James Smith remembered being young, hearing of men and women who had fallen into the trap of “careers”; confined within the steel bars of their own lives. He also remembered promising himself, “That will not be me.”
He found himself choking down his own sour-tainted words for the past 20 or so years. The memory of his past promises always tended to revoke a vehement, guilt-ridden nausea. Today, he sat at his company-assigned desk, stabbing his fingers into the keyboard; the monotonous clacking sounding to him like small, bouncing birds picking through crumbs on the sidewalk. “Am I really any different?” James thought with a soundless sigh, bringing his hands down to rest on his thighs, “Doing only what is necessary for survival. Owning the wings to fly, yet staying in one tree, or coasting somewhere else where there’s the potential for mere existing.”
Years of tediousness had been sinking into the pores on his skin, slowly making their way through his nerve endings. The striking of year 22 was the year apathy wound tightly around his bones and turned his eyes into dull concrete. The wings that once towered with excitement for the next day, the next week, and the next year now hung like decrepit tree branches from the knobs on his spine. James always wondered why apathy was always so looked down upon, why it was tainted with terms like laziness or even psychosis. For him it had always been an effective coping tool.
It began making life seem as though it wasn’t even happening. Like someone had come along and stapled small television screens in the back of his eyelids and nothing he was seeing was actually being experienced. James had always had moments like that, even when he was young, where he would stop suddenly and be aware that nothing around him seemed as though it was tangible. But he would always end up laughing it off and continue about his day.
But today was different.
Often, he’d feel detached in the late hours of the night. When existential crisis began shrinking its upper lip and showing off gleaming fangs, James would take a glass of scotch and go to bed. The same thing happened the night before, except when he woke up in the morning, the feeling remained.
He drove to the office, it remained.
He turned in his weekly papers, it remained.
He ate lunch, it remained.
Even with lively conversation about how much Amanda’s feet had swollen since she had gotten pregnant felt like the hypnotic buzz of static. Nobody noticed but him.
James came back 20 minutes early from lunch to use his computer so he wasn’t “wasting company time” as he Googled his own descriptions of this sense of detachment. After clicking and reading link after link, he ran well past his 20-minute limit but he was too in-depth with his search to care. If he was fired, then so be it. There wasn’t much to read other than psycho-babble that threw a varying list of prescriptions he could demand from a local doctor. But James had always known something that a large majority of people would never come to grasp with; drugs of any sort helped nothing involving philosophical issues.
Finally he began searching in a way other than medical purposes. Instead, he Googled things like, “Scientific theory of mental processing”. He happened upon an article talking about people in comas, who had no idea that they were unconscious because their subconscious made up a new life for them in their heads. They felt everything, they met people, they talked with family and they lived happily for years within the crisp white sheets of a hospital bed. When woken up, they were shocked, scarred, and mentally disturbed from that moment on. “Strange,” pondered James, “Technically speaking then, there really is no proof that anyone could show you that proved you WEREN’T in a coma. They could pinch you, yell at you, have you eat things, and even have non-stop sex for weeks on end. All it would end in would be messy sheets. “
James got up and looked around. Everybody’s head was at their desks. A soft chatter undulated through the room and he could smell Tom’s meatloaf being heated in the microwave. He sat back down and realized that there was truly no way for him to prove any of his senses were not lying to him. The truth of his predicament began leaking a small amount of panic into him and he swiveled back to his computer to find out more.
The computer always had a way of pulling him from his surroundings; and James found he’d never really appreciated that until now. Finally he came upon a quote from a book by Mark Twain called, “The Mysterious Stranger”. It was a book he never completed.
“…life itself is only a vision, a dream. Nothing exists save empty space and you. And you are but a thought.”
A sense of overbearing clarity slammed into his skull like a sledgehammer. Nothing existed. James stood up once more. “Smith, you wouldn’t mind doing a favor for me would ya?”
His boss came around the corner with that cheeky smile he always had when he was about to drop a large pile of work on your desk. The smile fell when he saw James’ face. He had no idea what his own face looked like, but it couldn’t have been good. Then again, his boss didn’t exist, so he didn’t actually have any inner thoughts. James couldn’t hear his name being said in a worried tone of voice because he was staring; observing.
His hair looked as though it was soft, almost like fur. James could tell he’d taken a shower today, he smelled of bargain-brand soap. Every pore from his crinkled forehead to his hooked nose was magnetized, defined. James took notice of the small shatters of his dry lips and the veins lying smoothly against his thick neck. His tie was too tight. His suit looked as though it was taken from the local dollar store. But the shoes were shined to a sheen sparkle.
His boss shook his shoulders. “James? Hello? Are you alright?”
James swallowed and said the first thing that popped into his head, “I’m not feeling well. I’m going to go home.”
He let go of his shoulder and gave him a skeptical look, pursing his lips in thought, “I suppose,” he finally allowed, “But you don’t have any more sick days, you’ll have to take vacation time.”
“Okay,” James grabbed his apartment keys and stomped quickly past him, staring vacantly ahead. He didn’t know where he was going; he just knew he needed to leave this building.
“Smith, you forgot your phone!”
James ignored him and rushed into the elevator, which was luckily empty. He jammed his thumb onto the “Close Door” button and then straight to “Bottom Floor”
Now that the shock of the initial realization was over, a sorrow pinched at his heart. Great, the bad stuff in his life was never actually happening, but neither were the good things. Now that he looked around and saw the world for what it was, he saw nothing. One great, heaping, pile of nothing. And it hurt immensely. But confusion was sitting idly by on his shoulder as well. Now that he understood that this existence of NON-existence, which he dubbed “The Nothing”, was the only thing he could actively observe….then why was he still seeing it?
James had broken through the illusion, hadn’t he? Then why was it still being shown to him? Why could he still smell fresh air and feel the nip of the breeze and hear idle chatter as he walked by groups of people on outings? In fact, all these hypersensitive details that were bombarding him were becoming a constant reminder of The Nothing. Like a cruel, ironic joke that just never ended. With a shake of his head, he really wished he had a car.
James had never really needed a car, because his office building was only a block away from the apartment he stayed at, so he could walk just fine. But, right now, he could use the air-tight silence of a moving vehicle right now. It would give him time to think; maybe he could find a logical reason behind this. He could find a way to rid himself of this feeling of hopelessness.
An idea floated through his head. Maybe if he actually SAID the words out loud it would change something. Reaching his hand out, he grabbed the first person who brushed past him on the sidewalk. It was a rather thin man shrouded in a blue-grey jacket. The man looked at him incredulously and asked, “Can I help you?”
His voice quivered, but he said, “You…you don’t exist.”
The man stood for a moment and then looked down at himself, obviously trying to make a joke, “I’m afraid I have to disagree with you, Sir.”
James cursed out loud and angrily marched away from the man. Well, there went that theory.
His thoughts swallowed him whole. Walking past the local drug store, he was completely enthralled by this sensory overload. In some weird, creepy way it was all rather peaceful. Now that he understood that everything he was seeing was an illusion of some sort, the world became as a painting in a gallery. A 3D painting that threw its arms around you like an old friend. He had spent his whole life walking through this painting as a part of it; another brush stroke on the canvas.
Now that it was apparent that he was never a part of it, he could turn off his life and simply look at it. Admire it. Adore it.
The sadness was long forgotten. I mean, Hell, if this stuff never existed in the first place, what is there to be sad about? Just because it doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy it. James drank from water fountains as though they were crystal springs, smelled pastries being cooked from restaurant ovens and reveled in the feel of his heels thumping the concrete.
He came up on the park and was disheartened to find a sign that said, “Park Closed for Maintenance.”
“What could possibly happen to me?” James concluded, and stomped almost gleefully past the gates of the park.
James was never one to believe in God, not in the Christian terms anyways, and found himself confused by yet another quandary. If none of this existed, then who or what is creating these senses? Clearly James existed because a consciousness cannot deny its own consciousness; it was both impossible and paradoxical. Ignoring gruff men in orange jackets and yellow hats barking words at him, James came to the only logical conclusion any reasonable person could make in this situation. “Clearly,” James confessed to a police officer approaching him intently, “I am God!”
James sat on the cold metal bench of the commune cell he shared with his fellow prisoners. Although, they all sat on the other side of the room after a few announcements like “I am the God of all I see,” said mostly to himself, then, “YOU AREN’T REAL!” thrown like an accusation to anyone who met his direct eye contact.
“Visitor,” a police officer announced.
James was shocked out of his clarity when his mother came around the corner, eyes swollen from crying. “Jamie,” she whispered and shuddered at the sight of him. Tears welled in his eyes as he ran to grab her wrinkled hands through the bars of the cage.
They squeezed each other tightly, as though anchored to the earth only by the grasp of his mother’s hands. He sunk to the floor in wracking sobs. She moved downward to accommodate this and cooed at him. The way she used to when he had the stomach flu, or was bullied by Tommy Filo in Math class. “…now you’re going to tell the sheriff that you just had a rough day and you didn’t mean anything you said. Look at me, Jamie honey,” she coddled his jaw and gave him direct eye contact.
Her brown eyes had a ring of honey around the iris and her white hair curled like chimney smoke around her scalp. These comforts were a reminder of nostalgia. Memories that never existed. “I must be a truly loving God to have made someone like you.”
Enraged by the straight jacket he was forced into, James threw himself against the walls of the clinic he was transferred to. He shrieked and professed to all that they did not exist, that he held the key to reality and could destroy their corporeal form at his very whim. The padded walls were as white as Heaven and James felt his feathered wings brush against the ceiling like airplanes against clouds. He looked around, King of all he saw. The King of Nothing.