Flight Link

User Error is soaring through the sky, uplinked to something else, something apart from him, detached from his body, he doesn’t have the sensation of it, although he does know that he is who he is. He’s seeing things he’s never seen before in real life. He’s seeing the sky, an icy blue drifting into black the higher it goes, white-gray clouds floating pendulous like mounds of something unimaginably huge. He can look around, full 360 degrees, instantly, but when he looks down, he has no hands or feet or any of that jazz. He is flying.

He’s got the distinct impression that he’s being transfigured into something else. His consciousness is slipping away, but not into sleep. It’s changing into something–or someone–else. He can make out the land beneath the clouds, but he has no concept of what any of it means. He’s seen pictures and vids of rolling hills, but how are you supposed to jive that with a tee-tiny version of the thing all the way down there?

The farther he goes, the more he loses himself. He starts to forget the people and things down there in his subterranean home, his effed-up life in the tunnels. It’s groovy, but it’s also mondo scary. He’d pee if he could, but he can’t, because he doesn’t have a body right this second.

All of a sudden, he’s totally untethered from his identity of User Error. His best friend Sanford no longer exists in his mind. He has no concept of tunnels or fanny packs or Windows 95. He’s just a being of pure consciousness flying through the air.

He can’t think, necessarily. Instead, ideas and concepts and feelings seem to roll right by him, floating away when they want and sticking when they want to too.

A thought sticks: He could, if he wanted to, attach himself to another body. Not just any body, it’d have to be like The Chosen One or whatever, but if he found it, and focused in real strong like when you stare at something for a crazy long time and your vision starts to tunnel, then he could attach to this Chosen body and just basically Be Connected To The Real World Again.

He thinks about it for like 2.5 seconds and says Sure. I’ll do it. So User-Error-Who-Is-Not-Technically-User-Error-Any-Longer-But-Was-Once-User-Error flies straight ahead, right into storm clouds, without a destination in sight. He can just feel it, you dig? The farther in he goes, the more he can feel it. He can smell the salt of the rain as he passes through the clouds, feel the condensation on his being, even though he still doesn’t have a body. He gets the impression that there’s a lot of people out here just like him, invisible people that aren’t quite people but who could be again if they wanted to be. He thinks about–

Cold. Ice cold. Colder than anything he’s ever experienced before, cold he didn’t even know existed. He’s no longer in the sky, but inside a plane that’s currently flying through it, slowly floating down corridors that are larger than many tunnels he’s seen, this plane is absolutely massive, more like a small city than a plane, and he can see hundreds of people in this place, some of them awake but many of them sleeping in weird little chambers. He can float through doors and walls and all that ish. It’s pretty nifty.

He can, if he wants to, fly out of the plane again, but it’d be super cold and uncomfortable, so he doesn’t. He does want to see what the view is like from inside the plane, so he finds this big old window, like we’re talking tunnel crocodile big. He looks through, and he can see one of the plane’s wings out the window. The whole thing’s covered with this black material that has individual cells on it, and he remembers reading about how above ground they used to use the power of the sun to make things work. Looks like the same mollynoggin here.

He can tell the Other Body is super duper close, and so he starts doing this like Spidey Sense Thing to find it. He does that tunnel vision thing, and stops thinking, and lets himself go, and he suddenly zooms over to the body at an incredible speed, clipping through walls and doors, flying past entire congregations of people, to the back of the plane, where he gets the impression there’s some shady stuff going down. He zooms so fast that he can barely see any details, but he’s honed in on this Other Body Jazz.

And then he’s there, in the room, looking down at this person, this kid that’s him even though it isn’t him. The boy is sleeping in some Mister Freeze icebox-looking thing, and he has no consciousness or awareness at the moment. There are sciencey-looking dudes prowling the area, making observations and checking off things on clipboards.

More than anything, he wants to wake this kid up, to bring him back to life. He would give anything, do anything, to save this kid’s life.

So it happens. As soon as he thinks it, a critical component of the icebox dealie shorts out, shooting sparks into the air and everything. The icebox warms up and becomes not-so-icy, and the airlock opens. The kid’s heart monitor gets faster and faster, and as it does, User starts fading away from this existence he’s in. He leaves by degrees, like eyes that are slowly closing to the darkness.

When he opens them, he’s the kid. He doesn’t know his name yet, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that the door is open, and it’s time for him to escape.

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.

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.

A Sun They’d Never Catch

The funny thing about almost dying is that in a lot of ways it’s similar to what you’d expect. It’s the little departures from expectation that fuck with you. Let’s back up, though, because my situation’s a little different from most. I wasn’t going into cardiac arrest or total organ failure or anything like that. What I did was I left work on my lunch break, caught an Uber downtown, and picked out a good X-Acto knife at the art supply store. I wouldn’t recommend using an X-Acto knife, by the way. Not because it’ll fail, but because there’s a very good chance it won’t. Take it from someone who immediately regretted their decision: You’re going to want to give yourself a chance to climb back up the hole of everlasting blackness. So the X-Acto knife. There was leaving the store and thinking in a matter of fact way that, well, I’ve got the knife now, so I have to go through with it. That it’d be a waste not to. There was walking down the busy lunchtime streets of Chicago, understanding that this would be the last time I’d see a driver flick a pedestrian off. This would be the last time I’d see a light’s red turn green. The last time I’d hear a thumping Reggaeton bassline as the car playing it passed by. There was receiving a text from a friend, then a Snapchat from my little brother, and having to look away from the phone, put it in standby mode. There wasn’t any of the second guessing you’d expect, not even during the more grisly parts of the story. I’m not saying these things don’t happen, I’m just saying I was past all that. My case was different. There was picking the right bridge and planning out the logistics, realizing this would be the last time I’d plan something, the last time I’d be thinking something at all, that I’d never experience being human again. There was ignoring these thoughts so I could get on with it. There was finding the little secluded spot across from the bridge where I could do it, “FORGIVE” intaglioed on the wall behind the trees and grass. Yes, it really said that. I couldn’t make that up. There was finding the cardboard mat on the ground, empty liquor bottle next to it, diseased pillow off to the side, and apologizing in advance to the homeless guy who’d have to come across all this blood. There was the one pure moment of pain, after I rolled up the thick woolen sleeves of my winter coat and the blade entered the flesh of my left arm, then almost nothing. Almost peace. There were both of my arms open, bleeding freely onto mildewy cardboard. There was me wondering what was taking it so long, squeezing the skin beside the gaping wounds to speed up the process. There was sitting there wondering if I was getting sleepy or if I was placebo-ing that based on my expectations. There was shifting my position because my legs hurt, and almost laughing about that seeming so important. There was pissing my pants and my vision being almost apart from my body. There was getting up and leaving the secluded spot, trailing blood as I climbed up to the bridge’s pedestrian walkway. There was the comical moment when a cyclist stopped behind me to snap a pic of the Chicago River in all its January glory, me turning away so he wouldn’t see my arms as he passed, him apparently so focused (or mortified) that he didn’t say or do anything. There was studying the way the bridge sloped like a slide just past the easily bypassable guardrail. There was, like I said, no hesitation whatsoever. Just sliding for a second, then air, then icy green enveloping everything. There was seeing the sun shine through briny black, and somehow swimming for it. There was hearing my terrified yells, almost automatic, almost outside of me, and realizing I wanted to live. There was swimming to the pylon sticking out of the water and streaking bloody hands on it, having nothing to grab onto, and almost wanting to laugh if I wasn’t bleeding out and drowning in the Chicago River. There was swimming around the pylon because there was nothing else to do. There was finding the ladder and almost not believing it. There was climbing this ladder and not even feeling the pain in my arms, though it must’ve been terrible. There was getting to the top of the structure and the person across the river who somehow saw the whole thing (again, I couldn’t make this up), megaphone-telling me that help is on the way and I should stay put. There was thinking, well shit, now that I actually want to live I better not bleed out. Etc. And the fire engines. And the paramedics. And the heated blankets to pull the chill from my bones, and the straps to keep me stabilized but really probably to stop me from looking at my arms. Eventually there were the Frankenstein stitches, sixty in total, and even those went away after a while, in the way that everything does. But more than that, than any of it at all, there was lying in bed on the locked ward and watching the birds fly past the window, wingtips grazing glass, all of them darting off for a sun they’d never catch but which they’d reach for anyway.

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Dad’s Weekend

When it was Dad’s weekend I’d find him at the end of the block with that week’s bike, usually pegged so I could hang on the back, or if I was lucky he’d be one-handing an old BMX next to him, my ride for the next three days till we had to dump it so the cops wouldn’t catch on. If Mom asked, he called us a cab. Mom never asked. Mom told me to have a good time over the forced dialogue of her soaps.

Most weekends we’d hit up the payphones en route to the mall, scooping out abandoned coins from slots and putting them in my Mickey Mouse wallet which was in fact a backpack for an impossibly tiny person. We’d need most of our change for food, so we rationed out one prank call each. Mine revolved around running refrigerators at first, but Dad set me straight. He once convinced an elderly lady he was her long lost son back from the war. Evacuated a department store based on “reports” of a bomb threat. Dad was a real pro.

When we made it to the mall, first thing we’d do was swap our inner tube caps with the coolest ones we could find in the parking lot; let a little air out first if we got them from a Jag or Beemer. It was important that we ride in style, even if the bikes weren’t permanent.

There’s a way of hyper-extending your arm to the point of possible breakage to reach in the hole where the claw game’s prizes go and pry numb fingers around whatever you find there. I was lookout till Dad showed me how, then we swapped roles. If the stretch hurt my elbow, Dad would snatch a to-go bag from the food court’s Taco Bell, load it up with ice and tie it around my arm like some demented pool floatie. The TB had an old Polaroid of Dad tacked to the wall, but we always seemed to make it out okay.

For Pokémon card machines he’d pull out his special quarters. Special quarters were regular quarters with five-pound test tied to them, the fishing line thin and strong enough to regurgitate the coin once I got my Blastoise, or Mewtwo, or (let’s be honest) Rattata. Every damn time, Dad would ask if I got the right Pokey-mon. Like that, too. Pokey. I’d nod and smile even if it was like a water energy, because if I didn’t, he’d pull the same con twice. Even at seven I knew you didn’t pull the same con twice.

We’d stop for lunch at this Chinese restaurant, one of the few places still willing to accept loose change as payment. I stacked my water chestnuts as I ate, same as the coins stacked after our meal: towers of quarters, nickels, dimes, and the way they’d count them in silence.

After that we’d stop at Blockbuster to undertake Dad’s life’s work. Every week he’d take a video and pile it in the hotel bathtub with the rest, bathroom tile as cutting room floor as he unspooled film from one tape, cut and spliced it with film from another, checked the edit with liberated reading glasses, assembled the master tape one frame at a time. Dad said it’d be the greatest film ever made once it was finished. He’d been working on it ever since he and Mom got divorced, three years of tapes, garbage-bagging them whenever a hotel kicked him out so he could continue his life’s work somewhere else.

Every weekend would end with him pouring tiny liquor bottles he swiped that week into an old Jim Beam, an alcoholic mad scientist fumbling with his beakers, and me peeking through door’s crack, strictly off limits, trying to catch a glimpse of a cell whenever Dad held his work up to the light. And the way the tiny bottles would scatter on the tile, plastic and so shatterproof, and at most he’d get another two seconds of his masterpiece done. And how we’d dump our bike(s) in a new spot each time, Dad insisting they’d end up in the right hands, whatever that meant, and us walking alongside the railroad tracks, Dad leaving a trail of tiny bottles behind us in case we got lost on the way, though we never once did.

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Shingleknight

The last thing we buy with money is a box of assorted seeds, as if that’s supposed to be some grand metaphor or something. The house we pick to squat in is an old Craftsman, paint peeling, shutters falling over drunk. It’s a house for a grandpa to watch Wheel of Fortune in.

We rip the shingles off first thing, toss them in the front lawn as late-season cicadas laugh at our efforts. The shingles that don’t break we repurpose into a suit of armor. A knight who’s always on duty. We lay the dirt and seeds on the roof, and some of the seeds stick to your feet and in between your toes and on the backs of your thighs when you bend down to poke the seeds in with your pinkies and I spritz you so it looks like you’ve peed.

I make a raft out of an old armoire door and use it to navigate the flooded basement’s treacherous sea. I trawl the ocean floor with a rake, paddle with a shovel. Turns out there’s a plug in the ground. Like your average garden variety bathtub plug. You watch the drain slurp the water into a whirlpool, laugh and throw popcorn at me. I imagine the Wheel of Fortune grandpa plugging the drain, flooding the basement, and taking laps with floaties on. You say he must have a Speedo too. A glorious banana hammock. I add it in.

In time we claim our bounteous roof harvest, plant more seeds, and construct rooms our childhood selves would talk about as they poked holes into jar lids and prepared lightning bugs for their new homes. There is, for instance, an astronaut room. Just a shit ton of space stuff, really. A bedroom we convert into a rolling meadow with tiny trees and dewy, sloping hills, complete with papier-mâché shepherd tending his clay sheep. It is, as they say, something.

We don’t work, unless you consider building this home work, and we don’t.

A heckler arrives on our front lawn at the end of the month, insists our creation is an eyesore. There’s a sign and a slogan involved. The day after, we get a counter-heckler wearing a pretty sweet T-shirt with our shingleknight on it. Our guy live tweets the whole thing, draws a small crowd. Their guy recruits family, friends, and a sizeable chunk of the neighborhood’s octogenarians.

The police arrive next day. By now the protesters and counter-protesters number in the hundreds. They brandish signs and flags and effigies. Chants cancel each other out. Threats are made on shingleknight’s life. A circle of people link arms around him to offer protection. The other side stages a hunger strike and burns little shingleknight figurines that a vendor’s selling for two bucks each. The cops plant a troublemaker in the crowd, deploy rubber bullets and tasers once he does his thing. There’s a melee involved.

Shingleknight goes, and then the house does, and we watch it all burn from the backyard.

It is, as they say, something.

We leave when the fire burns out and everyone else decides to go home.

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The Barclay

While telling stories with my little brother, I began to tell one in a British accent about a mysterious character known only as The Barclay. That story was largely unintelligible. That story was completely improvised. That story is here now for your aural amusement:

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