And It Stares Back

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Science Fiction
READER COMMENT: "Excellent story! I like the combination of a narrating styles reminiscent of old film noir with the futuristic themes. And I love the whole metaphor of "abyss", of spiritual emptiness, which gradually takes over people's minds and souls in the shape of virtual reality. This is high quality science fiction indeed, the kind of speculative fiction that contains clear allusions to our reality and a message to the modern human being. This is, so far, my favorite work of yours. Great job, my friend." -- Oleg Roschin.
Intro: This is, of course, a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." But this tale was inspired by the following people, as well: the existential philosophers (Sartre, Camus, et al.), Philip K. Dick, a number of people I've met over the years who had a rough go of it but were lucid and loquacious enough to tell me their stories, and a certain girl who gave me the prompt and encouraged me to write this.

Submitted: August 06, 2017

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Submitted: August 06, 2017

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I slipped the visor over my head and stared into the abyss.

It was several hours before I unplugged. At that point I was hungry, a bit dehydrated, and ready for sleep. But there was no rest to be had: I'd told Martin I would meet him at the diner, and I was supposed to be there in half an hour.

I stepped into my pants, tugged on shoes, and strode out into the hallway. The bulbs were old: fluorescents. They flickered sickly, throwing down their nauseating light on walls that were in need of painting. It made the hallway seem only half lit. Kinda like a vintage motel. The walls almost looked green in that cast.

I lit a cigarette and walked out onto the street.

Autocars rolled past on their way to who-knows-where. I was on the slidewalk. It carried me up Sixth Street, through the arts district where a little band was playing something sorrowful and bluesy on steel guitar, harmonica, and a rinky-dink drum kit. The singer was wailing like he had a bone to pick with reality. Maybe he did. Maybe lots of folks did. Maybe that’s why they listened. I wondered if it made them feel better about their own lives. Company for their misery and all that. That might not be exactly right, but surely it was on the right track.

Couples sat outside the cafes. They were drinking wine or cappuccino and speaking softly over candles. That must be nice, I mused. To be with someone like that. Somehow my relationships never worked out. They started up real nice and then fizzled out about as quickly. But it never seemed like there was time for tenderness. Not like those people, who seemed happy in their own skin and happy to be with whom they were with. Just talking and laughing and sipping. Yeah, that must be nice.

My life was always a frantic mess. There didn’t seem to be anything to be done about it, either. The only half-way-decent relationship I had had in recent memory was with Selma, and she and I never took it easy, never just sat and got along out on the sidewalks on a nice night like this. Shit was always crazy, and that couldn’t last but so long, and then it ended. All of a sudden. The good times just gave out and there wasn’t anything left but distance. So we said our goodbyes and I got hooked on Void. Now I plug in every night. Sometimes more. It’s a miracle I can hold a job, even if there isn’t much to it. Just stocking shelves part time on the red-eye shift down at Darrel’s Grocery. No, I can’t hardly keep up with that. Not anymore. And it’s easy. At least, that’s what my brain tells me. But when I’m there, when I’m doing it, it seems hard and I want to be elsewhere, anywhere else. I can’t stand it.

The galleries were hopping. There was a drink-and-draw going on in one place. It had nice, big, glass windows and you could see all the bright, smiling faces under the bright light inside drinking their booze and pretending like they knew how to handle a paintbrush any better than their own lives. Maybe they did know how to handle their own lives, though. Maybe it was just me who didn’t. Well, and Selma. She didn’t have her shit together. But maybe that’s different, now. I don’t know. It’s been so long. She sure didn’t know what was going on when we were together. No, I take that back...I guess she knew, sort of. It just didn’t do her any good.

I bet she looks into the abyss as much as I do, nowadays. Damn. I gotta get off that shit. I keep telling myself that and every day a little bit of the color drains out of the world, which only makes it harder, so I keep it up. I come up with excuses. But those are falling by the wayside. Eventually I won’t even need to lie to myself to keep it going. It’s becoming like second nature. Plugging in, that is. Void. Soon I won’t need anything else and I’ll stop coming out like this. I’ll stop looking at all these people with their wine glasses and their painting and their significant others, their ostensibly functional lives. It only reminds me of what I can’t have and that pushes me even further into the abyss.

The diner wasn't far.

It’s a little corner number that was cattycorner to Soapy’s Tavern, coin laundry and brewery. It, the diner, was called Mike’s. Just Mike’s. No Mike’s Diner or Mike’s Restaurant or Mike’s Good Eats, even. Nothing. Just Mike’s, and it had a little neon sign that seemed quaint in the 21st century. It was all pink and yellow and flashed “food”/“coffee” underneath the name that was half burned out and had been for a while, just like the clientele.

I hopped off the slidewalk and sauntered towards the door. It was a gaudy affair: Chrome. It reflected the neon in a way that was somehow disorienting and I couldn’t figure out why they had it like that; or, at least, why they never changed it, unless it had something to do with money, in which case I could understand but I figured getting rid of those doors might help with that too. If it were any other place something like that would turn me off so hard. But Mike’s was Mike’s and everybody knew it. It was a cozy place for people like me. The ones who weren’t sipping wine or flirting in the bistros.

Corny music was playing when I walked in. Not Elvis, but something like that. It was part of the appeal--the mystique--that was Mike’s. None of the other places had that kind of character. Oh well.

I looked around for Martin but didn’t see him so I walked into the back section. There I found him gesturing through the menu that he must have had memorized by then and only bothered to look at it out of habit. “What’s up?” I said.

“Oh, the usual,” he groaned. “Not much of shit. What about you, Fred?”

“I almost forgot to show up. I was plugged in.”

“I was too, earlier.”

“I do it a lot.”

“Me too.”

There was a silence in which Phyllis decided to dance over and interject. “Y’all know what your getting?”

“The usual,” I said.

Martin said, “Yeah, let me get a beer. In the bottle. No glass. I don’t need a glass, not me. I’ll drink it right out of the bottle.”

“Okay…”

“And an omelet. No, wait. Yeah. All right. I’ll get an omelet. With cheese. And maybe tomatoes.”

“Do you want tomatoes?”

“Yeah, well, I dunno.” Martin looked at me pleadingly, as if I would tell him what he wanted. But of course I couldn’t so I just looked back at him like what the fuck. “Yeah, I want tomatoes,” he decided. “But on the side. I don’t want them in the omelet. With the omelet.”

“Okay. Will that be all?”

“Oh, and toast. Let me get some toast.”

“Okay.”

“And water. I really need water. I’m thirsty.”

“All right, It’ll be right up.”

Phyllis scampered off in her graceful sort of way.

I said: “Dude, you seem really tweaked. How long were you plugged in, today?”

“Today? I don’t know. How about this week? Man, I’m not sure. A lot. A whole lot.”

“Maybe you should take it easy.”

“Maybe you should!”

“Calm down, man,” I glanced around at the other patrons. A guy who looked like ZZ Top was eyeing us pretty hard, but everybody else seemed not to have noticed. They were all probably as burned out as we were. “I think I do need to lay off,” I admitted, after a minute.

“How much have you plugged in?”

“Every day, man. Every day.”

“Yeah,” was all he said. We sat there silently until Phyllis came back with our drinks. Martin gulped down the water before I even got started and he started in on the beer with almost as much commitment. I wanted to tell him to chill, but decided against it. He’d just tell me to chill, anyway, and keep going. I did tell him: “I think this shit’s messing with our heads.”

“Oh, I know it is,” he said. “But so what?”

“So…you really want to fuck up, like, fucking tweak yourself? Wind up like Harvey?”

“Harvey? There’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. Where’d he get off too?”

“He’s up north somewhere. Connecticut, I think.”

“Yeah? What’s he doin’ up there?”

“He’s locked up.”

“What’d he do?”

“He went off the deep end. At least, that’s what I heard.”

“Yeah, but what’d he do?”

“He didn’t do anything.”

“But you said he’s locked up. What’d he do to get locked up?”

“He lost his shit, man. He’s not in jail. He’s in the loony bin.”

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

“Did he tweak?”

“Yeah, he fucking tweaked. He tweaked big time. Tweaked the big one. I heard they don’t know if he’ll ever be the same again.”

“Well, what happened?”

“He thought aliens were after him. He tried to hang himself with an extension cord from the ceiling fan.”

“Fucked up.”

“For real, man.”

“I’m never going to tweak like that.”

“How do you know?”

“Harvey was nuts to begin with.”

“Maybe we were all nuts to begin with.”

“No way.”

“How would we know?”

“I knew Harvey was nuts. You should have known, too. But you weren’t nuts. You aren’t.”

“I’m beginning to wonder.”

“You worry too much.”

Clank. Phyllis set down the plates. “Here you are, boys.”

“Thanks,” we said.

Martin didn’t lay into the omelet and tomatoes like he had the liquids. The food he mostly just kinda stared at while I ate. I had eggs over easy, with grits and a biscuit. “You’re not going to let that go to waste, are you?”

He shook his head. He looked as fried as my eggs. “Are you all right, man?” I asked.

“Fine,” he said, after a while. “Look, I should really be going.” He dropped some cash on the table as he stood up. “See you later, Fred.”

I finished his omelet. It wasn’t beneath me. Then I paid at the counter and stepped back out into the waiting night full of lovers and art and alcohol, and a warm breeze that held so much renewed promise.

I can do it, I told myself. I was my own life coach at that point. So much good it did me. But I kept telling myself that all the way back to my pad. I can stop. Any time. I should stop now. Maybe tomorrow...No, it won’t be any easier tomorrow. I have to stop tonight. The bistros. The cafes. They slid by into the fuzzy streetlight glow of distance, the same as Selma. I got to the poorly lit hallway and then to my front door. I opened it and shut it and went to the hab panel where I set the lights to few and dim. Then I sat down hard on the couch. Was I tweaking? I didn’t feel like I was tweaking. But how would I know? Did Harvey feel like he was tweaking when he tweaked? All I could think about was trying not to tweak while I looked at the visor that was glaring holes into my mind. It will be easier tomorrow, I told myself. There’s always tomorrow.

I slipped the visor over my head and stared into the abyss.


© Copyright 2017 C.A. Exline. All rights reserved.

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