Fiction Speculative Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

“It doesn’t matter what happens later. It doesn’t matter how you got here. Just think about how good you feel! You can already feel the beautiful acceleration can’t you, the vertiginous thrill running up from your toes into your groin, like taking your foot off the gas pedal and gliding over a hump in the road at top speed? It’s a feeling you haven’t felt since the old, experimental school days. It’s the feeling of true freedom Mike, of traveling past the limits of your feeble biology, escaping the police-state of worry you’ve lived in since you learned how to think. You’re free now Mike! Don’t let anything spoil this moment!”

That’s what I told myself a few seconds ago as I opened my eyes on a boring Texas landscape made thrilling and extraterrestrial by terrific speed. Through an unfamiliar window I see oil refineries, fast-food restaurants, clusters of pay-day-loan offices and karate schools, smoky herds of semi-trucks, billboards, utility poles, cell towers, homeless sign holders and heavy humorless buildings, all blurring into a quivering slick of light and color so beautiful I might start crying.

Before this moment, before the sudden sleep, before the train, these things weren’t beautiful at all. They were sores on a landscape I’d treasured with the once-in-a-lifetime jealousy of a love born in childhood. They were poison berries on a corporate weed spreading across everything worth anything in my home state. I’d dig my nails into the steering wheel and seethe with anger every time I drove through San Marcos or Houston. The ugliness of these cities was expanding and alive. Every year I’d arrive in them sooner, every trip they seemed to get closer. My anger wasn’t intellectual, something I could illustrate with words or dissipate with logic. It was a strong, physical thing. When it came, it came off of me in waves. You could feel it against your skin if you were nearby, a frightening, convected aggression that could scare an entire roomful of people. It could make my happy, well-fed children scream as if I were stabbing them. It could make my beautiful, brave wife avoid my gaze and embrace me to shield the children, moving with the doomed heroism of a soldier laying himself on a grenade.

It was the kind of anger that made me less of a man - unconstructive, impossible to canalize into good works - because it was an anger fueled by guilt. I knew the sprawl of Houston and San Marcos wasn’t really alive and stalking after goodness and decency, any more than stairs prey on the handicapped or clouds prey on the sunshine. I knew something much worse.

I was the one pulling the sprawl closer. With every mouthful of food my children ate, every bill paid, every dentist visit, every paid vacation, every anniversary dinner, every year of unlimited mobile data and endless cable channels, I pulled the abundant ugliness of the first world tighter around the planet, around all of us.

I was Mike Trestle - loving husband and father, accomplished amateur golfer, friendly and dependable coworker, public lover of wine, private lover of ABBA and internet porn, and failed architect who had been prostituting what was left of his creativity as a corporate vice president with General Building and Growth, easily the largest property developer south of Dallas, a domain which covers a portion of land so big you could drop the whole United Kingdom into it and still have room left over for Spain and Portugal. For me it was a prison I’d had to live in for most of my adult life.

Most intelligent adults know, deep down, that life itself is a prison, with birth and death on either side. We tolerate it because, in the day-to-day business of being alive, we don’t really notice it, and, in that way, we can escape. But the prison we build for ourselves, the one I’d built, offers no escape. No comfort on earth can adequately furnish it so that it feels like anything other than confinement. But we stay alive, most of us, and take it, everyday asking ourselves how we’ve come so far and lived as if nothing were wrong for so long without losing our minds.

When the answer comes, its dumb simplicity is enough to overwhelm some people, to bring on the annihilating madness they weren’t sure how they’d outsmarted until now. We survive, like anyone condemned to a lifetime of incarceration, by completely forgetting the world outside. Jail is the planet we live on now. The Earth, with all of its wonders, needs to fuck off as fast as possible if we are to stay sane.

The train is wobbling on the tracks, and the woman sitting across from me is staring at the floor as if she were trying to bore a hole through it with her mind. She’s stopped crying recently. I can see her eyes drying up and the old tears jumping off her cheeks and onto the plastic table between us. Suddenly I recognize the determination in her face. I made the same face in the hotel mirror last night, didn’t I? There’s whisky on my breath now, and a chalky taste on my tongue that makes me want to spit, and a sling-shaped soreness under my arms that makes me feel like a heavy backpack someone’s been swinging around by the straps.

I wanted to say something to the woman, to ask her what was wrong, but the view through the window has caught my attention again. There’s never been anything more beautiful. A new blackness has replaced the quivering landscape I woke up to, but it’s not the blackness of a void. It writhes and sparkles like a river of highway blacktop, cut into two streams by a solid shaft of white light that shoots through the center like the finger of God. That’s better. The noise of the train is fading again. Clarity is coming back.

I’d swallowed a fistful of prescription tranquilizers, hoping I’d die and get to miss the corporate afterparty I had actually been looking forward to all summer. Ben Wembly and some guys from the local branch were on their way up with enough booze and barbecue to crack the hotel’s foundation, and I was as happy as a clam until I looked out the window at my fortieth-floor view of downtown Dallas. For the first time in nearly twenty years, I saw the beauty of each structure, and heard what Goethe called the “frozen music” of architecture. Staring out through the window, the buildings seemed to sing to me over the frame like angels over the lip of heaven, mocking me and everyone else in Hell.

Why was I so angry about everything, so wrapped up in self hatred? Couldn’t I see my incredible luck? It was screaming at me above the door every time I came into work, shining through the bars of my cell every day. “To the Horizon!” General Building and Growth’s motto was telling me I didn’t need to say goodbye to the world, because the whole world would soon be joining me inside prison.

But I’ve passed through death and come out the other end, and no guilt of any kind can touch me now. Job guilt, wife guilt, child guilt, money guilt, what does it matter? All is speed now. All is light.

I’m trying to savor this moment, to make it last as long as possible, to keep it from slipping by, but I can’t concentrate. All around me are the sounds of panic, sounds made more distracting by their familiarity. Everywhere hoarse voices screaming “I love you” and “It’s going to be all right.” They can’t mix with the roaring black river on the other side of the glass, because they’re from a life gone past.

I’m speaking now like an archaeologist, surveying the ancient world underneath. In the ancient world, the one shouting for love and pleading with God, panic is misery on a deadline. It isn’t like the dull, uncomfortably warm, day-to-day hug of mental depression, or the reeling shock of a physical blow. It is a sudden bloom of fear in all of its forms at once, a fission of the reasonable brain inside a body too small to contain the explosion that follows. Horrors beyond the reach of the calm, rational mind, beyond the imagination of the most depraved artist, come spilling out one after the other, filling you up with the turgid confidence of a firehose that has a bottomless supply of water pressure until you burst.

I’m getting angry at these loud people, these screaming idiots who are breaking my concentration and spoiling the first truly happy moment in my life. Time to stand up and say something.

“What the fuck is everyone screaming about?”

Who pulled me back down into my seat?

“I was talking!”

 The woman across from me is clutching the lapel of my blazer and pulling me against her mouth so I can hear what she is saying.

“I’m praying before we die, so please sit down and shut up!”

I’m replying, even though I know it will shatter the peace I’ve seen through the window, the peace I’ve been searching for my whole life.

“What’s happening? I don’t know what’s happening and I’m getting scared!”

She pulls me even closer, her breath blasting my left ear as she speaks.

“The morning hyperloop from Dallas to Austin hit an animal in the tube and lost its breaks!”

Fear is finding me again.

“How did I get here?”

She pushes me away and looks into my eyes, screaming:

“I don’t know honey!”

Last night I couldn’t wait to die, and now all that matters is this face in front of me. Nothing going past the window can equal it. The black stream is gone, and flesh tones have overtaken my peripheral vision as we rocket past the commuters waiting inside the Austin station. With the sudden, sourceless knowledge of a dream, I lean forward and whisper deep into her ear.

“I should have died last night, but my friends took care of me and put me on this train home!”

I sit back. She smiles at me.

“They sound like nice people!”

I reply casually, ignoring the noise all around, as if we were on a date.

“They’re alright! They may not be the brightest, or the most sensitive, but they come through where it counts!”

She smiles wider, with the deviousness of someone holding back a joke.

“But they put you on a train that’s going to crash!”

Life is a prison.

“I know.”

Birth and death are its walls.

“What a beautiful building.”

She leans forward to hear what I’m saying.


I hold her hands in mine and smile back, feeling us lurch toward one another as the cars begin jumping the track and smashing into the side of the tunnel.

“It’s not important! You and me were made to break! That’s all that matters!”


August 27, 2022 06:56

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