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Fantasy Fiction Speculative

Thumping music. Smells of cologne and perfume and stale alcohol in the humid, barely air conditioned air. Respectables was a nightclub along the midtown street of the university Jake attended. 

He was there with his law school classmates. Were they his friends? He wanted them to be. There was Matt, Nick, Brad, Alex and the other Alex. They were, indeed, a friendly group, but all they talked about was sports. It wasn’t that Jake didn’t like sports. He just didn’t know anything about them. But these guys were the type who were passionately glued to the ticker tape streaming on the bottom of Sports Center, which played on the TV screen above the night club’s bar. To Jake’s ears, their discussion was a fast paced, highly opinionated garble of last names and statistics that made no sense to him. 

But that wasn’t the root of the danger that Jake felt he was in. Above all else, Jake had to look like he understood what they were saying. He had to laugh when they laughed, agree and disagree with the majority and, for the love of god, make sure he had a beer in his hand. Otherwise he wouldn’t be fitting in.

Jake had to fit in. The nightclub was a sea of  judging eyes and Jake felt like his group was pulling him along on a metaphorical wake board. If he couldn’t hold on, he would be stranded alone in, what was to him, a nearly indecipherable fast flowing current of social norms. As soon as he fell off, the whole club would realize that Jake was socially awkward, that he was just pretending - wearing a mask to fit in. They would all figure it out and cast him out, to die alone. He was certain of it.

So he performed the high-wire act and did his best to try and make it look like he knew what his group was talking about. Pretending he knew why running backs were more important than tight-ends in fantasy football. Pretending to be outraged that so-and-so was traded to so-and-so in the off season. All the while praying to the heavens that he would not make a social misstep and fall to his doom. He just needed to make his pretending look passable. If he did, he would fit in. And if Jake could fit in, then he could be invisible. Invisible and safe. 

In addition to the pressure to appear smooth and normal with the rest of them, was the intoxicating allure of sex. So many attractive college girls in tight jeans, short and low-cut dresses. Exchanging furtive glances with everyone in the nightclub but him. Dancing provocatively on the dance floor, in fluid movements that completely bewildered Jake’s uncoordinated body. 

He was lost in the dizzying lights and social uncertainty, his eyes darting  back and forth between tantalizing bodies and the body language of his law school class mates. But then, by chance of his random glancing, his eyes came in contact with a pretty girl with green hair across the room. He was noticed!

What was he supposed to do? Smile? Look away? He didn’t know. So, as a fail safe, he took a swig of the pumpkin flavored beer in his hand. But at that same moment a guy in a bright, orange polo bumped into Jake’s back. And the fizzy liquid blasted from within the reservoirs of Jake’s cheeks, up and out through his nostrils, all over his shirt. 

He coughed uncontrollably while gasping for air. The carbonation burning his sinuses. His law school classmates stopped talking, turning to look at him. Strangers noticed too. Jake looked up and saw the green-haired girl staring at him, wide-eyed. It was too much.

He needed to get out of there. But he couldn’t just leave. If he up and ran out of the night club, then they would ask questions. They would go after him. Try to understand why he wasn’t like everyone else. Then they would all abandon him. They would all see behind the mask. See that he wasn’t the same. 

There was a back door to the night club that led to a gated patio. The patio included a stage for karaoke and a large poison oak tree that covered the sky with a canopy of leaves. “I’ll be right back,” he managed to choke out at his classmates. 

He scrambled out of the body of the club and onto the patio. There were more people holding drinks. The guy in the orange Polo shirt that bumped into him was  singing off key on the karaoke stage. He could feel all the eyes on him. He tried to regain his composure, struggling to remember how to walk like a normal person. 

He spotted a space between the gate and the poison oak. He walked behind it and put a hand on the dry, scratchy bark. He could breathe again. He did not know why, but it felt good to connect to something natural and real. He put his back up against the broad trunk and breathed deeply, waiting for the panic to pass. 

“You’re an odd one,” said a small creaky voice. Jake startled when he realized a woman was standing next to him. The woman was short, only about half the sized of Jake, who was actually quite tall. She seemed to be wearing a witches costume that you could buy at a Halloween store, the black pointed hat, robe and everything. It had that fake plasticky look that most cheap costumes had, but if she was wearing makeup, as part of the costume it looked anything but fake. 

She had a dead, green complexion and long pointed nose. Grey, frizzy hair overflowing from underneath the hat. Jake thought she either had cobwebs in her curls, or that she got in a fight with a cotton candy machine. The strangest thing about her was her eyes. They were either black or disturbingly missing. Jake was too uncomfortable to look into them to tell. 

“You don’t fit in,” she said. “But you want to.” 

The directness of the statement made him respond without even intending to. “Yes,” he said simply.

“Then I will give you what you want,” she said. 

She dug into a moldy, looking brown bag that she carried at her side. She pulled out a handful of dried leaves and blew them out of her palm, revealing a golden ring. 

She placed a cold, clammy hand on Jake’s left arm and placed the ring in his hand. 

“Put it on,” she said. 

Jake’s hands moved involuntarily and he put on the ring.

“It’s a bit too big,” she said with a frown. Then she smiled, revealing too many cramped yellow teeth in her mouth. “No worries. Just make sure it doesn’t fall off, eh?” She winked, what Jake now noticed to be an obviously empty eye socket. 

“Dude!” said a voice. It was one of the Alexes. “We thought you were in the bathroom or something.” 

Jake looked around, the woman was gone. He scanned the crowd of heads on the patio and saw no sign of a pointed hat. 

“Dude, don’t go off and abandon us! You know there’s no party without Jake around.” 

“No party without me?” Jake said. Not sure what that meant. 

The rest of his law school classmates caught up. “Jake!” They exclaimed collectively. Then he was shaking everyone’s hands and getting pats on the back. 

“Whoa… I … umm..” 

They laughed. “Man he’s so funny,” the other Alex said. 

“Come on,” started Brad. “Everyone get a drink for Jake! I’ll buy first!” 

“Actually,” said Jake. “I don’t do so well with shots. I’d prefer not to.” 

All the guys laughed. Jake assumed at his expense. He always felt ashamed at how “unmanly” his drink tolerance was. 

“That’s no problem at all, buddy,” said Brad. “We like you just the way you are!” and gave Jake a hearty pat on the shoulder. Jake saw nothing but sincerity in Brad’s eyes. 

“Jake!” said Matt in his baritone. “Who you got in the Tennessee Buffalo game? You Titans or Bills?” 

All the guys were looking eagerly at Jake. He noticed the gold ring flash on his hand. “Actually…” he breathed in. “I don’t really like football.” he said, wincing and closing his eyes. 

The guys were silent.

“Of course he doesn’t,” said one of the Alexes, “but that’s okay!” Jake opened his eyes. 

“Yeah!” said Matt, “we want to talk about what you want to talk about!”

“Oh…” said Jake. He had never been presented with such an opportunity like that one. He brushed the ring on his finger with his thumb. “Have you ever seen Star Trek the Next Generation?” 

“No!” never seen it said Brad.

“But we’d love for you to explain it,” said one of the Alexes. 

“You would?” said Jake.

“Yeah,” said the other Alex. “What do you find so interesting about Star Trek the Next Generation?”

“Oh…” Jake looked again at his gold ring. Was this really happening? “Well… I was actually thinking of the Season 2, Episode 3 episode when…” He stopped talking.

He stopped talking because he noticed that everyone in the entire club had stopped talking. The guy in the orange Polo stopped poorly singing Friends in Low Places. The DJ even turned off the musical accompaniment. Everything was quiet in the patio, but for the rustling of the branches of the poison oak. Then the guy in the orange Polo spoke. 

“Why don’t you speak into the microphone?” he said. 

“Yeah! We want to make sure we hear!” said a random stranger. 

“Come on, Dude,” said one of the Alexes. 

“Speech! Speech! Speech!” said the other Alex, starting a chant that quickly spread out to the entire patio. 

Jake had never been on the receiving end of a chant, but he quickly discovered that it is very motivating to do something when around fifty people are urging you to do something all at once. 

Jake walked up to the plywood stage and took the microphone from the orange-shirt singer, all the people in the audience awaiting his words with a warm eagerness. 

“Oh… Well…” he stammered. 

“Take your time!” shouted a stranger. “We’re all here for you.” 

“Well…” he continued. “I was just thinking about the Star Trek Next Generation episode called Elementary, Dear Data. Not sure if anyone has seen it.”

No one raised their hand.

“Well… um… okay… This might not make much sense if you haven’t seen it. But in that episode, Geordi and Data are using the holodeck to play around in the Sherlock Holmes world. After Geordi gets frustrated because Data knows all the answers, Geordi asks the Holodeck to create an adversary in the style of Sherlock Holmes that is actually a match for Data.

“Later in the episode, after things have gone haywire in the holodeck and the rest of the ship’s officers get involved, Geordi is in the briefing room with all the crew heads and explains that he created a program in the holodeck that might actually be smarter than Data. After Geordi says that, I thought the writers of the episode made the crew react in a really compelling way. Instead of having the crew members react with some sort of exclamation or comment, everyone just shares a silent glance. 

“Well. I really like that part because the use of a pause in that moment is so powerful. By saying nothing, I thought it so effectively conveyed just how obviously troublesome it was for the crew to think they were facing an enemy that was as capable or more capable than Data. It gave you a perspective on just how smart Data is and how respected his intellect is by the other crew members.”

Jake finished. And then someone clapped. And then more claps. And then uproarious applause.

Not knowing what else to do, Jake bowed and placed the microphone back on its stand. He stepped off the stage and was met with hearty pats and congratulations from his law school classmates. 

“Woooo!” Matt exclaimed. 

“To the dance floor, Jake!” said one of the Alexes. “Show us how it’s done.” 

Jake was lifted off his feet by his law school classmates and taken back inside the main room of the nightclub. 

Inside, he was greeted by the people on the dance floor with more applause and fanfare. A circle was formed on the dance floor and his friends placed him in the middle. 

“Show us your moves, Dude!” said one of the Alexes, shouting over the thumping music. 

“Yeah, buddy!” said the other Alex. “Show us how it’s done.” 

For all of his life, Jake confined his dance movements to what he thought was a socially acceptable side-to-side shuffle. He had zero confidence in his coordination or any ability at all to freestyle.  But at that point, Jake was sold on the bizarre magical effect of the ring that now glistened under the flashing nightclub lights. 

He flung himself into movement. Throwing his hands out wide, kicking his legs, bobbing his head. Gyrating and flinging himself with complete abandonment in front of total strangers. It was the most liberating experience he ever had - to move as quirky and ridiculous as he pleased with complete confidence that with the power of the ring, everyone would accept it. 

The only reason he stopped was because he had to catch his breath. He grinned wildly at the spectators, breathing heavily through his teeth. But confusion struck him. Unlike his Star Trek speech, the onlookers did not observe him with an open warmness. Instead they wore the expressions that, until then, only lived in his nightmares. They all bore looks of distaste, of disapproval, of incredulity. They did not approve. 

Jake looked to his hand. The ring was gone. It must have fallen off during his dance. He looked at his immediate surroundings, but found nothing. 

He stood frozen. His greatest fear just having come to fruition. In that moment of dancing, he had opened his true self to scrutiny. He had taken off the perennial mask that he wore - the mask that shrouded his authenticity in the name of social approval. He had fully exposed himself to social judgment and had become, in fact, judged. 

But then something stole everyone’s attention. In the corner of the nightclub, Jake’s classmate, Nick, was hoisted off his feet by adorers and carried to the patio to give a speech. Jake saw the glistening of the ring on Nick’s hand as the crowd paraded him through the door outside. 

Everyone existed the body of the nightclub to the patio. Even the DJ left, pausing the music and leaving the flashing room in silence. Everyone left save for Jake, still frozen in his exposed embarrassment, and the girl with green hair who had made eye contact with Jake earlier that night. 

She approached Jake. Bashfully, at the same time, trying to make and avoid eye contact with him. 

“I liked what you said about Star Trek,” she said. “And your dancing.” She added with a laugh. 

“Thanks,” said Jake. “I was just being myself.” 

“Good,” she said. 

Jake put a hand on his beating heart. His shirt was still wet from when he blew out a mouthful of beer through his nose. “I want to buy you a drink,” Jake sai to the girl. And he meant it.  

May 26, 2023 22:48

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1 comment

Graham Kinross
00:04 May 31, 2023

Great story, Jacob.

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