Petri Dish Memories

User Error has his memory mapper on, a modified pasta colander with electrodes and wires leading out through the back and feeding their way to User’s backpack, where he’s rigged up a rudimentary computer to analyze data and read results in a monotone, computerized, Microsoft Sam voice. He’s taking a break from biking; he’s got his back against the tunnel wall, and he’s sitting with his kick-standed bike on his left and Sanford Brisket on his right.

“So how does that janglet on your head work again?”

“The memory mapper? It works by reading the electrical impulses coming from my brain and analyzing whether the memories it finds are real or not.”

“How can a memory be fake?”

“Thoughts are data, right? Code. And you can hack code. You can manipulate it to be anything you want.”

“So you think someone’s hacking into your brain? Sounds pretty ‘noid to me, man.”

“No, not hacking, I’m saying that some of my memories might’ve been tampered with, maybe even created when I was born. Petri-dished.”

“Peter what?”

“Look, I don’t want you to freak out, but there’s a possibility that you and I are far away from this place right now, maybe in cryo chambers up on the surface, and this is all a dream. That our entire life stories were manufactured by some bored scientist who’d rather let us sleep for decades while he tinkers with our brains than wake us up.”

“Well then why would we be stuck here, living in crappy wasteland tunnels underground? Wouldn’t we be in like paradise or something?”

“For all we know, this could be a stress test. Meant to study the general public’s chances of survival in hostile, possibly inevitable environments.”

“So we’re in the past, dreaming, being studied by mad scientists who know that the world is going to end and are prepping for it real sly-like?”

“Maybe. It’s all just a theory.”

“So which memories do you think are Peter-dished?”

“Petri. And I don’t know. Maybe my parents. You know how they died when I was really little, and I had nowhere to go because no one would take me in, and I had pretty much no choice but to raise myself, collecting scraps of food here and there and avoiding raiders and all that jazz?”

“That about sums up your origin story, yes.”

“Yeah, well maybe I wasn’t some feral child. Maybe my real parents, above-ground, somehow woke up from cryo sleep and tried to stop the scientist but weren’t able to. Maybe they initiated the procedure to wake me up, and I did, just a little, but then the scientist blasted them with a science-y thing and put me back under. Maybe he gave me this effed-up orphan origin to punish me and scrub even the thought of my parents out of existence.”

“That is oddly, compellingly specific, bro-down. How’d you work those deets out?”

“Memory. At least what I think was actually a real memory.”

“You know I’m gonna say go on.”

“Okay. So a few weeks ago, I had what I thought at the time was a dream. I woke up in this like sterile white lab, with sophisticated machinery and advanced computers, not like the dinged-up Windows 95 ish we’ve been left with.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. And everything was foggy, but I could just make out some of the details. I couldn’t move, but I could watch. I couldn’t see myself, but I got the impression that I was younger. Like 11 or 12, not 20 like I am here. Anyway, I saw who I knew had to be my parents even though I’d never seen them before in my life. And then everything played out like I just told you. The attempted thwarting, the science-y blasting, all of it.”

“Not gonna lie, that’s pretty gnarly.”

“Yeah.”

“But it probably was just a dream. You said yourself that you thought–”

“I saw my breath.”

“Say what?”

“When I woke up, I was freezing cold. Like cryo chamber cold. And I saw my breath. I’ve never been that cold.”

“Me neither. The tunnels regulate temps pretty well.”

“Yeah. And just as soon as that happened, I was instantly warm again. Like the simulation messed up for a sec and the programmer had to fix it really quick.”

“Whoa.”

“Yeah, whoa.”

“So what’s your plan now?”

“I need to analyze my brain waves and separate the real memories from the manufactured ones. Then I’ll figure out a way to wake myself up.”

“That sounds like a plan. But User?”

“What?”

“What if I’m manufactured too? What if the scientist dude gave you a best friend ‘cause he felt kind of bad, and I only exist in your brain somewhere?”

User blinks.

“No. You’re real.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know. You’re real. Somewhere, you’re real. Probably cryo-frozen in the same room as me. You have to be.”

“I hope so, User. I really hope so.”

“You’re real.”

The two of them sit in quiet, listening to the plunk-plunk of condensed droplets falling from the tunnel ceiling and landing on the floor below.

Disc Skip Nirvana

User Error’s copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind is mostly, surprisingly good, but it’s scratched enough where it’ll skip and freeze periodically, mostly during “In Bloom,” “Come as You Are,” and “Breed.” It isn’t enough to kill the mood, and User and Sanford Brisket usually shout out “Remix!” whenever Kurt Cobain’s voice stutters and chops up into audio oblivion, but it’s enough to be noticeable.

They’re biking/rollerblading down a random tunnel with no end in sight, nothing but the occasional ominous torch, ominous because no one’s supposed to be alive out this far. User Error looks at Sanford as he pedals on:

“You ever wonder if you were alive before this life?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the world’s been around for billions of years, right?”

“It has?”

“Yeah, I read it in a book once. Had to pull the thing out of a sewer. Anyway, I read in another book that matter can’t be created or destroyed, it just turns into other jazz. So who’s to say we haven’t been repurposed into new lifeforms and junk over the eons?”

“Like birds and bugs and shit?”

“Yeah, and people.”

“It’s a cool story, but it’s all speculation. Rabble dabble.”

“So was everything at one point. Some dude in the past thought that he could turn rocks and minerals into computer chips, and I’m guessing people thought he was crazy before he actually did it. And then they got the Inner Net and all that.”

“Yeah, and then they got super advanced and blew each other up and made it so our ancestors had to scurry underground to survive. You ask me, they were a bunch of jive turkeys.”

“Eh, I say it’s human nature. We love mystery, and death is the ultimate mystery.”

“So we seek it out? With like wars and junk?”

“Maybe, I don’t know. Just a theory.”

“Hmm. I mean, you do have a poi– Holy shit!”

They both stop. In front of them is what appears to be a person going through an abrupt life cycle. He’s standing in the middle of the tunnel, body shifting, growing tall through childhood and adolescence, thickening up from adulthood, stooping with age, shriveling up, and shrinking back down to where he started. Then he disappears, all of this in about thirty seconds.

“What in the actual Sam Hill, User? Like the full-blown Samuel H. Hill. What was that?”

“I think it was a life cycle. A super short one, but a life cycle.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“You know how flies will live for like a day and then just die? I guess that guy was programmed to live for like thirty seconds.”

“Programmed?”

“Yep. Might’ve been a bug in the code or something.”

All of a sudden, someone pops into existence in front of them. This time, it’s someone completely different. They spring up, grow tall, stall out, wrinkle, and stoop just like the first person. Right before they pop out of existence, they manage to look at User and get out:

“Who are–”

The person disappears, but then another person appears. They look at User as they rapidly age and finish the sentence:

“–you?”

The recurring being disappears. User looks at Sanford:

“They’re immortal. Living their life in tiny segments, dying over and over again, coming back as new people, but it’s the same central consciousness. Their memory is carrying over from–”

“Leave me–”

The person, now with green skin, is there, then gone. They reappear with reptilian features and a thick hide.

“–alone.”

“What the fuck is happening, User?”

“I don’t know, but I think it’s cycling through its species’ evolution. It’s almost as if when it gets startled or angry or something, it cycles faster, and it appears the way it will, the way we will, in the distant future.”

“So we’re going to look like weird lizard people in the future?”

“Not us, but our descendants will. Maybe. If the theory holds, anyway.”

The person reappears, but this time they’re barely human. Its knuckles touch the tunnel floor, and its skin is now a grayish green. Its eyes are blank white, like it hasn’t seen the sun its entire life. Its voice is a growl:

“I said go away!”

It disappears again. Sanford turns to User:

“Uh, I think we should do what he says.”

“Agreed. Let’s skedaddle.”

They gather their equipment and ride away. They can hear the being cycling over and over again behind them, but then it stops. They turn and see why:

Where the being once stood and cycled now sits a small, human baby. It doesn’t cycle, just sits on the ground and does baby things. User and Sanford turn to go help the baby, but they won’t have to: He stands up, waves at the two of them, and walks on down the tunnel, toward where User and Sanford came from. Sanford blinks:

“Trippy. Absolutely insane.”

“Shall we continue?”

“What?”

“I need to go get parts to make myself a robot leg, remember?”

“Oh yeah. Okay. Yeah, we should get out of here.”

They do. User presses play on his CD player. Kurt Cobain’s voice skips and distorts, but it eventually finds itself as it reverberates down the endless tunnel.

5 Year Anniversary!

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since I launched Nick’s Fics. To all of you who have read/liked/commented on my weird little flash fiction stories along the way, thank you! Here’s to 5 more years!

Waterfall, Robot Leg

User Error and Sanford Brisket are cycling/rollerblading down an offshoot tunnel, relying on their headlights/lamps and the bioluminescent sludge on the tunnel walls to see their way through. They’ve got their portable CD player playing Now That’s What I Call Music!, Sanford’s idea, and San is singing all the words to “MMMBop,” or at least what little words there are. User Error is putting up with it till Radiohead’s “Karma Police” comes on, which is one of his favorite songs. They’ve listened to this CD together more times than they can count. Hanson eventually plays out, and “Zoot Suit Riot” is next.

“Where’s this frakking waterfall, User?”

“We’re super close, I think.”

“Like how close?”

“I don’t know, San. Let me commune with the ancients or something and pinpoint the ETA for you.”

User holds one hand to his temple while he steers his bike with the other.

“Nope, still have no idea.”

“Smartass. Well maybe–”

Both of them smack into something with enough force to make them shout expletives but not enough force to knock them over. They both come to a squealing stop and look behind them. Where they just came from, there’s a huge piece of plastic, cut to fit the tunnel exactly, hanging from the tunnel ceiling. It’s been painted to give the illusion that the tunnel goes on forever. Sanford turns to User:

“Holy shit, man. We’ve been Wile E. Coyote-ed.”

“Uh, Sanford…”

Sanford turns back around to see what User is looking at: The Waterfall.

The tunnel opens up into a massive atrium, unbelievable in size, impractical even, with outflow pipes poking out through all of the walls and loosing water into a carved-out cavity below. One main pipe supplies the waterfall; it’s large enough to fit User and Sanford’s entire town comfortably. User Error drops his bike to the ground. Sanford Brisket kicks off his rollerblades.

“Holy fucking Tamagotchi, User. Are you seeing this?”

“I’m seeing this.”

“What do we do?”

“Uh, go in? I haven’t had a bath in like ever. Like not once since I was born.”

“Saaame. Let’s do it.”

They wade into clean water, clear enough that you can see to the bottom. At its deepest, the water comes up to their chests, which is good because neither of them can swim. Twenty years of dirt and grime come off of both of them. They try to clean out their tangled, matted hair too, but that isn’t as easy. User grabs a knife out of his fanny pack and cuts his hair with it until he’s left with short, brown, non-matted hair. He passes the knife over to Sanford, who ends up with the same haircut, only blond. Sanford passes the knife back to User, who lets out a sigh of relief.

“I feel fresh.”

“One hundred percent. I feel fresh to death right now.”

“I didn’t even know it was possible to feel this clean.”

“Right? I feel lighter. There must’ve been like thirty pounds of dirt on me. It’s insane.”

User scans his surroundings. He finds dozens of pipes sprouting from everywhere, stone brick walls, and branching tunnel systems that look like they were constructed centuries ago. He turns to Sanford:

“Who do you think wanted to hide this?”

“I don’t know, but fuck them. I’ve been drinking puddle water my whole life when I could’ve been having this stuff.”

Sanford crouches so that his open mouth is at the surface of the water. He walks forward, drinking water in huge gulps, making it look like he’s trying to eat the water as he keeps walking forward. User makes a cup with his hands and drinks from the pool.

Time passes. Sanford looks at User:

“My stomach hurts.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you drank like gallons of water when you’re only used to slurping a little at a time.”

“Whatever. What do you want to do now? I’d take a picture, but cameras don’t exist anymore.”

“Let’s go to the waterfall, see if there’s an Easter egg behind it.”

“What the fuck is an Easter?”

User laughs.

“An Easter egg is something cool that’s hidden. In like video games and stuff.”

“Oh, sweet. Let’s do it.”

They wade over to the waterfall. The sound is deafening, so they cross past the falling water as fast as they can. Standing there in front of them are dozens of sickly pale people, completely naked, covered in moss and with their open mouths pointed at the tunnel ceiling. There are insects everywhere. They get curious and land on some of the people’s mouths. These people close their mouths mechanically and keep them closed.

“What I am seeing right now, User?”

“Uh… It looks like…”

“What?”

“It looks like a tribe of people that’s evolved, or devolved, to a vegetative state where they like passively catch prey. Or something.”

“These are people?”

“Yeah. I mean, I think they are. Technically.”

Sanford turns to them:

“Hey! Are you people?”

None of them so much as blink. There’s even bioluminescent sludge growing on some of them.

“Okay, this is giving me the Cheez-Its, User. Let’s get out of here.”

“Agreed.”

They leave. Walking out of the water, User Error’s limp is more noticeable than usual. Sanford almost never mentions it, but:

“Hey, are you okay, man? Seems like your leg’s getting worse.”

“I know. I’m thinking of chopping it off and giving myself a robot leg.”

“Robot leg?”

“Robot leg. I just need to gather the parts.”

User gets on his bike, and Sanford puts his rollerblades back on:

“Shit yeah, man! Let’s adventure.”

Neither of them know which tunnel they should go down, so they pick one at random and zoom off into the darkness.

Jams and Cycles

User Error is watching the way the lights flash by as he cycles down his town’s main tunnel, Sanford Brisket rollerblading next to him while beatboxing. They’re going so fast that Sanford’s constantly getting out of breath, stopping his beat to breathe, then beatboxing again when he gets bored. He looks at User.

“Let’s listen to some jams.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, I’m bored. I want to hear some of the tunes you whipped up on that computer of yours.”

User Error stops his bike and pulls out a beaten and battered portable CD player from his backpack. The top of it is partially broken, but he fixed that with some duct tape and super glue. The anti-skip still kind of works. He pulls out a dusty CD case and gives Sanford his pick of about 100 discs in total, some of them ones that User scavenged in his travels and some that he made himself, chopping up MIDI files and making music out of computer error sounds, startup music, and the digitized Beethoven that came standard with every copy of Windows 95.

Sanford chooses a CD of User Error’s latest mixes. User loads the CD and hangs the headphones over his neck, if they can still be called headphones at this point. A while back, User removed the foam over-ear coverings and made some modifications. He flipped the speakers so that they were facing outward and tinkered with them until they were playing at the volume of a loud radio. That’s how he likes to listen to his jams.

The first song sounds like a synthesized choir flying through space. The beat slams, the bass is funky, and you can just tell how much fun User Error was having when he made it.

They’re getting moving again, the sound reverberating off of the tunnel walls.

“Okay, this is a bop, User.”

“Yeah?”

“Certified fresh, man. I’d give birth to this if I was a lady.”

User laughs:

“What?”

“Yeah man. You should play this for mamas who are popping out babies. It’d make the whole experience much cooler, I bet.”

“Okay… I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Yeah man. Really good stuff.”

It goes on like that, one song bleeding into another, both of them going farther than they’ve ever gone before, beyond the lights that are still running, into the dark, until User has to switch on his bike’s headlight and Sanford has to put on his headlamp.

“Sanford, what do you think you would have done above ground? Like as a job?”

“We’ve been over this. There is no one and nothing above ground.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I mean like before everything went crazy. Before our ancestors went all ‘fuck this’ and got down into the tunnels. You know? There were jobs. You’d go somewhere and do something for like eight hours, then at the end of the day you could go to like an apartment or something and your boss would give you paper so that you could go buy food. So what would your job be?”

“How would I get food paper?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit, I’d probably just find where they kept all the food paper and take it for myself.”

“This isn’t like someone hoarding gold in a cave, San. They had like vaults and guards and stuff. They kept their money on the Inner Net.”

“Damn. Well, I don’t know then. Probably someone who tells travelling tales. You know? Like you see these guys going from tunnel to tunnel, and everyone gathers around to hear them weaving it thick, and everybody loves it. Everyone needs stories, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Plus, if the people above ground were dumb enough to destroy everything up there, I’m pretty sure I could trick them into giving me a shit ton of food paper.”

“You’re ridiculous, Sanford. You know that, right?”

“I am aware.”

The CD plays out. The tunnel makes the music sound like it’s coming from miles underwater. Sanford looks at User Error.

“Do you ever think about cycles, User?”

“Like bicycles?”

“No, like things happening again and again. That kind of cycle.”

“Eternal return?”

“Eternal what?”

“Eternal return. So basically, the theory goes that the world and the Inner Net and the universe and all of it will all one day come to an end.”

“Already seems like it has.”

“Yeah, I know. But the theory says that after all of it ends, it all starts up again. Like everything, word for word and step for step. The world happens, and people make the Inner Net, and everything blows up, and there’s us tunnel people, all of it.”

“And there’s no way to stop it?”

“Nope. It just cycles again and again, over and over. For all of eternity, you and I will be running into each other as kids, then becoming friends, then going on adventures, and then having this exact conversation.”

“What if I change it and… FUCK.”

“What?!”

“Nothing, sorry. I just wanted to mess with the cycle.”

“That’s the thing though, San. The theory says that you’ve always yelled out ‘fuck’ in the middle of the conversation like that, and you always will. And you’d have no way of knowing, because your memory is wiped each time you’re born again. Like a fresh hard drive.”

“Holy shit.”

“Right?”

“No, I mean holy shit, where is this waterfall at? We’ve been going for like hours now.”

“I think we’re almost there.”

“You think?”

“Well yeah, I’ve never been there before. But it feels like it, right?”

Sanford thinks for a second, then smiles.

“Yeah, it does.”

User Error starts his CD from the beginning. They ride on into the darkness.

User Error

User Error hobbles along through the main tunnel of his town, toward home, leaning into his good leg to get to his bike quicker. He can move better on his bike. On his bike, he can’t smell the gangrene rot of the underground, and all the lights streak by like he imagines they’d streak by inside the Inner Net, where people say you used to be able to talk to anyone and see anything you wanted. He’s got an old PC, bland-gray, chunky monitor, industrial keyboard, with moss covering it, and the backside’s exposed so you can see all the machine’s inner workings. Wires extend from the old computer and snake up to the top of the tunnel like vines, where User Error is trying to make his own Inner Net.

It took him 6 months to get the PC working, assembled from parts and pieces he could scavenge, carrying a stick with him because the parts and pieces were very valuable and you never knew who might come out of the darkness to jack your shit.

User Error had a regular name once, but his parents died when he was really little, and no one in town knew what the name was. No one took him in, so he just sort of wandered around his whole childhood, collecting what food he could and scavenging parts to make things. He doesn’t talk about what gave him the limp.

He rehabilitates MIDI files, cuts and splices till transformations happen and he can hear the inner workings of his soul out there in the music, echoing through the tunnels, with the darkness and sounds of condensed droplets falling from the ceiling onto the calcified tunnel floor.

User Error’s hair is matted, the scalp underneath scarred, and no matter how many times he cuts the hair off, it comes in the same way all over again.

He’s soldering wires now, trying not to start a fire, and he’s got a bucket of leakwater next to him in case he does. Sanford Brisket comes up from behind him and gives him a scare. User Error says Ha Ha, and Sanford sits down next to him to see what he’s doing.

“You got it on the Inner Net yet?”

“Not yet. I’m working on it.”

Sanford scratches a louse out of his long, tangled blond hair. He flicks it at User Error and laughs.

“What are you gonna do when you get it running and no one’s there?”

“Someone will be there.”

“Above ground?”

“Yeah. Above ground.”

“Nothing above ground but skulls and gross shit. I’m trying to tell you.”

“So what do you want me to do? Give up and be like everyone else?”

“Nah, man. Let’s have some fun. This is the dumbest time to be alive! Let’s celebrate!”

Sanford Brisket laughs, then coughs up mucus. He wipes it on his sleeve and points at the screen, where there are lines of green text glowing on a black screen.

“What’s all that mean? Is that how you build the Inner Net?”

“Yeah. It’s code. Like how you and I are made up of code, and the world isn’t real except in a giant computer somewhere, and we’re all living lives we’ve already lived, only we’re somewhere else, somewhere above ground, maybe even in outer space, and we’re trying to sort out a past life so we can know something new about the future, which is the present then. It’s like that, but we’re the ones with the computer.”

Sanford looked genuinely impressed.

“Okay. Okay. So you’re making a universe, then?”

“Kind of. Maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see, I guess.”

“Then what are we gonna do?”

“We’ll go inside our Inner Net and see if we can find the bigger, main Inner Net. We just have to find a way to convert ourselves.”

“Convert?”

“Yeah. Like I’d be usererror.jpeg and you’d be sanfordbrisket.jpeg. We’d just have to change it over to whatever’s compatible in the main Inner Net, and then we’ll be golden.”

“You know this sounds fucking crazy, right?”

“Yeah, well so does living in a town underground while everything above is dead and gone. Everything’s tunnels, Sanford. We live in our tunnels, and the Inner Net has its own tunnels. We just need to find a way to sneak in.”

Sanford looks over his shoulder and points at a long tunnel that stretches out beyond the darkness.

“Shit, man, why don’t we explore those tunnels? You’ve got your bike, I’ve got my rollerblades. We’ll pack weapons and provisions in our fanny packs. What’s stopping us?”

“Well…”

“Well what?”

User Error looks at Sanford Brisket. He tries to hide a smile, but can’t.

“Well, I have been needing a new processor. You know, to speed up Deep Thought.”

“Deep Thought?”

“It’s a computer name. I read it in a book once.”

Sanford hikes up his fanny pack and tightens it around his waist.

“So what do you say, glob goblin? Are we doing this?”

User Error laughs.

“We’re doing this.”

User Error pulls his bike out from where it’s hidden under moss and dirt. He wipes off the seat and climbs on while Sanford straps on his rollerblades. They get moving, and Sanford looks at User Error.

“Do the thing! Do the thing!”

User Error looks embarrassed, but he does it anyway:

“Hi-ho Silver, away!”

They speed off down the tunnel, lights a blur, wind blowing their matted, tangled hair, and they’re going so fast that they could be in another time, another place.

Breath and Fluctuations

When he discovered he no longer needed to eat to survive, he devoted most of his waking hours to meditation. He remembered picking up the habit as a young man in San Francisco, in a Zen Buddhist temple with a vase that held a single flower, spare decorations, and a memento mori in the corner with a human skull that seemed to look at you as you walked the room in kinhin. He couldn’t remember much else from that time, as it was more than 280 years ago. Just the flower, the skull, the walking, and the fluctuation of the breath.

He found that meditation relieved some of the fog that had accumulated over the centuries, allowed him to return to a time and a place that no longer existed.

His city was rubble. He had returned there once, seen the plants and trees sprouting past cracked pavement, watched daily as the vines choked rusted-out cars and street signs whose letters could no longer be read. He allowed himself one night in this broken city, one night to mourn a place he hardly remembered, a place that took him over a hundred years to find.

He was not immortal, but it sometimes seemed he could not die. His body was still breaking down, memory still fading, hair still graying and falling out, but he kept going. That’s what it was for decades, the last survivors seemingly unaffected by the outbreak, seemingly enhanced by it, injuries healing quickly, lifespans extended, metabolisms improved to the point where one could go months without food. But time claims everyone. No matter how long it takes, time always wins.

He hadn’t seen anyone since the last blast. A reactor had gone into meltdown, caused catastrophic destruction. He remembered an event from before the outbreak, when he was an older man. Fukushima. Similar devastation. He could heal from many injuries he’d sustained over the years, but he wouldn’t have been able to survive that blast. And, it seemed, no one did.

He’d been exploring a tunnel system under a school he came across when it happened. He was holding a light to the tunnel walls and trying to read the writing of students who had passed centuries ago when the blast came. It seemed to shake the tunnel walls, and concrete and dust blanketed his thinning hair, his chest-long beard. He couldn’t move for over an hour, wouldn’t dare to. Even after centuries, the fear of death remains.

He came outside to a flooding city, with plant and animal life flowing like so many leaves on the surface of a stream. There was no sound except for the flowing water and the rattling of the leaves on the trees. He was alone.

He was taken by how beautiful it was. He knew he shouldn’t think that way, but it was an apotheosis of destruction. He did not run at first. He stood in the water with his bare feet, bare because there had been no shoes to be found for decades, and he watched as the city was carried away from him. Time passed like that, much time. He dipped his hands into the water and washed out the debris from his hair, face, beard. When it was time, he left that city and never returned.

He could think of only one way to keep track of how many years had passed since the fall. He found an orchard, far from where he had started, that had a plaque still legible at the gate leading into it. According to the plaque, the trees inside had been planted in the year 2030 as a gift from a local benefactor. He always ached to know the time, but he knew that this orchard wouldn’t last forever. When enough years or decades had passed and he could no longer take it, he would chop down one of these trees and count the rings. The last tree he felled had over 200 rings.

Even with the length of time he waited before chopping down each tree, the orchard was almost empty. Stumps littered the grounds like so many wooden gravestones. He made the trees’ wood last as long as possible.

He felt he should be broken after all this time, all this wear, but he wasn’t. At least he didn’t feel that way. His body ached, and he grew more tired with each year that passed, but his mind was lifted. He collected his things each day, made his journeys, and catalogued what he saw in his mind. Sometimes, when he wanted to hear a human voice, he gave himself a running commentary of what he saw, what he was thinking. He constructed stories in his head and read them aloud as he climbed hills and walked through fields and traversed forests, describing the moss that grew like miniature worlds beneath his feet, the carvings he’d sometimes find on trees, inscriptions that were mostly illegible, carvings made by lovers for lovers, people who could never imagine these days. He saw many things.

Someday, he would die. This was not speculation. It might take a hundred years or more, but it would happen. It just wouldn’t happen today. So he sat beside a flowing stream and took a breath. He held it, felt it, and let it leave him like just another leaf on a stream.

Create

It’s summer, and I’m twenty-two years old. That puts us at 2012. I got my BA yesterday. I wanted to enjoy my graduation, and I did, but I couldn’t really focus. My brain was only half there, floating over story concepts and character sketches that I’d been hashing out up until the last day of the last semester. I don’t feel like I earned my degree. I mean, I fulfilled all the prerequisites, passed all my classes and all that, but I don’t feel like I wrote the story I needed to write before I could graduate. Maybe that should be put down as a requirement in the future.

I’ve written so many stories, created so many characters. I’ve written flash fiction, micro, short stories, novels, but I haven’t hit on that one thing yet. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too picky. All I know is that here I am one day after graduating college, and I hardly feel any different.

I want to be understood.

If there’s a point to all of this, I guess it’s to tell lies to get at the truth. Isn’t that what fiction is? But who determines what the truth is? Is it the thing that happened, or the feeling of it? If you come back to it in 20 years’ time, is it still the same truth you remembered?

I’m sitting on the beach, scribbling away in this notebook and trying to keep the sand off the pages. I’ve got to transfer this over to digital at some point, I just don’t know when. I’ve got to do a lot of things. I miss my friends and family, and not just the ones who have died. I miss my home. Maybe I’ll go back. Or maybe I’ll just write about it. Maybe both.

My mentor always got this smile on her face when she handed me her notes on one of my stories. At first I just ignored it because the notes were really good, but eventually I got curious. She told me she could tell I fictionalized things just enough where I could hide from the reader. She said she could see the fear beneath the words. I took it personally and started saying I wasn’t afraid and that she didn’t know what she was talking about, and she told me it’s okay to be afraid. It’s good, actually. Follow the fear, that’s where all the good stories come from. So I calmed down, and composed myself, and apologized, and thanked her, and then I kept turning in the stories that made her smile like that. She kept smiling like that all four years that I was there, kept smiling like that even during my last semester. When graduation was over and she gave me a hug, I looked and saw that same smile on her face. She said she knew I was going to be great, and I could tell she meant it. Even so, I felt like something inside of me had fallen from a great height.

I’m sitting on this beach with my toes in the sand, watching the New York sky shift from pink to purple. The night’s getting away from me, and I feel like I have to do something. I don’t know what, but I have to do something. I pull out another notebook that I have with me, one that’s labeled CNF for creative nonfiction. My mentor gave this to me as a gift years ago. She’s the one who scrawled “CNF” on its cover.

I flip open to the first page, and there’s nothing there. There’s nothing on any of the pages. I close my eyes and I see Des Plaines, IL in all its bittersweet glory, smell the growing spring and setting summer as the cicadas scream in the background. I see my old complex, our apartment in Bay Colony, and the pond at the center of it that I used to go down to when I was a kid. I feel a smooth stone in my hand before I skip it across the pond’s surface, watch the willows’ fronds dip down and reflect themselves over water too tired to move. I see a thousand reflections of myself in a thousand mirrors until I’m right here where I am. It seems like I’ve lived many lifetimes, but I’m still here.

That’s what I’ll write about. That’s what I can do. I take the CNF notebook and look at that blank first page. All I need is the title. Once I have the title, I have the story.

I already know what it is. I scribble it down and look at it, and even now I can tell that it’s right.

It says Here’s Waldo.

Breathe

It’s summer, and I’m twenty years old. That puts us at 2010. I’m sitting in the bath, and it’s perfectly cold. The air above my head is different. It’s so hot that I can almost see the heat shimmer in this apartment that has no AC. Reb will go in after I’m done, because if the heat is bad for me it’ll only be worse for a dog. In the meantime, he sits next to the bathtub and smiles as he pants.

My roommate left abruptly about a month ago, breaking the lease and leaving me with no way to cover the rest of the rent. Student loan refunds can only help so much, and I learn quickly that New York City rent is on another planet compared to Des Plaines, IL rent.

I take to sipping cheap beer while sitting in the tub, convincing myself that I’m drinking to fill myself up while at the same time cooling myself down, trying to ignore the fact that my dad used to do the same thing with the same brand of beer. My empties form a mountain in the corner of the bathroom, and I amuse myself by thinking it’s an art installation.

A memory comes from an indeterminate age. All I know is that I was small enough for the bathroom’s door knob to be at eye level, the bathroom where my father called me over. He called me over, and I went, not knowing how drunk he was or even fully understanding the concept of being drunk. I just knew that sometimes Daddy fell over while he was trying to walk to the fridge, and you never knew if he would start laughing or yelling after he got back up. I knew beer bottles being hurled against the wall and my mom telling me that Mommy and Daddy were just kidding, just playing a game. I knew my dad driving us home from a little league game and stopping the car, opening the door to puke. I knew the effect, but the cause eluded me.

But in this memory where I am at door knob height, my father calls me into the bathroom, and I go, and when I open the door he’s soaking in the tub with an open can in his hand. His eyes are glassy, and there’s a vein visible on his forehead. In this memory, he tells me that he’s empty. He tells me that he needs another beer. He asks if I can be a good boy and do that for him. I nod my head and see that all around him there are bubbles like the bubble baths I always insist on having. My father notices and smiles. He tells me he’s having a bubble bath just like I always do. He smiles, and he looks at me, and he says that sometimes he likes the bubbles and sometimes he doesn’t. He puts his hand in the water between his legs and starts swishing the bubbles away, back and forth.

The memory stops.

I’m here in my own bathtub more than a decade removed, in another state, and my chest is tightening. It feels like I am being pulled outside of myself. My shoulders and back start to hurt, and it’s only when they do that I realize my entire body is tensed up. I feel like I’m beneath the surface of a great body of water, splashing and flailing. I don’t know what to do, but then I remember that I do.

I’ve been going to a Zen Buddhist temple for a few months now, and I watch and listen as the techniques and words come back to me. An image of a stream with leaves calmly floating down it. Understanding that thoughts will pass, that they don’t have any more of a hold over you than what you give them. That the breath regulates everything and not the other way around. That memories can’t kill you no matter how painful they might be. That you only need to sit and breathe and be.

I don’t know how long I stay there in that tub, but the pain leaves my shoulders and back, and eventually I can breathe again. I come back into my body and can feel and hear and see things normally again. I just breathe.