Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One Day As A Lion - Chapter Four

It's true that you don't know a person until you've lived with them for a substantial amount of time. I'm not talking about staying with a few friends for a week or so. You college kids will probably attest to the fact that sharing the same breathing space with another person for a year or so gives you incredible insights that you really, really didn't need.

I've learned a great deal by living with Ezek for the two or three years since college began. Just for the record, I don't exactly know why he hates the name 'Ezekial' so much. Well, I know he hates his parents so there's that. I'm really not good at putting two and two together without a great deal of reflection or help, which you've undoubtedly noticed. Also for the record, Ezek is pronounced in such a way as to rhyme with the word 'deck' and to begin with the short 'e' sound. It seems trivial and stupid...hell, it is trivial and stupid, but he's already established that the name will drive him to attempted homicide, so there.

There are some things you should know about him before we light out for this lovely adventure. For one, he's an absolute genius. Yeah yeah yeah, it's an overplayed term. I'm inclined to agree with you in any other case but this one. I've proofread his English papers and some of the shit that comes out of this kid's mind would blow yours with sloppy abandon. We share a bedroom in the apartment that shames some broom closets for its shabbiness, and his entire side is covered in books. The completed works of Shakespeare, Hawking's books on physics and astronomy, James Joyce, even fucking Twilight can be found in the great stacks that are literally propping up his bed. His desk is literally a few stacks of books that are holding up a piece of plywood. He tries to get me to read more, but anytime I try to borrow a book he hits me with a flyswatter. He's read every word in those books, mark my own.

Ezek is brilliant and will probably go on to write the Great Novel of the 21st Century (to my existential terror, no less). That said, there is something fundamentally wrong with the kid. I don't even know where exactly to begin. I refuse to cook things in our microwave because I'm afraid of picking up remnants of all the things he's blown up with the thing. He used to have impeccably thick blonde hair, but somone on our floor last year bet him five dollars that he wouldn't wear an on-fire hat for two minutes. He won the fiver and has since adopted a shiny bald dome. I watched him de-pants a football player who was standing in a line outside of a bar, then proceed to call the guy a fag while sprinting into on-coming traffic to get away.

For all his flaws and...quirks (which really are too many to completely account for here), he's a great guy. He'd always listen to a problem and gave uncharacteristically sound advice. Ezek truly was there for the people he cared about and right now that person was me.

He patiently listened to me bitch on for at least a half an hour about not only the affairs and events of the morning. No, I managed to haul out every complaint and trouble and stressor that I had. I bitched about student loans and a life in debt, I complained about Steph and her cock of a boyfriend, I hollered on and on and on about how I was probably a complete disappointment to my parents. He was courteous and never once interuppted, except to offer a bolstering 'yeah' or 'sure' after I spoke.

I was quite thankful that he decided to put on clothes for this. He still had the nailgun with him for some reason.

After I aired my entire list of gripes and grievances, he looked at me thoughtfully. After a few moments he sat up and jumped over the couch, nicking me with his foot in the process. That was, in all likelihood, intentional.

I spun to face him. He was putting on his coat. "That's it?" I asked. "A kick?"

"Of course not. Now get your coat," he replied.

"Where are we going?"

"You need coffee. And some fresh air so you don't keel over on me."


I usually hate coffee. It tastes like oven cleaner mixed with a heavy dose of ass. I usually drowned the crap out of it with cream and sugar. Fifteen minutes and a very paranoid (on my part) walk downtown later, Ezek and I were sitting in the sparse coffee shop across the street from campus. It was still early, and the lunch rush hadn't quite begun yet. I insisted on a window table for the simple fact that if Jim were to pass by the shop, I wanted to see the fucker coming.

Ezek sipped an iced coffee with whipped cream on top and gave me another one of his thoughtful looks. "Sir, it sounds to me like you've taken a gigantic bite of a shit sandwich. Looks to me like it doesn't taste great."

I nodded at that. "Been a hell of a morning already. Can't imagine this'll be that good of a weekend."

"Oh, we'll find you something to do. Any leads on a new job?"

I sipped my sugar-and-ass water. "I've thought about it, but I've only been unemployed for about an hour and a half. I'll start putting in applications tomorrow morning."

"See! You've got a positive outlook already. It sucks that you can't get me any deals anymore. I'll have to do my business elsewhere."

That was true. Ezek was the shop's best (and oftentimes only) customer.

"Yeah, I'm gonna have to steer a few blocks clear of that place from now on. Jim doesn't know how to let go of a grudge."

"It's almost the weekend, sir. He'll be swimming in the nose candy and you'll be nothing but a bad memory come Saturday morning."

I chuckled at that. The doorbell jingled behind me and I instinctively turned to see who our new guest was.
"Look at this goddamn choad," Ezek said.

I had to agree with him. It was Viktor.

On our first day of Freshman Composition, Ezek and I watched as Viktor strolled into the room and made our lives that much more irritating. He wore a grey dress coat-type...thing that he never took off, even as spring became summer. He walked into class the first day with a goddamn cane, swining it around like he was in an old-timey revival show. It took Ezek and I three weeks (and a great deal of attention that could have been paid elsewhere) to determining that his inch-thick glasses frames didn't have lenses. His right shoe was red and his left shoe was blue and his jeans were always three sizes too tight. What's more is that he would hang onto every word our overworked grad student teacher would say, doing his best to side with her on any and all matters of discussion. The most irritating thing about him (other than his many, many reminders that his name was spell with a 'k') was that, everytime he would raise his hand he would do it as slow as possible. He wouldn't participate in any group discussions and once had a class-long argument over the merits of 'gray' versus 'grey.'

Of course, Viktor didn't notice us when he walked into the coffee shop. He was holding his head at an obnoxious angle and had graduated to wearing gigantic knit scarves of various color. His on this particular morning was a stripped green and fluorescent orange number that gave you a headache if you looked directly at it. Everything that sucked that morning was denoted by offensively-bright bullshit.

Viktor stood in line and twirled his scarf, no doubt blinding every pedestrian that happened to walk by.

"Just what the fuck I needed," I said, sinking back into my chair and letting out a pained sigh.

Ezek chuckled.

"What?" I asked.

The glint in his eyes told me everything. It also scared the living piss outta me.

"I'm dry," he said. "By the way, what does a hipster hate more than anything?"

I thought about that for a second. "I dunno...things?"

"Well, yeah," Ezek said as he stood. "I'm talking more specifically. I'll let you mull it over, but keep your eyes at the counter."

He stood in line behind Viktor, empty plastic cup in hand. Viktor ordered something obscenely specific and decked out in all sorts of spices and creams and additives. He rattled off words that I can't even begin to recall because I can only take so much. The clerk looked exasperated, poor girl.

After ordering, he stepped aside to wait for his order while Ezek asked for another iced coffee with whipped cream.

Ezek made an act of stealing sideways glances at Viktor, who didn't seem to notice much of anything.

After about a minute, he finally spoke up. "Um...I'm sorry, this is gonna sound all sorts of weird and all, but do you run Garage Nights, the open-mic downtown? Vance, right?" Ezek asked.

He, in fact, did. "I do. And my name's Viktor." Viktor replied with the slightest twinge of annoyance, sharpening the 'k' sound as he spoke his name.

"I knew I recognized you from somewhere. I'm friends with Jerry and I've been to a few of the shows."

"That's fantastic."

"Anyway, I haven't really seen Jerry around much lately. How's he doing? Are you guys still having shows?"

With a tone that oozed smug so real you could scrape it off of him, Viktor replied, "Yes, we are. It's a very specific crowd for a very specific type of music, I'm surprised someone like you could enjoy it."

Neverminding that the entire reply meant literally nothing, Ezek continued. "Oh, I just love live music of all kinds. It's good to keep an open mind about those sorta things. You never know what you're gonna miss if you don't."

Viktor took out a clove cigarette and twittled it between his fingers. "I suppose."

"Yep. Anywho, when's the next show?"

The barista called out for the owner of the ridiculous order, and Viktor eagerly took the paper cup from her. "Saturday," he said as he grabbed a stirring straw. "It's this Saturday at 10:30, it's always been on Saturdays at 10:30, and for the foreseeable future it will continue to be on Saturdays at 10:30." The tenuous calm was dissolving by the thread.

Ezek smiled. I was, frankly, stunned at the longevity of this, whatever this was. "That's right. Been awhile for me since I've been there. Although, it is a fantastic venue with a lot of potential. Jerry told me the last time I saw him that he was looking on expanding."'

Viktor froze midsip. "What?" he spurted. From my vantage I could see droplets of coffee spreading through the air as a result.

Ezek grabbed his iced coffee from the clerk and stuffed a few bucks into the tip jar. "Yeah, I was telling him how a bunch of my friends were interested in coming out and checking out the lineup the next time I was going. We're talking like 15 people, Jerry was excited."

"No. We have no plans to expand. We play for a very specific group of people and it won't appeal to the general masses." Viktor couldn't hide the pure existential terror on his face, try as he might to hide it. He actually started fidgeting.

"Oh, c'mon, it's all in good fun? Isn't that the point of music, to get as many people to hear you as possible?" Ezek asked, punctuating the thought with a sip from his drink.

Viktor was making his way to the door at that, a mouse scurrying away from a much larger predator.

"Hey Viktor!" Ezek shouted.

Viktor froze in the doorway and turned toward the counter.

"These lovely ladies work hard here, how about throwing a few extra bucks their way? Or is tipping not esoteric enough for you?"

Viktor literally squealed and ran out the door, his scarf achieving surface-of-the-sun brightness in the stark daylight.

A round of laughter from all the baristas and clerks behind the counter followed Ezek back to our table.

"There's nothing they hate more than a bunch of people who like what they like. It's goddamn hilarious," he said.

I was smiling for the first time that day. Ezek had that effect on you.

"Let's go," he said, putting on his coat.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

One Day As A Lion - Chapter Three

So there I was, a glorious specimen indeed. My eyes were gummy, I was colder than holy hell, and most importantly I had to have looked like a jackass in front of Steph. There are a lot of ways you could use to describe the scene that went down that morning in the Shoppe, but 'dignified' certainly isn't one of them.
Seeing, through the front window, that Jim had somehow produced an fireplace poker and was making for the door let me know that I was in no way employed at that particular establishment any longer. I was fine with that.

I started to run down the street, putting my coat on as I went. Even though his attire was completely offensive to normal humans, you had to give a cokehead who only wears tracksuits his due: the guy could run.

I could hear him behind me screaming as I dodged innocent pedestrians. Jim wasn't really forming normal words, it was more a series of guttural spasms that were trying their hardest to be words. I looked back every few leaps and bounds to make sure that there was still a comfortable distance between us. Also, some sick part of me wanted to see what would happen if he bumped into a bystander. He didn't, but that was probably for the best.

We were a block away from the shop when I saw the bus pulling in to my left. It wasn't that I was in bad shape or anything, it was just that I really needed a more efficient method of egress. I fumbled for the bus pass in my wallet and manage to free it from its bonds as the doors opened in front of me. I bounded through and swiped the card in one swift motion.

The driver was understandably alarmed. "What the hell, man?" he asked.

I pointed behind me, and no doubt looked like a sweaty, red-faced crazy person. "See him? Don't let that guy on the bus."

The driver looked around me and spotted Jim, a barefoot, fluorescent blur brandishing a poker and making a beeline for the bus.

"Shit! Sit the fuck down!" the driver screamed at me.

I took the nearest seat, and with it the opportunity to finally catch my breath.

On the upside, my eyes weren't feeling as gummy anymore. They probably just needed some air.


I got off the bus in front of my apartment building. I had my breath and my wits about me, but I guess I was still jumpy. I expected Jim to pop out anywhere and bludgeon me to death with an Italian wingtip. That sort of panic doesn't die easily.

I lived about a block and a half from campus, and luckily didn't have class that day so there was that stress off my mind. Plenty of other stress took its place soon enough, but there was at least that small thing to be grateful for.

The building was called "Westerly Terrace" and didn't deserve the distinction of being called a shitpile. Every hallway, on every single one of its ten floors, was yellowed with cigarette smoke and, likely, the stain of bad decisions. The green color of the doors provided a nice contrast, and that's about the most positive thing you could say about the building in general. Yep, the doors were nice.

517, that was my little bundle of joy. It was all I could afford on a book clerk's salary. I didn't get a hell of a lot of money from my parents but they gave me what they could when they could. I was appreciative of that, but the job was all that kept me afloat. I started thinking about how the hell I was gonna make rent next month as I arrived at my door.

I didn't hear any music from our apartment, so it was probably safe to enter. I'd lived with Ezekial since freshmen year. I first pegged him as  a dormrat, one of those kids who only leaves the room to study in the library or something like that. It was the name, honestly. But holy shit was I ever wrong.

I entered the apartment and was greeted with a rarity: complete calm. It was never completely calm in our apartment.

"Ezek! Yo, dude, it's Brian. What's up?" I shouted. I threw my coat by the door and went to the fridge. No booze, but plenty of Hawaiian Punch. I took the entire goddamn gallon.

We lived in a matchbox. The couch was pressed up against one wall and the end table next to it almost touched the other wall. The TV was only a 30-inch that was sitting on the floor, but looked like a theater screen that had a mass of rubber tentacles flowing beneath it.  The previous tenants had actually burned the perfect impression of an iron into the living room carpet and didn't try to hide it. But, it was better than a cardboard box.

The bedroom door was closed. Oh well.

I took a generous swig of the Punch. "Ezekial! Are you here?"

No answer.

I surveyed the apartment and contemplated what the hell I would do with the rest of the day. Ezek was nowhere to be found and I didn't think that I was in any mood to look for a new job. Besides, being outside greatly increased my chances of running into Jim, who was no doubt headhunting at this point. The one luxury I had in this case was that I had only ever gotten my paychecks at the shop; he didn't know where I lived.

Or did he?

Oh well, just something I'd have to chance right now. I jumped into what we called the living room and plopped down onto the couch. The little window above the TV was letting in meager light, probably because it hadn't been properly cleaned since Reagan was in office. I wanted to put my feet up on something but we couldn't fit a coffee table in the room without sacrificing the two blow-up chairs that Ezek brought from home. Boy, the argument those things brought on; Ezek wouldn't budge.

I took another generous swig from the jug when a sharp buzz passed just over the top of my head. I spit the Hawaiian Punch all over my shirt but managed to save the jug. A chunk of hair fell onto my shoulder. My nerves were firing at top speed.

I whipped my head around to find the source. A noise made me snap my head to the right, and framed in the hallway entrance was Ezek, in nothing but his Green Lantern boxers, holding a cordless nailgun.

Goddammit, he's hairy.

I could not help myself. "Dude! What in the living fuck is wrong with you!?"

He calmly noted the nailgun in his right hand. "I told you, it's for protection. I...owe some people money. I didn't wanna tell you."

"Not fucking that! Why did you try to fucking shoot me?" I asked, setting aside any possibility of calm discourse.

"I didn't even hit you! So you lost some of those gorgeous locks, no big!" he replied.

I stammered at the pure and unfiltered stupidity of it all. "But why!?"

"I told you: don't ever call me Ezekial."

With that, he turned toward the bathroom with nailgun in hand.

I looked at my watch. It wasn't even 10:30 in the morning.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Terminus - Second Draft

It was slightly after nine on a balmy summer evening and there was nowhere of importance for anyone to be. Chester strolled into a house that was set back from the main roads a bit, in a secluded littler corner of town. He just walked right in, not bothering with the doorbell; it was his place, after all. The brown paper sack he carried was required a strong grip.

As expected, everyone was crowded around the television in the living room. The big announcement would come at any moment and nobody wanted to be the last to know. There was Jamie, Chester's ex, sitting on the floor in front of the plasma screen. Her platinum blonde hair hung about her shoulders and she was wearing a beautiful white sundress. He had to hand it to her, she was never one to leave the house without looking her best.

His kid brother Tommy was lounging on the leather sofa, nursing a rather large White Russian in one of those old Disney character glasses, the kind that McDonald's would sell. It seemed like he was taking the whole thing in stride.

Annabel was sitting on the loveseat, the tight bun in the back of her head giving her away instantly. She fidgeted at every little noise and jumped almost three feet when Chester walked in behind her. He couldn't believe that Jamie would drag one of her co-workers over to his place. Didn't really seem to matter, but it was something that bothered him.

Chester's best friend Chris was still in his pajamas and still sitting in front of the sliding glass door, staring into the small vista offered by the dropaway of the backyard. He was outlined in the slight reddish hue of the evening sky. To Chester's knowledge, he hadn't moved in roughly six hours. Wondering if he'd spoken in that time was probably futile.

"Finally," Jamie said, the first to acknowledge his presence. She sat up and grabbed an empty wineglass from beside the TV.

"Apologies to anyone who isn't exactly big on merlot, but there wasn't much of a choice at the store," Chester said, setting the bag down on the glass coffee table and removing a $50 bottle of wine. Chester had already popped the cork on the street. Patience wasn't exactly a virtue he possessed anymore.

"At least we can appreciate the finer things," Jamie said. She took the bottle and poured herself a generous sampling.

Annabel took a healthy portion herself, her vessel of choice a coffee mug with a picture of a beagle emblazoned on the side. "There'll be a conference any minute now. We'll know something definite then."
"Fair enough. Hey, that reminds me, my bearing of gifts isn't over," Chester said. He reached into the bag and produced five rather fat stacks of cash, held together with strips of bank paper. He threw them on the coffee table and watched as six eyes widened and glistened. Cash still had some power.

"Holy mother of fuck, where did you get these?" Tommy asked. He sloshed a bit of his concoction onto the leather as he sat up and reached for a stack. Chester would have normally had some choice words for his younger brother over this carelessness, but matters were a bit different.

"The liquor shop was completely cleared out. Broken bottles, dirt, glass everywhere. The only things left were that bottle, a bloody floor, and a briefcase full of these. Merry Christmas, folks!" He picked up a stack and leafed it under his nose, taking in the scent of every note.

"Ten thousand in twenties. This is serious cash. You said there was a briefcase full of these?" Annabel said, some color seeping back into her thin, ashen face for a few moments. She threw her stack aside and attended to her drink.

"Some dumb bastard probably thought he had enough to get away, to hide somewhere until this whole thing blew over. Well, I guess he was a dumb bastard," Chester said, swigging from the bottle. "Isn't that right, Chris?" he shouted in the direction of the door. He received no reply.

So he chucked ten thousand dollars at his friend, hitting him in the back of the head. This elicited no response of any kind.

"Has he been like that the entire time?"

"Pretty much," Jamie said. With that, the group turned their attention back to CNN.

A newscaster was reading her copy with a voice that hinted ever so slightly at existential panic. Every few lines or so there was a pronounced warble to her voice, but for the most part her smart blue blazer and perfect makeup job gave her an air of calm professionalism.

Making sure that the ship goes down with all the lights still on, Chester thought. He managed a small chuckle.

"...called a press conference to announce findings that NASA is interpreting as we speak. Confirmation as to the object's path and trajectory are said to be the main points...."

The group didn't say a word for some time.

"You think there's some way to stop it?" Tommy asked. Nobody took their eyes from the screen.

Chester could not help thinking that this was par for the course for his little brother. He wasn't terribly bright. "You've been watching too many goddamn movies. Don't you think that we'd have heard something about it by now?" he replied.

Tommy backed down a little. "Dude, I just...I gotta...I just can't deal with silence. C'mon, you know that." He sipped his White Russian and leaned back into the love seat.

Chester had to pity the kid. He wouldn't live to see the legal drinking age.

The newscaster continued to display surface calm, but the facade was fading. Chester's eyes left the screen and noticed Jamie's bare legs glowing in the light of the television. There wasn't a word for how smooth they were, and the only words to describe their shape were 'utter perfection.' He had an intimate knowledge of every detail, every crest and curve of those legs. They'd been a couple for more than three years while they attended college. Recalling it now, the whole thing seemed like a fossil of some alien past. None of those memories comforted him and nothing within him was moved in any way.

"So now that it's come to this, I say we play a little game. If you had one more week and could do anything you wanted to with ultimate impunity, what would you do?" Chester said, craning his head to make sure that even Chris could hear him in his deep stupor.

Almost instantaneously Annabel answered, "I would write a novel and self-publish it. I don't give a shit how good it is, either. I just want my name on a goddamn book." Her eyes never left the screen as she took a sizeable plunge into her glass.

Chester chuckled at that. "Okay, then. What about you?" he asked, nodding at Jamie.

She had to think about that for a moment. "Swim in the Mediterranean. I never got the chance to."

Chester nodded and turned to his younger brother. "What say you? What would you do?"

Tommy took a giant swig of his White Russian and paused for a moment to wipe his lips clean. "Jessica Alba. For three days straight."

Chuckles cut through the silence. Even Annabel had to laugh at that. Jamie chucked her stack of bills at Tommy playfully.

"Good choice. He gets that impeccable taste from me, you know," Chester said.

"Stop it," Jamie said. Chester noticed some of the old sparkle in her eyes had returned, if only for a fraction of a moment.

Silence returned but the tension was gone. Everybody's attention returned to the television. From far beyond the backyard a distant explosion could be seen. The party barely flinched.

"Another gas station, probably," Tommy said to the room in general. A few people nodded in agreement.

The newscast continued, showing an empty podium in front of what appeared to be a sea of reporters, all clamoring for a story. The people still needed to know.

"Chris told me his dying wish once. Isn't that right?" Chester shouted in the door's direction. No reaction. "He told me that he'd always wanted to jack off on home plate at Yankee Stadium. Worthy goal, eh?"

This time only Tommy chuckled. Even the die-hard Sox fan that Chris was couldn't be bothered to respond to such a grave insult.

"He missed his chance," Tommy said. "Entire goddamn town's an ashpile by now."

"Hey, it's the thought that counts," Chester said.

The headline on the TV hadn't changed in three days: CRISIS ESCALATES. The news had a funny way of making humanity's final hours seem incredibly dull.

"Didn't they say that there was an outside chance that it would miss us?" Tommy said.

"What? When did they say that?" Annabel asked, returning to her jittery self.

"Jesus Christ," Chester said, "what did I just say?"

"I mean, they said that maybe it could just pass us by, that we wouldn't know for sure until...until, well, now. There's an outside chance, isn't there?" Tommy took a sip, punctuating his thought.

"Yeah, I remember hearing that," Annabel replied. She had gone erratic, moving her drink between hands and hanging onto Tommy's every word.

"No, no you didn't!" Chester shouted. Jamie snapped her head toward him with a look he remembered all too well. She was good with scorn.

"Hey, there's no reason to yell at her," she said. Firm, yet calm.

Chester rubbed his eyes in frustration. "Look, all I'm saying is...why the hell are we even talking about this? I haven't heard a goddamn thing about this in the two weeks since all the other stations went out. You think that somebody at CNN would've mentioned that there was an outside chance that everyone would be okay? I mean, of all things to fuckin' report on..."

"Yeah, but..." Tommy couldn't find the words. "Maybe there's a way some people can survive, underground or something."

"Fuckin' beautiful," Chester said, walking to the kitchen. In a pissy tone, he added, "Anybody need anything?"

"Ice," Tommy replied, eyes glued to the floor in front of the TV. The part of the floor that Jamie's legs occupied, to be exact.

Oblivious to the leering of the younger sibling, Jamie chimed in. "What's the problem, Chet? He's just talking, who's it hurting?"

"Well, the first problem is that I know I told you never to fucking call me that. Second of all, where the fuck did I put the ice bucket?" Chester replied, his echo bouncing off every surface. The postmodern trappings of Chester's home ensured that the smallest whisper was carried to every corner of the building.

Jamie finished her glass with a steady swig. "Oh, grow up. What does it really matter? You're always too goddamn hard on people." She dutifully poured herself another glass.

"I's too much to deal with," Chester replied.

"What do you think he's trying to do?" Jamie said.

After a silent moment Chester returned to his seat with a full bucket of ice and a toothpick in his mouth.

"There, you've got enough ice to last you till the end of time."

He started hoarding the rest of the wine. Nobody said anything for a while. The news now started displaying a graphic of the projected impact zone, somewhere to the south of Paris. A sigh of relief came from both sides of Chester, as Annabel and Tommy decided to simultaneously let off a little steam.

"Well thank God for small favors, huh?" Chester said, laughing to the room.

"It's a pity, actually," Jamie said.

Chester cocked his head in her direction, an almost involuntary reaction.

"What? Why?" Tommy asked.

"Yeah, this is a good thing, isn't it?" Annabel asked.

Chester didn't attempt to hide his snark.

Jamie ignored the dirty looks from her ex-boyfriend and explained herself. "Not really. They get out of it kinda easy. For them, it's over in a second. No thought, no real fear, and nothing prolonged. They're the luckiest ones in all of this. We'll suffocate."

It took a moment to truly sink in. Tommy blurted out, "We can still hide, can't we?"

"Yeah, we could leave now and get to a fall-out shelter. There's gotta be one within a few miles, right?" Annabel asked, the look of determination on her face entirely out-of-place as she stood, determined.

Chester chuckled. "Do you really wanna go back out there? Do you have any idea what it's like right now?"

Annabel returned to her seat and took the wine from Chester, helping herself to a generous gulp.

"Besides, they've probably been full for days now. This is a room full of bright fucking ideas tonight. Just genius-level shit, from all of you." Chester slouched into the sofa.

Jamie looked thoughtfully in Chris's direction. The buildings on the skyline clashed with the red twilight.

"We should get on the roof soon. After they announce zero hour. Maybe sooner." Jamie said.

Chester shot her a perplexed look, one that he'd perfected over the course of their relationship. "What the hell are you on about now?"

"It's gonna be our last sunset. And when it hits, we'll have a hell of a view for a while," she reasoned.

Annabel chimed in, "She's got a point."

Nobody expected it, but Chester could not help himself. It was as if he'd heard the funniest joke in existence and needed to get every bit of good cheer out of his system. He hacked and gasped and his skin began to match the hue of the evening sky. Snot and saliva were shot in all directions. He fell off the sofa as a drunk would, leaning his head on Annabel's skinny legs. She could only watch in muted horror. Tommy was taken aback and Jamie managed a soft smile as she looked on.

After finally catching his breath, Chester look to Jamie and said, "Tha-that's fuck...fucking brilliant. Why couldn't you have been this funny when we were dating? It would've made the sex a hell of a lot better."

"What's so funny about it?" Jamie asked.

"I mean...who fucking thinks about the view? The world's over, honey! That's it, this is zero fucking hour, and you treat it like a front row seat to some goddamned movie or something. 'Ah, yes, I hear that End of All Things is a rager, let's go see it!' I wish I had your worldview sometimes, it would be awesome to see the world like a fucking child does."

Jamie rubbed her forehead with both hands, doing her best to stay patient and calm. "What sort of reaction would satisfy you, huh?"

Chester's chuckling began to abate. "Well, I dunno, something with a little more depth than 'it's going to look so pretty!' would do just fine. Not that I'd expect it from you, but anybody else, sure."

Annabel's face was frozen. Chester continued to lean on her from his new seat on the floor. Jamie kept her voice as steady as she possibly could. "Okay...let me ask you something: what the hell does it matter?"

"Oh, it matters a great fucking deal. It matters because we can't just say that 'it's not the end of the world,' 'cause that's almost here. Life's not gonna go on and we're not all gonna wake up from some shitty little dream. It matters because you're like all these other fuckers trying to believe really fucking hard that this isn't really happening. It hasn't sunk in yet that your time is up."

CNN continued to hype up the official announcement of the end of time. Nothing else in the living room made a sound.

If it was five minutes or an eternity nobody could have been sure. Jamie never broke eye contact with Chester. Tommy couldn't look at his brother and Annabel couldn't tear her eyes away from the TV.

"What, you think you're gonna live forever?" Jamie asked.

Chester managed a bit of a smile. "Fair enough," he said as he stood up, shaking Annabel's body but not her bearing.

"Okay, okay, it isn't quite time for the funeral yet. We've gotta cheer the hell up somehow! C'mon, nobody asked me what I'd do with another week here, someone ask me what I'd do for a week."

Tommy's voice was small but he managed, "What would you do, Chester?"

"I've thought about it pretty much all day, I really have. And, I've decided, that there are many things I'd have done. Maybe I'd have actually fallen in love with someone sentient enough to recognize her own mortality," he said as he gestured to Jamie.

"Maybe I'd have associated with better fucking people, maybe spent time with Dad down in Lake Tahoe. At least it would have been worthwhile conversation." A sideways glance at Tommy.

"Perhaps I would have had the balls to shut down completely like our good friend Christopher over there," Chester said as he looked down at Annabel. "Hey, Chris, if you're having a fucking ball, don't say anything!"
Of course, there was no reply.

"That's what I fucking thought. Yeah, there's a lot you can do in a week, a lot of worthwhile and fun and productive and memorable things. Instead, I spent this week hearing about everybody's worst fucking fears or how we could survive this or this and that. But with all that time I finally decided what it was I would want to do. Hell, I've done it already. Maybe I'll do it again."

He reached into the paper bag, producing a weathered pistol.

Jamie instinctively crawled backwards, bumping into the television. Tommy's eyes widened as he shrank into the love seat. Annabel froze, eyes glued to the gun.

"I decided that I wanted to see what it was like to kill a man."

"Hey, Chester, c'mon now, nobody wants any trouble here, dude. Put it down," begged Tommy.

"I mean, what's the difference. There would be no 911 call, no police, no trial, no sentence, and no punishment. The perfect goddamn crime." His eyes didn't leave the floor.

Tommy got up slowly, his hand in front of him as if trying to will the weapon out of his brother's hand. "Hey, need for this. We can talk about this, it's okay."

Seconds ticked by. CNN was interviewing a top astrophysicist about the impact timeline. A lifetime passed by inconsequentially. Nobody moved.

"At least this way, there was some sort of sense behind it, right?" Chester had their complete attention.

He regarded his brother. "C'mon, we've shot these before. Why so scared all of a sudden? What harm's it gonna do now?"

"Hey, bro...just...put it down," Tommy said.

"How do you think I got the wine, or the cash? People still fight for these things, you know. And it's the easiest goddamn thing in the world to do." He pointed the gun at Jamie with a sharp little smile. Then he turned and shoved the barrel into Annabel's temple as she shivered. Her face showed nothing but terror.
Chester had gotten the reaction he wanted. He got the fear.

"I least this way has a bit of purpose to it. Right?"

Chester moved with a swift hand and placed the barrel in his mouth. An instant later he jammed a finger down on the trigger. Everyone in the room who saw this final act would say that time seemed to slow, as if this moment in particular chose its own life span and had decided to stick around for a while longer than usual.

Every thought that Chester ever had now stained the kitchen in smatterings of scarlet and pink. Some bone white was thrown in as if for good measure. A modern artist might have even called the spray beautiful for all its sick symmetry.

CNN had cut the interview short. The screen was dominated by a view of from inside Ground Control at Houston. The atmosphere was uncommon for times of crisis.

Viewers saw celebration. People were embracing, crying, hopping with the glee that not even the happiest children could ever possibly muster.

A new headline dominated the lower part of the screen: FINAL PROJECTION: COMET TO MISS BY 35,000 MILES.

It should have been the happiest moment in human history. For many, it truly was. The inhabitants of the living room didn't acknowledge the television, and didn't hear the good news. Chester's form fell to the sofa with a sharp smack and a hollow sort of apathy.

From the door, it seemed that the gunshot stirred something within Chris.

He said, "I call next."

Friday, January 7, 2011

One Day As A Lion - Chapter Two

The first concrete memory I have of that day was getting iodine dripped into my eyes. Not an altogether pleasant experience. I like being able to see, though, so I decided to suck it up for a while.

Dr. Palmer is a relatively nice guy, but I can't really gauge him as a person considering I only seem him at the most twice a year. He seems to be the type of doctor who resents that sort of thing, but I like I said, it's nothing I can be sure of.

"Okay, I'm just checking to see if your eyeballs are in okay shape. Open your eyes really wide and don't blink," he said, Inching a blue ring of terror ever closer to my eyeball. The room itself was probably designed to be as calming as possible, so that people don't freak out when they're getting crap shoved into their eye sockets. It's a worthy outcome, I must say, eye health.

I tried to remain as still as possible. I think I did pretty well, I didn't have to be told to sit still. I think they call that 'growth' in the adult world.

He switched to my left eye, leaving aerials in my right eye. Another minute of this or so and I was able to blink again. Dr. Palmer told me that my prescription didn't change that much and that I shouldn't put my contacts in for at least another two hours. He wasted no time in getting me right out of the chair and on my way out the door. It hit me as I left the office that I would have to go back to work.

I had a ten-minute walk from the eye doctor's office to the bookstore that I used to be an employee of.

What, you expected a guy who passes out in the middle of a grocery store without pants to have gainful employment?

Well, that walk usually goes by quickly. There's a cool little coffee shop that I frequent that's near the eye office, it's where I usually go for lunch. It was a path I walked pretty much every day and knew about as well as I know the freakish mole on my left thigh.

But anyway, the walk was usually quite pleasant. The path took me through the main part of town, the tall trees from the park on the left and the apartment buildings on the right providing a cool sort of canyon effect for people on the street. It was my favorite part of the walk. About five blocks from the park I would arrive at a four-way intersection, play a solo game of Human Frogger, and before I knew it I would be walking into the quaint little Corner Book Shoppe that I had been working at for about a year and a half while I took classes.
All of that is well and good, but this particular Thursday was unbearably goddamn cold. My eyes still felt a bit...gummy? Yeah, gummy's the word, after I was subjected to the iodine deluge. Coupled with an Absolute Zero wind chill, my eyes felt like they were going to be frozen open.

As you could imagine, my demeanor when I walked into book shop wasn't exactly civil. Working to further aggravate the mood, a car driven by the most rotund man I've ever seen nearly clipped me as I crossed Death Avenue on my way to work. I walked into the shop thinking about how big a person would have to become before your own gravitation started affecting nearby houseplants and small children. I settled on a half a ton but it would have to be an experiment for another day.

The shop itself is quaint and warm, with an extensive collection. All genres represented. You see, working in a bookshop is ideal for me because I love books. And writing. I also love the feeling of floating in a pool and having bubbles run along the length of your back, but I digress. Two other people worked there besides myself: Steph, the other clerk; and Jim, the owner.

To be quite honest, Steph was the only reason I worked at the shop for so long. That, and the money. But Steph was worlds better. She was also a student, but for the life of me I can't remember her major. It doesn't matter, though. She was blonde and about as tall as I am, with the cutest dimple in her chin and a body that literally caused a man to wreck his car outside of the shop last summer. She didn't physically stop traffic (the wreckers and the police cruisers did a fine job of that), but what I'm trying to say is that she's a goddamn knockout. Smart, too. We'd talk about our favorite books and what classes we were taking and our future plans. She'd talk about her boyfriend Steve and how he shotgunned a Four Loko last night and managed to knock down several traffic lights. That's where I'd usually change the subject.

Speaking of which, there's Jim. I'd really like to say he's sort of a nice guy but that would be an insult to the idea that anybody anywhere has ever done anything nice to or for others. Jim was a skinny, balding man who resembled a duck and spoke in the most gravelly voice this side of a bullfrog. He rarely came down from the apartment he kept above the store, and when he did he was always dressed in a fluorescent tracksuit and always seemed to be nursing a runny nose. I swear to God I saw him on an episode of America's Most Wanted when I was a kid, something about a man robbing a liquor store in a chicken costume or something equally sane. The man gave us shitty pay, shittier hours, and the shittiest excuses for the previous two. I once tried to ask him about installing a comics shelf to help attract business (a plan that Steph was 100% behind) and he proceeded to chase me out of his office with an Italian-leather shoe. He's the sole reason I've given serious thought to burning the shop down at least three times in the past, but the bastard would probably make a killing in insurance and I'd probably be caught anyway.

So in I walk, cold, half-blind, and angry at the planet. Steph's behind the counter, reading a leatherbound copy of something-or-other as I go to hang up my coat.

This might be a good time to introduce myself. My name's Brian. I'm just south of six feet and have shaggy brown hair that I cannot seem to tame no matter how much fire I throw at the problem. If you ever see me with facial hair, it's either because I can't afford razors or I'm too chickenshit to steal my roommate's electric shaver. I hate the taste of onions and once punched a circus clown on half-accident. That's not what I told the cops, though.

Once my ratty old trenchcoat was secure on the rack behind the counter, I asked Steph where the boss had been all day.

"Haven't seen him since I opened up. All he said was that we were, under no circumstances, to change the music," she said, not really looking up from her book but probably not meaning much by the gesture.
That stereo of his. I was convinced that it could only play one genre of music: generic 80's synth pop, the genre that no stereo plays well. On the extremely rare occasion that Jim was out of town or just generally not around for his own damn reasons, we would play more civilized music. We actually got a great deal of foot traffic in those days, but ever since my last suggestion ended in shoe-assault, I decided that I would keep quiet on this matter.

We didn't have much to do, so for a good half hour Steph and I just bullshitted about nothing in particular. She was reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the first time, it turned out.

"You'll love that thing. You'll love it so much that every answer to every question will be 42," I said.

She giggled. "Wait, what?"

"Oh, I guess you haven't gotten that far yet. You'll see."

"Fair enough." I let her get a little bit farther into the book as I settled into a cushy seat with a Vonnegut story.

I started noticing that the CD in the stereo was skipping. An ungodly, awful beat behind the dry, grating synth line that was being dragged behind a pickup truck was all that could be heard. My thoughts were drowned out by mechanical mediocrity, but it was only when I went to hit the stereo that I realized that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. The music sounded like that on purpose.

Standing there, in that one singular moment, something fundamental within me changed. It wasn't something I could easily place. Maybe the room was getting to me. Maybe the iodine seeping through my retinas was affecting my sense chemistry. Maybe the half-a-bagel and week-old cream cheese I ate before the appointment was roiling within me and lettings its hate be felt through my stomach lining. I couldn't place the exact cause but I could sure as hell place the cause.

That goddamn techno music.

I'd had it. I was sick of having to hear that shit day in and day out while I worked for a walking charicature of Everything Wrong With The 80's/Humanity. Somehow he managed to sort of ruin books for me since I started working there. He needed to be brought down several thousand pegs.

"Are you okay?"

I whipped around to face Steph, noticing a look of concern on her face. She was wearing a lovely grey sweater that did her body all sorts of good.

"Um...yeah, I'm fine. It's just...this godammn music." I noticed that I had clawed fingernail marks into the book I was holding.

"Yeah, I'm sick of it, too. He might be back at any moment, though. Just leave it alone," she said.

I couldn't. I was frozen in place by sounds too horrific to be considered anything other than the sounds of dying dreams. I'd had enough.

Without pausing the 'song,' I reached into the CD player, removed the accursed piece of plastic shame, and snapped the damn thing into two pieces.

Snapped it right in half, at the exact moment that the door opened and our boss returned.

"What in the fuck are you doing?" Jim asked.

I whipped to my right and saw that he was wearing the most offensive shade of green ever devised. A full-body windbreaker in the worst color you've ever seen. He was carrying a powdered donut, a few remnants of which were caking the facial hair around his mouth. At least some of it was donut powder. Probably.

"I'm just...sick, I guess," was my reply. I was probably staring dead-eyed at the wall at this point but it's all pretty much a blur right here.

"Sick? Like with a goddamn cold or somethin'? Speak up, dude! Also, I might add, who the fuck told you to stop the mu-," Jim stopped cold when he finally noticed that I was still holding the remnants of his techno CD.
The look of horror on his face was nothing short of hilarious. I didn't even try to hold back. I was doubled over and leaning against the sale counter for support. Horror turned to rage as he advanced on me, donut in one hand and shoe in the other.

How did he get that shoe off so fast?

I had to table that thought in order to avoid his Air Jordan from clobbering me. I did an awkward somersault past him and made my way to the door. I was frozen there, looking into the shop at this scene of rampant dumbfuckery.

Steph was frozen behind the cash register with a look that was delocalized between shock, revulsion, joy, and probably hunger.

Jim had his other shoe in hand already, poised to strike, like the tackiest jungle predator you've ever imagined.
"Who...why...why in the living fucking fuck would you do something like that?" he asked, somewhat frightened that anyone in this world could hate his music.

"I'm sick of your bullshit. I'm sick of having to hate where I work. I'm sick of your bullshit," I replied with a calm and even tone.

So he threw his other shoe at me, striking me in my right knee and really just pissing me off at that point.

I started hopping, throwing out a stream of obscenities without much regard for proper combinations. Jim remained frozen in place.

"Who...who...who would do such a thing?" he asked to nobody in particular.

"I dunno," I said. "Maybe the same person who convinced you to spell 'shop' with two p's and an e, you pretentious fuck!"

I threw the Vonnegut book at his head as best I could. I grabbed my coat and was on the street three seconds before I realized that my attempt at a one-liner was poor at best.

One Day As A Lion - Chapter One

Fear not, Empire Blues is not dead. I started this last night and I'm really digging this new direction. It may be a short, it may be a long-ish story yarn. Who knows? Enjoy!
I should really get that looked at.
That really should have been the absolute least of my worries at that point. I mean, it goes without saying that one of the very next things that will come out of my mouth will be that "I'm never drinking again." Maybe this time I'll mean it, but we all know that I probably won't. Although, if you take a look at my current situation, an intervention cannot be far behind.

I opened my eyes twenty minutes ago to notice that the ugly mole on my left thigh is out for the entire world to get a glimpse. It's probably a bad idea for me to have it out during the daylight hours, there's no way that the thing growing out of my leg, the thing that looks like a melted chocolate chip, is anything but a mass of silent cancer.

It was seeing the mole that led me to several conclusions, in fact. I noticed that I was sitting on a tile floor, a cold one at that. I saw a bank of freezers directly in front of me. Hot Pockets and Red Baron pizzas were judging the living hell out of me from behind frosted glass. I turned around to notice that I was leaning against a shelf full of maple syrup bottles. The price tags were delightfully marked down. I looked around to see a sort of starburst pattern on the walls and the aisle signs. Okay, good. You're in Wal-Mart. That's a start.

I sat up and started to notice that a few people were staring at me from the far end of the aisle. Shopping carts congregated into a gray barrier as people started to get wise to the weird guy sitting in front of Wal-Mart's syrup selection. Strange, yes. Not exactly something you can really plan for, so I couldn't really register embarrassment.

That's when I got wise to the weird purple stains on my blue workshirt. It looked like someone took grape Kool-Aid and tried to use it as a writing implement on the canvas of my torso. Hilarity ensued, no doubt.

It was around then that I realized why people were starting to congregate and stare at me. Well, the biggest clue was that a policeman was charging down the aisle at me, his partners clearing a path through the barricade of shoppers. People tend to watch things go down if the police are involved.

At that exact moment I was given enough insight to realize that I wasn't wearing any pants. That explained why the floor was so damn cold, sure. I suppose I should have put two and two together when giving that little tirade about the mole. You probably didn't wanna hear that, but oh well.

The lead officer started approaching me slowly, his Taser drawn before him. I couldn't really fathom that I was that much of a threat. Then again, had I been one of the shoppers and seen a half-naked man lying on the floor of the freezer section, my first thought would be meth. Well, it would be a top-fiver for sure.

Everything was still a bit woozy, but I tried my best to seem non-threatening. Given the situation it wasn't gonna be easy. I went to raise my hands to show that I was unarmed, but only the right arm seemed to be taking orders at this juncture. 

My left hand could only be brought to the horizontal position before a sharp pain would shoot through my wrist. I looked down to see that I was wearing handcuffs. 

I felt the shelf push into my back, shaking its contents with a force that was evidentally enough to dislodge a bottle of delicious maple from the very top. It took a few seconds to process all of this in my confused state of mind. Right when I was getting ready to figure things out, a sudden knock to the head dislodged all the necessary information for me. 

Well, enough that I could start piecing things together. 

It's Thursday. Which means that you were at the eye doctor's this morning. It all started at Dr. Palmer's.