overlooked his estate from the bell tower. It had grown from a mansion into a metropolis. He’d yet to eat a meal from every kitchen, sleep beneath every canopy, or relieve himself in every washroom.
Mark’s stays in the dream house grew longer.
Charging through an obstacle course, he stepped through tires lined across a balance beam, two stories above a ball pit. A few cartwheels later, he was safe on a platform. Running up a springboard, he leapt for a ring. When he grabbed it, it made a sound like a keyboard tapping. Moving hand over hand, he heard the clicking of a mouse button. Dismounting, he listened to the slow hiss of a seat release.
Although the gymnasium lights were the same color as his desk monitor, Mark’s work was far away from here.
Fearing his workout had pulled something, Mark felt a pinch on his shoulder. Turning, he found Lee’s talons squeezing into his tendon. Lee pulled Mark out of his trance and into his office.
Lee couldn’t wait for Mark to take his seat, before launching into his prepared speech.
“Mark, I know you’re not one for small talk, that’s why I’m going to give this to you straight.” Tenting his fingers, Lee tapped his lips. “Your numbers are down, my bosses want to put them out of their misery.”
Mark reached for the pen set on Lee’s desk. Tilting one toward him, the room shook, rumbling with a sound like cranks from a drawbridge. Lee spun around, opening the blinds to search for the source of the noise. Mark tilt the other pen in the same direction. The rumbling returned. Dust spilled from the ceiling. The tiles moved toward the window, fleeing the scene.
Shielding his face, Lee ducked behind the desk.
Moving onto the next accessory, Mark pinched a ball from the Newton’s Cradle. Lifting it up, he primed the pendulum. Thunder struck as it came down.
Cracks zigzagged across the support beams. The air was thick with sawdust. Lumber crashed down on the desk. Looking up, Mark found darkness where a corner office should be. A flash of lightning revealed the distant bricks of a vaulted ceiling.
The desk still had a few more toys for Mark to play with. Flipping a sand timer, he felt the chair sink out from under him. The carpet broke into tiny grains, sinking through the floorboards.
Lee shrieked, jumping out from his hiding place. Sand trickled through his fingers. He looked to Mark for an explanation.
Vaulting over the desk, Lee charged through the door with no mind for glass.
The staff shot up from their cubicles.
Ignoring his wounds, Lee spun around to find the ceiling tiles back in place, the desk free of debris, and the carpet in its proper shape. The chair was still spinning, but Mark was gone.
In the room with the vaulted ceiling, Mark listened to the rain tap on the glass. Cranking the window open, he peered over the edge, trying to figure out his location. In the dark, he couldn’t tell if the gargoyle on the roof was a chimera or a griffin.
Lightning flashed, revealing a part of the dream house he’d never been to before: a spiral steeple wrapped in a water slide. Stepping out on the gutter, Mark knew this would be a good night to explore.
Have you ever had a job interview that went to hell? This one goes there literally. When I say I write Twilight Zone fan fiction, this is what I’m talking about.
The Great American Tell Off Speech
Wind blew through the office. Lunging after a stray envelope, a mail clerk tripped over his cart. There were no walls to stop it, only pillars. The floor was arranged like a banquet hall, with a series of long tables. There were laptops in place of plates, phones in place of silverware. Sitting with the other applicants, Stewart felt like he was waiting for a reservation, not an interview.
Without walls, this was a hive with no honeycomb, a swarm that never sat still long enough to be a colony. The worker bees were at a constant hum. They buzzed into phones with fingers in their ears. Some fashioned borders out of folders. Some marked their perimeters, putting their hands up on their cheeks, and angling their elbows. Others ducked under tables.
Clicking buttons, they mistook each others’ mice for their own. Passing reports, they made bumper cars of rolling chairs. Waving their power plugs, they played musical outlets, jabbing at each other for juice.
Stewart leaned over to peak into a conference room. A facilitator hopped back and forth, armed with a set of markers and a smile. Pointing to someone out of view, the facilitator leapt up, spun around, and wrote a bullet point on the whiteboard. Giving a thumbs up, he jotted down the word: COLLABORATION. Employees raised their hands, kindergarden students waiting for their turn.
Stewart scanned his cover letter. Words like DISTINCT, INDEPENDENT and SELF-RELIANT stood out.
Giving his outfit a once over, Stewart found his yellow tie full of creases. He struggled to smooth them, only to find he was smearing ink down the length. Checking to see if any of the applicants were watching, he licked the silk clean. The nearest door was made of tinted glass. Stewart stuck his tongue out at his reflection. It was black. His cowlick stood straight up. Spitting into his hand, he tried to weigh it down.
The door opened to reveal a linebacker in a pinstripe suit, square-jawed and broad shouldered. He wore two bluetooth earpieces. They jut out like a pair of tusks. His brown hair had a reddish tint. It clashed with his silver eyebrows. His cheeks were tan and moist, a mannequin brought to life.
“Martin Williams.” He extended his hand, a catcher’s mitt full of class rings.
Stewart wiped the spit on his pants before offering his hand. “Stewart Smith.”
“Of course it is.” Martin winked.
The man had a vice grip. Stewart felt it in his arm socket.
Before Stewart could reclaim his fingers, Martin went in for a second pass. Giving the applicant’s palm another good squeeze, Martin tilt his head, a dancer singling for his partner to follow. Stewart squeezed back, quickly relinquishing his grip. When he withdrew his hand, it was clammy.
Ambling to his desk, Martin positioned himself to sit. Bending his knees, he froze.
Stewart mirrored Martin’s position in the chair provided. They were in a game of chicken over who’d be the first to sit. When Stewart’s footing shift gravity made the decision for him.
Martin raised an eyebrow at this development. Smoothing his blood red tie, he took his seat.
Stewart’s chair was anything but ergonomic. It dictated his posture at a ninety degree angle. With his hips shifting out of the seat, he became painfully aware of the position of his limbs. He crossed his legs, rather than sit spread eagle. He crossed his arms, rather than let them dangle like an ape.
Martin scanned him, a curator appraising the authenticity of an acquisition. His finger hovered over his speakerphone. “Would you like a coffee?”
Stewart didn’t care for what the chair was doing to his bladder. “No. No thank you, I’ve had too much already.”
Martin raised his eyebrow a little higher. “Let’s get right down to business. Your resumé says you’ve been out of work for sixth months now. The next guy coming in has the same qualifications. The only difference is he has a solid job. Why should I hire you instead of someone who’s stable?”
Stewart found his attention drawn to the waste basket at his feet, overflowing with 5-Hour Energy drinks.
He shift his butt in his seat. “Because I’m not stable.”
Martin raised his chin. “Care to elaborate?”
“No, but I will.” Stewart’s seat creaked as he moved to the edge. “Anyone can maintain a nine to five job, but it takes a particular type of person to hold out until they find a place where they’re needed.”
Martin rubbed his chin. “Needed, you say?”
Stewart scanned the bookshelf: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Steve Jobs’s autobiography.
He nodded. “Absolutely.”
The wall was filled with certificates, an Entrepreneurship degree from Columbia, an International Business degree from Harvard, and a slip certifying the completion of a weekend seminar in something called, “Neuro-Linguistic Programing.”
There was a photo of Martin covered in mud, a general whose army conquered a wall, letting out a battle cry. Ropes dangled over the side. Climbers grit their teeth, struggling to catch up with their agile leader.
Plucking the bluetooth tusks from his ears, Martin set them on the desk. Fishing a hand grip tool from a drawer, he gave his wrist a workout. “And what is it that makes you so vital to our business?”
On the desk, a pendulum drew figure eights in a Zen sand-garden. Stewart flicked it. “I’m here to change the flow of things.”
Martin quoted Stewarts cover letter, “And just how does an ‘independent’ ‘self-reliant’ ‘freethinker’ go about doing that?”
Martin slipped his copy of Stewart’s cover letter across the desk, a monologue waiting to be performed.
Stewart slipped it back. “I know what it says, it’s what it doesn’t say that matters.”
Setting the workout tool down, Martin smirked. “What, like the notes a musician doesn’t play?”
Stewart tilt his chin, committing to neither shaking his head, or nodding. “It doesn’t say that I’m a people person. It doesn’t say that I thrive in groups. Nor does it say that I’m passionate about communication, marketing, or social media.”
Martin pinched his pendulum to a stop. “You do realize the position you’re interviewing for is Brand Ambassador? It doesn’t get anymore social than that.” He wiped the Zen-garden down, making sure every grain was right where it belonged.
“You’ll learn that when it comes to emerging markets, none of us are as smart as all of us.”
Martin pointed to the group portrait on the wall. The staff stood in the parking lot with their arms outstretched, gnashing their teeth, lions eager to be fed. No one was smiling. No one was saying, “Cheese.” This was a warring army preparing to charge the enemy.
Stewart leaned forward to break Martin’s sightline. “You have too many initiatives competing with each other.”
“Life is a competition.” Martin blurt out.
Stewart nodded, as if that was a rational response. He took a deep breath. “The firm seems to think that if it throws a bunch of advertisements at the wall, some of them will stick. They need someone like me to offer users something worth seeking out. Someone who knows the difference between begging and branding, between panhandling and marketing, between crowdsourcing and true inspiration. It doesn’t take a village to represent a brand. It takes a delegate, someone to keep the message simple and consistent, someone to embody all the traits the customer is looking for.”
Standing, Martin wiped the last grains of Zen-garden from his hands. “I’ll be frank, you’re not it. I knew this before you even crossed my threshold. I feel like I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you why.”
Martin circled to Stewart’s side of the desk.
He made a square with his fingers, a director framing a scene. “Your posture tells me you’re closed off. You look like a marionette laid to rest, legs crossed, arms over your chest. You have none of the bravado to back up your selling points.”
Uncrossing his ninety degree angles, Stewart stiffened up.
Martin nodded to himself, confirming his assumption. “I knew it the moment I felt your slimy handshake, with your ring finger shorter than your pointer, this isn’t the man I’m looking for.”
Scooping up the workout tool, Martin slipped his finger through the loop. He spun it like a gunslinger.
“From then on you kept confirming my instincts. Staring at the bridge of my nose to avoid eye contact. Not taking the coffee. Being easily distracted by the pendulum on the desk. You do realize that was a test, don’t you?”
Martin squeezed the hand grip, like he was ringing a neck.
“But really, I knew all this the moment I spotted your yellow tie. Yellow is the color of cowardice, of betrayal, sickness and disease. A man who wears a yellow tie to an interview doesn’t want the job. This makes me wonder why someone with no confidence is trying to sell me on his penchant for insubordination. You’re running some kind of unemployment scam, aren’t you? I ought to offer you a mailroom position just to fuck it up.”
Stewart bit his lip. His face went cold. The pendulum began swinging on it’s own, drawing a shape in the sand. Stewart squint. Guided by an invisible force, the pendulum traced a glyph; the hook of a question mark, the zigzag of lightning, and the three points of a pitchfork.
The certificates shook. Photographs slipped out of their frames and slid across the floor. Standing, Stewart stepped on Martin’s muck ridden portrait.
“I too would feel like I was doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you something.” Stewart’s voice echoed through the building, a message delayed by a loudspeaker system.
His cowlick shot straight up, followed by the rest of his hair. The brown follicles turned bleach blonde. Smoke spiraled off the bangs. Stewart’s loafers grazed the carpet. Levitating off the ground, his posture corrected itself.
Rolling over his computer, Martin ducked for cover behind his desk. With the flick of the wrist, Stewart sent it through the wall. The screeching of its feet trailed off until it crashed. A sheet of dry wall collapsed into a pile of pebbles.
“Now it’s an open office.” Stewart’s voice boomed over the screams of panicked workers.
The Zen-garden came down in a heap. The hand grip tool spun end over end, landing in the dirt.
Martin hugged his rolling chair, a shipwrecked surviver with a floatation device. Making a pinching motion, Stewart plucked it free. Catching it, Martin rolled it back. Stewart found himself playing pantomime tug of war. Tugging the chair, he made Martin face plant into the Zen-garden. Whatever he’d slathered his skin in, gave every grain of sand a surface to stick to.
Stewart rose until his shoulder blades dug into the ceiling tiles. The chair rolled into his shadow. Coming in for a soft landing, Stewart took his seat, an emperor on his new throne.
Stewart crossed his legs, blowing the sand off the armrest. “Now that’s more like it.”
Pinching the air, Stewart pulled Martin up by his tie, forcing him into the modified cobra position.
Stewart glanced over his shoulder. “Of the four conference rooms on this floor, you’ve filled each of them. That’s half of your workforce passively listening, while the other half tries to pick up the slack.”
Through the window behind him, Stewart saw the facilitators poking their heads out, their smiles had flat lined, the pep had gone from their steps. Some of the staff stood frozen, while others ducked down, turning the spaces between the tables into foxholes.
Snapping his fingers, Stewart closed the blinds. “Punctual as I am, I had an opportunity to listen in on these meetings. Rather than tell your employees to respect the speaker, the facilitators asked for suggestions on how to do so. The meetings couldn’t start until the group stated the obvious: put your phones away, wait your turn, and stay on topic. The facilitators spoke the least. They drew out answers by asking questions. They confirmed nothing, offered no conclusions, and came to no ultimate ends.”
Twirling his finger, Stewart raised a tiny tornado from the remnants of the Zen-garden. He flung it at Martin.
“I actually knew Socrates, and there was a lot more to his method than that.” Stewart shook his head. “Whenever an employee realized the only way to get the ball rolling was to answer every question, the facilitator stopped calling on them, shutting out the very people who should be leading these meetings.”
The fluorescent lights flickered. Bulbs burst. Martin covered his head as glass rained down. Stewart cracked his neck. There was a flash of lightning, followed by a series of pops trailing off into the distance. The only lights that survived were in the exit signs.
Martin cupped his hands in prayer. “Oh Jesus, oh sweet baby Jesus on Santa’s lap, protect me.”
Stewarts eyes turned white. Sparks flowed from his gaze. His voice rattled the windows. “This company needs my omnipotence to look out for its interests. It needs me to sniff out the time thieves that schedule these meetings. You see, I eat waste. I devoir redundancy, and I am very hungry.”
Quivering, Martin tried not to look at the deity that had invaded his office. Stealing a glance, white streaks washed through his hair. Looking away, he saw the wheels rise off the floor. The rolling chair ascended.
Grains of sand took orbit around Stewart like rings around a planet. He sat in the lotus position. “Employees can only maintain social relationships with about one-hundred-and-fifty coworkers. This team has one-hundred too many. My belly growls just thinking about it. I’m here to pick the group-thinkers out of the herd, whether they’re grazing the carpet or standing watch from a corner office. I specialize in team dismantling.”
Martin groveled. “I didn’t mean to insult your tie, my lord, my-my master. Had you led with this level of confidence, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“But we are having it.” Stewart’s voice echoed from all sides. The rear window shattered.
Martin’s hands shook uncontrollably. His skin was awash with moonlight. Turning to the open window, he found a trinity of orbs floating in an unfamiliar sky.
Glowing neon yellow, the orbs pulsed with Stewart’s words. “With all the blood that passes through these teeth, I would never wear something so garish as a red power tie.”
Martin turned back to find Stewart’s tie had grown longer. With Stewart floating in the air, the tie hung down past his ankles. It stretched toward Martin, bobbing back and forth, a silk snake hypnotizing its prey.
Stewart’s big white eyes turned gold, “Yellow is the color of cowardice, and I’ve made you cower before me. Yellow is the color of sickness, and I am the plague that eats excess. Yellow is the color of treachery, and I am the knife that cuts the wheat from the chaff.”
Martin teetered back and forth, afraid that at any moment the tie might strike. “Please dark lord, spare your humble servant, and he shall make sounder assessments in the future.”
Raising his chin, Stewart sneered. “A worshiper once mispronounced my name whilst offering tribute. I squeezed his wrist until it burst.”
Extending his arm, the hand grip tool flew from the sand into Stewart’s palm. Working it around in his fingers, he reduced it into twinkling specks of dust.
“Do you really want to experience the full strength of my handshake?”
Martin shook his head. Tears streaked down his cheeks. Snot bubbled from his nose. Drool spilled from his lips.
The yellow tie coiled around Martin’s neck. Wedging his fingers beneath the silk, he couldn’t stop it from lifting him off the floor, up to Stewart’s eye level. The deity gripped the air. Invisible talons dug into Martin’s torso, offering slight relief to the strain on his neck. Stewart pulled him closer. The hiring manager and the applicant were face to face.
The whites of Stewart’s eyes filled with downward line graphs. “Your earning reports prophesied the fall of your profits, yet you continued to employ the same methods. You did the same things and expected different results. Lacking inspiration you tried to spark creativity through brainstorming.”
Martin struggled in his silk bonds. “But it’s a democratic process, we defer criticism, we welcome all ideas.” Martin kicked the air. “Quantity breeds quality.” He cried.
Stewart waved his finger, an animal tamer commanding his pet. The tie looped through Martin’s armpits, crisscrossing over his chest. Stewart would see him mummified for his mockery.
Stewart’s eyes filled with a pair of slides featuring a college campus. “In 1963 a group of research scientists, at the U of M, were asked to brainstorm, first together and then on their own. They produced better results when they were left to their own devices. They found that even in a welcoming environment, the fear of judgement persists. The outspoken dominated the conversation, while the soft spoken kept their ideas to themselves.”
Stewart blinked. His eyes filled with a landmass Martin didn’t recognize.
“I could’ve told them this. My followers in the Mediterranean tried to pool their resources to meet my blood sacrament quota. When they failed to deliver every last drop, I sunk their island to the bottom of the ocean.”
Martin’s face turned purple. His eyes bulged out. “You want blood?” He coughed. “The Red Cross is a client. They’re overflowing with donations. I can get you blood.”
Stewart’s irises returned long enough to allow him to roll his eyes. “I have been summoned by your overlords, called across distant shores, to make an example for your fellow employees. All of you hear me now.”
The building quaked. The staff cupped their ears. Blood trickled through their fingers.
Stewart addressed his flock, “I am the lord of layoffs. The father of phasing out. The demigod of downsizing. I make Anubis look merciful. I make Hades look like a humanitarian. I make Satan look sympathetic in comparison. There will be no bargains. There will be no mercy. I know all your sins. St. Peter doesn’t have shit on me.”
Stewart’s eyes filled with a set of scales. One rose, the other descended. “I find you guilty of tearing down the borders between cubicles, of running meaningless meetings, of over simplifying the Socratic method, of flooding your boardrooms with brainstorming sessions, of misreading micro expressions, of making assumptions based on the shape of an applicant’s hand.”
Pillars of lightning crashed around them, blasting holes through the marble tiles. Smoke shot through the gaps. Shrieks echoed through the building. The room shook as the floor fell out beneath them.
Stewart pressed his finger into Martin’s chest. “Indeed my pointer is longer than my ring finger, and it’s pointing at you now.”
Stewart breached the pinstripe coat. Martin’s flesh sizzled. Smoke billowed up his collar. His red power tie caught fire. His spray-on tan dripped down his cheeks. Hair product bled from his bangs. The yellow tie tightened around its prey. Cinders sparked through the gaps. Ash spilled from Martin’s cufflinks.
Stewart raised his eyebrow. “I deem thee unworthy.”
Unhinging his jaw, the applicant made a lasting impression on the hiring manager.
The rain came down in needles, then nails, then bullets. Droplets rose as others fell. The water churned with frothy green foam, the color of grass.
The storm drains were clogged with placemats and Styrofoam doggy bags. The parking lot had become a pool. Waves crashed against the cars. They splashed over the fenders, leaving leaves, like flyers, in the windshield wipers.
The owners of the vehicles in the shallow end might have been able to hydroplane their way out, to slip down the water slide of the highway, to glide to their destinations, so long as they were heading south. As for the rest of us, we’d need boat motors.
“We’re rained in.” I stated the obvious from my place between the blinds.
The front door swung open. The entryway filled up fast, setting the papers and travel maps afloat. The next door creaked against the water’s weight.
The welcome bell let out a piercing ring.
The door yawned open. A tidal wave brought the mat inside, followed by cigarette butts, and the stink of a dozen dead worms. The water ran over the checkered tiles. My pals had to lift their backpacks up into the booth.
The diner was flooded in an instant.
I splashed through the puddle until I found myself wading through it. My skinny jeans felt skinnier as I drudged on. I was up to my knees by the time I’d made it to the threshold. My thighs took the brunt of the second wave. The smell made me feel like I’d fallen into a toilet.
The diner was at one of the lowest points in the valley. Now all the sewage was converging on us.
My pockets were too small for my phone, which meant it was gargling water through its headphone jack.
“God damn it.” I said, damning Poseidon specifically, even if rainwater was outside of his jurisdiction. Poseidon responded by tilting the rain sideways, to pelt me in the face. My bangs trickled down my forehead and into my eyes.
Outside, the sign wobbled, a drunk in the wind. It bowed its head. Letters flew off it. They sliced through trees like throwing stars.
Leaves rained down from the roof, followed by the shingles, then the gutters. The gutters rolled across the sidewalk and into the maelstrom. They floated away.
Across the street, the cliff side eroded before my eyes. Fountains shot out of the gravel. It would be Swiss cheese by the end of the night, if it was anything at all.
A branch fell out of the sky and onto a big rig. It crushed the windshield and planted its roots into the hood.
I reached for the door. The handle swung away. I tried to press on but my pumps didn’t give me much traction.
Lightning struck a tree on the cliff above, reducing it to splinters. The pieces flew up into the air like confetti. Then they swirled around. I knew the makings of a funnel cloud when I saw one.
The grey mass grew quick. It looked like it was sucking down the moon. It moved over the cliff and descended into the valley.
I grabbed the door handle, clutching it if only to keep my footing. Another wave of rose to my waist, and I really liked that belt. I pushed the door, but it pushed back.
“Should we help her?” Caitlin said from the comfort of the booth.
Sam’s combat boots splashed into the water. His keys jangled from his wallet chain.
There was a digital click from the booth behind me. Jake must have been taking snapshots.
Sam said, “Dude, Teresa’s got this.”
It occurred to me that it was Jake who got up, and Sam who sat there taking photos. I’d reversed their roles in my head. When something’s in your blind spot, you only see what you want to.
I fished my pumps out of the water and cast them aside. The balls of my feet weren’t getting the job done. I had to put my heels into it. I grit my teeth. I pushed all my weight against the door. My tongue pressed the metal retainer between my lower mandible canines. I had to make every inch count. My biceps pulsed from the resistance. Downward facing dog had nothing on this.
The door gave. I shut it and flipped the padlock. Debris bumped against the glass. The entryway took on an aquarium quality. I caught my breath as a school of bottles floated by.
Applause echoed through the diner.
I spun around to give my mates a bow. “Did anyone see where my shoes went?”
Their phones flashed at me.
Caitlin turned hers sideways to align her shot. “The water ballerina in her natural habitat, so elegant, so graceful.”
I drudged toward the booth. “I need to see those before you post them.”
Sam set his phone on the table, “You’ll have plenty of time. I’m getting dick for reception down here.”
Jake slid back into the booth, “You get dick for everything.”
Sam shrugged his broad shoulders, “I’m easy to shop for.”
The diner’s lone waitress emerged from the janitor’s closet with a mop in hand. When she saw the extent of the flooding, she dropped it in. Then she fished a pack of cigarettes from her apron and lit one up. There was no one around to enforce the smoking ban. We were waterlogged. As far as we were concerned, this waitress was the law.
Jake said, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em kids.” Then he lit one up.
We followed suit. Sam shook the creamers out of the bowl, revealing the ashtray it was always meant to be.
Sam lit a match, drove it into his thick lips, and puckered until his cigarette was lit. He exhaled out the side of his mouth, putting the flame out with the smoke. His cherry crackled as he sucked it in. Smoke shot out his nostrils. He said, “I take it we’re not gonna see those caves we came all this way for?”
I made a so-so gesture, “Not unless we’re snorkeling.”
Jake stood up on his seat. He held his phone toward the ceiling. “If one of us can get a signal, we can still find a spot to do some urban exploration.”
Caitlin adjusted her thick-rimmed vanity glasses, “We’d have to be someplace urban to do that.”
Jake raised his phone too high to see the bars. “Whatever, ‘rural exploration’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
Sam pointed his cigarette to the entryway. “We could go analog.”
I shook my head, “No can do. All the tourist maps were lost in the flood.”
Caitlin tugged Jake by the suspenders that hung from his waist. He fell back into the booth, a dog on a choke chain.
Jake found a pair of straw wrappers on the table. He folded one over the other until he had himself a paper spring. Then he unwrapped his silverware. We smoked in silence as he twisted his napkin into a stem. Then he wrapped it around the top of his thumb to create a flower. I was relieved when he left it on his side of the table.
Jake reached for my silverware, “So I take it we’re trapped here then?”
“Looks like.” Sam nodded; too cool to draw attention to the smoke ring he had blown.
Jake unrolled the napkin from my silverware and smoothed it out in front of him. He glanced up, “You know, there are so many Twilight Zone episodes that start out with a group of people trapped in diner just like this.”
Caitlin adjust her flat lenses, “You mean that show with Forrest Whitaker?”
Jake shot her an angry eyebrow, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” He folded a corner of the napkin to form a triangle, then he tore away the rectangle beneath it. Jake shook his head, “You know, we’re going to run out of cigarettes, right?”
Everyone exchanged looks. The situation had gotten serious.
The waitress wrapped her nails against the table. Every vein showed through her skin. Her hair was tumbleweed that had settled on her head, a thinning bun dyed fire engine red.
Crow’s feet cut jowls through her cheeks. Skin dangled beneath her chin, like a turkey’s wattle. Her nose was crooked and white whiskers marked her muzzle.
She was a cautionary tale, a warning for anyone who stayed in this town too long.
Her cigarette peaked out her mouth, red with lipstick. “You kids want anything other than coffee tonight?”
We turned as a unit to exhale in her face.
She squinted as the smoke rippled through her hair. Then she exhaled right back at us. “Well, all right then.”
The waitress splashed away, with the water soaking into the panty hose at her ankles. She climbed a stool and sat cross-legged on the bar. She fished the pack from her apron, and lit a fresh cigarette with the butt of the last one.
I followed suit. One smoker’s bad habits have a way of justifying another’s. Triggers are contagious. It’s kind of like yawning. One person does it and those of us with an empathetic eye do it too. I wasn’t addicted. I was emotionally in tune with our waitress’s feelings.
Sam ran his hand down his five o’clock shadow, “What was her name again?”
I shrugged, “The hell if I know.”
Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. It rattled the windows. Jake bent the neck of his origami swan. Sam shuddered. The cherry broke off his cigarette and rolled across the table. Caitlin raised her glass to stomp it out. Sam grinned. He gave her that big dimpled smile of his, flashing both rows of teeth. Oh how it reminded me of Ewan McGregor.
Caitlin returned the smile in kind. They held eye contact until she blushed and looked away. She found me staring. I shifted my gaze.
Thunder struck. It kicked up the bass like a subwoofer in the sky. I fell out of the booth and into the water. It soaked through my tank top and half of my bra. Now I was lopsided.
I scrambled to find my footing, only to fall back to the floor. My bare feet didn’t give me much in the way of traction. I braced myself, expecting to feel a hand on my shoulder, a good strong grip to help me find my balance. It never came.
I turned to find Caitlin lighting Sam’s cigarette.
Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed, and Caitlin’s spark was the only light left in the room.
I fished my phone out of my pocket, only to find it wouldn’t turn on. Water dripped out of the charging port. There was a back-up in a cloud somewhere, but this cloud, the one bearing down on us, just took my phone out.
My friends held their screens up high.
Jake saw me there, wallowing. “Whoa, do you want a hand?
I did, just not his.
Jake squint, “What?”
I wrenched myself up, pressing my phone into the tile, drowning it even further. “What, what?”
Jake’s eyes shift back and forth as he tried to process something. He leaned forward, “I thought you said something.”
I said, “Okay,” drawing out the ‘Y’ with an upward inflection. It was Jake’s turn to feel awkward. I’d done my time for the evening.
The table dimmed before me. Sam and Caitlin had shifted their phones to light each other’s faces.
“Are you all right?” Sam asked her, oblivious to the hot mess sitting right beside him.
Caitlin’s head was frozen in the middle of a nod. Her eyes never strayed from contact.
You know when you choose not to recognize a pattern until it becomes a whole?
“No, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” Jake said to no one in particular.
I glanced up to find he was talking to me. I pointed to my mouth, “Were my lips moving?”
Jake shook his head. He tongued his molars like he was trying to get a popcorn kernel out. He looked over his shoulder. He shined his phone into the empty booth behind us. Then he stood back up on the seat. He shined his light on the ceiling. “Do you think the speakers for the jukebox are on a different circuit than the lights?”
Sam chuckled, “You think the circuit flipped at the same time the lighting struck? That’s a hell of a coincidence. No dude, the line is down.”
Jake scanned the bar with his phone, the waitress sat frozen like a cat in the dark. The truckers were scattered throughout the booths. They whispered. Then Jake cast his light on me.
He tilt his ear up to the speakers, “I wouldn’t rule out the circuit, just yet. I know I heard something.”
I lift my glass to my lips, “Let’s see if I can throw my voice while I drink this water.”
Jake shook his head as he sat back down, “It did sound like you. It was little raspier and a lot more confident.”
Sam shift his gaze from Caitlin, “You think it could’ve been the wind?”
Jake looked to the entryway, bolted and buried under water. He gave that a nervous laugh, “What wind?”
Caitlin smirked with confusion in her eyes, “What did this voice say? Did it tell you to do anything we should know about? You’re not about to flash us, are you?”
Jake gave that a diagonal nod, neither confirming nor denying.
Caitlin rested her hands on the table, a blackjack dealer who’s laid out all her cards. Sam mirrored her from across the booth. He raised an eyebrow toward Jake, still listening for that phantom jukebox. Caitlin sneered back. They were already speaking in code.
Jake slid back into the booth, “It said something about pattern recognition.”
Sam’s interest peaked, “So the voice is talking about complex cognitive stimuli? Do you think it’s a podcast, maybe a lecture on neurobiology?”
Sam couldn’t resist the urge to pile on the jargon. He whipped out his knowledge of pop psychology whenever he could. I’m surprised he didn’t name drop Malcolm Gladwell while he was at it.
Jake peered over my shoulder, “There it is again.”
Something has wiped the grin off of Sam’s face. He nodded, “I heard it that time. It faded in and out really quickly, but I heard it.”
I looked around the room. Some of the truckers took the outage as their cue to fall asleep at their tables. This sort of thing was old hat to them. Others leered at us. They knew we were up past our bedtime.
Their eyes hid beneath the shadow of their brows. I couldn’t tell if they were lonely or hungry.
Apart from Caitlin, our waitress, and myself, there wasn’t another woman in the room.
I said, “Do you think the voice might have come from one of their cell phones?”
Sam shrugged. Anything was possible.
Caitlin leaned forward, closing the gap between Sam and herself. She whispered, “It said something about Malcolm Gladwell. Did you hear it?”
Sam nodded. He believed her all right. I imagined this would be the first of many agreements between them.
Jake shot up, “‘The first of many agreements between them.’ Did you hear that?”
It felt like a foot had walked on my grave, then dropped a cigarette, and stomped the cherry out. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was driving Jake battier than usual. Worse still, it was driving Sam and Caitlin into each other’s arms.
That’s when I heard it too. A voice, much like my own said, “Into each other’s arms.”
I went white.
Thunder struck. A branch slammed against the window. The blinds shot up revealing a dozen spider web cracks in the glass. The window held, but it was clear that the branch’s trajectory was directed right at us.
I shook myself out of thought, “We should switch booths.”
Jake stepped out into the water. He nodded, “Yeah, reality is broken in this one.”
Jake had no idea how right he was. He froze in place. The water settled around his ankles. He turned to me. I was about to ask what it was but he shushed me. He cupped his hand over his ear, signaling the group to shut up and listen. He motioned for everyone to sit back down. I pointed toward the window, toward the branch that had nearly crushed us. He shook his head and motioned for us to sit.
Jake drudged through the water on his way to the bar. He looked over his shoulder to make sure that we were following the plot. He lift himself up onto a stool, then stepped onto the counter top. Spinning around to face us, he unbuckled his belt and pulled it through the notches, slowly.
The waitress smoked her cigarette, oblivious.
Sam whispered, “I think he’s going to go the full Monty.”
Caitlin and I turned to shush him. We turned back to find Jake had indeed dropped trou. His boxer-briefs had red stripes and a jolly roger printed on the thigh. The lines made his bulge all the more obvious. He paced the bar with his pants at his ankles. Of course, his gaze was fixed on me the entire time.
Jake froze. He looked up at the ceiling, or through the ceiling, up toward God. He pulled his pants back up, “You all heard it say, ‘He paced the bar with his pants at his ankles. His gaze was fixed on me the entire time.’ You heard that right?”
We nodded. We had.
Jake sat on the bar, his fly hung open. He bit his thumb and scanned the room, to hide the fact that he was zipping his pants. Jake said, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think we’re being narrated.”
Caitlin held her phone to the ceiling, scanning the edges with her light. “You think this might be some kind of reality show?”
Sam raised his phone to join in the hunt for the hidden camera. He said, “It could be like that show on Sci-Fi where they trick people into thinking they’re seeing something paranormal?”
Jake shook his head, “That show got cancelled.” He put his hand behind his back. I had no idea what he was up to. When his hand came back out he was holding two fingers up, then he spun them around to give me the two-finger salute.
“Then he spun them around to give me the two-finger salute.” Jake repeated. He pointed to me, “If it was third person omniscient. The voice might have seen the number I held behind my back. It didn’t. That’s because Teresa is narrating, from the future. That voice we all hear, that’s what she’s going to sound like after a few decades of smoking.”
Jake had gone from putting out a cigarette on my grave to moonwalking across it.
“Moonwalking across it.” Jake repeated, “What does that even mean?”
I held my hands up. I wasn’t dropping any weapons. Jake didn’t have any trained on me, but it felt like the right thing to do.
I said, “I have no idea what’s going on here, but I want it to stop.” But it wouldn’t stop.
Jake bit his lip, tried to shake the taste out of his mouth. He shook his finger at me. He said, “There, you just changed tenses. You said that you want it to stop. Then you said it wouldn’t stop.”
I raised my hands higher, “I just said that I wanted it to stop.”
Jake kicked off the counter and leapt into the water. His Carhartts would rest extra heavy on his waist tonight. He might actually need those suspenders. Jake raised a contemplative finger, “You said you want it to stop, in the present tense. Then your voice said, that it wouldn’t stop. What does that tell you?”
Sam put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “That she doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Jake reeled his finger around an imaginary fishing line, “But, but…”
Caitlin put her hand on my other shoulder, “The version of her that’s narrating does.”
Jake snapped his fingers, “She’s foreshadowing.”
It only took me a moment to catch up. My head was thick, but I caught on quick. “You know, I heard that.” I said to myself in the future.
The blinds shuddered. The wind spread the webbing through the glass. The window creaked. It bent inward. The shards were reaching out for us. Soon the window would burst and the storm would be inside the room.
I observed this with a cautious wait and see attitude, but something about hearing my concerns aloud gave me a certainty that they would come true.
I stepped out of the booth and into the water. It had gotten much colder as the night progressed. I shivered. My teeth chattered. The room went silent. Everyone was listening for the sound of my teeth.
I turned to find Caitlin shining her phone in my face. She was gratified to see that my description was accurate.
Caitlin shined her phone under her chin, “You don’t know that I’m gratified. I might just be concerned for your wellbeing. Did you ever think of that?”
I pointed to her phone with my index finger, then behind me with my thumb. She didn’t get the gesture, until she heard it narrated.
She lit my way down the aisle. I felt for coat hooks until I came to a booth in the far back. It was no storm cellar, but it would have to do.
I signaled for Caitlin to follow. She didn’t see the gesture, but she came once she heard it narrated. Either she really needed those glasses or she was an auditory learner. Sam followed close behind her. He slid into the same side of the booth, resuming his assigned seat. He looked to it, having heard it described, then grimaced at me.
I slid into the booth. “What if, this narration of mine isn’t the problem? What if it’s the solution to some greater problem? Did anyone bother to think of that?”
Jake tried to follow the ripples we left. There was a leak in the ceiling. Rain drops trickled in front of him. Our trail was wiped clean. He tried to listen for us, but all he heard was the sound of the Narrator narrating his attempt to listen.
Jake called out, “So your voice over is gonna tell us whether we should find shelter, or seek higher ground, right?
I called back, “Maybe. Maybe it’s telling us to hold tight.”
Sam tapped my head like it was a broken hard drive, “Maybe we can trick it into foreshadowing something useful.”
Little did he know, that with that gesture, I lost much of the affection I’d been holding out for him. His cool exterior was frozen through. There was an iceberg where his shoulder ought to be. If the narration was here to save any of us, he was the least of my priorities. If the room was about to flood, Sam better know how to swim, because I wasn’t dragging his ass out of the water. If he got struck by lightning, someone else better know CPR, because I wasn’t going anywhere near those lips. If Sam were impaled by falling debris, I’d be the first to say, “He’s done for.”
I covered my mouth, though I hadn’t spoken.
Caitlin scowled behind her flat lenses. Her mouth hung open like a nutcracker. She shut it the moment she heard it described like that.
Jake took his time sliding into the booth. He looked to Sam, to Caitlin, then to me. He tried to gage our reactions to the Narrator’s off the cuff remarks. There was no way he could do this without drawing attention to himself. He nodded at the Narrator’s observation.
Jake said, “You know if you close your eyes, it might just stop.”
I did. Caitlin sighed. Not a sigh of relief, but of annoyance. Sam joined in. They’d gone from mirroring, to echoing one another. Soon they’d be on the same cycle.
Jake slapped the table, “Okay, never mind. That’s not going to work.”
I opened my eyes. Sam showed me the shaved side of his head. He stared at the paneling. He didn’t want me describing his impossibly turquoise eyes, the way they seemed to glow in the dark. He didn’t want me noting his jet black pompadour, or his perfectly even sideburns, with the specs of silver already coming in. The last thing he needed was for someone to describe his lips, how they seemed to stay moist, even when they were chapped.
He raised his hand to cover his face, but it was no use. I had committed it to memory. Still, he couldn’t have me reading his expression, sussing out meaning, and bending it to suit my narrative. The more he resist the more he lived into the Narrator’s portrayal. He was a boy in a man costume, one that fit less and less as the night wore on.
Whoever Sam really was, he was not the man I’d fantasized about spending the rest of–
“Shut up!” I cried, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
Sam winced. He scooted in until his hip hit the paneling. I touched his forearm. He shook it free.
He showed me his teeth. There were no dimples in this expression, just creases in his nose that I’d never seen before. He rolled his eyes at the Narrator’s description. Then he shook his head when it said he rolled his eyes. He scratched his nails into the table, looked up, and checked an imaginary watch, waiting for the Narrator to give him a moment to think.
Sam took a deep breath, exhaled, “Teresa, we’re hearing this because you thought, or will think, to write it down. So whatever excuse you’re about to give, you clearly don’t mean it.”
I gave one anyway. I said, “Sam, you’ve known me for a while, enough to know that whatever resentment I feel tonight will pass. The Narrator is being recklessly cruel for dramatic effect. That’s all. Conflict is the heart of drama. It’s stirring things up to keep the plot moving, but me right here, right now,” I pointed to the ceiling, “I don’t mean any of this shit.”
It was a bold faced lie, and they all knew it, or at least they did once they heard this narration say it aloud.
“God damn it!” Jake slammed his palms against the table. The silverware shook. He balled his fingers into fists, “The Narrator just acknowledged what it is and what it’s doing, in the past and the present tense. Soon it won’t even need to talk to us. It’ll just feed back onto itself.”
The thought had occurred to me. Then I heard myself acknowledge that it had. Then I heard myself acknowledge that it had acknowledged that it had. Then–
Jake leaned over the table to grab me by the shoulders. He shook me. “Stop thinking!” The boy spat when he spoke. He wiped his mouth upon hearing that he did. He shift his eyes back and forth from the ceiling to me, “If you don’t stop this, I swear to God, I’m going to throw you through the forth wall myself.”
Something in Jake’s tone confirmed my first impression of him. I could always spot the confrontational ones. The ones who would corner you and say, “What are you thinking? What do you mean by that? When are you going to know how you feel?”
I knew some girls who’d had classes with Jake. They said he was funny, mostly harmless, but deep down I knew that he was attracted to me. That he would try to bury it only to have it flair up from time to time.
He knew the chemistry wasn’t there, but lauded on the compliments all the same, hoping he might find the right formula. I took them, if only to let those awkward moments pass, but I never returned them. That would have been an invitation. Ours was a one-way relationship. Jake had all this love and I had no place to put it. He stockpiled it until it turned to resentment.
Now he was sitting on a powder keg that could go off at any–
“Shut up!” Jake and I shouted in unison.
It figures the keg had to go off on the last night I saw him alive. Behind every self declared ‘nice-guy’ was an asshole waiting to shit on everything.
Jake shot up, “Wait, what?” He stepped out of the booth, made the sign of the cross with his fingers and backed into the water.
I put my hands back up, “I didn’t mean to call you an asshole.”
Jake’s hands strangled an invisible neck. “I’m a tad bit more concerned about the part where you know how I’m going to die?”
Shaking my head, I put my hand over my heart, “I don’t. Future tense me seems to have an inkling.” I tilt my head to the ceiling, “Care to give us some clarity on that, oh vague one?”
The Narrator wasn’t there to serve us. As far as it was concerned all this had happened already. It was no help at all.
“No shit?” I said to the Narrator.
I snatched Sam’s silverware roll and chucked it at the ceiling. It hit the fan and burst open. The utensils rained down on Jake. He stumbled back, terrified by the glint of a butter knife.
I ran my hand down my face, “Why did you say, ‘I said?’ We all know that I’m the one who’s talking, or are we not your target demo here?”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Goosebumps ran down my forearms. You know when you realize the truth of a statement halfway through saying it.
Wind blew through my hair. The kitchen door creaked open. The restrooms unlatched. I looked to the window. By now, it was nothing but a wall of shards, but it was still there. I looked to the entryway. The water had risen, but the padlock held firm.
A breeze blew through my bangs. I turned, not toward an emergency exit, but to the darkest corner of the diner. There were walls there when we walked in. It felt like they had collapsed, like the room had decompressed. The storm hadn’t pierced our fortress, but something else had.
There was movement in the water. Not in the water itself, but in its surface. I leaned out of the booth to look at my reflection. The silhouette mirrored my movements. My head neared the water, but those weren’t my eyes staring back at me.
They were yours.
You squint as if you were rereading a sentence, as if you were having your own private epiphany. Maybe you were just mirroring my eyes. With enough empathy, even yawns are contagious.
A match sparked behind me. I blinked and you were gone. I sensed your eyes, but I couldn’t see you anymore.
Sam lit another cigarette, exhaled from his mouth, and inhaled through his nostrils. He was about to recirculate that smoke when he realized everyone was watching him do it. He shift the smoke out the side of his mouth and blew it into my face. I could still see that stained yellow smile with my eyes closed. With his pack a day habit, I couldn’t help but wonder what his tongue tasted like.
Then I realized he’d never give me the chance to find out.
Oh, how I had hoped that thought would pass by unmarked. It didn’t, and I couldn’t help but blush. The group’s attention shifted back to me. I had turned beat red.
Sam exchanged dirty looks with Caitlin.
Jake held his phone to my face, “You know, that wasn’t a hyperbole, you’re actually turning red.”
Tears swelled in my eyes. “I’m aware of that thank you.” I tried to sneak a sniffle, but the Narrator called me out. I flat out snorted. I figured in for penny in for a pound right? Whatever it took to distract Jake from his imminent death.
Jake backed further away from the booth. He shook his phone at me, “You’re a witch. You know that? A full on broomstick riding, purple monkey taming, witch.”
He was afraid, so I let his tirade go unmarked, mostly unmarked. If he only knew how close the grim reaper really was.
Sam elbowed the back of the booth. He cupped his hands over his mouth, “Quit foreshadowing, and just put out already.”
Put out already? There was a phrase I didn’t think was even in Sam’s vocabulary. He struck me as the type of guy that always walked a path that led straight to sex. Never figured he’d say something like that when he got stuck at a toll booth. With my heart-shaped glasses broken, I was starting to see him for the sleaze ball he really was.
I nodded to the ceiling. We were finally seeing eye to eye.
Caitlin set her vanity glasses on the table. She crossed her arms, “Put out’ is a really poor choice of words.” The girl wasn’t the ditz my damaged ego wanted her to be.
Caitlin gave the Narrator’s observation a sideways nod. It had paid her a backhanded compliment, but a compliment all the same.
Jake slapped his palm to his forehead. Then he looked up, “It’s called a ‘face palm’ you condescending bitch.”
I couldn’t fault Jake his anger, given his imminent execution.
“Well, that’s nice.” Jake put his hands on his waist in a power stance that didn’t suit him. Then he dropped them, hoping no one would notice. He said, “Just tell me how I’m going to die already.”
I sighed, “I don’t think it works that way. We can receive messages, but I don’t think we can send them back.”
Jake bit his lip. “You just have to remember to tell me from the future.”
I wanted to, but somehow I knew that wouldn’t work. The story had already cashed in all of its exposition explaining itself to us, to you. It couldn’t afford to give away anymore. The events would have to play out on their own.
Jake threw his hands up, “Really?” He kicked the water, “You know, if this was my story I’d tell it very differently.” He pointed his finger. “I’d say Teresa chose to be single, just to mock her suitors with her own loneliness. She used the halves of her broken heart to smash everyone else’s to bits. She didn’t need to know that we had our own needs, because we were just guests at her pity party.”
Jake waved his arms. He spun around and knocked the register over. It dragged the receipt printer down with it. Power cords straightened across the countertop. The till splashed into the water. The monitor and the printer dangled over the side. Then the power strip leapt up onto the counter and everything went for a dip.
Our waitress didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. The crossword section lay out in front of her. She chewed on a pen as she mouthed something from the question key, oblivious to the narration and us.
Jake kicked water up at me. He looked like he wanted to–
“Show don’t tell!” Jake shouted at the ceiling. Then he pointed to the truckers asleep in the dark. “If this was my story I’d use everybody in the room. We haven’t heard all that much from those highway hillbillies. They ought to have something to say about all this.”
They were sound asleep. Whatever refuge he sought in them had only made them drowsy. There was only the Narrator and his fate.
Jake’s shoulders sunk. He exhaled. He knelt down into the water, closed his eyes in a silent prayer. He was acting out the seven stages of grief and was coming up on the last one.
Jake winced at the ceiling, “That might be a good line, but I’m not accepting shit,” He looked to me, “and neither should you.”
Jake chuckled to himself, rubbed his eyes and sniffled. He said, “If this was my story and you were the one on death’s door, I’d have told you how much you mattered to me. When I first met you, I just wanted to get into your pants. That much was true. When that didn’t happen, I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t. Something told me that my life would be better with you in it, that, expectations aside, I’d be better for having known you.”
There was no use holding the tears back. The Narrator would just tattle on me anyway.
Jake sighed. He’d said his piece. Now he was making peace with it. He smirked, “When you’re the version of yourself that’s narrating this shit. Tell her to give me a fucking break.”
As far as last words went, that was as good as Jake was going to do.
I shot up and shouted, “Get up on the counter. Right now!”
Jake sprung to his feet, drudged through the water and scurried up onto a stool. Sam and Caitlin jumped up onto the booth.
The exit signs buzzed to life, then the lights flickered back on. Sparks shot from the power strip on the counter. The monitor for the register lit up. There was a flash of lightning beneath the water. It continued to strobe as an electric current ran through the room.
“Will you look at that.” The waitress glanced up from her crossword.
The truckers convulsed in their seats as the water shocked their ankles.
Jake rolled up onto the counter, “The hell?”
I yelled, “Kick the power strip!”
Jake kicked the plug for the printer free, but only bent the one for the monitor.
The truckers went stiff as every muscle in their bodies tensed up. Their arms straightened and their knees locked. They stood.
Jake gave the strip another good thwack and the second plug ripped free.
The truckers fell forward. They face planted into their hash browns. Smoke rose off their beards. They were out, but they were breathing.
Jake fell flat on the countertop. He let out a long breath. The ceiling fan spun back to life. There was a pop over the speakers. It was followed by the opening piano melody for Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
Jake cackled at the jukebox, “A little on the nose, don’t you think?”
He dug into his pocket fishing out a pack of American Spirits. When he flipped it open a brown sludge spilled out. He tossed it over the side. A hand set a cigarette in his mouth. He looked up to find the waitress with her lighter at the ready.
She winked, “Your coffee’s on me tonight, Hun.” Then she pointed our way, “Not theirs’ though. I didn’t much care for how your friend there described me.” She leered in my direction, “What did you call me: cautionary tale, a warning for anyone who stayed in this town too long? Words sting dear. They really do.”
Jake raised his eyebrow, “So you could hear all that?”
The waitress shrugged as she lit herself a cigarette for herself.
Jake cocked his head to the side, “And it didn’t faze you at all?”
The waitress waved the smoke out of her eyes, “Listen dear, when you’ve lived in Pilgrim Valley this long nothing like that phases you.”
“No shit?” Jake sat up. His feet dangled over the counter. He looked to the ceiling then to me, “What happened to our omniscient friend?”
I looked around, knowing there was nothing to see. I said, “I think she skulked off when her prediction didn’t come true. It was her turn to feel embarrassed.”
Jake ashed into the floodwater, “I can’t say that I’ll miss her. No offense.”
I shook my head, “None taken.”
Caitlin slid her phone back into her pocket. She tapped me on the shoulder, “How did you know?”
I nodded to the register submerged under water, “Jake was right. It wasn’t the storm that downed the power. It was the circuit breaker. Looks like one of our trucker friends thought to flip it back on.”
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. I turned to see him in the light. His face wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as I had remembered. His eyes weren’t as blue. His dimples weren’t as deep. His jaw wasn’t as square, his cheeks weren’t as gaunt, and his lips weren’t nearly as soft. He was just a boy with his haircut like Elvis. That was all.
Sam smirked, it looked less like a cocksure grin than a facial tick, “Listen, I’m not sure what happened just now, but it wasn’t your fault. What I’m trying to say is, I know you didn’t mean any that nasty shit she said about me. That was just drama for drama’s sake, like you said.”
I bit my cheek, “Actually, I’m pretty sure I meant every word of it.”
Sam gave me a puzzled look. He’d extended an olive branch and I lit it on fire. I had a hunch this wouldn’t be the last time he’d gave me that look. My thoughts were back in my head again, and there was a lot about them he would never get.
Jake laughed to himself.
I turned around, “What’s so funny?”
Jake waved his cigarette through the air, “You’re still gonna have to write all this shit down. You’re still going to have to trick me into thinking that I’m going to die.”
He scanned his brow, “Or that I was going to die, I’m not sure what the right tense is. Anyway, the point is you have to tell the story, exactly like she did, or else you in the past won’t see the power cords in the water.”
Caitlin put her glasses back on. “So we figured out the why, but I’m still foggy about the how.”
Jake gave that an open palm shrug, “What do you mean how? I thought we’d already established it was witches.”
It occurred to me that the how was in the diner with us, watching me ring my shirt out. The lights hadn’t scared it away. It hovered over us like a camera on a dolly. My friends couldn’t hear the Narrator anymore, but it could. You could. You still can. You heard the Narrator before we ever did. You saw us in the diner and you relayed its messages. My messages.
Jake was right. Not about the witches, but about what I had to do. Situations like this didn’t resolve themselves on their own. The Narrator couldn’t just speak up when the time was right. You wouldn’t let her. She had to trick us. She had to air my dirty laundry to get my attention, to get your attention too. She had to plant herself into the narrative, or else her intervention would sound contrived.
Deus ex machina’s don’t just come out of the sky. Someone has to put them there.
My job was to get her words into your imagination, to borrow your mind to tell our story, to save my friend. I’m sorry if that makes you feel used, but it was for a good cause. Just think, there’s a reality where you’re a hero.
You can even see it, when the light hits the water just right.
Every writer runs the risk of letting their characters become so powerful that they take over their story, but sometimes the story is not enough. Sometimes the characters sneak into the writer’s waking life and start making changes of their own.
This is an audio short about a writer whose inspiration came calling for him in the middle of the night.