The Great Curve

Runner-up-Booksie 2017-2018 Short Story Contest Runner-up-Booksie 2017-2018 Short Story Contest

Reads: 1403  | Likes: 15  | Shelves: 8  | Comments: 6

More Details
Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


An invitation to the end of the world shakes up a business consultant's worldview.

Submitted: January 29, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: January 29, 2018

A A A

A A A



 

 

 

The invitation arrived via the US mail, in a stark white envelope, with his name and address hand printed in an unembellished calligraphy. He wasn’t accustomed to receiving invitations this way, or anything of interest, really. Nothing of consequence came in the mail anymore. Most days, if he remembered to check it at all, it was only to transfer the contents from the mailbox to the recycling bin. The signal to noise ratio had long ago devolved to the point of incoherence, the latter an endless onslaught of faux-personalized credit card offers, alarmist fundamentalist tracts, and Bible-thin pages of brightly colored coupons for BOGO household goods.

The mailbox was something of a family joke. They’d planned to replace the hulking, scuffed aluminum box when they bought the place, but it had fallen successively lower on their list of prioritized repairs, buried under quartz countertops and composition roof shingles. The joke was the one cosmetic adjustment they’d made to it, peeling away the plastic letters that spelled the previous owners’ last name until the only letters left were part of their last name, too: an O and an M.

The man’s wife sat on the living room sofa, still in scrubs, ingesting cable news. She didn’t look at him or turn away from the television, but acknowledged his presence with a sweep of her purse and computer bag from the sofa, making room for him to sit. For a few minutes, they sat in silence and watched. The hour was ending, and one news show segued into the next. A silver-haired pundit in a snugly tailored suit promised breaking news, despite rattling off a list of headlines recycled from the previous hour.

“How can you watch this?”

She shushed him. They’d had this conversation before.

“I think it’s what’s making you sick,” he said, but before she could refute this, he tacked to a new angle. “Don’t you go online sometimes at work?

“I do.”

So, haven’t you already read every piece of news he could possibly mention?”

“I have,” she said, during the next commercial. “But, there’s something unsatisfying about just reading it online – I need, like, real live people to acknowledge what’s happening.”

“You feeling satisfied, now?”

She shook her head, focusing back on the screen.

“I just keep waiting for all of this to matter – for the last straw or whatever.”

He kissed her on the cheek and got up from the couch, surrendering any further attempt at her attention. He didn’t feel much differently about things than she did, but was better at compartmentalizing it. Absent any substantive disagreement, this was where they ended up – fighting only over degrees of outrage and approaches to coping. Still, it was enough that they often climbed into bed at night feeling alone.

Confident, as she was too engrossed to wonder what he was doing, he retreated into the kitchen to open the invitation alone. Something about its appearance portended seriousness. He wasn’t expecting anything troubling. He didn’t think anyone wanted to sue him or introduce him to a child conceived of some long forgotten one-night fling. Nevertheless, he brought the envelope to the kitchen like a dog hiding out with his bone, seeking secrecy, maybe on a sub-cognitive level.

The significance of the invitation didn’t hit him all at once. Which isn’t to say it didn’t have a powerful effect upon first reading – he looked up several times while reading to make sure she was still watching television in the living room, certain that his reaction somehow conjured her attention, even as he read silently. It’s just that, in the days that followed, the invitation’s importance continued to grow each time he reread or reconsidered it, until finally he couldn’t think of a single aspect of his life untransformed by its contents.

In his own head, he tried to come up with an analogy to explain the effect. The most straightforward explanation of what he received was that it was an invitation to the anniversary of the end of the world, but the details of the event itself, simple things like date, time, and location, were revelatory. It was like seeing Wittgenstein’s rabbit turn into a duck, or one of those magic eye paintings, except both of those examples suggested an element of trickery absent from the invitation’s intent. It was like finding something hidden in plain view, yet more than that. It was like finding the most important thing in the world hidden in plain view.

It was very difficult to explain without divulging the invitation’s actual contents, which the invitation itself forbade.

The man worked as a business consultant, attaching himself to companies for months at a time to help them eliminate waste and uncover new growth opportunities. The impermanent aspect of the work suited him; he was skilled in coming in and seeing the big picture quickly, recommending bold changes, and then leaving well before any side effects of his recommendations began. At the time the invitation arrived, he’d been at his host company, an online marketer of international learning opportunities, for four months.  He’d advised them to pivot towards China.

After work, he started checking the mail again every day. Nothing in the invitation suggested he should expect subsequent mailings, but still he felt drawn to the rusting mailbox, like a Pavlovian dog conditioned from just one feeding. It had been that good. More days than not, he found the box already emptied when he checked it, its reams of wasted trees piled neatly into the recycling bin. This confused him. Usually, both he and his wife let the mail carrier stuff the box well beyond overflowing before they emptied it.

While the invitation forbade him from divulging its message to others, it also suggested that he wasn’t alone in receiving it. Others had heard the good news. What qualified a worthy recipient went unexplained, but he could infer, or at least invent, some attributes of suitability. One needed to be literate, although not necessarily highly educated or advanced in vocabulary. The invitation explained more about the world than he’d ever learned in biology or geology, without a prerequisite need of even basic science. References to the properties of the physical world were myriad, but oblique. More than any base of knowledge or intelligence, what made for a suitable reader was a kind of receptivity. It didn’t require an absence of cynicism, as much as space beyond that cynicism, a place where curiosity still lived.

A few days after receiving it, he came home to find his wife wrist deep in one of their abandoned garden beds, cleaning and tilling. Years before, in the first spring after they’d bought the house, they’d eagerly cleared the weeds and planted hopeful rows of squash and pepper seedlings. The veggies grew, too, but the relentless scavenging of birds and rodents left little for them to harvest. The ongoing threat of the scavengers rendered future plantings pointless. When the weeds returned the next year, they mowed them down and covered the bed with a bag of mulch.

“You get the mail?” he asked.

He thought she hesitated.

“Transferred it right into the recycling,” she said, unearthing a handful of crabgrass. “God, this stuff is tenacious.

“You going to plant something this year?”

“Raspberries,” she said.

“Really?”

“I miss the squirrels,” she said, handing him a petrified leather glove.

“Ha,” he laughed, trying to work his hand into the stiffened glove. “Remember how mad you got when they would take one bit of a pepper and leave the rest to rot?”

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, shrugging. “It’s just that…”

She trailed off midsentence, digging out some weeds with a small shovel.

“Just what?” he asked.

He thought continuing to find joy in planting the garden, despite the known futility of it, was exactly the kind of thing someone would do after reading the invitation.

“Even rotting, half-eaten peppers look prettier than all these weeds,” she said.

That night, while he sautéed some store bought peppers for a stir-fry, she opened a bottle of red wine, saved from their vacation to California.

“I thought you didn’t like to open them unless we had company,” he asked. “Because what we don’t drink ends up going bad?”

She shrugged, and poured them each a glass. By the time the water boiled for the quinoa, they’d finished that bottle and opened up another. They made love on the couch while the peppers cooked down to mush. Their bodies collided with an urgency he hadn’t felt in years. In a peak of coital exuberance, he convinced himself that she’d gotten the invitation, too. She didn’t send him upstairs for a condom, much less worry about staining the white sofa.

Later, when they’d emptied the second bottle, she threw away the stir-fry and they split a tub of low calorie ice cream.

“This stuff is no match for the real thing,” she said.

“It’s not so bad,” he said. “It’s got tiny peanut butter cups inside.”

“You found peanut butter cups?” she asked, invading his side of the tub with her spoon.

“Here,” he said, guiding her spoon with his. “There is deep vein of them over here, follow my divining rod.”

“I don’t know when we let ourselves get tricked into replacing everything,” she said. “Low-fat, half-caff, sugar free…”

“Right.”

“It’s a whole diminished life.”

“Yeah, but there’s something kind of charming about the fake stuff, too.”

“How do you figure?”

“I don’t know, like the science of it,” he said.

“Hmm…” She’d isolated four miniature peanut butter cups, which she licked clean of ice cream before popping into her mouth all at once.

“The easy answer would be just to eat less of it all,” he said, “but instead we’ve put our brightest minds to figuring out how we can have as much as we want without killing ourselves.”

“We’re killing ourselves anyway,” she said. “Just with chemicals instead of fat.”

“That’s probably true, but it’s the attempt I find charming, not the end result. We’re trying so hard to love ourselves – to have whatever we want and not pay the price for it.”

“It’s like we’re all trying to be the cool parents.”

“I never thought about it like that,” he said. “But I’ve been seeing things a lot different lately.”

“Me too,” she said.

“What changed?” he asked, holding his breath.

She shrugged.

“Let’s go outside and look at the stars,” she said. “I feel like it’s been ages since I looked at the stars.”

“It’s cold out there.”

“Remember Malawi? In the village? How much you could see in the sky?” She asked. They’d made a month long trip, years ago, while they were dating, to visit a friend of hers in the Peace Corps. “I wish we could get everyone to agree, like once a month or something, to turn off all the lights.”

“It’s weird, when you think about it – looking at the stars.”

“What’s weird about it?” she asked. “It helps me to remember how immense the universe is.”

“I mean, we could just as soon look at this spoon,” he said, holding it in front of her face. “And think about all the atoms inside, moving around. Who needs to go all the way to the Grand Canyon? Or Africa?”

“A spoon is just a spoon” she said. “It’s not the same thing.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“I hate when you get like that,” she said. “Reducing everything down until nothing means anything.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said. “Let’s go look at the stars.”

But she was already in the kitchen, cleaning out their wine glasses with the special sponge that didn’t scratch the crystal.

In the morning, he blamed the alcohol. They’d shared an impulse, he thought, towards love and spontaneity and casting aside unnecessary worry, everything the invitation opened up for him. But the same impulse that opened the bottle of wine led him to drink too much of it, and to dull his thinking right as they got so close to recognizing something changed in each other.

At his work computer, he dove into popular astronomy websites, reading about breakthrough satellite technologies and the historical link between stargazing and advanced mathematics. He wanted to bring home some tidbit that tied it all together, a pathway for him into her love of science that winked towards the revelations of the invitation. He ended up sucked into a Wikipedia black hole about the history of the telescope, clicking through links to obscure graduate theses about Galileo, theorizing that the entire human conception of the universe was arbitrarily based on the shape of a telescope lens. Or not so arbitrarily, argued a 1988 Divinity major from St. John’s College.

He came home to find her smoking weed from one of those vapor pens.

“It’s so much smoother than smoking a joint,” she said, enveloping them both in a massive plume that tasted faintly of syrup.

“I know,” he said. “It’s just vapor.”

“Not just the smoke,” she said, “the high, too – I’m not going to be up all night paranoid about radon fumes or lead paint chips.”

“Where’d you get it?” he asked.

“Craigslist.”

She let him take him a couple pulls, and within a few minutes, he knew she’d been right. He felt his perception mildly altered via a pleasant sepia toned filter, as if he was watching an art film about his own life, a documentary on the beauty of mundanity. They cooked the previous night’s stir-fry and he found it visceral, a base of warm salty grains punctuated by the fluid gushing snap of the cooked vegetables. It wasn’t until the turned on the Discovery Channel that he remembered to share his telescope research.

“I guess,” she responded.

“Isn’t it kind of interesting, the way even the most far-flung things out there end up being reflections of the human eye?”

“That’s not really why I’m interested in space,” she said.

Something about the invitation, or the weed pen, or the combination of the invitation and the weed and the quinoa allowed him to take a breath, to let his thoughts settle instead of just punching back.

So, why are you interested?”

Despite the assurances she’d made earlier, they stayed up almost the entire night, passing back and forth the vapor pen and deliberating the meaning of the wider universe. Or rather, he ruminated about meaning, while she endorsed a straightforward appreciation for the technologies and phenomena themselves: far-reaching satellites, powerful telescopes, multiple mooned planets, exploding stars, and expanses of emptiness so completely beyond anything we could conceptualize.

Several times, they hit upon moments of agreement or mutual awe, and he glimpsed potential openings for confirming what he couldn’t stop wondering, which is whether she’d also received the invitation. But each time he came close, he ended up skewing the conversation, littering the topic with sly references to the text of the invitation, or staring at her with expectancy that made them both uncomfortable.

It reminded him of when they’d first met, freshman year, and he’d spent months dragging her through excruciatingly long moments of blown opportunity, outside of the library or in the dorm lounge, wanting to kiss her but also wanting to be sure beyond all doubt the desire was reciprocated. In the end, she kissed him first, and he found out later she’d almost ditched him several times through the process, exhausted of the almost not quite nights. A year later, he pulled a similar stunt trying to say, “I love you.”

 For several more nights, they went through the same dance, staying up late into the night discussing God, philosophy, and the known universe. He felt each time to be nearing a moment of clarity, one where both would find themselves explicitly discussing the invitation without either knowing who’d been the one to bring it up. Instead, he ended each night exhausted and defeated, awake by the reading light, trying to clear his mind with one of the crime novels he kept stacked under the night table.

At work, out of desperation, he copied the body of the invitation into a google search. He’d never done that before, not a ctrl + c copy and paste, but a longhand entry of the entire invitation in the search bar. He found it exhilarating, both for the risk of it and for the experience of reading the invitation like that, word after word driving into the right hand side of the screen as if burrowing a tunnel into the future. It occurred to him a few times through the process to go ahead and hit enter, but instead he waited, finding some sense of purpose in letting the project play out.

“I’m feeling lucky” seemed the obvious choice of search parameters. Later, out of curiosity, he tried it via traditional search and found the query only produced one result, anyway. The result took him to a discussion board called “Ultimate Stadium Pilgrimage.” He marveled at someone’s ingenuity, pairing critical words from the invitation in a way that so completely obscured their meaning. The front page of the site contained only the title of the board and a two small text boxes requiring a username and password.

Not finding a link for new users to register, he typed his first name into the username box, and made a hasty guess on the password, something from the invitation that came to him without much thought. Counterintuitively, he didn’t feel surprised when that worked. From the next screen, he recognized the platform right away, the boxes within diminishing boxes thread structure, and the automatically generated smiley faced icons displayed by the posters name. It was the same one he used to make anonymous queries of other analysts and project managers whenever one his clients stumped him with a request.

A sticky thread with the forum rules appeared at the top of the page. He clicked, and found a short post with comments disabled. The rules were straightforward: don’t use your full name, don’t give out your address or any concrete identifying information, and don’t ask to other posters to meet in person. He noted the lack of rules concerning language, threats, or harassment, and concluded invitees were likely nicer people than your average interneter.

“Postmarked Date?” read the title of the next thread. He clicked and read a few dozen replies. The OP wondered if they’d all received invitations postmarked on the same date. A previous thread, alluded to in this one, indicated not everyone received their invitation on the same day. He realized he’d never checked the postmark on his invitation, but remembered the day he’d gotten it, February 17. He’d not considered that all the invitations might have been sent or received on the same day, but knowing they hadn’t added some credence to the idea that his wife may have received one too.

“Brought work home?” his wife asked when she saw him hunched over his work laptop in the living room that night.

“Not work, exactly,” he said, quickly minimizing the browser.

“So porn then?”

He laughed, worried that his laugh sounded forced, and then forced out a laugh that definitely did.

“I thought I might try to find another of those weed pens on Craigslist.”

“Oh please, no,” she said. “I’m still feeling sick from the last one.”

Their pen had ceased to produce its medicated vapor a few nights before, and in the mornings since, she’d woken up feeling nauseated. He didn’t have the heart to tell her it was probably withdrawal, and not the after effects of the pen itself. Either way, she’d sort herself out quickly.

“I’ll ask the weed dealer for one without side effects,” he said.

“Good luck, then,” she said. “I’m taking the dog for a walk.”

He thought she’d be annoyed, later, when he sat through their evening dose of Netflix with the computer on his lap, toggling between the Stadium Pilgrimage board and a college basketball recruiting blog, maximized whenever she passed his screen on her way back from the bathroom or kitchen. By the time they went to bed his battery read eight percent, and his crotch felt warm to the touch. He’d read the headlines associating laptop use with poor motility, and for a second he worried, but then remembered the invitation, and drifted into an empty, placid sleep.

At work the next day, he closed his door not quite shut, and one of the company’s many vice-presidents creaked it open enough to fit his face. He’d opened a spreadsheet on the monitor closest to the door.

“Working on those year ends, already?” The VP asked. “You’re hardcore, man.”

He laughed, minimizing the browser open on the other monitor. When the door shut, he opened it again. The Stadium Pilgrimage boards were incredible. Unlike other boards he’d participate in, he could always find someone online. Replies to new posts generally appeared in under an hour, with many showing up in minutes or seconds. Most of the spite and assumed bad intent that permeated the rest of the internet was absent. People posted about politics, to an extent, but without falling into tired schisms or name-calling. Posters seldom invoked Hitler. Invitation recipients were good people.

About a third of the posts related to the origins and mechanisms of the invitation itself. So far, no one had succeeded in pinpointing the sender, but the attempts to figure this out proved impressive in and of themselves. Several people compared the envelope and invitation page against known commercially available paper products, and identified matches. A Welsh microbiologist found bacteria on the adhesive and concluded the invitation had travelled through, if not originated, in Northwestern China. At least a dozen posters tried dusting the invitation for prints.

Another portion of the posts contained detailed and often highly personal accounts of people relating the impact of the invitation to their own professional or philosophical disciplines: a geologist who finally understood the hidden mechanisms underlying Earth formation, an artist who read the invitation and placed a final brush stroke on her masterpiece, a nun who invited her cloister to understand the Holy Spirit via hip-hop dance. Dozens of threads discussed the invitation’s role on religious and scientific belief sets. No exact consensus existed. Some highly observant believers walked away from their churches, while the lapsed often reclaimed their faith. Scientists that spent years trying to flesh out promising models or solve tenacious theorems claimed the answers appeared to them overnight, but most didn’t bother to share with their colleagues.

The man lost entire afternoons drilling into threads started by a poster who identified by the name Idris. Idris said he’d studied electrical engineering at MIT, but later quit his generously remunerated job in the energy sector after three years to attend divinity school. This was all before the invitation, or “BtI” in the jargon of the board. Because of this eclectic education, the man supposed, Idris managed to explain the deepest and most abstract issues of cosmology using the language of math and science, and vice-versa. He’d kept his job as a religion professor since reading the invitation, although he posted that somedays he felt so certain about the inevitable triumph of goodness and light in the world that he filled his class time up with curated jazz saxophone solos, rather than lectures on the Reformation.

Idris likened his BTL spiritual inquiries to an asymptotic curve, where the line forever approaches closer and closer to the axis, but never converges. The invitation had the effect not so much of bridging that last tiny gap, but instead melting away the thing outside of the gap, while the gap itself turned out not to be space but mass. “I am the gap,” Idris wrote, “we all are – it’s where truth and God lives, too, if you’ll pardon my use of those terms.” The man found Idris’s posts exhilarating, moved and surprised by the way that reading someone else’s described experience of the invitation could mirror, if not even amplify, his own original experiences with it.

The last major theme of the Stadium Pilgrimage boards was the real world impact of the invitation’s dissemination. These threads seemed distinct from the others in tone, or at least he perceived that to be the case. Some of these topics hypothesized that iterations of the same invitation had disseminated in the past, perhaps via parchment, tablet, or word of mouth. Whole epochs, the posters suggested, biblical and historical, were catalyzed by the invitation, including Noah’s flood, the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire, and the Asian settlement of the Americas.

But these historical theories were the least agitated of the posts within this theme. Many more posters described recent events, some not yet reported, as tied directly to the dissemination of the invitation. Someone attributed a small but dangerous overflow of hazardous material at the Turkey Point nuclear site in South Florida on a distracted technician. A record number of artists failed to show up to setup their exhibits at Miami’s Art Basel fair. The country performer Dwight Yoakam put down his guitar and spent 45 minutes reading Keats to a confused crowd of middle-aged concertgoers at an Indian casino.

It got much worse. A mess of Mexican schoolchildren, over 100, disappeared, and were presumed murdered by the cartels. Some neighbors found the body of a prison guard stabbed to death in his own trailer, with invitation referential messages carved into his stomach with a box cutter.  A band of ISIS fighters entered a school in Northern Syria and forced the male students to rape the girls, before murdering them all. Responders found cryptic messages scrawled on a chalkboard.

For most of these incidents, invitation recipients weren’t explicitly blamed for the carnage, but instead posters theorized that some decent-souled individual intricately involved with the bad guys received the invitation and then disappeared, skewing the power balance toward depravity. Imagine a well-intentioned individual who grew up in the wrong circumstances and somehow found himself the moderating force in an international drug cartel or jihadist militia. Not that these individuals posted on the boards, but plenty of posters found themselves drifting away from their obligations, albeit under less grave circumstances.

The boards coined a funny term to describe when people who got the invitation suddenly bailed on their responsibilities, “boarding the spaceship.” It was funny because no literal spaceship existed within the invitation’s cosmology, but at the same time, it made so much sense. The posters that pushed and commented on these stories came to be known on the boards as “spaceshippers.”

For whatever reason, these spaceshippers assumed the role of policing the board, stepping in to shame any poster who came too close to divulging identifying information on the boards. They also hammered at the harms caused by those who’d talked to other about the invitation, outside the anonymity of the internet. Beyond the harms caused by the neglect of those who boarded the spaceship, more terrible things happened because of the loose-lipped. The prison guard, for example, was rumored to have been killed after discovering an inmate’s copy of the invitation during a bunk check.

Although he’d managed to avoid loose lips, it was true that the consultant had lately found himself boarding the spaceship. Because he’d hunkered down in his office with an open spreadsheet up on the visible monitor, he’d managed to spread the false impression that he was working harder than ever at the same time he fell into an increasingly deep hole. He spent most of his workday deep in Idris’s threads, or on Wikipedia, digging into some math or religion concept mentioned by Idris.

He wasn’t alone, quite a few people hung around Idris posts, fleshing out obscure references or just voicing their enthusiasm. Among the Idrites, his favorite was a poster who identified herself as Evelyn. Whenever Idris posted something mind blowing, he hung around the board waiting for Evelyn’s response. Like him, she seemed to find as much value in Idris’s explanations of the invitation’s significance as in the invitation itself.

He began a new ritual where he read the invitation before he left for work each morning, tucked it back into the hiding place, then logged into the board as soon as he got to his office and checked for a new post by Idris, before finally scrolling down in search of a comment by Evelyn. The last part became his favorite. On the days when he managed to get to the new Idris post before Evelyn, he’d comment approvingly and then spend the morning hitting refresh repeatedly until she chimed in, too. He needed to share it all with someone.

At home, he spent more and more time “aboard the spaceship.” He didn’t completely quit trying to connect with his wife about the invitation, but his attempts at finding out became fewer and more aggressive. His old pattern inverted itself. Instead of a slow burn of pressure that fizzled into never quite, he’d ignore her for hours, sometimes days, and then press her hard on a whim, certain he’d uncovered some tidbit on the boards that he could mention and she’d instantly recognize.

“Have you ever heard the story of Noah explained as an allusion to plate tectonics?” he asked.

“What?”

“The mountains rose up; the valleys sank down – it’s all in there.”

“Wait, what?”

“I know, right?” he said, closing his laptop.

“No, what did you say?” she asked, pausing the episode of Meet the Press she’d recorded the day before. “I didn’t hear you.”

“You didn’t have to pause it,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “I just can’t pay attention to two things at once.”

“It’s fine, watch the news.” He opened the laptop back up, surprised how quickly the bright screen jumped back to life.

“No I can wait,” she said, annoyed. “I just didn’t know you were about to say something – you’ve been twelve feet deep into that computer all night.”

“Just unpause it,” he said.

For a minute, they sat in silence. Each wondered if the other would prolong the argument, either try to assuage the situation with a half-apology, or escalate things. When neither spoke, she reached for the remote and turned the talking heads back on. He noticed a new post from Evelyn on a post by Idris about prime numbers and art.

I’m remembering now when I went abroad to Italy and looked at all that incredible artwork, especially the Sistine Chapel. You really could imagine in it being painted by the hand of God. And now I know maybe it was. I remember everyone at home was like, “y’all flew 11 hours to look at a ceiling?”

He’d noticed her “y’all’s” before, along with a few other pieces of southern vernacular. He loved it, somehow it made her seem much more approachable, and added something to the overall quality of the boards’ climate and the culture of the invitation itself. This wasn’t just underemployed eggheads living in their parent’s basement, sucking down root beer and video game cheat codes. Real people received the invitation, from all walks of life, and felt more connected in discussing it with strangers that they’d ever felt in their day to day lives.

The other thing about Evelyn’s “y’all’s” – it placed her on a map. Granted, a large swath of the country lived within the triangles formed by Virginia, Florida, and Texas, but he did too, right in the center of it. He started to plant some geographical flags in his comments, making indirect references to the Eastern Continental Divide, the banks he worked for in Charlotte, and furniture makers in High Point. She never commented directly on these, but she did once mention the giant peach shaped water tower in Gaffney, SC, only about an hour from him. He liked to think she might be close by, that they might have passed each other on the highway or even in line for a movie or concert.

So hard to live life on the other side of these boards some days, he commented on an Idris post.

Such a beautiful, complete world, though, she wrote back.

But lonely to feel like the only one who can see it.

She replied: I know, but one day everyone will understand.

And until then?

Until then, you come find me on here! Evelyn wrote.

The next morning, when he checked the board from inside his office, he found his exchange with Evelyn flagged by a spaceshipper.

Monitor these two, the comment read, they are (literally) flirting with violating protocols.

The man felt his cheeks sizzle with embarrassment. He closed the last inch of his office door fully shut, and tried to compose himself. He had been flirting, literally and otherwise, with Evelyn. He didn’t understand the severity of the spaceshippers’ warnings about breaking board protocols, or divulging invitations contents to a non-recipient. The rules themselves were unambiguous, but the consequences seemed elusive. What could happen? Everything in the invitation pointed the reader towards the grand and inevitable design underlying all of human existence. He couldn’t fathom these minor violations altering the preset path of the universe.

He laid back for a few days, anyway. Idris disabled further comments on that post after the warning, and the man felt shamed, responsible for ruining a small, nice thing. He tried to bring his attention back to his work, triaging the pile of overdue reports that stacked up while he was lost on the boards. At home, too, he reminded himself to be present, stopping by the garden each afternoon when he returned, and putting at least thirty minutes into pulling the weeds that choked the slow growing veggies.

The man managed to return his focus to work and domestic duties, and because of the invitation, did both absent the sort of worry that had plagued him in the past. He’d never finish all the reports, correctly, on time. Muscular stalks of henbit and geranium would eventually overtake the entire neighborhood. But neither concern would impede the necessary and benevolent progress of time and matter towards eternity. In other words, fuck it. He returned to his duties with a deep detachment to their outcome. It felt like when he was a kid, and his dad would bring him along for day trips into the city, but then leave him to while away the hours in an arcade without any quarters. He’d sit on one of the car racing simulators, and pretend that the turns taken in the looping demo were in response to his manipulations of the wheel.

“Are you mad?” his wife asked.

“What? No.” he replied, waiting for her to lift her coffee mug before bringing a soaped rag to the ringed stain underneath it.

“It’s just you’re really slamming those dishes into the sink.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she said, holding her mug up close to her chest. “I’m just wanting to know if you’re mad.”

The man felt himself becoming mad.

“Aren’t you always on top of me to do the dishes?” he asked. “And now I’m doing them and you’re critiquing how I place them down?”

“Just the sight of them in the sink is going to make me vom,” she said. “But you can’t slam them, they break.”

“It’s not enough that I do the dishes?” he asked, “I need to do them exactly like you do?”

“I don’t care if it’s how I do them, but I’d rather have dirty dished than broken ones.”

“Look,” he said, pulling the dirty dishes out of the machine and stacking them on the recently cleaned countertop. “Not broken, not broken, not broken.”

Later he apologized, citing residual stress from work. As he said it, he remembered a conversation with a colleague the previous day, when he’d mentioned “things being a bit crazy at home” as the explanation for an unfinished budget projection. The man closed his eyes and had a vision of himself as a zombie, one of those from the movies that looks normal from the initial angle but then is revealed to be horribly disfigured, half-decapitated and missing a limb but unaware of it. He felt he’d seen the world in the fullness of its glory but somehow found himself crawling through his life in a diminished state.

The next morning he went back to boards, committed at first to only lurk, and not post anything. In less than a week, everything had changed. Paranoia and dark posturing dominated the conversation. He found no new posts from Idris, although some commenters hypothesized that Idris had started posting under a new name. Very few posts explored the magic of the invitation anymore, the way it illuminated long pondered mysteries, and on those posts that did, the spaceshippers patrolled the comments section, pouncing on anyone they thought at risk of violating protocol.

Evelyn still posted, mostly half-hearted attempts to push conversations back towards wonder and joy, but the man read despair between the lines.

Of course you’re right to be concerned, she’d replied to a spaceshipper’s post about a Kansas man who (they’d intuited) received the invitation and locked his family in a bunker, but remember this kind of thing happened all the time before we all received this invitation, let’s not let our minds get hijacked with illusory correlations.

The response came hammering in.

Reread (or just read) the linked article, one of them wrote, and note where the father mentions supersymmetry and the expansion of space, and how he knew it was all coming to a head when he met that guy in the truck stop locker room who had abandoned his job at Cal-Tech.

Look at the pictures of open and closed ended strings scrawled on the walls of the bunker like cavemen drawings, another wrote. Or don’t look at them, but don’t come on here and tell us nothing is wrong. A lot of people aren’t ready to respect this responsibility.

I remember feeling so connected to everything when I first got the invitation¸ Evelyn had written, I’d like to find that again on here.

He wanted to break his lurking rule and reach out, to tell her he was still here, but her comment had been flagged, and the post closed to further comments. The man felt his world shrink to hypoxic dimensions. He pulled down a copy of “The Mckinsey Way” from shelf affixed above his desk, and extracted the invitation tucked inside. At least two weeks had passed since he last read it start to finish. Reading, he felt better, but as soon as he replaced the invitation in the hiding spot, his anxiety flared. He’d seen the world in its fullest expanse, vast and yet wholly interconnected, unrestricted by the dimensions of time and matter. Yet, increasingly, he felt alone.

Fuck it, he thought, logging out of the Stadium Pilgrimage Boards, and reentering under a new username. It was an open secret on the forum that they all shared the same password. The man clicked the button to start a new post, and then did his best to write something that lived up to the new username he’d chosen: Idris.

He knew as he wrote it that “The Volcano Theory” wouldn’t stand up to even the most throwaway of the real Idris’s posts. While he wasn’t a dummy, the man didn’t have the vocabulary or breadth of knowledge to match up with the real thing. But he’d spent hours reading Idris, and thinking about his ideas, and hoped enough would rub off to hold Evelyn’s attention. The heart of the theory consisted of an explicit rebuke to the spaceshippers’ conception of the invitation as some sort of worldwide release valve. Instead, the man posited:

The dissemination of the invitation to select recipients, spread all around the world, was designed to create a fissure vent of new consciousness. As many have noted on this board, the invitation arrived at a time of intensified volatility and pressure in this world, not just among recipients, but everyone. What if we aren’t meant to relieve that pressure but to direct it? To shape it’s eruption into the creation of a whole new world?

He heart vibrated against his sternum as he clicked the button to post and began to refresh the page. Someone knocked on his office door, and instead of composing himself and saying “come in,” the man reflexively spun around in his chair and kicked the door fully shut. When he realized what he’d done, he opened the door, but whoever knocked had disappeared down the hall.

“Need to have an emergency meeting in the boardroom at 5:30 today,” a VP emailed him a few minutes after he’d kicked the door shut. “Both of us and Karen – please confirm.”

Karen was the CEO. He’d met her briefly when he first made his pitch, but didn’t get much face time after he’d started his consultancy. Anything he did only made its way to her desk via multiple VP’s. From what the man understood, Karen took a hands off approach to management until shit hit the fan, and then she put those hands right on your neck.

He took a deep breath and checked the time on his computer. In an hour, he’d come face to face with a presumably unhappy CEO, following almost two months of producing almost no real work. But he had the hour, he thought – he could still pull some analysis of consequence out of his ass. He reached for the a stack of the customer reviews in a box by his desk, and was about to open the spreadsheet he’d never bothered to populate, when he saw the new reply on the Stadium Pilgrimage board post.

So crazy (or not crazy at all maybe) to come on here and see this post about volcanoes, Evelyn wrote, I’ve always been obsessed with them, even before the invitation. Geysers, too. I always felt they were like volcanoes, but smaller and safer, to help us understand how it all works without burning up in the process.

Ever visited one in real life? He replied.

A volcano? Never. But I have seen a geyser. There’s one not that far from where I live.

He felt his heart sink, thinking that she must be in Wyoming or Nevada. What about her y’alls? The giant peach reference? Maybe she’d transplanted, thought.

You must be somewhere out west, he wrote.

No! Evelyn replied. It’s right here in North Carolina. Andrew’s Geyser. I remember thinking it was crazy the first time I saw it that people never talked about it.

He typed the name of the geyser quickly into a search engine, and sure enough, a map link and small collection of articles appeared.

Wow! He wrote. I wonder if it’s erupting like crazy right now, with everything that’s going on.

Me too, she replied. Only one way to find out!

He’d typed in half his reply by the time he noticed that the invitations weren’t populating the screen.

Comment flagged, it read below Evelyn’s last comment. Further comments on this post have been disabled.

He left the stack of reviews on the desks, and typed the address of the geyser into his phone’s map application. Slinking down the hallway and into the office’s parking lot, he felt eyes on him through open doors and then windows, but kept his face forward. He started the car and plugged his phone into the auxiliary cable, wondering if he was leaving this office for the last time.

According to his phone, the drive took two hours and twelve minutes, starting on the highway and narrowing onto country and forest roads as he neared the geyser. He let the car pick songs automatically from his linked phone, preferring continuous music to the real time interruptions of the radio DJ’s. Most of what he’d downloaded on there was jam band stuff, Phish and the Grateful Dead, with the occasional interjection of a rap song or the Talking Heads.

He drove on cruise control and tapped his feet in rhythm against the inert pedals, his fingers against the steering wheel until they stung. The first ninety minutes of the drive felt like the beginnings of a mushroom trip. His synapses crackled with anticipation, and a ball of radiant energy burned outward from within his chest. A few minutes after 5:30, the same unsaved phone number called his phone three times in quick succession. He quickly declined each call, resenting the intrusion into his headspace.

As the sun set, he mellowed, and the phone’s shuffle seemed to intuit his mood and select tracks accordingly. He exited the highway in a town called Marion, and as the direction changes came more rapidly he alternated his vision between the road and the map on his phone. He looked at the car icon on the phone map and imagined a tiny, pixelated version of himself within it: driving and looking down at an even tinier version of himself, cars and drivers and phone maps all the way down. He thought of his volcano theory, and of himself as highly pressured energy force, endlessly refracted across the universe but also boundlessly determined to reach a particular point, like a dedicated sperm, conscious of the primacy of his task but nonetheless not fully in control, predestined almost.

The sky went completely dark, and the roads narrowed and deteriorated. He relied increasingly on the navigational app, as the country and forest roads turned quickly and offered little signage. The main road he drove on paralleled a railroad line, which itself ran parallel to a river. All were visible on the map, historical paths of human progress collapsing onto each other, at times blending into one fat line, then separating into distinct threads, and occasionally intersecting. The map both contained all the older routes and was a path in, of itself; it was at once the telescopic lens, and the universe glimpsed within it.

The man felt his ears pop, and cold run down his extremities. The temperature displayed on his dashboard registered an almost twenty-degree drop since he’d left the office. He hadn’t realized the environment could change so drastically within such a short span of time.

He punched the accelerator around the corners of the mountain roads. No one else seemed to be on them, and he felt synched into the route, able to anticipate turns on the ground by watching the twisting animated line on the phone. The pin dropped onto the geyser’s location grew larger with each turn, and he could feel himself moving closer to Evelyn, to touching something real. He’d worried on and off through the drive that she’d be angry at him for impersonating Idris, but the closer he got, the less it seemed to matter, or to even be true. He wasn’t impersonating Idris; he was Idris - the latest iteration of the prophet.

At last, all paths straightened on the map and the man gunned straight for the pinned geyser. He felt the tires kicking waves gravel off the sides of the road like a swimmer’s wake, and he held his breath as he watched on the map as the car icon travelled into the shadow of the growing flag. Evelyn would be here, he knew it, and their meeting would be the consummation of everything that had been building within him since receiving the invitation, since forever really, the physical manifestation of a lifelong yearning for completeness in a scattered, disconnected world. He looked up from the map, to take in the imminent glory of it, and found himself approaching a left turn into a tunnel below the raised railroad tracks.

 The crash came too quickly for him to know exactly what happened, and instead he constructed the story from flashes of memory that flickered in the moments after it was over, as he climbed the rocks up from the water and back onto the road. He’d seen the tunnel, but not in time to turn into the opening, and yet he avoided a headfirst crash into the concrete, driving off the right side of the road and into the river below. Whether he’d actively countered the instinct to correct into the tunnel and turned right in an act of self-preservation, or he’d simply continued down a straight path off the road and into the water, he didn’t know.

When he climbed back up to the road, he looked down and felt surprised that his pants and shoes were fully soaked. His phone remained in the console of the car below him, but he felt sure the geyser lay just ahead, on the other side of the tunnel, and he continued on foot, his loafers sloshing with every step. The man worked a hand into a wet pocket and found the invitation sodden but still intact. He didn’t walk forward so much as he hobbled, bent about forty degrees at the waist, but he felt neither the pain of any crash related injury or the chill of being sopping wet in twenty degree weather.

After a long, determined hobble, he found a cleared dirt shoulder for parking and the telling shape and bronzed aluminum cast of a historical marker. It was dark enough that the man couldn’t make out the geyser itself until he stood practically underneath it, and when he finally saw it, he fell over, succumbing to a prolonged fit of maniacal laughter. Surrounded by a foot high pentagonal border made of concrete, the geyser had started to ice over in the sub-freezing temperatures, with the accumulated frost mounded outside of the spout in the shape of a chubby, flaccid penis emitting a half-hearted spritz of froth.

The man considered himself a novice with respect to any scientific inquiry, but he knew this wasn’t a real geyser. An actual geyser would blow too hot for the accumulation of frost and snow at its opening. This was a fountain. Why it operated in the dead of night for a crowd of zero, he had no idea. When he finally stopped laughing, the man collected himself and stood up, finally noticing the sting of the weather and the stiffness in his legs and shoulders. He pulled the invitation from his pocket, hoping to find it dried, or at least drying, but found it had clumped into a pulpy mess.

He walked back towards the tunnel, hoping he could flag down a passing driver and summon a tow-truck to extricate his car from the river. The walk proved to be many times longer than he remembered, and the sun began to rise as the tunnel came into his sight. He found a number of vehicles parked on the other side of it, including two police cars, an ambulance, wrecker, and his wife’s white Volvo crossover. In the midst of the commotion, he managed to slip into the small crowd unnoticed at first, and glimpsed his car in the river below. The extent of the crash shocked him. He’d fallen at least thirty feet from the surface of the road, and the water now ran directly into the shattered windshield of the car and out through the open door.

 “Oh my god,” his wife said when she saw him standing above the bank.

“How did you know to come here?” he asked.

“That’s what you’re asking?”

“I’m just surprised you’re here,” he said. She wore an old fleece pullover of his on top of scrub pants, and her hair tied into a hasty ponytail, so that many soft wisps escaped to the front of her face, where they’d been matted down with tears.

“You’re fucking surprised?” she asked.

 “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I’m feeling really confused right now.”

“Are you hurt?” she asked, her voice softening. Behind her, an EMT climbed out of the ambulance passenger seat and started headed towards them.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Just confused.”

She reached towards him and clasped his wrist between her thumb and forefinger.

“Listen Adam,” she said. “You’re not the only one that’s confused here, buddy, but you need to get it together. The world has gone nuts, and I’m fucking eight weeks pregnant, and I don’t know what on Earth is wrong with you.”

“I’m, I’m sorry,” he said. “And just…”

He started to say again that he felt confused, but stopped himself. The man looked at his wife, reading the pain and concern in her face. He wanted to reach and embrace her, to pull her into himself, but he knew doing so would be an attempt to comfort himself, and that what she needed to receive reassurance, not to give it. He felt the cold air inhabiting the distance between them, and the life growing inside her as a line, a concrete barrier. The man stared blankly into his wife’s worried eyes until the totality of her news and his accident overcame him, and he doubled over and vomited.

For a minute, he stayed like that, his body convulsing in dry-heaves, any solids or liquids long drained. He knew the paramedic was approaching, and that soon he be covered in one of those reflective blankets and subjected to a reanimating series of medical interventions. He waited for them to get there, as all sensation gone from his body, save for a small needling warmth where his wife placed her hand on his back.

Later, in future experiences of anguish, of stress and grief and panic, he’d remember the invitation, and the contours of the world glimpsed within it, and the memory would provide a brief relief from the acuity of his distress, albeit to ever diminishing effect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



© Copyright 2018 ME Pesant. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

Comments

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply

More Science Fiction Short Stories