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The House of Cards

Short story By: Mashimoto
Science fiction



Death evades a teenager attempting suicide, as after each "death" he is transported to oddly-familiar worlds.


Submitted:Sep 27, 2009    Reads: 201    Comments: 5    Likes: 1   


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I

The clock on my cell phone was approaching midnight as the moon fell steadily from its zenith towards the horizon, like some massive glowing bomb. A trademark northeaster breeze caught me off guard, and shook me from the core. The wind, to me, always felt an unearthly part of existence; something alien and foul, blowing from a nearby corner of hell or, even, a distant corner of heaven.

My reflex was to shore myself against the hellish (heavenly?) freezing wind, so I did. I wrapped my arms around my legs, which I had curled up into, and inched closer to the dying, pitiful embers of my fire. The blanket beneath me was starting to seep with the water, sinking like Atlantis into the sea that was the waterlogged grass-ocean all around me.

When the wind had passed, my hands unwrapped from my legs and left my cell phone lying on the blanket. It's dull, fluorescent eye blinked me a message in black over faded blue. The soon-to-be recipient of the message was marked as "Love" on my phone. I hadn't gotten around to changing it, and two weeks after the break-up, I supposed I never would. The message read this:

"I'm going to sleep, good night."

I hadn't sent the message yet, though I had typed it much earlier, my drunken thumbs slipping ungracefully across the keypad like lame ballerinas. At that thought, my hand groped beside me, eventually wrapping around the neck of a cold, half empty glass bottle. The vodka within was as cold as it had been in the refrigerator- or before that, the refrigerated in the store or the refrigerated truck that had hauled it five hundred miles, or before that, the refrigerated boat that had hauled it two thousand miles.

I thought about what a crazy world it was as I fumbled with the top.

The drink slipped through my lips like fire, and I fought the urge to gag as it ran down my throat to my stomach, which was a tumultuous rolling ball. It was empty, save the vodka. I had read it was easier that way.

I set the bottle down after a few more swigs, each one threatening to let loose what little there was in my stomach upon the unsuspecting ground. God, I was sick.

What a crazy world.

The liquor was beside me again, now, and I reached for my phone. I sent the text, then threw the plastic beside the bottle at my side. I fumbled some more across the blanket, my hands smashing down blindly-without the light of my phone or fire, I could barely see-until at last my palm smashed against a round cylinder.

I popped the top with one hand and poured maybe a dozen capsules into my other. My tongue smacked against the cracked, coarse form of my lips, wiping away the freezing drops of vodka that had build there, and I began to raise my upturned palm to my mouth.

I hadn't meant to blame it on Dianne. Really, I hadn't. That's probably what they would say after, though. The last goodbye was my way of blaming everything on her. It wasn't. I was new to this kind of thing, and didn't really know what to write in a note or anything without sounding cliché and expected. The only note I had on my person was a piece of notebook paper folded and in my breast pocket. It read, in the neatest handwriting I could muster from my usual scrawl:

"Don't dedicate the yearbook to me. Really, don't."

My goodbye to Di wasn't an admission of blame, I guess, my final goodbye to the world at large, and didn't reflect anything she did at all. Really, she was her own person. Anything she did, she had the right to do. I guess I couldn't think of the right way to say that, so all I said was that I was going to sleep, and wished her a good night. And that's all it was. But that didn't matter, in terms of the news, the lie would prevail.

That made it so clean, didn't it? So goddamn neat. The kind of perfect circle that hungry-starving- reporters would gobble with the tenacity of a fat man at a fuckin' feast. Girl breaks up with boy. Boy says goodbye to girl. Boy takes pills. So neat and clean and easy. No nuances of life, no complex relationships, no humanity. God forbid anybody knows what the real world is like, God forbid they see my humanity. The story would be a linear cause-and-effect, and every bumbling idiot would be able to understand it.

"That's sad," they'd say to each other, and then go on eating their dinners.

What a crazy fucking world.

I swallowed half the pills dry at once, with the kind o expertise a junkie has finding a vein. I forced the capsules down my already resisting throat, and then took the rest.

I fell on my back, which immediately began to feel cold and wet from water bleeding through the blanket, but I didn't care. A minute passed, or it might have been five, and I started to feel something. I had no idea how long it took, after all, so naturally I thought it was either drunkenness or my imagination creeping up on me from a shadowy part of my consciousness.

The dim, flickering, stars above me began to move, almost all at once. They were shaking, dancing, spinning in the night sky and I realized, after a moment watching their frenzy, that it wasn't just stars in the sky. It couldn't have been, there were too many! Lights spinning, flickering, swishing in and out of my vision. Some seemed among the stars, but others seemed to be hovering mere inches above my reach. There were chimes, a sort of unearthly carol of bells I couldn't quite place to anything I had heard before.

I didn't expect a dark tunnel with blinding white light at one end. I had left God and Catholicism in my childhood, which felt a million years away. I half-expected a blue tunnel to the afterlife I had read about in a science-fiction book- the kind of novel that sufficed as a bible in my life. Neither came; only the flickering stars and chimes, which were pounding in my ears in a hellish (heavenly?) crescendo.

I remembered some of the things from Catholicism, and not just dark tunnels and white lights. I remember being five years old, if that and being told how awful it had been for Jesus to have to die for us and all, but also how great it was that he actually did. I also remember being told that suicides burn in hell. I thought about that, for a minute. Suicides burn in hell, huh? Why was that surprising? They burned on Earth, too.

The bells were so loud I wanted to cover my ears, but my hands wouldn't move from my sides, nor could I close my eyes to shut out the dancing lights which were growing brighter and brighter, dancing to the otherworldly music of the bells.

This is it, I thought. Here comes the blue tunnel.

But it didn't come.

II

I woke up in the dark. It was cold, but nowhere near the bone-shattering temperatures you reach shivering on wet grass. Bells were chiming, or rather, they might have been bells. Instead, it was the ringing of my alarm clock. I could move my arms, and slammed one onto the alarm clock, turning the chimes off. My ears were drowned in silence, and I opened my eyes.

The numbers on the clock (5:30, with a dim circle rather than red light next to the label' 'AM') flashed before my eyes for a moment, but eventually they subsided into red numbers, and nothing more. I lay still, for a while, first watching the numbers and then turning my attention to the ceiling, which was familiar and white and calming, somehow.

I was wearing only my boxers, which were warm. My head felt fine, with no sign of hangover, not even the distant threat of one on the horizon of my consciousness.

I'm not sure what I thought of it then, not exactly, but I do know that I knew there were two sets of memories in my head. Two separate timelines of events for that Sunday night. The first had me light a fire, sit by it and text my ex-girlfriend, current almost-friend, who had just returned from an outing from her friends. I was drinking when I started the fire, and still drinking when it died and I grew cold, and drinking still when I wished Dianne a good night and swallowed a handful of pills.

The second memories had me home all day. I didn't drink or light a fire or take pills. The vodka, I knew, was in my refrigerator and the pills were in my bathroom. These second memories seemed more likely, so I accepted them more or less as I rose and dressed and brushed my teeth and took the pills I was supposed to take.

But then-what of the other memories, a dream? Maybe, but that felt unlikely. The idea that those memories hadn't happened was almost as strange as the idea that they had, and because of that, I couldn't discount them.

And then there was the possibility the second set was a dream, or something else (stranger things had happened) and that I had been rescued from the first, last minute. I doubted that, too. My mother was already at work by the time I woke up, and neither she nor anyone else knew I was at that field-Liberty Field­-or that I was planning to do anything I did. Or, anything I might have done. Besides, in the real world, nobody got rescued. Suicides went to hell, and Jesus was nailed to a tree so we could be free. That's the way things were, and you weren't supposed to challenge them.

I went to school that day. It passed like any other. Dianne sat with some of her friends at lunch. I was going to sit with some of mine. That, too, was the way things were, and it was useless to think otherwise. Reality was subjective only to a point, and after that, everything was empirical. Definitive. Concrete. Some things were real, and you couldn't argue with real, no matter how hard you tried.

Whether or not suicides went to hell, most people thought they did. That was real. Most people thought they were selfish, and that was real. That was truth. That was the world. They were facts, and you couldn't argue with facts, not the ones that were true, anyway. And as far as the world went-or the universe-those were all true facts. The world happened in such a way that only the lucky got saved, and the lucky didn't ever need saving.

Everything good that could happen on Earth, I believed, happened to a limited amount of people, and everybody else got doodly-squat, which was to say they got nothing. All the people who got none of the good things in life got all of the bad, and that too was truth.

It just so happened I was wrong, because truth had been thrown out the window the night I killed myself for the first time. The night I took the pills. The Universe, it seemed, was collapsing at whatever might have passed for seams, and every threat of reality was in the process of free-fall. The Universe-or even, the Multiverse, was a falling house of cards, and none of the rules that held it together were standing for very long anymore.

I didn't think this until much later, and didn't believe it until even after that. In fact, for most of the first day I wasn't sure what to believe, but at least I thought I held my sanity, more or less, as intact as it had been before.

I thought differently that day at lunch. I was paying for my food-I remembered two realities, one where I was ravenously hungry and one where I was well-fed-I reached into my wallet for money I knew was there. I pulled out a five dollar bill, which caught the corner of my eye as I passed it over to the cashier. Instead of Abraham Lincoln's beady eyes and flat smile, a portly man with light hair and full lips smiled. Beneath the portrait, written on a scroll beneath the man's' nineteenth century collar, his name was written out in a small black type. BEAUREGARD, it said.

That night I was driving home. I was on a narrow pass, sort of a bridge, flanked with trees and narrow ditches that pressed close to the road. A truck was screeching along, its engines roaring wildly into the afternoon air, which was chilly even then. I barely thought as I did it. My last text was meaningless, I had no note on my body, but still I did it.

Slowly, with shaking hand I unbuckled my seatbelt as the truck approached. My hand shook even more as it grasped for the handle of the door, the truck-beast was drawing close now. When it looked no more than thirty or forty feet away, I clicked the door open and pushed against the wind. Jerking the steering wheel the other way, I leapt.

The last thing I saw was the grill of the truck, getting large impossibly fast as it fell towards me. I smashed into it before I hit the ground, and then everything was dark.

III

The next thing I knew, I was pulling my car, completely unscathed, into the driveway. Another set of memories, where I had ridden home uneventfully, stacked onto the one I held in my head of violent death. It was as if my mind were growing a collection of experiences, a smorgasbord of memories, of possibilities of life and death.

That's when I started to think that I was growing crazy. Or at least, the start of those thoughts. I have already said that my experiences were due to the fact that all of creation, which is to say the one Universe we observe and the trillions of trillions we do not, were simultaneously falling apart and collapsing. Goodbye, Universe! But, as I have also said, I did not know that at the time, so I was left to think (as many Americans do when the world around them refuses to be sane) that I was the insane one.

As I got out, my car was red when it should have been blue. I flipped open my wallet and searched the bills. Lincoln was on the five and Washington was on the one, but an attractive man named WALLACE was on the ten, and a thin man with a handlebar mustache named STEVENSON was on the ten. My house was more or less the same as it had always been, but the house across the street had white shutters instead of brown. I looked down and felt my stomach, noticing I was at least fifteen pounds heavier. I opened my cell phone and looked at the names; most of them were familiar (and Dianne was still marked as "Love" but some were different, and some were missing.

For each new name, I had a story to my having met them. I knew who they were, had memories of what they looked like. One was an old girlfriend I had never met in my other memories. Her name was Nicole, and she had red hair and a big nose. I remembered her, but at the same time knew she didn't exist, or at least that I had never met her. I looked into STEVENSON's eyes and thought where he came from. He wasn't a president, but he had something to do with Taft and the economy. I thought to a different set of memories and knew that BEAUREGARD had been president instead of John Quincy Adams. WALLACE was a civil war hero who became the governor of Rhode Island and eventually president after President Hannibal Hamlin (who was from Maine and became president when Lincoln was shot) was himself shot nine times while in North Carolina. I knew these as facts just as surely as I knew the stars were in the sky. As surely as I knew I was alive. As surely as I knew I still loved Dianne. As surely as I knew I was going crazy.

Instead of going into my house, I got into my now-red car and drove to Portland.

The tallest building in my hometown, as it happened, was an old, torn down mill, and that was only five stories high. It was abandoned in the way that all mills were abandoned after people realized they didn't want them around anymore. As abandoned as the people who used to work at the mills. It was a shell, and not worth anything. The industrial corpse wasn't even tall enough.

I found a tall building almost an hour away, in Portland. It was an apartment on the harbor, and I climbed the fire escape with the harsh scent of salt in my nostrils. The sea was gray, and the sky was gray, and somewhere in the middle they met at a gray horizon line that seemed to stretch far enough into the future to be invisible as it dropped off the face of the earth.

My feet found their way onto the rails of the fire escape at the top floor, and I barely hesitated as I plunged off the rails and towards the ground, which came to meet me in a deafening crack that left everything else black.

IV

I was at my desk finishing an essay for English, which had always been my favorite class. (in another set of memories, it had been actually been math) I was a vegetarian, and had been one for three months (no I wasn't, and no I hadn't) and I knew the president was an energetic Democrat from New York. (No, it was a smooth-talking Republican from West Virginia) George Washington was on the one, and Lincoln was on the five, but WALLACE was still on the ten, (no! It was Alexander Hamilton!) and a frowning man with black hair named HOLT was on the twenty. (Andrew Jackson!)

I still wasn't religious, but in these memories I still knew suicides went to hell and that Jesus was nailed to a tree by the Romans and the Jews, but that we shouldn't hate the Jews because most of them were good people, despite nailing Jesus to a tree. I still loved Dianne, and missed her and wanted her back. She was gone, though, and in these memories already going out with a boy named Vincent Dole, whom she was friends with in each of the sets of memories.

The memories made a wind that was colder than the one that shook me to the bones the night I texted my goodnight to Di. It was the wind that was carrying away the fallen cards of the Universe-and I was the Jack of Knaves, lost adrift with the rest of the broken Universe.

I hadn't made this theory yet, though, and neither had anybody else on Earth, and there was nothing to prove it. No proof would come until years later, when scientists started to observe microscopic changes in barely-observable nuclear and chemical reactions. Atoms, it seemed, just wouldn't work the way they were supposed to when the whole Universe has gone to the dogs- when the whole Universe is a collapsing house of cards.

I slept in my bed, that day, but the next I woke up and didn't go to school. Instead, I whistled a Beatles song ("Marshall McBride" from the Beatles album "God" which had a solid black sleeve and didn't exist in any other set of memories) and rummaged beneath the cupboards for a bottle of Drano. I plugged my nose and drank from the bottle, which turned my intestines and stomach into sort of a volcano and eventually sent me crashing to the floor in a thrashing, clumsy, impossibly painful wreck.

V

There was no pain at all as I changed classes from psychology to French. (French was my favorite subject, and I was even considering a career as a writer, though not seriously) I spoke a little English, but not very much. Napoleon Bonaparte was on the one dollar mark, and a squat, serious man named MALYK was on the ten. I knew there had only been one World War, in 1934 and ended with the Nuclear Blitz of China, which at the time was a Democratic Republic.

I knew Napoleon lost at the battle of Waterloo (in all memories) but in these he had recovered and conquered England and the United States. The second go at Russia ended well, with spring flowers blossoming as Napoleons army crossed the Volga. I knew China blew up an atomic bomb in Versailles in 1934, but that the Emperor was way at the time.

I still loved Dianne, although her name was now Mary. She was in my phone as "Amour."

I had still been a Catholic when I was younger, and I still knew that suicides burned in hell.

There is a train crossing in my town (whose name was now Le Camden, Maine instead of Stepford, Maine. My school was Le Johann Lycee instead of Jefferson High School.) and while driving home (my car was white now, and powered by nuclear slug that wouldn't die for another fifty-thousand years) the train (powered by a fusion reactor and travels comfortably at half the speed of sound) was going to be coming through soon, as indicated by the black-and-white guards crossing over the road.

I stopped my care, leaving it in the middle of the road, and walked onto the tracks. A car pulled up behind mine, and a middle aged man stepped out, onto the street.

"Garçon!" he yelled at me. "Le train! Le train!"

He started running to me, but the train came first, and then all was dark.

VI

The caboose of the train was passing me harmlessly, travelling at a normal speed and with a trail of smoke rising from the smokestack. I was thinking about my sanity, and I started thinking about the Universe. I started thinking it was all collapsing. I started thinking it was going to hell. I started thinking about how it had committed suicide.

Suicides burned in hell.

I went home and found a pistol buried in one of the drawers. It was my fathers.' (who was alive again, though I did not like him) I put the barrel in my mouth, it smelled of sulfur and tasted of oil. I pointed the barrel upward, and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. I switched the safety off and put the barrel back into my mouth, though I knew what was going to happen.

It was a crazy fuckin' world.

I was burning in hell.

I pulled the trigger. When I woke up, I was watching TV.





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