SIRENS

There are no windows in this room, and not a door in sight. The room seems to be well lit, but the source of the light is as much of a mystery as my own name is. The walls are a stark white, a physical manifestation of a tabula rasa. Not a scrap of decoration adorns the room, and it isn’t silent so much as devoid of even the concept of sound. There’s a bitter chill in the air, but I see no vents that may be the bringer of the cold.

I reach for my left hand with my right. It exists and responds to my touch, numb though it is from the cold. My fingers have trouble assuming even the most basic of positions, but at least I have them. I don’t remember my name, but I remember that a human being is supposed to have fingers.

There’s a tickle lingering in the back of my throat, the kind that comes when you’re about to catch a cold. I find myself worrying more about the possibility of getting sick than the fact that I am a man who’s been wiped as clean as the exitless room he finds himself in.

If there are no windows or doors, then I’ll have to try the walls. I press my fingertips against them, and a rippling pain flows through them as I do. The outer layer of skin tears from the digits as I pull them away, the wall trying its hardest to keep them firmly attached. Any fleeting sensation my fingers had escapes as I blow hot air on them as forcefully as the wolf did in that old childhood story.

There’s something. People are supposed to have fingers, and there’s a story about a wolf from my childhood. What else can I recall?

I can’t specify why, but it feels incredibly important that I remember who and where I am. And the importance goes just beyond basic, yearning curiosity. A feeling pervades me, more powerful than the chill of the cold, and it tells me that I will die here if I do not remember.

I look down at my fingers then, and see that they’ve already turned black–victims of a frostbite that takes effect in seconds, it seems. Blowing on them won’t help anymore, but something tells me that’ll be the least of my problems. For a man with no identity, intuition is perhaps the most important tool I have.

I reach in my pockets with my blackened fingers, my movements stiff and awkward as my nerves refuse to send signals of touch from my dead digits back to my brain. As I root around my pockets for a wallet and any sign of identification along with it, a rivulet of blood trickles down my nose’s tip and drizzles the white floor beneath me.

I hurry to stem the flow, the red now mingling with the black of my fingers and the white of the floor. There is no gray here.

My head throbs with a sudden pain that distends my vision, a pang that is so strong it bypasses the usual feeling of nausea that accompanies such pain and jumps straight to threatening unconsciousness. I fight through this threat with deep, labored breaths, willing a piece of myself to return to me with each one. My body aches in more places than it doesn’t now, and the pain is blinding, but I must fight through it. I must remember who I am.

The pockets are useless; they’re as empty as the room is. I should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy.

A tone rips through the air, blaring as it threatens to pierce my eardrums. It’s a steady tone that refuses to waver, and I know that I’ve heard it before. I just don’t know where. It doesn’t let up as I raise my frostbitten hands to my head; plug my ears with fingers I can’t feel. I move to the room’s edge to escape the sound, but the attempt is ineffectual. The sound seems to come from within and not without.

The blood still flows freely from my nose as it pools between my feet, the flow even stronger now that my fingers no longer plug it up. I walk back to the room’s center, and my feet slip as they do, as if on ice. Before I can crash into the wall, though, I steady my steps.

Wait.

Even the flow of blood from my nose seems to stop for a moment as something returns to me. Ice. Crash. And the tone, too, blaring as it is. It’s the horn of a car. My car.

The walls fall away from the room, and as they do the chill which had until then been somewhat abated comes full force and attacks my skin with its icy fingers. I am standing beside myself, in an icy ditch as my car’s right front tire spins lazily. The body inside is mine; I recognize its face even though that white-walled room afforded me no reflection. I’ve been in an accident. I am hurt and I need help. But first I need to return to myself.

I fight through the nose’s trickle; through the dull ache of my fingers, hands, and wrists; through the pang of striating pain that wraps my body up in a convulsive blanket. I walk beyond the metal frame of the car and into the human frame of myself.

I cannot move. That’s what my body tells me, but I won’t hear it. I move my fingers to my pocket, and find something other than emptiness. My phone is there. I dial the number, I report the incident, and then I collapse once more onto the steering wheel. But just before I’m lulled into that sweet temptation of sleep, another familiar sound reaches my ears. Sirens.

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It had to be just before I walked in the door, of course. The slush seeped in through the metal-edged holes which all Converse have on either side, those holes that are all too helpful in the summer but which aren’t nearly as useful when you’re facing your average Chicago winter.

I hung my soggy socks to dry and navigated over to Amazon, found a reasonably priced pair of boots that had excellent reviews. The shipping speed was lightning quick, it seemed.

Immediately after I clicked that little checkout button, my doorbell rang. A car sped off right after, out of sight before I even opened the door. And there, sitting right on my doorstep was a box from Amazon.

It couldn’t be. It must be something else I ordered earlier. But my order history didn’t lie–those boots were the last thing I’d ordered in the past six months. I fetched a box cutter and braced for impact as I opened the thing up.

The boots seemed to glow as they sat there in the box, laces woven from golden thread that looked nothing like string; the rubberized coating of the boot’s outer shell looked as if it could withstand a flood of biblical proportions. But that was it. No packing list, no ads for the brand–the boots’ tongues didn’t even show the size.

But I wouldn’t need to know the size, it seemed, as I slipped the boots on. They conformed to every square inch of my feet perfectly, my toes felt as warm and cozy as if they’d been tucked securely into their own miniature beds. I looked out the window, at the flurries and mounds of snow that the Windy City had to offer. There could be no other option.

Nothing could stop these boots. Slush, snow, brackish puddle water… they stood up to everything. They might even be able to walk on air.

I checked that no one was watching–they weren’t. I put my right foot in the air, mimed as if I’d just taken a step toward the sky. But when I went to put my foot down, it crunched against the air as if I’d just stepped in snow. I lifted up the left foot–it crunched just as satisfyingly as my right one had. I looked down, and my eyes seemed to lie as they took in the fact that I was now hovering a foot in the air.

I took another step up. And then another. Within seconds I was moving past treetops, ascending beyond the pitted roofs of musty storefronts, walking up some sort of invisible staircase in the sky.

The people below were like ants in the distance as I leapt up the invisible steps two at a time, my boots crunching the air-snow and compacting it with each step. Before long I was above even the twin antennae of the Sears Tower (real Chicagoans don’t call it Willis), and the sun sent out blinding rays from dead ahead. It was like a guiding star as I headed up and straight for it, my hand shielding my eyes all the while.

The crunching stopped. So did my labored breathing. I looked down.

Earth hovered beneath me, encased in its little blue bubble–a bubble that I was no longer a part of as I floated weightless in space. Despite the lack of air, my body felt refreshed and oxygenated. None of it made any sense, but then again neither did a pair of boots that allowed their wearer to climb an actual stairway to heaven.

I pushed on, the sound of crunching unable to be carried without the medium of air but no less satisfying as the vibrations buzzed up my miracle boots and into my toes that were still snuggled up securely in their little beds.

The stairs abruptly ended; they opened up to an invisible floor that stretched on in every direction, limitless. I ran forward and jumped, let the sun’s pull guide me in–an elliptical force that whipped me around at speed like the rock in David’s sling. I throttled on at incomprehensible speed, curved around the sun’s surface even as nuclear fusion occurred millimeters from my outstretched fingertips. I felt the heat but none of the incineration.

And then it happened.

A micrometeorite struck me in the chest, knocked the wind out of me as forcefully as it propelled the boots off my feet. I watched helplessly as they toppled end-over-end away from me, the weightlessness returning to me as my miracle boots slipped away.

This was it. I’d die in space, adrift beside the star that was responsible for my birth in the first place.

But no. There had to be a way back. If the boots took me here, I could take myself back. I concentrated intently, tried to channel a bit of the wise old Spirituality prof from my undergrad days as I meditated weightless in space. My forehead tingled as I willed myself to believe that I could get back home. It was true. It needed to be true.

I hurtled through space in an instant, by the power of my thoughts alone, toward the pale blue dot I’d always called home. Within seconds I was in the atmosphere, burning up as I guided myself over the familiar form of North America. I found the “U” of Lake Michigan through my squinting eyes, adjusted my feet like rudders until my city, my neighborhood, my street were all in sight.

I crashed right through my front window; the glass didn’t shatter so much as melt away. I hit my beanbag chair with an emphatic thump and tumbled over onto the floor.

I breathed in slow and steady, the sound that reached my ears more satisfying than it ever had been before. I looked to my computer’s monitor.

A pop-up had appeared next to a picture of the miracle boots: “Satisfied with your purchase? Leave a review!”

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THE MANUSCRIPT

It was near on three AM when he finally finished, his hands shaking and eyes burning from the kind of strain that only a serious bout of masochistic writing could give you. This was it: after all the time and effort, all the late nights and early mornings, all the coffee breaks and ideas spawned under the showerhead, he had reached the end; the manuscript was complete.

It seemed as if the room itself emptied of all sound, like it was expecting him to jump up and down or else scream and shout, partake in some sort of celebratory gesture that a normal human might do after an achievement like this.

But none of that was necessary right now. All he wanted to do was take a breather before coming back to print the thing out. The first draft was perfect as is, so he wouldn’t have to worry about the cost of paper; this would be the only time it was printed.

The printer sputtered and stopped as it went, jammed up and ran out of ink as if to send some sort of ominous warning his way. But this here writer had come prepared and knew his way around a printer; he wouldn’t let anything stop him from printing out this first (and final) draft.

After about a half hour of printing (his printer was a dinosaur from the Windows 98 days), a fat stack of paper greeted him, crisp and warm, with ink that had not yet dried and so glistened faintly in his office’s fluorescence. He couldn’t help but be reminded of childhood days waiting for cookies to cool down after coming out of the oven as he stood there, willing the paper to hurry up and dry faster with his eyes.

As he stood there staring intently at the stack, a faint rumbling echoed out from somewhere nearby. It was quiet at first, the kind of sound that makes you ask if others heard it too, just to make sure you’re not going crazy. But the rumble built until it began to shake the very room he stood in. The chairs rattled, tables quaked, and the manuscript he still stared directly at began to change right before his eyes.

Each page of the thing tangled and twisted around, some pages crumpled while others rolled into tubes, and still others folded into the kind of origami shapes that populated your childhood. When it was all said and done, a heaping monster made of paper stood before the man, a beast that looked the image of a dragon.

Most people would run at a sight like this, but our dear writer was the masochistic type (as previously stated), and so he decided to wait and see what would happen next. The monster that was his manuscript didn’t like this, it seemed, as it hurled scraps of paper from its mouth at incomprehensible speeds. The writer leapt over his desk just as his novel’s denouement was blasted his way.

The beast hurled up ink then, which formed into words as each projectile struck dangerously close to the writer. He caught glimpses of the words as they hit: “actually” whizzed past his ear. Another projectile: “even.” A trio of words smashed the wall near his head: “was,” were,” and “that.”

The writer looked for something, anything, with which to defend himself from his own manuscript. His trusty stapler sat on the floor next to him, since knocked over in all the commotion. He checked the line: just enough ammo to take the beast down.

He did the kind of roll you see cool cops do in TV shows, only his pants caught on the carpet and he slid face-first into the wall, giving himself rug burn of the face in the process. But it seemed the redness of his skin was an asset as the paper dragon retreated further into the depths of the room. The writer took his opportunity and fired off several shots the beast’s way. It returned the favor with a slew of words spewed from its mouth. Only after they hit, ricocheted, and fell harmlessly to the floor could the writer discern a pattern among them: each of the words ended in “ing.”

If the beast kept on, there’d be no story left by the end of the fight. The writer greedily scooped up words from the ground, stuffed them in his pockets so he could put them back in later. But the dragon had other plans.

It coughed up a wad of adverbs as it kindled a fire on its tail: it was preparing an “ly” flamethrower.

The writer looked to his wall. A detailed replica of Link’s Master Sword greeted him, an old ebay conquest. He looked back to the words that littered the floor–so many gerunds and adverbs, passive tense verbs and inappropriate adjectives. Maybe his first draft wasn’t as perfect as he thought it was.

Back to the Master Sword on the wall, then to the monster he faced. He knew what needed to be done. He leapt for the wall and wielded his blade. Turned to face the first draft beast.

“You’re under revision!”

The writer cringed at his cheesy one-liner as he hacked and slashed, sliced and diced, the shreds of paper collecting at his feet like pencil shavings.

After what seemed like hours, the battle was over. He’d won.

After he collected himself, the writer sat down and paged through the new draft that had been forged in battle. To his surprise, the prose was crisper, cleaner… it seemed to better match the image he’d had in his head all along.

The war was a just one after all.

He set the revised draft down on the wreckage of his desk and laid the Master Sword at his feet.

His house was a wreck, but hell… at least he found his process.

END

Or, to make a short story even shorter: I’ve finished my novel!!!

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BE

Stop.

Look.

Breathe for a second and realize you’re living.

Listen to the birds sing.

Feel the ice cube slide down your back as your brother runs away laughing.

Smell the freshly cut grass as you tumble end over end; ground then sky then ground again.

Feel the thump of your heart in your wrist and run in place to speed it up.

Wonder a while about what you’ll look like when you’re older.

Give a high five to someone who’s stretching.

Army crawl in the mud, your legs only pretending to be paralyzed.

Think.

Crack your ankle to the beat of the song.

Realize that you’re reading right now.

Laugh and then listen to the timbre of it, the way it carries.

Watch the clouds cut wisps before the sun.

Tie knots in laces, one on top of the other.

Do a dance for no reason at all.

Slow walk as if you’re on the moon.

Embrace.

Make your life lively.

Be.

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