1 comment

Sad Mystery Contemporary

Matt Parker was seated in his study writing his latest novel on a cold December night. The novel was to be completed the following week by command of his publisher, who was threatening to retract his services if he postponed yet another week. 

Matt Parker was a frenetic worker. Always had been. Since the time he was young he had thought of nothing but becoming the Next Great American Novelist. Now, his passion had turned into something darker. The clacking of computer keys was the only thing that distracted him from his depression, which would rise out of nowhere and knock him flat on his bed for days at a time (hence the postponing). Ironically, in his early years as a poor self-published author who worked a journalism job to keep the microwaved food on the table, lying down on the bed for longer than the barely-sufficient six hours a night would have been an unthinkable luxury. Now, having achieved notoriety as a respected author who worked a side job as an adjunct professor of English, it was one in which he indulged frequently. 

He had only a few more sentences until he reached the next chapter. Then what? He thought. He put the thought away. People committed suicide out of cowardice, and he was no coward. 

Such thoughts came to him with alarming frequency now. He regretted studying philosophy in college, especially the existentialist philosophers. How callow, how soft and trusting his mind had been before declaring a double-major in English literature and philosophy at Amherst College. He remembered looking around at his classmates for the first time. Most of them knew nothing but coffee shops and long hours spent behind their laptops, the very same laptops at which they had labored, with tears, to get accepted into such a prestigious institution. And here was the reward for all their effort. A tall, lanky humanoid of a woman complete with pixie cut, jangly earrings and all the charm of a razor blade, dressed as she was in a wooly cardigan draped over an even woolier-looking turtleneck. Their professor. “Without a reader, a book is just paper and glue,” she used to say. How postmodern, he thought acidly.

The faces of his classmates came to him now, as the blank document screen disappeared under blocks of text.

Most of them had been women, half of whom looked as if they might swing in the other direction at the slightest snag of their emotional tripwire. There were a lot of exposed straps, dyed hair, culturally- and politically-conscious clothing. One clothing item that stuck in his memory, a Nirvana shirt superimposed with a naked woman stripped of her skin, gave new meaning to the term “graphic tee.” 

These were no Tolstoys or Hemmingways. No one, not even the men (if they could be called that) sported a single callus that did not originate from a dumbbell in the campus gym. All the Dostoyevskys, O’briens, Orwells, Steinbecks – the political prisoners who chronicled their own madness, the ideological stalwarts who disavowed their genteel upbringing to slum it with their poor and suffering muses, the war veterans who pressed their various incomprehensible experiences into a puree of meaning – were of a different era. No one in the class thought it strange that they spent most of their waking hours studying in air-conditioned rooms, unaware that a mere 100 years’ progress separated them from the factory floor or the sweltering, backbreaking work of farming. They had come to believe that the universe and everything in it revolved around the quivering organ hiding behind their skull. Everyone – from their parents, to the teenage barista at the local Starbucks, to the homeless man down the street – was silently judged against the needs of their burgeoning intellect. Of course, all this could not be further from the minds of the forty-two students seated in the windowless wood-paneled lecture hall that smelled of nothing. 

Matt had succumbed to the same fate, and included himself in the critique in his more honest moments. Growing up as the son of academic parents – his dad a professor of philosophy at Umass Amherst, his mother a professor of linguistics at the same university – he had always suffered under the yoke of expectation. Mental strain, or academics, was held up as the justification for his existence. As an adult, his passion became all-consuming – an enlistment that he did not sign up for but was rather necessitated by the fog surrounding his brain.

The story was like all of his stories. The instructor of his creative writing class always told him to “write what you know.” At this point, all he knew was haggard journalists, existential crisis, and absurdity, so he  stuck  to his  muses. Matt propped his chin on the heel of his hand, stared meditatively at the bottle of serotonin on his desk, and snapped his gaze back to the computer screen as the sentence jerked out of his fingers and onto the page.

Everything in me was clawing for air as the Pointlessness of it All curled its cold, bony fingers around his throat. 

Oh yea, he thought, that sounds good. He quickly inserted the f-bomb, followed by a period, and continued typing.

The paper I was writing on Sartre became infused with death. It was all so abstract; nothing would last. Even the ice cold oat milk latte I had purchased for seven whole dollars ran like acid down my throa

At the precise instant when his left forefinger was careening toward the “t” key, the light left his eyes and he was plunged into pitch darkness. In a moment he was struck blind and a raw vibration passed through his throat. He was screaming, but he could not hear himself. His breath evaporated and his skin winced with cold. All sound and light was swallowed up in utter blackness. Like the first millisecond of the big bang, before the thick jelly of quark ignited in a fireball. 


He saw them releasing light. He actually saw them, like sparks carried on a breeze against a black midnight. 

The sparks flooded together – sparks flying faster and faster, rushing together, catching fire – and the room exploded into light. 

It was as if a lightbulb flicked back on in his mind, and he was vomited back into awareness. He took in a ragged breath. His fingers were plastered onto the keys, yet none of them went flat. He jabbed at them once, twice, three times – they would not depress. Some kind of electrical barrier seemed to suspend his fingers from the keys. Unable to comprehend what was happening, he rose to check if the keyboard was plugged in and the next moment found himself rolling on the floor between his desk and the office chair he had just been sitting in. He remembered pushing down on the plastic armrests, but the chair did not roll back, causing him to wipe out. The pain throbbing in his forehead told him he had banged it against the metal frame of the desk, yet there was no clang, no sound. He reached up to grab the desk for support, expecting it to creak and bend to his weight, yet all he felt was the energy on the surface of the desk; granite-hard yet soft as water. He stood up unsteadily. He was trembling now. Every signal the world produced that told his mind where to go, what to think, was gone. Except light. He could still see. And he could still move his body. But the world itself was unintelligible to him now. It did not respond to his commands. Choking back a cry, he reached for the coffee cup on his desk and discovered the energy field had welded it in place.


The sound ripped through his throat, but it did not puncture the deathly silence of the room. He shuddered and a great weight pressed down on his lungs.

He backed out through the open room, away from the stacks of papers scattered helter-skelter across the desk, away from the books piled vertically and horizontally in the floor to ceiling shelves that all but covered the wall behind; everything unreadable, everything untouchable. Just a collection of shadow and light. A pen he had unknowingly knocked off the table hovered in mid-air. The dust motes in the lamplight glittered in cold suspension. He found he could walk backward, miraculously, though without the sound of his footsteps it was harder to know where he was going, and the next moment he was lying splay-legged on the mattress, which had apparently tripped him, though he felt nothing but raw energy sweep him off his feet. 

The moment he hit the mattress, all sound and feeling returned to him as the soft memory foam absorbed his falling body. Immediately he clutched the mattress with one of his hands, and started to cry. He lay there for a few minutes, sobbing, unable to process the reality of what had just happened. The heat from the heater buzzed in his ear and warmed his skin. As his cheeks grew wet, and he felt the air dry them, he latched onto every sensory moment like a baby suckling on warm milk. 

A car rushed by on the slick road, tires sizzling against the wet pavement before receding into soundlessness. The call of police sirens followed, nearer, then father, then gone. And undelaying it all: the muted gurgle and hiss of coffee brewing in the kitchen. Slowly, he sat up, feeling his hands sink comfortably into the mattress. He looked around his living room as if for the first time. 

There was the flat-screen TV sitting on the floor. The screen was dark. He checked his watch: 12:23 AM. Barely a minute had passed since he had finished his last sentence. 

Tentatively, placing a supporting hand on the hardwood floor so that he would not be hovering over it, he reached for the remote. When he turned on the TV, the local news was already playing. On his really bad days he liked to keep the news on as background noise.

The newscaster, a fresh-faced, deeply-dimpled twentysomething dressed in a sturdy red nylon coat emblazoned with the news station’s logo, was reporting from a blizzard some miles away. As far as Matt could tell, time was running normally for him. He held the foam-capped microphone in his right hand, gesticulating with his left as he squinted through the driving snow. 

“As you can see, Shannon, Madison Parkway and the surrounding area is getting absolutely pummeled right now, no cap. Or should I say snowcap.” He grinned and a second set of dimples appeared. 

Young guy, he thought. The Gen-Zers were finally starting to trickle into the news business. 

He changed the channel. Same thing: nothing frozen in place, everything going on as usual. 

Just then, he decided to walk to his neighbor’s house to see if he had experienced the same thing. Immediately he got up, removed his coat from the hanger and donned it in one smooth motion. As he did, he nearly slipped in the papers he was in the middle of grading that he had left lying on the bed. A teacher’s copy of the book they were studying lay next to the pile: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. The book was open to page 425. His eyes landed on a quote near the center of the page: 

The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.

He walked through the front door and left. 

Matt was paid to think. To anyone who asked him what his job was, his answer was always the same: “I read books and write about them.” Now, as he slipped through the door and nearly tumbled down the snow-slick front steps of his Boston apartment, he was not thinking at all, just moving. His life was charged with a purpose that extended beyond the borders of his study. He was looking for something, he did not know what. It was almost freeing, the strong sense of reality, though he could not shake the hammering in his chest. The snow and the brownstones that gleamed yellow from the lamplight and the low wrought-iron fences fronting the brownstones, also tinted yellow, seemed to be realer than his mind. The cold, the flurrying snow, the crunch of a one-inch carpet of white powder under his feet rushed his senses like a cavalry charge. 

His friend’s apartment was just down the street. 

Just then he went blind again. He saw the light from the streetlight traveling in pitch darkness, like a flame being struck and then the whole scene flickered back into his vision like a lightning strike. The cold against his cheeks was replaced by numbness. The snowflakes froze in place. Sound left him. The loud hum people called “silence” did not compare to what he was experiencing now. 

Nonbeing, he thought. It’s the sound of nonbeing. 

He looked around. The snowflakes, stopped in their gentle downward spiral, gathered around the lamps like swarms of frozen moths before disappearing in the intervening darkness. The few stars that peeked out over the Boston lights were frozen white flares. They had stopped twinkling.

He was running now, running down the street. Past the brownstones, down the snow-frosted sidewalks, down, down, down into the dead, frozen blizzard. There was no heat or cold, and he felt as if he could run forever. He knew this must have something to do with the fact that his feet were not actually making contact with the ground, but between his deaf ears and the washing machine vibrating in his heart he did not care. Such was his distress that he failed to mark the fact that he did not encounter a single person on the way. 

Soon, he was in front of his old workplace. 

The Boston Post, after laying off hundreds of staff, was now located in downtown Boston in old office space. Crammed between two nameless high-rises, it was a narrow tower of steel-enclosed glass that offered premium nighttime views of overworked journalists to passersby below. The front comprised two sets of double doors, floor-to-ceiling windows so clean you could walk through them, and a wide black marble overhang on which a backlit steel sign of The Boston Post was bolted in old English lettering. The interior lights were still on, tinting the sidewalk a bluish hue. The frozen snowflakes made little black flecks against the bright facade.

It was here where he had written his first bestselling novel. 

The Post was the second most circulated daily newspaper in Boston, and as a City Hall reporter, Matt had to make constant trips to Boston City Hall, which, though relatively close, was just far away enough to provoke annoyance. As if walking, scootering, and driving back and forth between the Post and City Hall wasn’t enough, deadline day could whiten the hair of even the steeliest reporter. On such days, he would return to his workstation with only minutes to finish his story. The newsroom would be buzzing, and his desk would be a mess of paper: yellow legal pads scrawled with interview notes; City documents that should have required a legal interpreter but which he had to decipher on his own; a fresh copy of that morning’s paper. He would practically jump into his seat to begin typing. As the haphazard collection of quotes and factoids took shape, he would chew on a Slim Jim and take regular swigs from a Mountain Dew; he needed protein and caffeine, but there was no time for lunch. 

As he reminisced and let the tears flow freely down his cheeks before they evaporated in the energy field, he began to see the Post differently. 

Once he made the last edit to his story and sent it off to the editor, he would nibble on a chocolate chip cookie that he kept carefully wrapped in a napkin behind the computer monitor. As he would lean back in his chair and savor the filmy residue the cookie left in his mouth, a wall-mounted TV flashed the latest news story. If he was lucky, the newscaster might even comment on the online edition of his story. It only happened once or twice a year, but as a young journalist nothing could pry him from the TV. 

It was when the job became monotonous, and the little dopamine rush of seeing his articles in print wore off, and the mid-afternoon watching of the TV became a soul-destroying time-waster, that he started writing his first bestseller. The novel, titled Road to Edition, was a satire set in a futuristic America where all independent news outlets have been absorbed by the nefarious, government-controlled propaganda machine known as the New York Times. The book struck a chord.

Though it received mixed reviews, and a particularly scathing article from the New York Times sent Matt careening into a momentary depression, Road rapidly climbed the bestseller list, peaking at the number three spot and making him positively drunk with glee. It was a book for the people. Matt became a celebrity in his workplace; unsurprising, considering that the bashing of “big-dog” newspapers, no matter how indirect, was always an occasion for rejoicing at the Post. Two weeks after the book was published, his consummate passion became monitoring the newsroom desks for the telltale gloss of the book’s red jacket. Soon after that, he was diagnosed with depression. 

Matt looked around the dead landscape. On wiping the tears from his eyes, he noticed something in the distance. A man dressed in a red nylon coat packing a large black equipment case, the only thing moving in a frozen galaxy of snow. He turned toward him, and, catching his gaze, flashed him a double-dimpled smile.

March 02, 2024 01:59

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

1 comment

00:18 Mar 08, 2024

Maybe Matt should write a sci-fi next.


Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.