Garrison and the Pub

He patted the old red brick wall, as if someone on the other side might hear and open a secret door that no one else can see. “I swear, it was right here,” Garrison said as he stepped back and looked all around at the aged building, looking like he’s taking stock of every brick. “There was a door here, and it opened to a stairwell. There were maybe a dozen steps and at the bottom of those stairs, that’s where it was.”

“The pub,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “The one where you swear you saw an elf?”

“Are you sure it wasn’t…” Tillie hesitated to finish her thought. “It wasn’t just a little person?”

Garrison looked back to my girlfriend. He rubbed the stubble on his face and used his hand to comb back his dark, greasy hair that grew long enough to cover most of his forehead. “Little person?” he questioned. “You’re thinking of Santa’s elves. Elves are actually tall and slender.”

“You mean Tolkien elves,” I interjected. Garrison and I both loved The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. We met in an English lit class and we worked on a group project studying the Tolkien mythology in the context of the 1960s. Through that project, I got the sense that he liked Tolkien a lot more than I did. And maybe took it a bit too seriously. “Remember, there’s plenty of European mythology with elves who were tiny.”

“Yeah, I know!” Garrison barked. “But I’m not talking about those elves. I’m talking about sharp blue eyes, pale skin, and pointed ears.”

“Okay, so you think you saw Elrond at a pub last night,” I continued. The building we were standing in front of was maybe four stories tall and quite old. I couldn’t tell quite how old, but all the buildings around Camden looked like they might have started pretty old but had some work done for the tourists. There were plenty of pubs around Camden, so it didn’t surprise any of us when Garrison told us we had to find this one cool spot he visited the night before. But when he dragged me and Tillie into the alleyway where he swore the door to the pub was, I had to question how much he drank last night.

“It wasn’t Elrond,” Garrison said. “More like Arwen, and I need to find her again.”

It had been a long time since Garrison met a girl he liked. Tillie and I were starting to think maybe he was asexual. We met plenty of people while at Camden University who came out as gay, bisexual, and asexual. It was never a big deal to any of us and Garrison always seemed quite curious about these other orientations. Maybe it was just to explore his options.

University was tough on him. It should have been the best, party-fuelled years of his life. Instead, he spent most of the parties drunkenly embarrassing himself trying to talk with pretty well any girl who hadn’t already rejected him. Being his flatmate wasn’t easy through those years. There were a few times I was certain he killed himself in the bathroom. He would lock himself in all night throwing up whatever he drank and smoked and dropped and snorted. No substance was off limits for Garrison and I was certain his heart would give out at any time. When he tried telling us he met an elf at a basement pub in the Camden party district, I thought his mind gave out before his heart did.

“Okay, let’s say this pub exists,” Tillie began in her completely wonderful rational sort of way. She was good at talking to Garrison, especially while he was on edge. I always told her she missed her calling as a social worker. But I also knew she was living her passion designing the kinds of buildings that give cities their skyline shape. “We should retrace your steps, make sure this is actually where you found the door.”

“I know this is where I found the door,” Garrison said. “I remember walking out of the same door and stopping for a shawarma at the counter right across the street.”

Garrison pointed to the falafel takeout counter. We walked out of the alleyway and jogged across the street to the closed eatery. Tillie pressed her face against the glass door to look inside. I stared up at the grey sky. It was another cloudy day. I missed the regular sun this time of year back home in the Okanagan. Garrison and I both moved back after we finished our degrees at Camden, the same degrees we could have got at UBC, but decided we wanted to add a worldly adventure to our formal education. That’s where I met Tillie and she moved back to Canada with me, though we made regularly pilgrimages across the pond to visit her family and stop in at our old favourite watering holes.

“This place does keep late night hours,” Tillie said as she moved away from the glass door. “Do you have a receipt from your late night snack?”

Garrison reached into his khaki pockets and then into his windbreaker’s pockets. He pulled out a single, small piece of paper and looked down at it. “I think this is it,” he said. “I paid cash, so all I have is a till receipt showing I paid six pounds. No time or address.”

“The register inside does look old,” Tillie said. She looked down either side of the block. “And you’re sure you had to go through an alleyway to get to this pub?”

“Absolutely,” he answered. “Maybe I just can’t see it because it’s daylight. I need to come back at night to find this place.”

Tillie wrapped her blue cardigan tighter to herself as a cold wind blew by. She kicked some of the street water off of her brown boots and looked over to me. “Shall we pub crawl tonight?”

It was after dark when we finally left the hotel to retrace Garrison’s steps. He hung out in our hotel room the whole time and even ordered room service for us all. Despite having his own room just next door, he didn’t want to leave us. I guess he didn’t want to be alone.

The streets of Camden were as busy as I always remembered them. My finishing school didn’t slow down the party scene and plenty of college-aged kids were still out, drinking until they were slurring their words and walking like they can feel the world around them spinning.

Garrison was taking long swigs from his mickey of whisky as he marched us to his first stop from the night before. As we moved through the night before’s stops, Garrison started blending more with the young college crowd roaming the streets. His walk turned to a shuffle and a stumble. His words made less sense and he needed to repeat everything at least twice. I hadn’t taken a single drink that whole night. I grew past that, started to find it boring and pointless. Garrison was still right in it. This discrepancy between us didn’t dawn on me until we walked through those streets together.

“I don’t fucking get it,” Garrison mumbled, staring again at the blank brick wall. “It was here. We walked exactly what I walked last night. I retraced all of my steps. The fucking shawarma place is even open. Where the fuck did it go?”

“Maybe it’s time we accepted that the pub doesn’t exist,” I said. “Maybe you stumbled into somewhere else and you don’t remember. I don’t doubt that you met someone last night –”

“Yes you do!” Garrison shoved me. “You do fucking doubt it. You doubt everything with me. I don’t even know why you hang out with me still. Why you bring me on these fucking trips, just to rub in my face you have someone else now you get to travel and do cool shit with. And I have fucking no one. I’m not your fucking charity case! I don’t need you to bring me along to shit because you feel sorry for me!”

“I never said I felt sorry for you!” I screamed at him, my fists clenched.

“You don’t need to say it,” he spat back. “Everything about you says that. Well fuck you! I don’t need it. I’ll find this fucking place on my own!”

Garrison walked off. A light drizzle came down and I could feel water dripping through my hair and down my forehead. Tillie hugged me and said, “Why don’t you head back. I’ll keep an eye on him. He didn’t mean what he said. He just needs to blow off some steam.”

“You heard what he said,” I pointed to him. “He doesn’t want us around.”

“He doesn’t want you around,” she stressed. “You know I can talk to him better than anyone else. He’ll open up to me. I’ll get him to calm down, we’ll come back to the hotel, crash, and find some breakfast in the morning and it will be like nothing has changed.”

“I think that’s the problem,” I quipped. “He hasn’t changed.”

“Despite your composed outer exterior, you haven’t changed much either,” Tillie quipped back. “You’re still condescending, conceded, arrogant –”

“Then why are you with me?” I asked, maybe a little too harshly.

“Because,” she looked up at me. “Because despite all your flaws, you’re a good person with a good heart. And I get to see that every time you’re with Garrison. He’s your best friend. And you need him, and he needs you, just like I need you. I’m going to talk him down over a pint and in the morning, things will be fine. I promise.”

I kissed her the way I hoped to kiss her on our wedding day and walked back to the hotel. With my wet clothes still stuck to my body, I fell into the bed and instantly asleep.

The daylight through the window woke me and I saw Tillie sitting on a chair, staring out the window. It was the first bit of sunshine we had seen since we landed and she watched it the way I’ve seen old people sit by the lake and watch the waves crash in and out. She looked to me and smiled.

“So, where are we going for breakfast,” I asked.

“I have something to tell you,” she began. “It was about last night.”

“What is it?” I sat back down on the bed, worried something terrible happened to her or to Garrison. “What happened? Is everyone ok?”

“Everyone’s fine,” she smiled. “You won’t believe it, but, we found it. We found the pub.”

She told me how talking over a single pint suddenly turned into talking over many pints and shots. She couldn’t even remember which pub they were at, but they fell out and decided to try and find the door one last time. And there it was. Exactly where Garrison said it was.

Just like Garrison’s story, there was a stairwell, maybe a dozen stairs, and a basement bar. Tillie went on about all the strange people at this bar and how she had never seen any people who looked like that before. She described small men with large hairy feet, hooded figures with bows and quivers of arrows strapped to their backs, armoured men with swords hilted at their sides, and beautiful pale people who were tall, thin, and had pointed ears.

I started to assume that she had even more to drink last night than she had let on and maybe even someone slipped something into her drink. But she insisted she saw all of these things, ripped right from the books Garrison and I studied in university and Garrison continued to obsess over after we finished school. She even said she saw the elf girl.

Tillie’s account was that Garrison had wandered off once they were in the pub and as she stumbled around for a bit trying to catch up, she finally found him in the corner of the bar, talking to the beautiful woman. But not just casually talking, but instantly talking passionately with her. Like they had been talking for hours by the time Tillie found them. He was leaning in, his hands on the table illustrating a story. She had her hand on her check, and she was giggling and mesmerized by every one of Garrison’s words. Tillie had never seen Garrison talk to anyone like that before, let alone a woman who he was obviously drawn to.

“Where is he now?” I asked. “Did he come back last night?”

“When I was ready to leave, I asked him what he wanted to do,” Tillie explained. “He smiled and he said he was going to stay a while. I’d never seen him smile like that before. I think he was actually truly happy.”

He didn’t come back to the hotel. He didn’t make it to the flight back to the Okanagan. He wasn’t there when I proposed to Tillie or on our wedding day. He was gone. My best friend was gone and for a while, it bothered me. Tillie was right, I did need him. But as time wore on, I realized that despite needing him, I would be ok. I had my memories with him. I could always recount a story of one of our drunken nights together running around the streets of Camden. I thought I was being a bad friend at first by leaving him behind. But, the way Tillie told the story, leaving him behind was the best thing I could have done. What he found in that pub made him truly happy and there was nothing more in the world that I ever could have wanted for my friend Garrison.

 

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Ever the Optimist

This idea for an essay all started when I had a long conversation with someone at my office one day about, of all things, people. In a very large and general sense, people and where their motivations lie and if people, in the construct of a mass group, actually have any motivation driven by virtue as opposed to self-interest. She was a bit younger than me, 24 to my 30, not many years on paper but a lifetime to live through. And not to discredit her position based solely on her age, but much of what she said sounded very familiar to me. It reminded me of my own youthful pessimism.

This might be an odd construct, typically youth is paralleled with idealism and age tends to follow realism and pessimism closely behind. My growing up experience was different, especially while I was in college. Living off a healthy diet of Propagandhi records and Henry Rollins books, I was a ball of over-academic rage who wrote open letters to Glenn Beck and Thomas Lukaszuk, convinced these public figures with differing opinions of me were my mortal enemies and were cowardly for not engaging in intellectual debate.

Teeth clenched and knuckles white from tight fists, I devoured hours of MSNBC during the Wisconsin protests when Governor Scott Walker tried to make unions illegal, when Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona, and during the Republican Party primaries. With consuming this much media, it’s easy to understand why my view of people, especially people in masses, quickly deteriorated. My optimism grew during the Occupy months, but when I started hearing the oratory rhetoric of some of the self-claimed leaders of the sit in, I quickly realized this demonstration grew directionless and became a self-parody, and once again I was left questioning the motives and virtues of people.

This is where this particular individual was at the time of this conversation. She was still angry. And this anger fed into her views of people. And worse, when I tried to counter her argument, pointing out all the good and amazing things people are capable of, she called me naive.

I don’t think my optimism is grounded in any naivety. I’m far from a well-versed expert on the world and even farther from the kind of person whose wisdom stems of years of experience. I haven’t even been out of university for that long. But my university writing life had me exploring the failings of so many prevalent aspects of society: the failures of truly supporting the arts, the failures of big-agriculture, the failures of luxury commodities that I as a true writer and artist would never be able to afford. My post-university writing life has me exploring the small seeds of social change being planted into the ground and slowly growing to seamlessly create new standards and normals in western culture. From my magazine internship, through my freelance career, and into my current career working with not-for-profits, I’m faced every day with individuals and groups working off of a crazy notion that what they do might make things better for someone else.

Hearing about the awesome things people are working on is kind of rare. Good news stories aren’t all that sexy and people are more drawn to the kinds of stories where someone is murdered, someone is arrested, or someone is the centre of a scandal. Those are the kinds of stories that garner clicks and earn online publication advertising revenue. I was impressed when Metro newspaper put out an all positive edition of their press across Canada to battle against the influx of click-bait news headlines and may be the start of a different approach to print and online publications. That’s not to say that online publications who focus on more positive outlooks to news stories don’t exist, but the old adage about news stories, “if it bleeds, it leads,” despite being a gross stereotype, still resonates for a reason.

This idea about the kinds of news stories that tend to garner the most attention I also find stands with online comment feeds in the stories. I usually take the time to read the comments, even from online news sources that I know is biased and slanted. I want to know what people think and how they react to things. Especially in my role as a professional communicator in my real job, knowing how people approach and will respond to stories and information is fascinating to me. At the same time, though, I have to question if comment feeds are the best places to be gauging public discourse. On the surface, it seems like the best place to view the activity of the masses. But, I have to question, what proportion of the masses do the comment feeds represent?

After reading through so many comment feeds, you start to see recurring names and recurring messaging. Spam bots are commonplace nowadays and it doesn’t take much to program a system to automatically comment on certain newsfeeds. This is why you see CAPTCHA fields as a part of some news sites’ comments requirements. Those without the CAPTCHA fields are obvious with comments from anonymous users either trying to sell Oakley sunglasses or repeating certain politically slanted messaging on multiple stories.

From my own explorations of comment feeds, once you filter through the robots, I realized that those who sit on online news stories, placing controversial comments onto stories and anxiously waiting for the replies they can refute with name-calling and reductions to political affiliations, represent a very small proportion of people involved in public discourse.

My optimism points pushes me to believe that the vast majority of people don’t comment on stories or share news stories to their Facebook feeds looking for arguments simply because they are far too busy working to make the world a better place. They don’t have time to sit on online news stories. They don’t care what other people think about their political views. But, they do occasionally read what others post and this can skew their viewpoints. I empathize with these people, though. Because they approach things with only the best of intentions.

I pride myself in being culturally inclusive and open and curious. I try to go out of my way to ask questions rather than pass judgments. This approach has led me to a lot of really great conversations and learning experiences I carry with me to this day. I’m from perfect and it took a lot of embarrassing and shameful moments on my own part to help me develop this philosophical approach to cultural aspects I don’t understand a lot about. Not everyone approaches things this way, and by no means is this the best approach for everyone, but not asking questions is what creates things like confirmation bias and can create an air of xenophobia that can cause a lot more damage than good.

When you consume media and you only see small snippets of things that seem foreign and unknown to you, it can be scary. When people are scared, they rationalize odd things. But at the end of the day, this fear is coming from a genuine place of care and concern. They care and are concerned for their children, their community, their country, so they react fearfully and, often times, aggressively to the unknown. It’s a misinformed reaction that could be quelled by an open mind and a willingness to ask questions as opposed to blurting out opinions. But it being misinformed doesn’t change that it comes from a place of genuine concern and care.

Even with all the hateful rhetoric and actions I frequently see through news stories and in comment feeds, I try to stop myself from my own fearful reactions and force myself to ask why. Why is this person saying this? Why does this person think this way? What information could this person use to help ensure that he is forming the best informed opinion possible? And I know I can’t be the only one asking myself these questions.

I am ever the optimist about people. I don’t know if this person from my office will ever let go of her anger and pessimism and it’s not particularly my place to judge either way. I do hope she sees all the amazing things in the world that I see. In my own attempts in working to make the world a better place, I’m going to keep asking questions, trying to understand everything I possibly can and try to foster dialogue and discussion over forming opinions and drafting diatribes. Because I know the vast majority of people come from good places with everything that they do.

I don’t think the archetype of the super villain who wakes up each morning to plot their evil and hostile takeover is nearly as prevalent as the amateur political pundits on comment feeds would have you believe. I think people are continually scared of an ever-changing world that leaves them confused as to what to think. Even my own essaying now is really just a tool to help me sort out my own thoughts, redirect me, and refresh my path. It helps to remind me to continually approach everything, and especially people, with the utmost understanding and optimism.

On Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Address

It’s not often that I want to chime in on current affairs that already have a deafening amount of noise surrounding them. But it’s that level of noise that actually made me want to chime in. It seems like this is one of those scenarios where everyone wants to yell something, but everything being yelled is being muddled by the collective uproar on both sides on the controversy. By this line of reasoning, it seems apt to use this forum as a means to express a few more ideas about this scenario while hopefully cutting through the noise and having a clear message make its way through the chaos.

The controversy I’m jotting down ideas about is Meryl Streep’s address at the Golden Globes. But, not so much the address itself as the public backlash that followed. Some are cheering loudly. Others are resorting to pointing out her age and physical features as a means to under credit her stance. What I want to know is why is there a backlash at all? And further, much of the backlash has to do with the fact that Ms. Streep is an actor and that celebrities should leave politics out of their public appearances. This also seems to only be an argument used when said celebrity seems to disagree with your political stance. So, why should celebrities be barred from using their public platforms as a means to direct political messaging, even if the message can be boiled down to something as simple as, “please be decent to each other.”

I have to wonder if Ms. Streep were a writer, would she be receiving the same backlash? Obviously, it’s a writers job to perceive, interpret, reflect, develop ideas, and share those ideas through language. Many of those ideas being shared have to do with the political sphere, and as such it’s a generally accepted view that part of a writer’s job is to comment on the politics of the day, especially if they are columnists or essayists for publications with a focus on politics. But it’s even generally accepted that fiction writers use their craft as a means to reflect society and the politics that help shape society. We generally accepted this from writers such as George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and even JK Rowling. The question remains, if Ms. Streep were a writer, would her comments be more accepted as a legitimate political stance?

There is some difficulty for me separating actor from writer. They have vastly different jobs on the surface, and there is a very odd preconceived notion that actors are generally very dumb people, but when you boil down what both creative professions do, you simply land on what the role art has to play in the world. Actors have to create characters, convey those characters, and place themselves in situations that generally they have never experienced before. Those characters they are larger reflections of society, including the political sphere that influences society, and as such create connections with the viewers. This is why we find movies and television entertaining. We see ourselves in the characters portrayed by actors. In much the same way we identify with stories and arguments put forward by writers, we identify with character, which gives them their reflective weight as an entertainment medium.

With that being said, it takes the same skillset of perception, interpretation, and reflection that a writer exercises to be a good actor. It’s the same understanding of people and what influences people to act and react that helps an actor create a believable character that reflects and connects with us. Therefore, we can accept that to be an actor, especially an actor of the calibre as Ms. Streep takes a great deal of intelligence.

So, if we can accept that an actor like Ms. Streep is intelligent, why not use her public platform as a means to convey her political ideas? Many of the current celebrities who do support the current political direction that the United States is taking aren’t often told to keep their political opinions to themselves from either side of the debate. Those who support actually encourage those celebrities to keep expressing their favour for the 2016 election results. Those who oppose simply express their opposition and may even go as far as to boycott the celebrities’ products. But it’s rare to see an argument from that opposition that would suggest the celebrity shouldn’t use their status to convey their ideas.

This is also something often seen in the current political correctness backlash. The argument is often made that “PC culture” has gone too far and that it’s a part of freedom of speech to be able to say objectionable things. This is true. But it’s also part of freedom of speech to be able to call out those who say objectionable things and point out why they’re objectionable. It’s not a form of censorship. It’s a dialogue. It’s exercising that freedom of speech has to be able to go both ways and that those who say objectionable things need to be accountable for their words and subsequent actions that those words may spur.

If we accept freedom of speech, we have to accept celebrities using their status to convey political ideas on any side of any argument. We can then respond to their opinions and if their opinions are highly objectionable we have the ability to boycott as a means of protest. But this is how dialogue is created and it’s through dialogue that collaboration is created, which then feeds into activity. This is why some governments fail. They refuse dialogue. They hold themselves to ideals and labels and refuse to collaborate and negotiate. This was clearly seen during the last American administration when the speaker of the house decided that his entire purpose as a politician was to block any motion set out by the President. All that does it creates an ideological stalemate, which in the end benefits nothing except the egos of the individuals.

What I found most curious in much of my reading around this topic is the inherent hypocrisy of many of those who criticized Ms. Streep. Many either actively voted for or expressed some support for the new American administration, which is headed by a celebrity who used his status to gain the highest office in the United States. Yet this fact seems to completely escape them and they turn their fury instead to the other celebrity who dared challenge their belief system.

On Partisan Political Polarization

Around four in the morning, I was woken up by a light in my bedroom. It was my fiancée’s cellphone. She was reading poll numbers from the most recent American presidential election. She was terrified at the prospect of the new American President and not necessarily how it will affect us, but how it’s going to affect so many of the Americans that his campaign targeted. We talked for a while about what this is all going to mean and what we think is going to happen. She was able to fall back asleep but I was awake for another couple of hours with my mind racing.

I did the worst thing I could possibly do in this situation. I checked Facebook. A lot of the anxiety that my fiancée was feeling was reflected in many of my online friends. I stared at my phone, continued reading, and felt myself getting more and more worked up over the new leader of a country I don’t even live in. And as I kept reading posts and news stories and comment feeds on news stories, I realized that what was worrying me wasn’t necessarily the new guy in power.

The new American President in-and-of-himself is actually nothing new and his novelty is something of a misnomer. As pointed out by commentators such as Adam Conover, the new President’s crudeness is light compared to that of Lyndon B. Johnson’s bathroom meetings and recorded phone conversations discussing his private regions. Even some of the new President’s political stances, such as his hard stance on law and order, simply echo the likes of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. There is a historical precedence with this most recent American presidential election but the precedence has less to do with the candidates and more to do with the electoral body itself.

The Republican nomination was won by a salesman. He sold himself and he sold some ideas to warrant being named on the ballot. But the ideas he sold were by-products of opportunism. He isn’t actually interested in the work that this office requires. He’s interested in the title. And to gain the title, he marketed himself initially to a base population, which then spread over time. The ideas of closed borders and racial profiling he presented during his campaign weren’t the scariest aspect of this election. The fact that the American population heard these ideas and said, “Yes, this is what a free country should look like,” is what’s actually scary.

This is where the historical precedent steps in. The population let itself be swayed by the kind of anger and ferocity that typically warrants itself to an all-caps Facebook post, and then forgotten. It was the creation of a non-existent conflict, the “us vs. them,” that made for a more hard lined voting mentality that eschewed logic and reasoning and let emotional reactions be the dominant driving force. And this isn’t to say social media itself is bad or shouldn’t be used as a forum for political discourse. But it’s not being used to its fullest potential.

The typical posts seen around any political discussion are anger based messages pointing out what’s being done wrong. The discussions that follow tend to either be in agreement of the anger or be an anger-fueled opposition. This doesn’t encompass the entirety of online political discussion, but the vast majority tends to look like this. During 2016’s Presidential race, that anger manifested itself outside of online discussions and surfaced during rallies and protests. Not since 1968 has there been so much violence directly associated with political rallying.

And this is where I start to get worried. Many of the posts I keep reading blame either side of the political spectrum for the violence, the disconnect, the crude tactics, and point to themselves and their stance as the solution. For a lot of what’s being argued, it’s all non-partisan issues. But non-partisan issues are being labeled with partisan offenders. And mostly, the non-partisan issues being blamed have more to do with common human decency than they do with any political stance. Both sides of the spectrum have a lot more in common than most people give credit for.

For a long time now, I’ve believed that the political spectrum is no longer a useful tool in political discourse. It simply no long reflects the complicated political realities. But more and more often, I’m seeing people hold on to their political affiliations as stringent parts of their identities and any challenge to their beliefs is a challenge to their character, which results in only more anger. This is something that has only gotten louder as more people adopt social media as their main course for stress relief. It often brings up the question whether we as a species are mature enough to handle the weight and responsibility of something like social media. Clearly, people read the things being posted, take them to heart, and act on them.

The social media discourse also tends to dwell on leaders as opposed to the local representatives who actions and decisions will actually directly affect people. The focus on leaders has actually developed a new level of celebrity typically reserved for the likes of the Kardashians. Watching and reading about the election has started to feel more like reading up on TV gossip than it does about the progress of politics. This is probably why qualifications and aptitude have become subservient to personality and entertainment.

The greatest frustration I personally experienced during this entire election process was witnessing everything unfold fully knowing that no matter what anyone said, the decision would remain steadfast. Nothing was going to break the decisions that the American public already made even before all of the pertinent information about what either presidency would look like was available. Great tyrants have proclaimed that reason is passion’s slave and no election has better illustrated this.

The ramifications of this election have yet to be felt. If the negative outcomes so many of us are nervously anticipating do come to fruition, the political leaders will receive the brunt of the blame. When in actuality, the American public has nowhere else to look than their own social media feeds as to why things have developed in this way.

In no way am I advocating for any sort of censorship or even abolishing the concept of social media. It exists and society has developed around it to the point where careers can be built entirely on social media platforms. What I am wondering is if we can be better with this constant open forum. Perhaps our political discussions can be more solution driven than blame driven. Instead of getting angry when things turn sour, we can use these online vehicles to discuss how things went wrong, what corrective measure can be taken, and what the hopeful outcomes can be. It’s still important to hold those in power to task for their actions. But constant open criticism and calls for impeachment over every small indiscretion does nothing for the political process except create blockades and deadlocks, completely halting the political process. And when the political process is halted, it’s the publicly funded projects, those we’ve collectively deemed essential enough to warrant government funding and oversight, that suffer.

I’m often called a misanthrope and my tendencies towards a frustration with people typically amplifies when I spent a lot of time reading through posts and comments. But my frustration isn’t actually rooted in a distaste for people. Quite the opposite. I really like people. And I have a lot of confidence in people to be kind, forward thinking, and motivated by only the best intentions. Even the results of this election, I can empathize where the American public truly think they’re working towards what’s best for them as a country. But their aim is misguided. They’ve been misdirected and a salesman saw an opportunity to take that misdirection, amplify it, and use it for his own gains. And that’s why we’re here today, reading a constant barrage of think pieces as to why things turned so ugly followed by cruel comments from people we will never meet and never interact with beyond the glow of a screen.

In a few days, I’m going to be an uncle. This addition to my family is bringing up my own questions about bringing more life into this world. On one hand, I have hope for people. That hope is illuminated whenever I read about amazing feats of engineering, breakthroughs in medical research, and imaginative discoveries about the potential of intelligent life on other planets and it gives me hope that my potential child will be a part of what drives progress forward and makes the world an amazing place. The other hand though is weighing heavier and heavier every day as I see people become so much more angry. Everything is an outrage and cause for outbursts of hate.

The American people made their choice and as a non-American I don’t have much choice but to accept their choice and hope for the best. But as I watch my own Facebook feed fill with more messages of anxiety and worry, I continually remind myself that people are capable of better. When we act out of fear and hate and anger, we make rash decisions whose consequences we can’t always anticipate. When we act out of logic and hope and compassion for each other, we make awesome decisions, leading to such cool discoveries who ramifications change the world for the better in ways we could never imagine.

I know we’re capable of so much more than this.

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I’m Fat Chris

So, apparently I’m fat Chris. I don’t even mean amongst the group of people I know. This isn’t a nickname to help distinguish me from the multitudes of other Chrises who were all born in the ’80s apparently (seriously, if you were born in the ’80s and grew up in the ’90s and ’00s, chances you are know like a thousand Chrises; we’re fucking everywhere). No, being fat Chris is distinguishing me from the multitudes of different versions of me throughout the multi-verse. Seriously, there are an infinite number of me from all different universes with slightly different histories around them, and I am literally the only one who’s fat. Fuck my life.

I found this out from physicist Chris. Yes, apparently in one alternate history from an alternate universe, I become a physicist who solves the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. There’s also engineer Chris who met physicist Chris and they worked together to build a machine that somehow transcends time and space and allows them to travel between versions of the universe. I keep asking them how it works, but they keep insisting I won’t get it. They’re not even trying to explain it to me and giving an advisory at the start that this is going to be difficult for me to understand. They just flat out shrug and tell me I won’t get it. Really snarky and condescending like too. I have to wonder if this is how I come off when someone doesn’t know how to make a verb and a noun agree in proper English.

“So, ok, you won’t tell me how this works,” I say. “Tell me this, at least, why travel through alternate realities to meet different versions of yourself. Or, myself, I guess.”

You would think with this line of questioning I would be journalist Chris. After all, I have had a pretty decent career as a freelance writer for a few local magazines on top of my public relations job at a not for profit. But, journalist Chris is apparently a Pulitzer Prize winner who became famous for exposing a few political fundraising scandals. I’m not even public relations Chris. He runs a multi-million dollar firm that represents a lot of major political players and earned an reputation as being the master of burial after he helped these major political players cover up their fundraising scandals. Funny how the multi-verse works. In one reality, I’m exposing the criminals. In another, I’m helping them and making a fortune off of them. Funny indeed.

“Why?” physicist Chris looks at me. “Why do we do most things in science? Downright curiosity. I mean, what better way to experiment with a discovery like this than to basically look at yourself and see what you could have become?”

Engineer Chris and physicist Chris are tinkering with the machine that opens the passageway between the dimensions. The machine kind of looks like a mix between a car battery with a laptop plugged into it and what would have happened if Doc Brown’s Flux Capacitor had a baby with a microwave. They argue back and forth a little about readings and measurements before the portal opens up again and another Chris walks through into my world. Well, into my garage, but it’s the garage that’s in my world. And this is like the twelfth Chris they brought into my garage in my world. I don’t know why engineer Chris and physicist Chris chose my garage as the multi-universal Chris convention space. But here they were. I’m actually kind of worried about my neighbours having a lot of questions about what’s going on.

This new Chris that has stepped in looks fairly normal. I mean, in comparison to the other Chrises. They all look really good with their shirts tucked into their pants, and you can actually see their belts around their waists, and none of their shirt buttons are pulling and ready to pop off. But each Chris that has stepped through has had something very visibly special about them. There’s no tattoos Chris who was actually able to afford his university education without student loans. There’s Chris who can actually grow a real beard. There’s Chris who was charged with bestiality. There’s receding hairline Chris. There’s military fighter pilot Chris (who just had to come over in his pilot’s uniform, like that’s all that pilots ever wear and they never wear normal clothes). There’s astronaut Chris (that guy came in a space suit solely so that we all knew he was an astronaut). Even physicist Chris and engineer Chris were in lab coats. And yes, out of all the Chrises here, I was the only fat one.

“Which Chris is this?” I ask as the seemingly most normal Chris walks through my garage.

“This is Chris who owned a Kia Soul first,” engineer Chris says. Everyone in my garage must have heard him, because they all gave off a long “ooooooooo” at the idea that somewhere, Chris owned a Kia Soul before my wife Gillian did.

“Yeah, we’re all pretty jealous of Chris who owned a Kia Soul first,” physicist Chris says.

“Wait, so in every version of our existence that you encountered so far, we’re all still married to Gill?” I ask.

“So far, yes,” physicist Chris says. “It’s like the one constant we’ve been experiencing throughout this experiment.”

“And Gillian has owned a Kia Soul before we have in every instance,” I point to the newest Chris in the garage, “except this one?”

“Pretty much,” engineer Chris nods.

“And she reminds all of you that she owned a Kia Soul before you?” I ask to the audience of Chrises.

They all nod in unison.

“Well, do you pick on Gillian because you owned a Soul first then?” I ask the only Chris this would be relevant to.

“I mean,” he smiles and blushes a little bit. “You know, relationships shouldn’t be a competition. But let’s be real. Sometimes relationships are straight up competitions.”

All the Chrises start nodding and muttering small agreements.

“Have there been any universes where Gillian and I, or us I guess, don’t really work out?” I ask.

“Kind of,” physicist Chris says. “There are quite a number of dysfunctional marriage Chrises. Usually a substance abuse problem on our end. Booze, meth, cannibal pig swill.”

“What’s cannibal pig swill?” I ask.

“If you don’t know,” engineer Chris chimes in. “You don’t want to know.

“We should get this meet and greet moving,” physicist Chris stands up and walks to the middle of the garage. “Everyone, in case you haven’t figured it out. This,” he points at me. “Is fat Chris.”

“I kind of resent that,” I snap back. “I mean, fat Chris? It’s not like my entire physical being is made up of lipids.”

“Shut up Chris!” physicist Chris chuckles a little bit. “You know what I mean. Even Chris who is entirely made up of lipids isn’t as fat as you are.”

I look down and see a gelatinous mass wearing thick rimmed glasses and with facial hair I could only guess is trying make a chin strap beard. He waves an appendage at me, I could only guess it was supposed to be an arm, and he calls out a cartoonish, “Hellooooo.” I don’t know how I missed that one coming into my garage.

It’s this moment I realize physicist Chris is kind of a dick. I mean, a pretty big dick actually. I decide he’s the Chris I hate the most. He made me face the fact that in all of the universes that could possibly exist, I am the only fat version of me. That’s hard to accept. Especially because I’ve been a big guy all of my life. I’d been bullied for my size by anyone who saw an open shot to take at me. And now that I’m a somewhat functioning adult who shouldn’t have to deal with this shit anymore, he’s making sure I keep dealing with it. Maybe physicist Chris was fat all his life too and he somehow found the time to start working out more and eating better while working toward his PhD. And maybe physicist Chris is still a little insecure about the fact he was fat and now that he sees me, the Chris who is still fat, he feels like if he doesn’t take those open shots, then he has to deal with being fat again too. Maybe that’s what all of these Chrises are dealing with.

The Chris I hate the second most is Chris who owned a Kia Soul first. Fuck that guy.

“You know what, fuck it,” I say. “I dig being fat Chris. I’m owning that shit. Every one you mother fuckers are just skinny Chrises with different jobs or odd criminal records. I’m the multi-verse’s only fat Chris and if I wasn’t here, all the Chrises would just be skinny Chrises. So fuck you, I’m fat Chris.”

“OK, Chris,” physicist Chris sighs. “Whatever helps you rationalize that bag of Doritos you’ve been working on since we got here.”

I start sucking the powdered cheese off my fingers as I tell all the Chrises that the tour of my garage is over. The mass of Chrises all start moving towards the inter-dimensional doorway. While I watch them leave, I feel a tug at my leg. I look down to see Chris who is entirely made of lipids looking up at me and smiling.

“Way to tell those jerks off,” he says in his inexplicably cartoonish voice. “You show those skinny motherfuckers who’s boss. Now, you gonna hook me up with some of them Doritos?”

I start dropping chips down into his mouth and decide of all the Chrises I’ve met, I like this Chris best.

“Hey dude,” I say. “You want to hang around for a bit? There’s a pretty killer taco place not too far from here we can check out.”

Chris who’s made entirely of lipids smiles even bigger as he chews his Doritos. “Fuck yeah, bro. Let’s hit it up.”

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Meth Mouth

“You know, there’s only one way to really appreciate this marvel of modern science,” he said, smiling through his crooked yellow teeth. I never realized how bad his teeth were until that moment. There’s a nickname for the way his mouth looks: meth-mouth. His gums have deteriorated exposing a good chunk of the few teeth he had left lining the front of his mouth. The teeth that were missing either left gaping black hole embedded into his gums or were broken at the root, leaving a small nub of a tooth still sticking out of his rotting gumline. I was so fascinated by how bad his mouth looked I completely forgot his name. To this day, I can only refer to him as Meth-Mouth. If he knew this is how I still refer to him, he’s either laugh heartily and agree with me, or stab me. More likely the latter. After all, he didn’t wind up with meth-mouth because of gingivitis and loss of enamel. It was meth. Meth’s fucking gross.

At this moment, though, he wasn’t offering me meth. In the name of total honesty and transparency, yes, I’ve done meth. Once. And I hated it. I dug drugs that mellowed me out. Relaxed me and helped me sleep or made sex feel better. Meth didn’t do any of those things. The high reminded me closer to the one time I did crack. Again, just one time, never again. But that weird buzz like you just swallowed twenty shots of ultra concentrated espresso just wasn’t fun to me. That wasn’t an experience that opened up my mind and helped me reflect on my own existence or helped me appreciate how awesome Pink Floyd or Salvador Dali is. It wasn’t my bag and I always tried to make sure Meth-Mouth knew that. So whenever I went to buy LSD or Molly from him and he tried to introduce me to something new, I asked a lot of questions about what he was telling me to snort or shoot or drop or smoke. And he always fed me that fucking line about modern science. Fuck modern science.

“Don’t give me that shit,” I told Meth-Mouth. “Seriously, what the fuck is that shit? What kind of high does it give you?”

“It’s your bag man, I swear,” Meth-Mouth nodded, his greasy hair brushing back and forth along his shoulders. The weird sores on the top of his head started to gross me out too. I swear one was open and pussing out while I was talking to him. At this point, I decided it was best to finish this conversation without looking at him. I looked over my shoulder, back and forth, and tried to make it look like I was looking out for cops. No cops every came through this neighbourhood, though. I had no idea if Meth-Mouth knew that, but he didn’t seem to pick up on that I thought his face was fucking disgusting. Someone really needed to take a shovel to that fucking face. Would have done it some good.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “That’s what you said about the fentanyl. I was in the hospital for a week after that shit.”

“You can’t deny it was a good high,” he said. “And that shit was your bag, man. I bet you never slept better than you did when you took the fentanyl.”

“That’s cause I was in a fucking coma,” I spat back. “I’m surprised no one’s tried fucking ending you for selling off that shit as a mellow stimulant.”

Clicking. Around some of the buildings we were standing in front of I heard clicking. In this part of town, that’s the last sound you want to hear. The clicks come from the doors. Lookouts. They watch over the pusher in case there’s an unruly customer. You hear the clicking, you knew that doors were unlocking and being opened a crack. That was your first warning. Your second warning is the red laser dot, usually on your shirt. Sometimes on your forehead. Sometimes on your arm if they want to make you suffer. I had a red dot on me once. I got the message really quickly. I haven’t had a red dot on me in a long time now.

“Alright, anyways,” I mellowed out, making sure that the lookouts knew that no red dots were required. “What’s this new stuff do?”

“Buddy, you want to talk about mind expanding?” Meth-Mouth started to get excited. “You’re going to see shit you never knew existed. I swear to god, one guy told me he saw a colour he had never seen before. Couldn’t even described it to me. Said it wasn’t on the colour spectrum. I had no idea what the fucking guy was talking about. But he seemed to love it. He’s like you, into all that weird shit. The books and fucking shit.”

The flicking of a cheap lighter told me Meth-Mouth was lighting a cigarette. This was the procedure Meth-Mouth went through. Every time. Step by step. You asked for your PCP or H or whatever, he tells you about what new product he has, gets you interested, lights a cigarette, then tells you the price. Every time.

“Alright, how much?” I asked.

“For you?” he blew out a cloud of smoke that danced past me like a stripper looking for a dollar. “First hit’s free. You’re a repeat customer, I knew you’ll be back for some other product, even if you’re not into this new shit, I like you, and really, you’re probably right about the fentanyl. It was a dick move. You got off easy, though. Had a few kids OD on that shit. Damn shame. They bought a lot of grass. High markup too.”

Meth-Mouth never gave anything away for free. Somehow, this shit was different. He was acting different. I should have said no, I didn’t know anything about this shit. But it’s hard to say no when it’s free.

“What’s the shit called?” I asked.

“Dalek,” he said.

“What the fuck does that mean?” I asked.

“No clue,” he said. “Some people said it’s some combination of letters from the periodic table. The mix of chems or whatever. Some people said it was some sci-fi shit. With all the books you read I figured you would know.”

“Nah,” I said. “Don’t really like sci-fi. Not believable. No metaphors.”

“That just means you read shitty sci-fi,” he said.

“And what fucking sci-fi have you read?” I asked. “You don’t come off like the book reading type.”

“You’d be shocked,” he said. “I was super into Dune during the ’80s. Loved the idea of the spice. Control the spice, control the world. Or whatever the fucking line is. It’s a pusher’s mantra.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t figure dalek’s from Dune,” I said. “Anyways, how do you take this shit? Do I need a sober person to watch over me?”

“Nah,” he said. “Do it in a room by yourself. Preferably an empty room. Not even any furniture around. Totally empty room, place one dalek on your tongue. Close your eyes. And you’ll be in a totally different world.”

Following the advice from a guy dubbed Meth-Mouth might seem insane. Well, typically it is. You’re literally taking advice on how to best get high on something you’ve never tried before and you have no idea what’s going to happen to you or your body when you take it. But, at least when it comes to getting high, Meth-Mouth is pretty trustworthy. He explained to me one time that if he screwed over his customer, gave him a bad high or caused him to OD really bad, it would be bad for business. Either the customer would be pissed and not buy from him ever again (and frankly, would probably try to beat the shit out of him, he only ever had protection when he was pushing; the rest of the time, he was as fair game as anyone else), or they would be dead and wouldn’t be buying anymore. So it was in his best interest to give good highs. I honestly believe he didn’t mean to give me a bad high with the fentanyl. But still, the damage was done and I was apprehensive.

“OK, I’ll take one tonight and let you know how it is,” I said. “I hope this shit doesn’t kill me.”

“No kill guarantee,” he said, smiling. I looked back over to his face and it was even worse than I remembered it those few moments ago when I looked away. He was in his 40s, or so he said. But he looked closer to 60. Meth will do that to a person. “I can one hundred per cent say no one who has tried it has died yet. As harmless as a joint.”

Back at my apartment, I didn’t exactly follow Meth-Mouth’s advice to the fullest. I moved all the furniture out of a room, but I wasn’t alone.

Earlier that day, I got the last voicemail I would ever get from, well, I’m not going to use her name. In the case of Meth-Mouth, I honestly don’t remember his name. In her case, though, she doesn’t deserve to have her name written or spoken or thought or anything. As far as I’m concerned, this is her fault. If she didn’t leave that voicemail, I wouldn’t have been willing to try something from Meth-Mouth that he was giving out for free.

“Curtis,” the voicemail said. “This is the last time I’m going to try and get a hold of you. You’re avoiding my calls, but you knew this was coming. This weird perpetually 22 years old thing you have going on isn’t healthy. And you refuse to see that or try to grow or see things any other way. You can’t be in a relationship, a real serious relationship, if this is how you’re going to act. Especially at your age. You throw away so much, so many opportunities, and why? I don’t know. You don’t think it’s legit? Or something? I don’t know. But I don’t want to be around it anymore. I’m changing my number after this call. I’m moving to a friend’s place for a while. I’m not saying who. I’m not giving you my new number. You and those gross people you hang out with and buy drugs from scare me. I don’t want this. I’m done. Goodbye, Curtis. Deep down you’re a decent person. And maybe one day when you realize that and you grow up a bit, maybe then you can have a really great relationship with someone. I know you’re better than this. And that’s why I’m done. Goodbye.”

That last part hurt the worst. It’s her way of trying to make me feel good or motivate me to do something she wants me to do while still driving in there’s no fucking hope for us anymore. Whatever. Fuck her. I’m not changing for her. Never will.

Which brings us back to the room. No, I’m not alone in there. And no, her dead body isn’t lying in the room with me while I get high. I’m not a completely sick fuck. Though, it might make for a more interesting story. But no, she’s alive and well. As far as I know at least. Couldn’t tell you if she’s been hit by a bus or anything like that. One can only hope, though.

I had a few extra bucks after I scored from Meth-Mouth. And, well, narcotics aren’t the only thing that’s easy to find in that part of town. I mean, I already mentioned that the drugs I take make sex far better. If this new thing Meth-Mouth gave me was going to be my thing, then a few hours (full disclosure, probably more like minutes) with a hooker would be magical and help get rid of all my troubles. Or at least forget them for a bit.

Though she wasn’t keen on leaving her part of town. With good reason. Once you left this little slice of criminal heaven, every street corner for the next hundred kilometres in every direction had CCTV cameras set up. Wonderful selective security surveillance. Can’t say it doesn’t work. Pretty much all the crime stays in one area now. The one area with no video feeds to law enforcement and government agencies. Easier for everyone to manage.

Can’t say I remember much about the hooker. Teased bleached blonde hair. I remember that much. I think she had sunglasses on too. Probably coming down from her own decent high. I knew she needed the money for her next fix. She had track marks all along her arms. Fresh ones too. She was a regular user and would be easy to drag out of the shady area of town and back to my place. I was only ten blocks away. And the amount I walked in and out of that part of town, I still haven’t been questioned or arrested for anything. No one’s paying attention to me and no one’s about to. She finally shut the fuck up and followed me back to my place.

She wasn’t too sure while she watched me move all the furniture out of my bedroom. I didn’t have much in there, a bed and a bookcase. But she watched me with a constant expression that read, “What is this fucking weirdo doing? What the fuck is he into? What the fuck did I get myself into?”

We’re lying on my floor and I’m working my pants open. She told me it’s extra for her to take her clothes off. I figure I don’t need her to go that far. All I really wanted was a blowjob anyway. I’m lying on my back and she’s sitting up, leaning to one side and watching me get my pants open and pulled down. I tell to her to wait a second while I popped the dalek. It was a small pink pill, but it wasn’t grainy like ecstasy. It was really smooth and I could see through it, like a round pink ibuprofen. I popped it on my tongue and waited for it to melt.

I closed my eyes, waiting for her to start working me so I could find out what the body sensation was like. My limbs started feeling dumb, like when I take PCP. And the ground felt like it dissolved from under me, and I was floating in mid air. Then, like when you have a dream that you’re falling, I felt a sudden drop and the shock through my body when you have that sleeping sensation. Only I’m not waking up. The shock keeps running through my body and all I can think about is how fucking Meth-Mouth fucked me over again with another bad high. I couldn’t even feel the hooker. It was a total waste. I thought I might have been convulsing.

But I’ve had seizures before and I know you’re not cognizant enough to wonder if you’re having a seizure when you’re having a seizure. This was something else. For a moment, I thought I might actually have been falling, like the hooker threw my doped up body out my window so she could rob me. But there was nothing around me. No room, no light, nothing. Just black and falling.

“And… and I think he’s coming around,” I heard a voice say. “DK112 is coming to. Mark that on the charts at 3:08 a.m. He’s been out for a while.”

Shit was blurry. I couldn’t make out where I was. I knew I was lying down still. But I definitely wasn’t in the same room I started out in. And the hooker definitely wasn’t around either. My vision started to clear up and I saw two guys in white coats, each of them holding a clipboard and writing things down on them. Beside me were medical machinery. I recognized some of the same machines from having my tonsils out when I was a kid. None of that weirded me out; it must have been a pretty bad high. Maybe the hooker called an ambulance when she noticed something wrong. All of that would have made sense, except for one small detail. Well, pretty big detail. I was in completely different clothes. It wasn’t even as if I was in a hospital gown or even something else I recognized from my closet. I was in completely different clothes. I was in a fucking tuxedo. I’ve never worn a tuxedo in my life. Not even at my high school grad (mainly because I didn’t go). What the fuck was I doing in a tux lying in what I could only assume was a hospital bed?

“What day is it?” were the first words to finally escape out of my mouth. I don’t know why I asked that. I knew the time, it was around three in the morning (the one guy in the white coat just said that). But asking what day it was just seemed like the right thing to ask. Like it was the first step to figuring out why I was in a tux.

“Thursday,” the one guy in the white coat said and smiled. Perfect white teeth. This guy probably never even had a cigarette before in his life. He was clean shaven, his dusty brown hair hug just over his eyebrows, his glasses were a thin wire frame. The guy must be a doctor or something, I figured.

“Thursday?” I blurted out. “I bought that shit on Monday. Holy fuck, I lost three days!”

“Oh, you want to know in relativity to how long you’ve been, well…” he stuttered and shrugged. “Well, put it this way, it’s August now.”

I bought that shit in May. “Three months!?” I screeched. “I lost fucking three months?! How the fuck does that even happen?!”

The doctor guy put down his clipboard and walked over to me. “Ok, I know this seems scary, but I can explain and it will all make sense soon,” he said. I didn’t really believe him. I knew he wasn’t lying, but the way he told me he could explain I didn’t believe. He said it like everything was about to make perfect sense. Nothing about losing three months of your life will ever make any sense.

“So, you’re familiar with the drug’s name, right?” he asked.

This was the first point when I realized that the dalek I took and this guy were somehow deeply connected. I realized I wasn’t in a hospital, but a lab. I realized I wasn’t a patient; I was an experiment. “Wait, you made that shit!?” I spat. “What the fuck was that shit? What did it do to me?”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” he continued. “But, again, I have to ask. Do you know the name of the drug you took?”

“Dalek,” I answered.

“Right,” the doctor smiled. “Do you know what a Dalek is?”

“No,” I shook my head

“Well, Daleks, the drug’s namesake, aren’t real,” he explained. “Have you ever watched Doctor Who?”

“What the fuck is that?” I asked.

“Longest running science fiction show in history,” he said. “Been on the BBC in some form or another since the 1960s. Anyways, I wasn’t expecting you to know this reference, so far none of the subjects have. In short, Daleks are one of the main bad guys in the show. The show’s namesake is a time traveller, he comes from a race of time travellers, and one of the only other races in the show that are known to time travel are the Daleks. Please, bear in mind, this is a very gross over-simplification of a very sophisticated show.”

“Uh huh,” I grunted. “So, why the fuck is the shit I took called dalek then?”

“I’m getting to that,” he said. “So, well, we developed a drug that works within the brain’s pineal gland to actually stimulate a whole other gland that we didn’t even know existed. We don’t even have a name of it yet. With any luck, we’ll call it the dalek gland. Anyways, when stimulated, different people do vastly different things. The typical reaction to this gland being stimulated is seeing things that aren’t particularly there. It’s why when we released it to public commercialization, we marketed it as a hallucinogenic –”

“Released it for commercialization?” I sat up. “You gave it to some drug pushes. You’re using junkies as guinea pigs. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I know this can seem very bad,” he stammered. “But believe me, we’re on the path to something really fantastic. The next stage in human evolution. I know this all seems quite trite, but believe me, you got to be a part of something very important. Especially because your reaction to dalek was categorized in the anomaly group.”

“How am I a fucking anomaly?” I grunted.

“Of our one hundred-fifty international subjects, so far only one per cent have exhibited your same reaction,” he said. “Transcendence of time and space.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” I scowled.

“It means, you travelled in time and through dimensions,” he said, smiling. “Like a fucking dalek.”

It sounded like some shitty sci-fi b-movie, but there was something in this guy’s voice that told me he wasn’t messing around. I just lost three months of my life and I needed to know where the fuck they went and what happened to me in those months. Things around me made less and less sense and I didn’t know whether to believe this guy or whether to chock this up to a bad trip I would wake up from soon. But I wasn’t about to wake up from anything. I was stone cold sober at that point. All I could do while lying on that bed was keep asking questions to try and make sense why all of this was happening and how I fit into it.

“So, uh…” I had no idea how to ask this. I just went for it. “So, where did I go?”

“What do you mean?” the doctor asked me.

“Well, if I travelled through time and in like other dimensions over the past three months, I obviously went somewhere,” I said. “Where did I go?”

“Oh…” the doctor stammered. “Oh, I see, well…”

“You kind of just wound up here,” the other guy in the lab said. He was a lot bigger than the doctor that first spoke to me. He was tall, big all around, had a bushy beard, thick glasses, and a hooked nose. I got the impression that this guy wouldn’t be as polite or excited as the first guy to talk to me. He seemed more annoyed that I was in his lab. “Typically, our one per cent of experiment subjects remember where they wind up when they travel in time and space. The fact you just woke up screaming about losing three months tells me you just jumped from whenever you dropped dalek right to here. Which is odd.”

So all I did was jump three months into the future. I think. They didn’t exactly specify any actual year or anything. Now that I think about it, I probably should have asked that. I probably should have asked a lot of things while lying there. Your brain does odd things when it tries to process things like… well, however the fuck you would categorize this. Shit you never knew was real, I guess? I guess this is what they mean when people talk about having your mind blown. But I never imagined there would be this much panic to go along with that feeling as well.

“So,” I tried to get my next question in order. I had a lot on my mind. I decided to try and keep my questions simple, knowing there won’t be a single simple answer. “Where am I?”

“Our lab, of course,” the first doctor said to me.

“Obviously,” the second guy said.

“OK,” I nodded. “But where is your lab? What city am I in? What country? And who are you guys?”

“Ah,” the skinnier guy hopped up. “All very good questions. All great pieces of information that my associate and I tend to forget to tell people who wind up here, even though they’re probably the most basic building blocks to understanding everything going on around you. I’m Doctor Douglas, and my associate here is Doctor Ericson.”

“I figured you both for doctors,” I said.

“Why?” Doctor Douglas asked.

“The lab coats, I guess,” I shrugged.

“What an odd thing to assume,” Doctor Douglas said. “I’ve had this same lab coat since I was an undergraduate, years from my doctorate.”

“Mine’s pretty new,” Doctor Ericson shrugged. “And I do feel more doctory in it.”

Doctor Douglas gave a long sigh. “Anyways, to pull us back from our tangents, you are in our lab. Our lab is located in Hammerfest, Norway.”

“Where the fuck’s Norway?” I asked.

“Seriously?” Doctor Douglas’ eyebrow shot up. “Northern Europe. The Scandinavian region. Next to Sweden and Finland.”

I had no idea where the fuck this was. I could put together what generally this country was probably like, log cabins and giant beer steins and bar wenches with giant tits. Neither of these guys seemed to be the types to wear those goofy yodeller outfits. “None of you guys have accents,” I said. “Why here?”

“Killer research grants for one,” Doctor Ericson chimed in. “And Hammerfest sounds totally metal.”

“But mainly the research grants,” Doctor Douglas interrupted. “Plus it only has a population of around seven-thousand, which means our cabin laboratory on the mountain remains quite undisturbed.”

“OK,” this, sadly, was about as normal as our conversation would get. “You said, only one per cent of people who take dalek actually travel through time. What happens to the other ninety-nine percent?”

“Mainly they just see stuff,” Doctor Ericson said.

“Not just stuff,” Doctor Douglas piped up. “They see things not of this dimension. You see, the pineal gland that dalek stimulates actually helps the brain to perceive a sort of doorway to other dimensions. Or, more simply, they see into that other dimension. I haven’t heard of anyone seeing beings or creatures or anything like that. Most just talk about all the colours they see and how they can’t really describe them. Which is why most people chock up dalek to being just a strong halluncinogenic. But, those rare and wonderful people like you, can actually walk through it. And once you enter in, time actually flows differently for you. It’s quite marvelous in fact. It’s like being next to a black hole. All of relativity becomes completely warped. It’s just fantastic!”

“But most people who fall into this category actually remember walking through it,” continued Doctor Ericson. “Either it was so traumatic for you that you don’t remember a thing or, and this is the more likely answer and remains my quasi hypothesis about you, you actually walked straight through from wherever you took dalek to our lab. Which, like I said, is odd.”

“Does everyone who takes dalek wind up here?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” Doctor Douglas answered. “For the ninety-nine per cent, we just monitor the online chatter. You’d be shocked at the number of social media groups already forming to talk about what it was like to take dalek. With no consideration for putting all over the internet that they’ve been taking illicit and, from what they can tell, hallucinogenic drugs. Humans are fascinating, aren’t they?

“But, the one per cent-ers,” Douglas continued. “Well, we didn’t discover dalek first. The first thing we discovered, which spurred all of this research, was that.”

Douglas pointed to a door. It looked like a completely normal wooden door. But as I looked at it I realized that the door was in the middle of the door. I could see either side of the door. By my own eyes I could see that the door kind of went to nowhere. But just looking at the thing made me uneasy. Like I was staring at a face that had all been rearranged. It just wasn’t right. My brain kept trying to put it together and make sense of it. But it just wasn’t right.

“What’s through there?” I asked.

“We have no idea,” Douglas said. “Not exactly. I’m part of the ninety-nine per cent group. But Doctor Ericson here is part of that majestic one per cent. He’s walked through that doorway. If I tried to walk through that doorway, even if I was on dalek, I would just walk through. When Doctor Ericson, and evidently when you walk through, you wind up somewhere else.”

“What did you see when you went in?” I asked Doctor Ericson.

“Just colours, actually,” he said. “Blinking colours. But not normal colours. And not just random blinking either. Every colour blinked in a succession of prime numbers. One, two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen, and so on. Those are all very specific numbers. It wasn’t happening by accident.”

“We think the colours blinking are a form of communication,” Doctor Douglas continued. “It’s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky guess on our parts, but right now it’s our best guess. Whatever exists on the other side of that doorway may not be a physical form like we understand it. We have five sense to perceive our surroundings and communicate with each other. This other dimension may not actually exist in a physical space the way you and I understand physical space. Doctor Ericson even talked about how he wasn’t even sure his body was wherever the doorway took him to. And when the dalek wore off, he was back in the lab.”

“So why out dalek out on the streets then if you just want to figure out what’s in that doorway?” I asked.

“So we can get more people to walk through it,” Doctor Douglas answered, shaking his head like I just asked a dumb question. “Why do you think we’re telling you all this? Seems like a pretty big dump of information if all we wanted to do was get you kind of high, don’t you think? Obviously we want you to go through there and let us know if your experience in any different from the others.”

The others. The idea of there being others was suddenly all I could think about. I looked all around the room, got up from the table and started wandering around, looking everywhere I could. It was only three of us in the lab. The entire lab was only a one room cabin, rounded in shape with the freestanding door in the middle of the room. I could see through every window to outside, where all I could see was snow.

“You said there were others,” I said. “Where are they?”

The two doctors looked at one another. Neither spoke. Neither blinked. It was as if they were playing a mental game of paper-rock-scissors to see who would continue the conversation.

“They walked through the doorway,” Doctor Douglas said. “And they didn’t come back.”

My mind raced to try and keep up with the information being thrown at me. I thought about how if dalek makes you travel through time and space, then how do you walk through a doorway after you take it? I thought back to my experience taking dalek, that feeling of weightlessness that started to take over and was the last thing I remembered before ending up in that lab. Were those few moments of the drug taking effect enough time to walk through that doorway and enter another dimension? Or were these two simply playing with something they had no clue about and were just throwing as many guinea pigs into the hole that they could find just to see what would happen?

This is when I decided I would perform my own experiment. I wasn’t about to be some lab rat for a couple of mad scientists. But I had to make sure they thought I was going along with everything.

Doctor Douglas dropped another dalek into my palm, but this one was blue. I asked if there was any difference between this blue one and the pink one I dropped before. Doctor Ericson laughed as he stood by the doorway, saying something about how I took some of the old stock and that this new batch was a lot more potent.

“Really gets that pineal gland moving,” he said, as he typed a few things on his laptop. He was standing by one of those ergonomic stand-up desks, peering up occasionally to look at the door they were expecting me to walk through.

I took stock of the room as I prepared to drop some of this new batch of dalek. My eyes peered between all the pieces of lab equipment, the computers and monitors all showing graphs and stats and wavy lines. Finally, I spot it. It was right behind me on the far side of the lab. Another door. The only other door I’ve seen. The way out.

I popped the dalek into my mouth, and then I turned and ran for the door out of the cabin, away from the door into the other dimension containing who knows what kind of nightmares for me. I could hear both doctors shouting at me, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I was just running for that door.

Then the door swung open. Someone was coming in. All I saw on the other side though was a mirror. I caught a quick glimpse of my reflection as I started to feel that weightless feeling again. The dalek was kicking in. And it was in those couple of moments I realized that my reflection looked shabbier, beaten down like he had been lost in the woods for weeks. I thought this may have been what I looked like now, seeing as I was missing at least three months of my life. But my reflection wasn’t running either. He stood there, and stared at me. He was watching me run. And it felt like I was a single step away from his face when my surroundings all around me completely changed.

It was quicker than a blink. Like a camera cutting from one scene in a movie to another. My brain adjusted to the surroundings and immediately, simply processing that now I was standing by a creek on a sunny and warm afternoon. Part of my brain knows I was just in a cabin in the middle of Norway with nothing but snow outside. But now, I was watching the water flow past through a few smooth rocks and listening to birds chirping and the wind rustling through leaves as if I had always been standing right in this spot.

Running alongside the creek was a trail. Dust floated in the air as if someone had just walked across it. I wasn’t sure if these were my own forgotten footsteps, for all I knew I had wandering around these woods for hours and only just now started really perceiving and understanding my surroundings. Or, was this dust kicked up by someone else who just walked past or away from me? I looked in either direction down the trail and decided to follow the trail to the right, where the dust was still dancing highest.

The sound of my own footsteps drowned out any footsteps I may have heard ahead of me. I kept looking all over, peering between the trees and staring across the creek, trying to find any semblance of another person who may be nearby. As I continued walking, I noticed the trees were changing. Changing colour? I think so. Were they getting darker? Maybe. It’s hard to piece together what I was seeing. I know the trees weren’t the typical spring green I remembered from walking through woods when I was a kid. I stared at the trees, tried to give a name to the colour I was looking at. I thought back to the wooded area behind the house where I grew up, where I would walk on my own for hours on end, thinking constantly because there was no one else to talk to. I could grasp what colour those trees from my childhood were. That bright popping green. Fresh and alive looking. These trees? The ones in this new woods I found myself in, following a trail next to a creek. I wish I could say what colour they were.

“Hurry up!” a voice echoed out. I couldn’t tell from what direction. I looked back out across the creek and noticed the water was moving differently. It was flowing in the opposite direction now. Before, the water flowed in the same direction as the path I was walking down. But now it rushed the other way. It looked like it was rushing harder and faster too. Like the water was panicking and running back where it came from before it was too late.

“Come on! Keep going!” the voice echoed out again. It still had no direction. It was like it was being dropped directly over top of me and surrounding me all over. I didn’t know which way to look to follow the sound and I just kept looking all over as the trees and the grass continually changed colours around me. All colours I had never seen before.

“Curtis, let’s go!” I heard her voice. It was coming from directly in front of me. Suddenly, the forest was gone and I was in her apartment. She was staring at me. No, glaring at me. That look she gave, when I was thinking about something and she just wanted me to say something or go somewhere or do something, that look that told me how little patience she really had for me, that was the look. It was definitely a glare.

She was wearing a dress. A black slip. I remembered the last time she wore it. I remembered how her freckles looked along her shoulders, sticking out between the black straps. I remembered the cut she had on her shoulder from the glass vase that fell off the top of her fridge and broke on her. She was trying to get it from the shelves above the fridge and it slipped out of her hands. She was too short to reach it. I was tall enough, but didn’t bother offering to help. She was lucky that the cut on her shoulder was all that she got. It could have been so much worse.

As I stared at her glaring back at me, looking at her dress and thinking about that last time, I saw the cut on her shoulder. The same cut. Still fresh. Not bandaged, it had healed up enough to leave open. But still as red as her hair. I wasn’t remembering the last time she wore this dress, this was the last time she wore that dress. I was reliving it.

“What were you thinking about?” she said. “Whenever you get lost like that you’re always thinking about something. What was it?”

“I… uh…” I tried to remember what I would have answered then. And whether it was the right thing to say. And if I could fix it. And how if maybe I said the right thing now I maybe could have saved whatever we had. Maybe then she wouldn’t have left me with only a voicemail. Maybe this time, she’d have the decency to leave me after a face to face conversation.

“Are you high again?” she said. I realized that I was thinking about this for way too long. “I thought you were done that shit!”

I don’t remember if I was high during this situation. This second time around, I knew I was high. I was still reeling from the effects of the dalek. Part of me wanted to tell her I wasn’t high, I was just thinking, that’s all. But I would have been lying. In either case, or point in time, or time this happened, or however the fuck you rationalize living out the same moment again only on a different drug this time. And maybe lying was the worst thing I could have done at this moment.

“Yeah, I am,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“No you’re not,” she said. Her tone dropped. Monotone and defeated. “Whatever, let’s just get going. Try to act fucking normal. This is important to me.”

I don’t remember where we were going. This was important to her. But apparently it wasn’t that important to me. At that moment, I never felt more like a shitty person.

We walked to the door and it wasn’t the same door I remembered in her apartment before. Her door was white with a peephole too high for her to see through. It had a chrome handle that she hung a vintage cafe sign from. I loved that sign. We found it together at a small town antique shop. I don’t remember what town or if we bought anything else from the shop. But I always remembered that sign. And it wasn’t there.

The door was plain and wooden. At least, my brain registered it as wooden. It wasn’t the colour of wood I had ever seen before, at least not since I took dalek. And as we walked closer, I recognized this door. It was the door from the lab. The one that Dr. Ericson walked through to that other dimension. The one where so many other people on dalek walked through and didn’t come back from. I wasn’t about to go through at door.

“Why are you stopping?” she asked. “Seriously, are you having a bad trip? Today, of all days?”

I stood petrified, not moving and not speaking and I don’t even think I was breathing. All I knew was I wasn’t about to walk through that door.

“Seriously, what’s wrong?” she said. But she wasn’t her anymore. And as I looked to her to try and answer, I saw that she wasn’t her. But brain tried to hold on to the idea that it was her. But it wasn’t. It was my mom now. And we were sitting at my family’s kitchen table. Like we always used to. For family dinner. I locked eyes with my mother, her eyes were so light blue they almost looked silver. She shook her head as she spun the spaghetti around her fork. “You’ve been staring off into nothing since you sat down. What’s going on inside that head of yours?”

She’s smoking still. She hadn’t lost all of her hair yet to the chemo. She even had her wedding band on still. This must have been a really long time ago. Judging by the giant black box of a TV I could see while I peered into the living room, I’m guessing this was back when I was still in high school. Or maybe earlier. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where in time the dalek was taking me.

My best guess was that it had something to do with whatever thought came across my mind at any given time. When I was back to that time I was stoned and about to go out to that very important thing that I still can’t remember, I was thinking about my mom and how her nagging kind of reminded me of her. And then there was the voice that voice calling out to me in that forest. The voice sounded like her voice. But I was having trouble placing where that forest was. Where in my timeline was that forest? When would I have been wandering around the woods like that? I’m not exactly a nature loving type. I tried to think about what I was thinking about while I tried to run out of that research cabin. I remembered seeing myself. And how odd it felt to look at yourself. Not a reflection, but another version of you, stepping in front of you and staring into your eyes. It feels incredibly weird.

“Curtis, I swear to god!” my mom belted out. “Are you stoned? You’re staring out into nothing like you’ve never seen your own damn kitchen before! What’s gotten into you?”

I was getting really sick of people asking, or rather accusing, me of being stoned. I mean, I was stoned, I had no idea how long the dalek was going to run through my system for, so I guess it was fair to ask or accuse me of being stoned. But it didn’t feel great. People always judge that kind of shit. They need to shut the fuck up. It’s no worse than eating shitty food or not exercising.

“No, I’m fine,” I finally answered. “Sorry, just a long day I guess.”

“Hm,” she grunted as her attention moved away from me and back down to her plate of spaghetti. As she rolled some noodles around her fork, I continued trying to place that forest. It started to feel like somewhere important. Like I should have known it. Like when you watch a cartoon that you saw when you were a kid. Part of you remembers seeing it, and you start to remember the house you grew up in and the couch that was in the living room and even what the spoons were like when you ate cereal on Saturday mornings. Everything around it comes back, but the specific thing that brought on all these memories and emotions kind of eludes you. The cartoon itself isn’t very important, you’ll probably forget about it again by next week. But everything around it feels so right.

“Hey mom,” I decided to break the silence. If anyone would remember something happening in a forest, it would be her. “Did we ever visit a forest while I was growing up? Like for a picnic or something?”

She continued spinning her spaghetti. Like she didn’t hear me. Like I wasn’t even in the room anymore. Just kept spinning and spinning.

“Mom,” I barked over to her. “Hey, Earth to mom. Over here.”

Part of me thought she was trying to teach me a lesson about zoning out by zoning out herself. But then I looked at her fork. The wad of spaghetti wasn’t getting any thicker. By now it should have been huge. It started to remind me of a CD skipping. My mom’s head nodded as the noodles wound around her fork, in a perfect hypnotizing rhythm. But it was just the same motion over and over again. Like an endless loop of a single insignificant moment.

I looked down at my own plate and noticed that most of my noodles were being eaten by maggots. They crawled all over my plate, squirming in the sauce and I could have almost sworn I heard them making noises. Not just the noises of their movements. But almost like cries or screams. The sound filled my ears and made me nauseous and I was ready to puke right there. I covered my ears and closed my eyes tight, almost feeling like I was screaming too.

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and there was Meth-Mouth. Looking more like a rotted corpse than ever before. Standing in the same alleyway he always stood in. By the same windows he always stood by. He looked at me, but it almost seemed like only one eye was moving or looking at me. The other floated, staring off into nothingness.

“You okay pretty boy?” he asked, chuckling at his occasional nickname for me. “Coming down from a good time?”

“That shit you sold me,” I said. “That new stuff. It’s really fucking me up.”

“Which?” he crooked his head. “The fenatyl? I haven’t even sold it to you yet.”

“No, no,” I shook my head. “That other stuff. That dalek stuff. It’s got me all whacked out. I think I’m time travelling.”

He chuckled a little bit more. “Maybe I shouldn’t sell you the fenatyl,” he said. “Looks like you’re right fucked up already. I don’t think you need it.”

“Seriously,” I snapped back. I waited a moment, for me to calm down and to make sure no red dots were about to appear anywhere on me. It seemed ok, Meth-Mouth looked more worried about me than he did scared or angry at me. Odd, a dope slinger with a conscience. “The last time I saw you. You sold me something called dalek. It was something new. A psychedelic or stimulant or something. You said it was new and that I would like it.”

“Did I?” Meth-Mouth scratched his head. “Never heard of anything called dalek. You sure it was me? You sure you’re not buying from anyone else? If so, I’d be real sad about that. Loyalty means a lot to me, y’know.”

Loyalty meant a lot to Meth-Mouth. I may not still be able to remember his name, but if I know anything about this pusher, it’s that loyalty is important. He doesn’t like competition, mainly because he’s convinced everyone he sells to are his friends. And if his friends are buying from other people, in his eyes he sees it as the buyer not taking the friendship seriously. Which Meth-Mouth takes personally.

I nervously shook my head and repeated over and over, “No, man, I’m not buying from anyone else, I promise. I swear man.” Meth-Mouth wasn’t hearing it though. He raised two fingers, like he was giving the building behind him the peace sign. Then two red dots appeared on my chest. Just before I took the two slugs to the chest, I wondered if my changing how this simple drug deal went would change how all the rest of these things turned out. I know things seem like they started when I tried the dalek, but really they started when I bought the fentanyl. That’s when I lost control. That’s when she left me. That’s when I went back to tell off Meth-Mouth about the fentanyl, ultimately leading me to trying dalek. Maybe these two slugs to the chest would be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Despite how traumatizing it probably is to be shot, I don’t remember what the bullets felt like. I remember feeling like I got pushed back, hard. Like a hard shove right in the centre of my body. I kind of always imagined bullets burning as they tear through your skin. I don’t remember feeling that. I remember feeling pushed, falling back, and landing on the concrete. I only had a second to process lying on the concrete before I blinked and found myself lying in some overgrown grass.

Sitting up felt good, like I just had a long nap in the sun. The fresh air that hung around me was cool and the smell of dew wafted through my nostrils. I was back in that same forest. The same one I was in when I first ran through that door out of the lab.

The creek was directly in front of me. It was rushing in one direction. No more changing and flowing every which way. Just smooth elegant, flowing like how nature intended it. I stood and walked to the creek to get a closer look. What I saw told me exactly what I needed to know about where I was. Where in time, at least. That the reason I don’t remember ever being here before is because I never was. This is the first time I stepped through to the future. What would will be, or had will be, and would should be, or something like that. But some iteration of my future, whether I had taken the dalek or not.

How did I know this was the future? Because she was there. She was in the creek. Bobbing, somewhere just below the surface of the water. Her eyes were open, but they weren’t looking at anything. They were frozen open, constantly staring in one direction. This was her body, but she wasn’t there anymore.

I don’t know if I just didn’t see her in the creek the last time I went through the forest or if me taking those two slugs in the chest somehow changed this future moment, leading to what I can only assume is me killing her and dumping her into the creek. Either way, despite what I might think of her since she decided I wasn’t worth the effort anymore, she didn’t deserve this. And I needed to change this.

Without even me blinking, I felt the icy wind blow past me and I was in the middle of a snowy field, with nothing but white all around me for as far as I could see. In the distance I could see the side of the mountain and a small brown spot. I walked toward that small brown spot. I knew what it was and that’s where I wanted to be.

The wind blew harder and it cut through me and I felt sharp pains all through my body. I couldn’t stand this cold anymore and so I ran as fast and my freezing legs would take me through the snow. My body wanted to collapse but I pushed it as hard as I could. My back seized and my arms stiffened, but I kept pushing. I knew there was a better future for her and I wanted to give it to her.

The brown spot grew larger and larger and finally I could tell it was the same cabin I was in before. I finally made it to the door and threw it open and caught a glimpse of my own face. It was the me that first took the new strain of dalek. And as quickly as he was there, he was gone again. But it wasn’t just him that was gone.

Stepping into the cabin wasn’t what I was expecting. I expected the machines and equipment and the two doctors still working and possibly curious and excited about my arrival. But they weren’t there. No one was there. Nothing was in that cabin. Nothing except for the door. It was still standing in the middle of the room. I walked around it, looking at it from both sides. Everything about it told me it was a simple door. But there was a reason why it was the only thing that was left in this room. And it scared me.

I had a second thought about going through the door. I looked around the room to find anything I could bring in with me. Just in case. Just to have some piece of the reality I know in my hands while I walked, or floated, or existed, or whatever it was I was about to when I went through that door. As I looked around, I noticed that the door I walked through to get back into the cabin, the from door that led outside to the frozen mountains, was gone. As I thought about my hesitation, I realized my choices that this point were either go through the door or spend an eternity sitting in this room, alone, until I died. Or if I ever died. For all I know, those rules around existence and reality had totally changed.

But then I thought about her. I thought about her face under the water in the creek. Her eyes staring off into nothing. And how wrong it felt to see that. And how she deserved better. And how maybe my no longer existing in this plane of reality would help her to live a normal and fulfilling life. Something she almost completely lost being with me and something I know I can never have anymore. Not after taking dalek. Not after all that I had been through since taking it.

I stepped up to the door, grabbed the handle, and twisted it. The door swung away from me to open. It looked only black inside. I wanted to stop and look in before I took my first step, but it was as if my legs were reacting to a reflex I never knew I had. I immediately stepped forward into the darkness. And I could have sworn, for a moment, I could see stars.

“You know, there’s only one way to really appreciate this marvel of modern science,” I heard a voice say before I knew where I was. And I immediately knew. It was even the exact same smile as he was giving me before. Seeing his crooked yellow teeth. Having that moment of realization as to how bad his teeth were. Everything about this moment was the exact same. Even as I didn’t answer him and just stared at him, not knowing what to do next, like a perfectly timed script, he continued. “It’s your bag man, I swear.”

The same alleyway, the same drug deal, the same crooked yellow and rotting smile. I wondered for how long I was going to be repeating these points in time. I wondered when the dalek was going to finally wear off.

 

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The North

The only people more powerful than those who have been elected to the World Council of Governments, those politicians writing and passing the laws that keep the world in working order, are those who buy each of those elected seats and ensuring the right person is sitting in the right seat, passing the right laws. It’s amazing how once, millions and millions of dollars were spent into lobbying, trying to keep things legal, without any clue as to how much more value you add when something becomes illegal. Take cigarettes. Once, a pack of cigarettes were ten dollars. And that was a pack of twenty-five cigarettes. Ten dollars. You can’t buy a drag from a cigarette anymore for ten dollars. The cigarette manufacturers are happy. They produce less and make more money while at it. And who was it that pushed to see cigarettes banned by the World Council of Governments? Well, a health organization of course. A health organization who receives a great deal of charitable funds from generous philanthropists. Never mind where the philanthropists’ money comes from. It went into something important. It changed the world. Cigarettes are illegal now. People are healthier than ever now, right? And everyone keeps making money.

Shortly after the World Council of Governments banned cigarettes, they looked into the issue of human cloning. It was a hot button issue at the time. The technology and the means were readily available, but an order to halt any research into human cloning came down from the World Council. There were ethical issues to look at. Were we devaluing human life? Did a life mean less because we could replace it with an exact genetic copy?

The fearful rhetoric was written in all the right ways to get public opinion fearful of genetic cloning. Even I was worried. This was the direction genetics research was headed, what was to become of my career if human cloning was banned across the World Union? But anyone who understood how human cloning would actually work knew the rhetoric was coming from a place of ignorance. The clones are exact genetic copies but they’re still their own person. They don’t carry the memories and experiences of the original person. And we don’t even guarantee that they’ll be physically or mentally similar in any way at all. All we can guarantee is that the genetics will be the same. Which begs the question, how much do our genetics dictate our lives?

In my experience, a great deal. In fact, I’ve had a ninety-five per cent success rate with my clones. The exact genetic copies begin thinking and acting like their source human within years of life. For only guaranteeing genetic accuracy, it’s impressive that so many become the very person they’re a copy of. It’s good for business.

Very early on into my business, I was assured that the World Council’s bill to ban human cloning across the World Union was going to be a good thing for me. “Think about cigarettes,” my first client said. I knew what he was saying. I set my price. No one has ever tried to negotiate it down.

Sure, I still run my own genetics health clinic. We’re subsidized by the World Union and provide genetic mapping to patients so they can plan their healthy futures. People are healthier than ever. Living longer than ever. Even the clones have nice, long lives. They grow and age the exact same as any other person. But like all people, they still die. Everyone still dies.

My clients know they’re going to die. They have invested interests in billions and billions of dollars’ worth of assets across the World Union. They don’t want to leave it to just anyone after they die. Good successors are hard to find. They can’t even trust their own children. Most were raised spoiled and left stupid anyways, no amount of education could save those invalids. Like my five per cent of failed clones, those children head to the north once they become adults and they realize that nothing is going to be left to them once their father dies. And it’s always a father. Always an old man with white hair and a belly hanging over their belt in their suit whose jacket can’t quite close. In all my years of cloning, I’ve never had a woman want to copy herself to take over her business. It’s always men.

I’m thinking about opening a second clinic. Keep it in the south where my current clinic is. The weather here is so nice. Great golf courses. Business is great.

*****

The guy lying next to me isn’t breathing. There’s no steam coming out of his mouth. The steam from my mouth hangs in front of me, assures me I’m still alive and I’m still sitting on the cold concrete. I can’t even feel my ass anymore I’ve been sitting here for so long, trying not to freeze to death.

I tap the guy’s shoulder, hoping he just stopped breathing for a second while sleeping. He just toppled over, smacking his head against the frozen concrete. The cold got to him. He was getting old, too. Not a lot of people around this far north with that much grey hair. This was the first time I had ever seen this guy too. I just sat next to him, hoping to get a couple of hours of shut eye. He didn’t look like the type who would try to rob or grope me while I was asleep. You can tell those types really quick. Especially if you’ve been in the north for as long as I have.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I slept next to a dead guy, but for some reason this guy’s really bothering me. Something about the way he was coughing when I sat next to him, then the way he stopped breathing and just toppled over when I tapped him felt off. It didn’t sit right and I didn’t want to keep sitting.

I stand and brush the bit of snow and dust that’s clinging to my pants before reaching down and grabbing my backpack. I step out of the alleyway and back onto the sidewalk and look back and forth, trying to figure out which way is my best route to try and find somewhere to sleep tonight. The nights out here have been bitter cold lately, colder than I ever remember nights here being. I see a couple of people walking together on the other side of the road and duck into another alleyway. There aren’t any tank treads across the road which means they haven’t driven down here while on patrol for a while but might be heading this way soon. They usually don’t bother any of us, but if we’re standing in the middle of the road, they don’t slow down.

The tank’s rumbling can usually be heard for a few blocks and there isn’t a sound around all through the empty streets where I’m standing. I walk across the street and poke into the alleyway, looking around for whoever just ducked in. You never know what kind of people are hanging in the alleyways at night, but one thing’s for sure, everyone right now is looking for warmth and comfort, and if that’s where these two are headed I want to know where that is.

The alleyway looks like most other alleyways. It’s a narrow space between two red-brick buildings about five stories high each. The sides of the walkway are littered with abandoned blankets and the walls are stained with blood. You can’t see the blood so much on the red bricks but the smears are clear when you look at the grey cement between the bricks. Security forces are supposed to prevent violent attacks, that’s why they patrol in tanks, but they don’t do anything to keep anyone around any safer. We would be safer without the patrol. One fewer thing to worry about when you’re running for your life.

I hear whispering behind a dumpster and what sounds to me like a muffled whimper. I peek around the dumpster and see two men holding down a woman, one of the men is holding a knife, and the other is saying something about keeping warm tonight. The woman’s eyes fix on me and the two men notice she’s looking at something. They look in my direction and immediately spot me. The one holding the knife smiles and moves his knife away from the side of her neck and points it at me.

“Looks like we’re both keeping warm tonight,” he says. The other starts laughing and the woman tries to scream, but her mouth is still covered by his hand. They’ve both done this before, I can tell by how confident they are. I fix my eyes on the man with the knife. He’s looking up, not noticing me drop my extendable cattle prod from out of my sleeve. I flick my wrist and it extends, automatically turning on with a couple of crackles coming from the charged tip. He barely has a chance to look down and see it before I hit him in the hip with it. He screams and twitches in pain while I reach back and swing the side of the cattle prod across his head. He drops to the ground like a bag full of body parts. My eyes move from him to the man still holding the woman down.

He stands and starts raising his fists, getting ready to fight. I press my cattle prod against the knocked out man, letting the electric current run through his body, cooking him from the inside out. The man still standing got the message. He turns tail and runs to the back end of the alleyway, I assume back out into the streets.

That’s when my cattle prod died. The crackling of the electric current through the man’s body suddenly stopped. He’s not convulsing anymore and he groans in pain. He’s still alive and I don’t know if these are his last breaths or if he’s about to get back up. I decide not to gamble on that and start walking back out of the alley the way I came in.

“Wait!” a voice from behind me calls out. It’s the woman I helped. Her voice sounds shaky, like she’s terrified to move from behind that dumpster. “Thank you,” she mutters.

I don’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t trying to save her. If those two didn’t spot me, I would have just left. All I was trying to do was make sure I could get out of this alleyway and find somewhere to sleep. She just happened to be there.

Ignoring her, I keep walking back out into the cold streets. The alleyway is a bit warmer, but if that guy comes back, he won’t be alone. And I need new batteries for my cattle prod. God knows where I’m going to find those.

A hand grabs my arm and I turn, ready to kill whoever’s touching me. It’s the woman. She won’t catch the hint that I’m not here to save her, that I’m not her friend, and that this is where we part ways. I’m not sure how to make it clearer.

“Where did you get that?” she asks.

“I stole it,” I answer. “Patrolman wasn’t looking. Probably still has no clue it’s gone. Probably would have killed me on the spot if he did notice. It’s dead now, though. Totally useless.”

“You hit that guy pretty hard with it,” she says.

“Not hard enough,” I reply and try to walk away. She grips my arm even harder.

“Wait,” she whines. “Wait, you look… You look so familiar.”

She hasn’t notice that we’re standing in front of a darkened window. The lights of the street security lights are reflecting against the darkened window, turning it into a mirror. I’ve noticed, and I know why she thinks I look so familiar. I look exactly like she does.

######

Rumsfeld Hadderton walks into the clinic. Before I see him and before I hear him, I smell him. His smell is incredibly distinct. He wears half a bottle of cologne to try and mask his body odour. But the man sweats profusely and constantly. So the smell he gives off is a mix between sweat, musk, and whatever sweets or pastries he was just stuffing into his mouth. The way he sweats, the way he eats, and how much weight he carries while he walks must mean his resting heart rate is at 170 beats per minute. He can’t walk five feet without being out of breath.

“I want to see the doctor!” he yells before hacking all over my receptionist. “And now! You little bitch!”

“Rumsfeld!” I call from the entrance to the back of the clinic. I tilt my head, motioning to him to follow me. He glares at my receptionist for a moment before waddling over to me. We walk through the hallway, past all the private patient rooms, and into the back room reserved for these special cases. Neither of us say a word before we’re in the room.

He tries to get a word out, pointing his pudgy sausage finger at me, but I grab him by the shirt with both hands and slam him against the wall. I can feel the blubber giggle as his body’s inertia starts to rest against this wall.

“You never talk to my staff like that again you fat fucking piece of shit,” I say between clenched teeth. “Or so help me god, your next clone will have a heart defect that you’ll know nothing about until he drops dead and your estate will be left to you next of kin.” I let go of his shirt and walk to the sink to wash the sweat and leftover food off of my hands. “How is your son, by the way?”

“Fuck you, Doc,” Rumsfeld says as he plops down onto a chair and pulls a napkin from his pocket, wiping the sweat off of his forehead. “You damn well know he’s in the north. Hopefully fucking froze to death, the useless piece of shit.”

“And I’m sure we want to keep it that way,” I continue. “So, what brings you by, Rumsfeld?”

“I’m checking to see how my next properties are coming along,” he says. “I want to make sure you’re not going to fuck this one up like you did all the others. I have a lot invested in this and it has to be completely right or it’s worthless to me.”

I have a ninety-five per cent success rate with my clones. Rumsfeld makes up most of that last five per cent that haven’t worked out. The clones come out as perfectly fine humans, completely genetically exact to Rumsfeld. But he always finds something wrong. Now he wants to babysit me while I work.

“It’s coming along fine, Rumsfeld,” I explain. “The synthetic-uterine process is exactly on schedule. Your new property, as you put it, should be birthed within a few weeks.”

“Are we running into any of the same problems we’ve run into before?” he asks.

“Impossible to tell,” I answer. “Too early in the growth phase. But we’re monitoring it.”

“Doc, I want you to monitor it very closely,” Rumsfeld pipes up. “And the minute we run into any of these same problems, I want you to genetically modify it so it comes out right. I don’t have the time to deal with these mistakes of yours anymore.”

“Genetic altering while in the synthetic-uterine device is very tricky,” I explain. “I’ve done it before but it carries a massive risk. I have to charge extra for that service.”

Rumsfeld’s face turns even more red and the sweat dripping from his forehead starts pouring. He grips the arms of the chair he’s sitting on and leans forward. “You fucking piece of shit!” he screams. “It was my influence with the World Council of Governments that helped keep human cloning illegal and helped you build your business to what it is today. Your money, your practice, your more than comfortable lifestyle is thanks to me. How dare you speak to me like I’m one of your common genetic mapping clients off of the streets!”

“Don’t give me that shit, Rumsfeld,” I quip. “You kept it illegal to ensure it would be as exclusive of a service as possible. After all, you didn’t want just anyone cloning themselves, right? These common people, as you put it, don’t deserve what you can get. And if you ever dare act like I owe my practice and my research to you ever again, I’ll make sure any clone you walk away with has genetic defects that won’t show until you have one foot in the grave. Then the World Council will have to find your son in the north to take over your business. Is that what you want?”

Rumsfeld got really quiet then leaned back in the chair again, patting the sweat off of his forehead and running his tissue along his face, wiping all the excess moisture. “How much extra,” he says, in a very quiet and low voice.

“We can negotiate prices later,” I say. “For now, just know your successor is in good hands and I’ll make sure he’s perfect this time.”

*****

“Do you have a name?” she asks. She’s trailing a few paces behind me, looking around for any signs of patrols while I keep my eye out for anywhere we can hunker down for the night. It’s only getting colder and the winds are picking up, cutting through the thin jacket and ripped jeans I’m wearing. I can only imagine how she feels. I wrapped her in one of the blankets back in the alleyways where I found her. Most of her clothes are still ripped open. She’d freeze to death without the blanket.

“No,” I tell her. She shouldn’t question that too much. A lot of the people in the north tend not to have names. Sometimes they do have names but don’t tell them to anyone. Sometimes they were left in the north to fend for themselves and whoever they bunked with never gave them a name. I decide she doesn’t need to know my name. I hold back my teeth chattering. I don’t want her to know how cold I am. “How about you?”

“Um,” she stutters. “I get called Blondie a lot. Probably because of my hair colour. I guess that doesn’t help you much. We have the same colour hair.”

I don’t know if she saw what I saw in our reflections. I heard rumours before about this kind of thing. People running into themselves. On the outside at least. Inside, they’re their own people. They grew up in different parts of the north, have been part of different tribes and groups, sometimes even have different voices or scars. But the faces. The faces are always the exact same.

“You’re hair’s a little darker than mine,” Blondie points out. “Mine’s kind of pale, but yours is really pretty and bold. Like gold.”

“Call me Goldie, then,” I say.

“Okay,” she says. I look back and see her smile.

We come up to an intersection in the road and on one of the street corners is an old church with a long cross with one of its arms on the side broken in half. It points high into the grey sky, like a beacon to follow. I know this area. I spent a lot of time in this area. We should be safe here.

“Wait,” Blondie says, holding my arm. “This is tribal territory. I think the ones who paint their faces white with all the black lines live around here. They won’t let us pass through.”

“Yes they will,” I reply. “And we can stay here tonight. We’ll be safe. I promise.”

A low rumble echoes out in the direction we’re heading. I know this rumble all too well. From the look on Blondie’s face, she knows it too. Patrolmen. I rush ahead stop by the church, keeping my back against its outside walls as I slowly start to creep over, looking in the direction the tribe is where we heard the rumbles.

There are patrolmen standing around, talking to one another. I see three tanks and behind that there are a few fires, bigger than any trashcan fire people sometimes light to try and keep warm. Then there are two patrolmen carrying the body of one of the tribesmen. He throws the body on the fire. I understand what I’m looking at now. This is a full on raid. There have been some rumours about patrolmen trying to eliminate all the tribes and groups. I didn’t believe it at first. The tribes tended to have a lot of people in them, more than there are every any patrolmen in the north at any time. The patrols always seemed to avoid the tribes, knowing how outnumbered they always were. I guess they started seeing the tribes as enough of a threat to finally start getting rid of them.

“Can you believe how much extra pay we’re getting for this?” I hear one patrolman say to another. “I might have enough for a clone. Can you believe it?”

“Clone, you know those are illegal,” another patrolman says.

“Sure, but you can still get them, you just need to know where to find them,” the first says.

“And what are you going to do with a clone?” the other continues.

“Teach him baseball,” the first laughs. “I lost a huge scholarship after blowing out my knee. It’s like it’s going to be my second chance. Imagine, all the skill I used to have in baseball and young again. It’s brilliant. I don’t know why cloning is kept illegal. It’s just so brilliant.”

I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Blondie.

“What’s a clone?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Yeah, can you imagine two of our appetites kicking around on this world?” a third patrolman says. “We would literally have two of you running around. We would run out of food. The south is already predicting food shortages because we have to feed these northern animals. Last thing we need to feed is another one of you.”

The three men laugh, and the meaning of that word starts to come to me. Clone. It’s a copy of a person. It’s why Blondie and I have the exact same face. Are we copies of each other? Copies of another person? For the first time I’m feeling a need to know my own identity. Before my only concern was just surviving. Learning as much as I could so I could be smarter and better than anyone coming after me. Now, I want to know why I’m here. How did I get here? How did Blondie get here? Who are we?

I feel another tug at my arm. “We can’t stay here,” Blondie says. “Where are we going to go?”

“South,” I answer.

#####

I’m grateful Rumsfeld didn’t get a chance to look at his next potential protégé before I finally kicked him out of my office. It’s growing fine, almost already looks like a human. But I always check the readouts whenever I go into the room where the new humans are growing. These readouts didn’t look great, especially for what Rumsfeld wanted.

The readouts show me all the copied genetic code as it forms into a new human. I check it to make sure no genetic defects or mistakes wind up getting copied into the new human. No one wants a defective human and I’m already losing enough money because of this asshole. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to recopy his genetics and try to grow his successor. I feel like I’ve been trying and failing with this guy for decades.

The readouts tell me this new human is running into the same problems all the other ones had. I don’t know how or why, but the cloning process keeps copying an extra X chromosome. This makes no sense because the cloning process involves copying everything, right down to mapping the two chromosomes and ensuring they’re an exact match in the new human. Every time it misses the Y chromosome and copies an extra X.

I finally decide to review Rumsfeld’s mapped genome. Thousands upon thousands of genes I’m reading through, trying to figure out what’s going wrong and how can I fix it to stop this from ever happening again. I’ve had my failures with other clients and the mistakes were sent to the north like they always are, but I can usually spot my mistake right away and adjust it. Somewhere in these more than 20,000 genes mapped out that make up Mr. Rumsfeld Hadderton is the answer as to why his clones never turn out exactly as he wants.

And then I spot it. It’s as clear as day why his chromosomes aren’t cloning right. And it puts into perspective so much about this man. He paid for the extra genetic monitoring and it’s too late to adjust the chromosomes in this new human. She’ll go to the north, like the rest. And I have some bad news for Rumsfeld. Something that was never in his original agreement with me. Something I can charge a lot extra for.

*****

All you have to do is face the south to feel its warmth against your face. The frozen north has its icy tingle that clings to your face, but all you have to do is face south to be reminded that it’s warm somewhere. And we’re going where it’s warm. Even if it kills us.

Blondie is behind me as we approach the border. She did a good job keeping quiet as we snuck around the buildings and streets that make up the north. I’m proud of her. There were some close calls, but we made it through without any patrol noticing us. But the border won’t be so easy.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the border. When people in the north are arrested, they bring them to the south for a public execution. I’ve never seen one, but I’ve heard the patrolmen talk about it. They laugh about how the northerner they caught squirmed and tried to scream as they were hung. Members of my tribe were taken to the south. I never heard about their execution, but I followed them to the border when they were arrested, hoping there was something I could do to stop it and free the people who raised me and fed me and taught me to survive. I don’t know if I could stand hearing about it. Knowing that ours death gives them entertainment makes me hate them so much more. But it always feels like I can never do anything about it. Maybe making it to the south will change all that.

The border looks the same as it did when they took my tribe. A large stone wall with guard towers lines the border for as far as I can see. Armed patrolmen and their large dogs stand around and keep watch, one hand always on their rifles. Openings small enough for single vehicles to pass through break up bits of the wall and are blocked by thick steel doors that need to be opened by two people. I got us this far but I have no idea how we’re going to pass through here.

Blondie taps me on the shoulder and says, “I think you need this a lot more than I do. I think you have some sort of plan or something and I want you to succeed. You saved my life. It’s time I pay you back.”

I don’t even get a word out when Blondie runs out, both arms waving yelling at the guards. I don’t hear what she says but she has the guards’ attentions. And they’re all smiling. I’m terrified to think what’s going to happen to her, but I don’t want to let her diving out into danger like that to go in vain. Once I see the guard at the nearest gateway run toward Blondie, I sneak out and run and I don’t look back and I don’t look anywhere around me. I’m just gunning for that gate. And I’m praying Blondie’s going to be ok.

#####

Rumsfeld came into my office with his face beat red already and sweat pooling under the thick fleshy fold around his face. He wasn’t even sitting when I finally came into my office. He was pacing back and forth and it felt like every step he took hit the floor harder than the last.

“This better be fucking important,” he spat. “I don’t know why you called me here, but it better be fucking important.”

“Are you familiar with Klinefelter syndrome?” I asked.

“Why the fuck would I know what that is?” Rumsfeld drooled down his chin and quickly wiped it with his hand. “You’re the fucking doctor. What, does one of my products have it or something?”

“Not quite,” I answered. “Actually, you have it.”

“What do you mean I have it?” he furled his brow. “You gave me every fucking medical test known to man before we started this goddamn song and dance. Wouldn’t you have spotted it then?”

“We don’t test for it,” I said. “Since selective genetics came into fashion, it’s become extremely rare. Hell, before selective genetics it was a one in five-hundred chance of being born with it. It wasn’t exactly common before and it’s virtually unheard of now.”

“So how the fuck did I wind up with it?” he slammed his fist onto my desk.

“Your parents must have missed it when they were reviewing your genetics before you were born,” I said. “Even I missed it. Again, this shouldn’t exist anymore.”

“So, how do I get rid of it?” Rumsfeld began pacing again. “You said it yourself, it’s virtually non-existent now. What’s the cure?”

“It doesn’t exactly work like that,” I sighed knowing this would be nearly impossible to explain to a simpleton of this magnitude. “It’s an error in your genetics. Most people have two chromosomes, women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y chromosome –”

“Yeah, old news,” Rumsfeld blurted. “Get to the part where we fix this.”

“There is no fix,” I tell him. “It should have been corrected before you were born, while your genes were still be edited. It should have been easy to spot. It would have come up when the doctor who worked with your parents figured out what sex you are. You’re a man and you should have an X and a Y chromosome. Instead, you have two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome.”

“And that’s affecting my clones?”he asked.

“It’s duplicating both of your X chromosomes,” I explained. “Now that we’ve spotted this, the next one will finally be perfect.”

“I don’t have time for this shit!” Rumsfeld screamed. “Just kill the fucking bitch in the test tube and get the next one going already!”

He turned to leave my office, but before he could leave I called back out to him.

“There are a few other things you should know about your condition,” I said.

“Like what?” he stood in my doorway.

“One symptom is being an insufferable prick,” I felt the corner of my mouth peak into a smirk. “The other major symptom is sterility. I was wondering why it was so easy for you to send your kid to the North.”

“Well, like you just pointed out,” he said. “The bastard isn’t even my fucking kid. So fuck him. I hope he freezes to death and the savages up there use his body for food and warmth. It’s the only good that human waste will ever do anyone. Now get to work. I’m not paying you to tell me how fucked up my life is. I know that already.”

*****

I feel the temperature difference as soon as I cross into the South. It’s warm, like there’s a constant fire going all around and there’s space for everyone to stand next to it.

I’m still shocked as to how easy it was to cross into the South. I ran through the gateway and to the other side without any plan for what I would do once I got across. I didn’t even know what was waiting for me on the other side. It could have been a hundred more guards or patrolling troops. But there’s nothing. It feels emptier than the North does. But I feel the warmth and it draws me in.

There isn’t any frost on the ground and I don’t see any concrete. The grass is trampled though and there is more dirt beneath my feet than there is any plant life. The sky is still grey, just like the North, but there are breaks in the clouds in front of me. It looks close enough to touch but part of me knows it will be hours or even days of walking before I stand underneath where the clouds actually brake.

A single jeep rolls up next to me while I’m walking away from the North. There is a single guard inside, driving the same direction that I’m walking. My first instinct is to run, but I can tell by the way he looks at me he isn’t interested in bringing me back.

“Heading South?” he asks through his smile.

I nod slowly, waiting for him to open his pants or order me to take off my top. But he does neither. He just opens his door and invites me into the jeep. He smiles as I crawled in and that’s when I noticed his smile, his yellowed and chipped teeth, and the blonde stubble growing around his face. The guards never had any facial hair and their teeth were always perfect and as white as the frost that covers the windows of the buildings around the North. He’s not a guard.

“How did you get out?” he asks. I look over to him but didn’t answer. I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about Blondie yet and what she did. I feel like if I talk about it, I’d want to turn back and try to find her. “Not a complicated question,” he smiles as I realize how long I have been sitting in silence. “For example, I was able to kill a guard and steal his uniform and his jeep. I’m one of the few Northern residents who knows how to drive, I was born a Southerner after all. One of my daddy’s staff taught me to drive. And ever since I’ve been helping folks who’ve escaped the North find their ways to the South. There’s a small shelter accepting Northerners, giving them food and new clothes and place to sleep before folks can start heading further South and making their way in that part of the world –”

“I don’t want to go there,” I interrupt him.

“Go where?”

“The shelter, I don’t want to go there.”

“Where are you headed then?”

I hand him the sheet of paper I found. He smiles and nods. “I know this place well enough,” he says. “You might not like what you see. I know I didn’t. Keeps me away from that place. My father too. Been wanting to kill that son of a bitch for a long time now. But that clinic freaks me out.”

“I have to,” I say. “I have to go to this place. It might explain…” I hesitate to continue. I look over and find him staring at me intently, barely keeping an eye on the road. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” he answers. “You just look familiar, that’s all. Funny enough, we very well could be related. Especially if this is where you’re headed, there’s a very good chance of that.”

#####

Getting past Rumsfeld’s little problem is a pretty nasty challenge. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before. I’ve never doubted myself like this either. I’d be willing to tell him that it’s impossible and turn him away and instead focus on clients I know will be easier money. But he’s paid me already. He’s paid me a lot. And I’m not in any position to pay back that much money. I just have to keep working at it until it’s right.

The sound of gunfire rings out in the clinic’s lobby as I check Rumsfeld’s newest copy. My first thought is that the old bastard has lost his mind and he’s out for blood now. I always knew he was unstable. My gut told me not to take him on as a client the first day I met him. He was so off that day and he hasn’t acted any better since. He’s only been more and more unbearable. I remember him almost being twitchy. He bounced his knee while he sat in my office, drumming against his legs and looking all over the room, like a little boy waiting for his Christmas presents. Only little boys sit in anxious joy and happiness. Rumsfeld sneered the whole time he was in my office. Like he was ready to fight while having a panic attack. To this day I’ve never dealt with anyone like him. Most of my clients are calm and assertive professionals who know what they want and how they intend to get it. Rumsfeld knows what he wants and he’s ready to punch anyone in the face to get it.

My attention stays fixed on my specimen while I hear more shots ringing out, louder this time. He’s getting closer. I better have some good news for him. I can’t afford to have a bullet in me, not while I have this much work to do.

I check all the vitals and everything seems normal. I take a deep breath before I read the gender. I’ve never been this worried reading one of my specimens before. Even my first wasn’t this nerve wracking. And with a long exhale, I read the gender.

Another girl. My mind goes directly to the fact I need to get a hold of my contact for transport to the North and I barely register how loud the shots are getting.

And that’s when the door to my office finally opens.

*****

The jeep pulls up to a building with lights coming out of the windows, which haven’t been boarded up or marked as territory by anyone. The driver smiles at me again, looks at me in a way I haven’t been looked at since my tribe were still alive. It feels good. I can trust him.

“Are you sure you want to go in there?” he asks.

“I think I’m sure,” I answer. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I go in. I don’t even really know what I’m looking for. I just know that whatever reason I exist is in this place. And I need to know what it is.”

He nods slowly, like he’s appreciating what I’m saying. He might not understand it, I don’t know if he has a tribe or if he knows where he came from or if he’s just sure enough of himself that he just doesn’t need to know any more about himself. “Alright, but don’t go in empty handed,” he says as he hands me a pistol. It feels heavy in my hands. The cold metal tingles through my fingers and I get a shiver along my arms. Like I forgot what one of these feels like.”You ever use one of these things before?”

“My tribe had one,” I say. “It looked different though. It was smaller. I learned how to shoot on it. I shot more can than anyone else in my tribe.”

“Well, this one will probably have some extra kick the one you used before didn’t have,” he says. “But it’s generally the same principals. I think you’ll handle it well.”

“What should I do with it?” I ask. “I mean, is there anyone who I shouldn’t shoot?”

“In my humble opinion,” he smiles. “No. Take it from someone who grew up in the South and was sent to the North against his will. No one in the South deserves to live. They don’t understand what people like you and me have had to go through in the North. And no one down here appreciates anything they have. They throw away food and never know what it’s like to starve. They’ve never felt the cold and the desperation to keep a fire going. They know nothing, especially about the North. They don’t deserve to keep going.”

I let his words absorb into me, like they were made of liquid and seeped into my skin. I feel his words travelling through me, and then they become part of me. My heart races and my hands shake. For the first time in a very long time, I smile.

“Will you be here once I’m done?” I ask.

“I have something to tend to,” he says. “I have a sweaty fat bastard to take care of. But I’ll be back. And I’ll take you back to the camp, you’ll meet some of your fellow escaped Northerners, and we’ll prepare to take the South.”

I get out of the jeep and walk towards the door. I look back one last time, for one last boost of confidence. He isn’t looking at me. He’s driving away already.

#####

I can’t say I would have ever seen this coming. She has blonde hair and her skin is cracked and creased, but she’s not old. These aren’t wrinkles. It’s frost burn deeply embedded into her skin. She stares at me, both of her hands are wrapped around the gun’s handle. It’s pointed directly at me. She’s silent for a long while. I stay frozen in place.

“Who am I?” she finally breaks the silence.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Yes you do!” she shouts. “I know you do. Just because I’m from the North doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I know what you do. I saw another girl who looks exactly like me. She’s dead now. She died so I could get here and find you and find out who I am. Now, who am I?”

“Looks exactly like you?” I smile. “Only one? I’m surprised. Your eyes, your nose, your cheekbones, everything about you is him. It’s uncanny. Even your temper apparently.”

“Who?” she snaps.

“A client who’s been far more trouble than he’s worth,” I explain. “A real fucking nightmare.”

“You don’t know nightmares,” she says, her hands start shaking. “You get to wake up from them. Mine’s never ended.”

“How would you know?” I ask. “I mean, I imagine you don’t know any other life than the North. I know I sent you there even before your incubation was complete. I’m shocked you lived. God knows how many died from the cold –”

“Shut up!” she screams. “How many of me are there? How many times was I cloned?”

“Technically, you weren’t cloned,” I explain. “You are the clone. Guessing by your age, probably one of the first. The first in a long stream of mistakes.”

“Why were we all mistakes?” she asks, tears streaming down her face.

“What’s the one common denominator here?” I say. “You, the other girl who you saw, and, well, I guess this is your sister. I mean, you have a lot in common. But the main thing is that your, well, kind of father but more of a root genetic sample, he wanted a man.”

She looks at the specimen. “What’s going to happen to her?”

“Well, my client thinks you’re all dead, that I kill you once the gender is identified and you’re no good anymore,” I say. “But I don’t kill you. I send you to the North. I let nature take its toll. If you survive, well done. If not, well, you were never really meant for this world.”

The tears streaming down her face drench her cheeks. I’m hoping to keep her distracted enough to make a run for it. I know she’s not interested in any of my equipment, she wouldn’t know what to do with any of it with her savage and primitive brain. If I break her, make her hate herself enough that she’s no longer paying attention to me, I know I’ll be safe.

“Give her to me,” she says.

“I can’t do that,” I say. “She won’t live. She’s incubating still.”

“Then you’ll stay until she’s ready to be born,” she says.

“Ready to be born?” I laugh out loud. “Stop pretending this is a human. It’s human-error.”

Then she opens fire.

*****

I hold onto her tight as I sneak outside. The sun is down now, but it’s still far warmer than any day in the North. The jar that she’s in is hard to grip with only one hand. I drop the gun, I’m out of bullets anyways, and I look up and I see no one waiting for me. The dark streets are empty in front of me and it starts looking like the North all around me.

I wrap both of my arms around her as I continue walking. I feel my body shaking but I hold it in my chest and try not to let my arms shake. My legs can barely hold me up as I keep trying to walk forward. I trip and fall, but use one of my hands to stop me from falling all the way and my other hand holds onto her tight.

I don’t know how far I walk before I feel my legs give out again. I fall on my side, still holding her and trying to protect her. The concrete feels comfortable and I roll onto my back and I feel myself start to drift off.

The sun’s glare wakes me up. As soon as the light cracks from between my eyelids, I shoot awake and check on her. I’m still holding her. She’s still the same as she was last night: tiny and floating in place. I stare at her and start to make out her features: I see her eyes and they’re closed tight like she’s in a deep sleep. I make out her small mouth. Her arms are bunched up around her. She looks comfortable. She looks safe.

“Holy fuck, you’re alive,” I hear a man’s voice. I recognize it. Only it’s not making me feel comfortable or safe this time. “I seriously thought local police would have shot you as soon as you walked out of the building. You didn’t wait at all to start shooting.”

He’s standing outside of the jeep with his arms folded and a smirk across his face. “I’m glad you served your part. I don’t think things could have gone better for me.”

“Why weren’t you there?” I ask.

“Because you were supposed to be dead,” he chuckles. “Do I have to spell it out for you? You were supposed to keep the authorities busy while I took care of my business. You see, I was sent to the North, but it was technically an illegal transfer. The fat prick who called himself my dad paid a few people to take me to the North. I’m still a citizen of the South. And because my transfer was illegal it was easy for me to get past that big scary wall and waltz back to my home. But crime in the South is sparse. One gunshot and the entire local force would be on you before your sweat could run down your cheek. Multiple gunshots, though, like the little party you had? Police would have been so distracted with you that no one would have noticed me popping a few into that tub of lard.”

“But…”  I stutter trying to find my words. “But the camp.”

“Doesn’t exist,” he smirks. “No one’s ever escaped the North.”

My stomach twists and I feel like I’m about to throw up. I look down at her and back up to him again. “How did you know I would come out and find you and want to go to that place?”

“Believe it or not, I was lucky,” he says. “I didn’t set anything up. Running into you was a pure fluke. I put the plan together on the fly as soon as you climbed into the jeep and showed me that clinic’s brochure. Honestly, I would have been happy to find anyone and improvised it any which way. I never targeted you hun. You’re simply not that special.”

I stand up and glance behind me and my eyesight draws a path I’ll be walking down, away from him. “Well, it was worth it,” I say as I look down at her. “It was worth it for her.”

“Did you really disconnect that from its life support?” he chuckles. “Hun, I don’t know how to tell you this, but that thing died the minute you grabbed it and walked out of that clinic. You didn’t save anything.”

I don’t believe him. I know she still has to be in there. I know she’s still growing and getting ready to enter the world. My heart beats faster than it did when I was holding the gun. My palms start to sweat and I struggle to keep holding on to her. The tears run down my face and I can’t control them.

“Sorry I had to be the bearer of bad news,” he says. “I know it’s nice to think you’re a hero. But you’re nothing but another piece of human error that should have died in the North.”

I keel over as I start to wretch and I feel my empty stomach push up against me with each heave that escapes my body. I keep holding onto her, though. I’ll die before I drop her.

“Why?!” I cry out.

“Are you actually asking me?” he answers. “Sadly, I wish I had some grand explanation. I almost wish the resistance I convinced you exists was real. It was money. The old piece of shit dies, I get his money and his company. I’ll sell the company, never work again, live the easy life, and never think about any of this again.” I can hear him laugh. “You know, it’s funny. I’m not even actually his son, and I’m more like him than you are and you’re an exact genetic duplicate of him. You have to admit, that’s funny.”

#####

My hand if covered in blood when I wake up. I have two bullet holes in me and I’m bleeding profusely. I lift my shirt and inspect the wounds. Falling asleep is the worst thing I could have done, even if it was involuntary. The wounds have been open for too long. There’s no quick repair. And no paramedic will get here in time. If they haven’t got here yet, they’re not coming. I have to get ready.

I try to stand but it hurts so incredibly much. I’m actually looking forward to finishing out and being done with this shit. But I can’t go quite yet. I have one last thing I need to do.

Pulling myself  across the floor, I reach the back of my lab, to my restricted office. I barely reach the door handle, but I open it and crawl in. The four cryogenic chambers have frost covering the outside. But it won’t take long to thaw one. I reach the control of the first one I find and enter the passcode to unlock it. It starts heating up rapidly, and then the airlock releases and the hatch opens. I forgot how awkward I looked when I was this young. Tall, skinny, and the cryogenic chamber hasn’t done much for my skin. Or I guess his skin.

He walks out and the sudden look of horror on his face takes over as he spots my wounds. “You’re hurt!” he says.

“Don’t fucking bother,” I say. “Just save whatever tissue you can and start up the replacement.”

There have always been four in the cryogenic chambers and four in stasis in incubators on the other side of my restricted office. He has the same look on his face as I did when I came out of my cryogenic chamber. Part fear, part exhilaration, part impatience waiting for the old model to finally die. He has that same look on his face. Part of me is glad this will be the last thing I see. Knowing that my work isn’t finished, but the best possible candidate will continue it.

He kneels down next to me, inspects the wounds, and then smiles. “I guess I got some work to do.”

I said the same thing when I came out.

 

 

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Maps of the Stars

I’m always a little sad

That I can never see the stars at night

There’s always cloud cover and street lights

And even on the clearest nights

The sky never seems to have those bright lights

I keep maps of the stars in my pocket

I hold them up to try and see what I’m missing

Find the planets and the constellations

The satellites constantly circling

Match the names to the ones I hear

From people with telescopes and star atlases

Cutting through the cloud cover

And disregarding the street lights

Pinpointing the source of those bright lights

Those lights that take years to reach our eyes

Questioning whether what we can see

Is actually still in the night sky

Or just an image from thousands and millions of years before

Of something that isn’t there anymore

I want to see these things

See them with my naked eye

Before we ever know

If the lights in our sky

Are actually still illuminating the night

Or if it’s just a trick of the light

Fooling us into thinking

That our night skies

Aren’t actually completely empty

And we’re all that’s left

Circling alone in the darkness

Circled by satellites

Staring into a sky that’s empty

Anders went too far

A single fist punched through Brant’s door and quickly pulled out to reveal a deplorably ugly face peeking through. Its lower jaw jutted out and its bottom teeth sat atop its top lip. Its small eyes were shadowed by its heavy brow, though Brant could tell it was looking directly at him and it wasn’t happy to see him.

Behind Brant, Calder was running through the house in a panic, screaming about never seeing anything like that before. Brant tried his best not to be terrified and not to let his fear and panic overtake him, but when its second fist came through another part of the door followed by its foot kicking down the door off of its hinges, he knew that if there was ever a time to panic over anything, this would be more than a suitable time.

“Why are you kicking down my door?!” Brant shrieked. “What are you doing?!”

He wasn’t sure why this thing was breaking down the door into his house. His house wasn’t anything particularly grand to marvel at. It was a typical house for Delswynn, a town that Brant had spent his entire life in. He grew up here, worked his first job on one of the farms fields, watched as more and more of the small cottages began popping up all over town accompanied by men selling goods all along Delswynn, and mostly in front of the taverns. Brant wondered if he had ever encountered this behemoth beast at one of the taverns, maybe said a sentence or two wrong to upset the intruder. This often happened to Brant, but he normally paid for it with a swift hit to the face or (in the most extreme circumstance) an arrow to the shoulder.

As he looked closer at the beast, he realized he never encountered it before. He would remember something this ugly. And large. Quite large, really. The beast almost had to duck down to walk into Brant’s house. This made Brant think of his roommate and how he often would have to duck down a bit to walk through the basement. Then he realized he didn’t hear Calder’s manic desperate shrieks anymore. This worried Brant a bit, but not enough to try and run from the slightly green-hued skinned monster now standing only a few feet away.

“Why did you do that to my door?” Brant continued wailing.

“Where are they?!” the beast growled back.

“Where’s what?” Brant tried to reason. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

From behind the beast came a cloaked figure, which Brant at first mistook for a man. The figure removed the cloak and Brant saw its pointed ears and its sharp-edged eyebrows. Delswynn didn’t see much of any race that wasn’t a human. The odd few ugly men (and some women) were often mistaken for trolls. But Brant was looking at two, bona-fide non-human creatures. Both were in his house and both had a look about then that told Brant he may not live through to see the end of this day.

“A couple of items you stole,” said the one with the pointed ears. “Our employer wants it back. Where are they?”

“I haven’t stolen anything,” Brant continued to wail. Brant would hope that his tears would either be hidden from his assailants or that his tears would look more like the brave tears of a fierce warrior about to face his death. Sadly, he brushed his cheek with the side of his hand and felt how soaked it was. He knew he was bawling. He tried convincing himself he didn’t feel the dribble out of his nose either. But it was clearly there.

“I found them!” the beast yelled and pointed toward Brant’s table. It stomped forward and picked up a cloth that Brant had bought from the market earlier that day. The beast then picked up Brant and carried him outside in his hand that wasn’t holding the cloth. He was carried outside and dropped a few feet outside of his house. He looked up to see a man (a human man, Brant told himself to try and comfort his racing thoughts too no success) wearing a black robe with gold markings all over that Brant didn’t recognize.

“I found them!” the beast grunted. “He had them.”

“Very good,” the man said. “But where’s the other?”

The beast tilted his head like a dog unsure of a command form his master. He looked at the cloth in his hand and then looked back at the man again.

“Anders, there’s only one there,” the man continued. “There’s a second. A lavender coloured one. I need that one too.”

Anders looked at his hand again at the turquoise cloth and back to his apparent employer. “There’s two here,” he said.

“Yes, but it’s actually only one,” the man enunciated slowly. “It looks like it’s been ripped. Did you rip it, Anders?”

Anders shook his head.

“Then go back inside, bring this little one with you, and find the lavender coloured one as well,” the man said, leaving Brant feeling a little insulted being referred to as, “this little one.” If there wasn’t a giant beast he, Brant may have scolded this man quite thoroughly. Brant thought about it further and decided that he probably wouldn’t have actually scolded the man. He wouldn’t know how.

Brant felt himself lifted off of the ground again and carried back into the house. He was dropped on the ground and saw Calder underneath the table, hugging one of the legs, and crying much worse than Brant had been crying (or so Brant hoped).

“There’s a second cloth you stole,” the one with the pointed ears pressed on. “Where is it?”

“We didn’t steal it,” Calder bawled. “We bought it at the market today, we swear!”

Anders growled low. “You’ll take us to where you’re keeping it!” he yelled. “And you’ll bring shovels with you so you can dig your own graves and if you’re lucky I’ll let you kill yourselves before I leave you there to rot!”

“Whoa! Anders!” the pointed ears one interrupted. “Too far!”

At this point, Calder was crying so hard and loud that it was hard to tell what he was saying, but it sounded something like, “In the forest… In a cave… Don’t kill us… We didn’t steal… I’m so sorry… Where’s my dad…” over and over and over again.

The two intruders began talking between themselves and didn’t notice Calder slip off. When they looked back, Calder was back by the table with something in his hand. The two were startled and both reached for their sheathed weapons but stopped when they saw what Calder was holding.

“We don’t have any shovels,” Calder mustered out between sobs, his right hand shaking as he held out the small garden trowel. “We have one of these though! Please don’t kill us!”

Still sobbing, Calder and Brant escorted the two to the small cave where they hid the lavender cloth. It was maybe two or three miles outside of the town and easily found along a small trail that had been walked along many times before.

The cave itself was actually kind of large. The opening stood about ten feet high and fifteen feet wide, but was also quite shallow. So it didn’t take long for Brant to notice the two lurking figures inside of the cave.

They were fairly large creatures. They had to duck down to walk in and out of the cave. They were even uglier than Anders was. They both carried clubs that fit nicely in their hands but were about the same size as Calder and Brant were. The creatures noticed Brant, Calder, and their two assailants fairly quickly as well. One of the beasts stepped out of the cave and nodded towards Anders.

“Thems those kids,” the monster grunted. “They hide it in here. We want it. Give us kids and you live.”

Calder wailed hard enough to grab Brant’s attention. Brant looked over and saw a small puddle building up around Calder’s feet from the steady trickle that ran down his leg. Anders’ gaze didn’t shift from the enormous brute that was approaching him, but the one with the pointed ears (whose name was Neville, Brant later discovered) stared at the growing puddle and crooked an eyebrow before taking a large step back from Calder.

“What makes you think we’re going to let you live?” Anders shot back.

The hulking beast chuckled. “You so little,” it said. “You no match for us. All five of you going to die unless you give us those kids.”

Anders looked behind himself and back to his challenger. “There are only four of us,” Anders said.

The behemoth’s brow furled, this simple math obviously had him very confused. “It no matter,” it continued. “You too small to fight us.”

“Your mom didn’t think I was too small,” Anders said as he unsheathed his sword and readied for a fight.

This was the point when Calder passed out. Brant thought it may have been from dehydration. Calder lost a lot of bodily fluid through the leg of his pants the past few minutes.

Brant peered back up to see what Anders’ next move was. But all Brant saw was a rock being hurled at him. It was a relatively small rock, or at least Brant had assumed. A larger rock would have killed him. This rock only knocked him unconscious long enough that when he awoke, he was being carried by Anders in one hand (Calder was slumped over Anders’ other shoulder) and Brant quickly realized there were no other beasts in sight.

“Ah, he awakes,” Anders said. Brant looked up and saw Anders smile a bit. “Those two were big but threw rocks like tiny humans. I could have killed you with a rock half that size.”

“Where are we?” Brant muttered.

“A fair distance from your home,” Neville replied. “Despite poor throwing skills, they still got away with the lavender cloth. We can’t return to the town, our former employer will have our heads for losing that cloth. You and your friend can’t return, our employer will be waiting for you as well and will probably kill you solely out of sport or frustration or small laughs. We figured our safest plan would be to get you and ourselves as far from there as possible.”

“Why did he want those cloths?” Brant asked. “I was going to use them to dry dishes. The turquoise one, at least, the lavender one shimmered weird, so we hid it in cave just in case it was about to do something crazy.”

“Good instinct,” Neville said. “All we know about them is that they both have some kind of magic engrained into their threads. We don’t know what. It wasn’t our job to ask. Our employer knows, that’s for sure. He’s typically not one to want something without knowing quite a lot about it.”

“Wait, why are you doing this?” Brant blurted out. “Why not just leave me and Calder to be murdered by your boss? Why carry the extra weight?”

Anders shrugged. “I felt bad. Especially the digging your own grave part. I went too far.”

“So, then, what’s the plan from here?” Brant asked. “Where are we heading and what are we going to do?”

“Not sure,” Neville said. “I think there’s another town with a decent tavern about a day’s walk in this direction. From there, Anders and I are looking for work. You and your friend? You’re on your own from there.”

Brant nodded slowly and thought about all he had been through in the last few minutes (or hours, he still wasn’t sure how long he had been knocked out for). He knew this was the best course of action. His home was gone now because some greedy eccentric decided he wanted a couple of cloths that Brant and Calder bought at the local market for barely the cost of a pint. He also knew he and Calder would be useless trying to continue following these two adventurers. They lived in a completely different world than where Brant and Calder live in. All he and his friend could do now was make a new home in a new town and try to build their lives again.

“You’re handling all this well,” Anders commented.

“I don’t have much of a choice,” Brant said. “How are you going to explain this to Calder? I mean, he pissed himself. He apparently doesn’t handle stress well.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Anders said. “On the bright side, I doubt he could smell any worse than he does now. Believe me, he didn’t just piss himself.”

Atticus ate my Headphones

I had a hard lesson re-taught to me not too long ago: if it’s on the floor, the puppy will chew it. This reminder came as I got ready for bed one night, excited to relax, listen to a podcast or some music, and slowly drift off to sleep. I reached under my bed for my headphones. My wonderful, beautiful sounding, comfortably fitting, $100 Sennheiser headphones (don’t get me wrong, I know $100 isn’t actually that expensive for headphones considering I’ve seen some go for a few thousand dollars, but that’s a lot of money for me). Well, I found one ear plug, then a bit of chord, then one of the rubber bits that slide onto the ear plug for comfort, then looked under my bed and saw my chihuahua puppy Atticus with a little piece of black chord hanging from his mouth.

Puppies chew everything, and I should have known this by now. I grew up with dogs all my life and they have chewed plenty: from baseboards to homework (yes, I had a dog once actually eat my homework, but I didn’t bother bringing that excuse to my teacher and instead just took the detention, figuring one lost lunch hour was easier to deal with than literally trying to argue that my dog ate my homework) to even my Dark Vader action figure, puppies chew everything.

Why did I just go on for almost 200 words about this? Well, I tend to be hard on people for what I perceive to be not thinking. I pride myself in having a lot of foresight and taking the time to see any and all possible confrontations, complications, confusion, and consequences. This sometimes makes a decision as banal as picking out soup at the grocery store an extended chore, but I can firmly say I have never regretted a single can of soup. But, despite my own hubris into my own foresight and my disdain for those who don’t demonstrate this same skill, even I forget something as simple as puppies will chew anything and everything left on the floor. I’m not perfect, despite my occasional excessive vanity, arrogance, and narcissism.

This imperfection illuminated especially bright recently when I was laid off from my job. I won’t go into where my job was or any of the specifics about my job, but I will say I worked in communications (fancy business way of saying a writer) for a university research department. In short, I was assured that my position being dissolved had nothing to do with performance and was only a result of some issues with research grants and workloads. My supervisor even offered me a reference before I asked for it and went on to say that working with me was a pleasure. Part of me felt like it was sincere and just crappy circumstances and the result of being bottom of the totem pole. But part of me also felt like if I was good at my job, this wouldn’t have happened. It was a blow to the ego and one that I’m having some difficulty recovering from.

I spent some time with my future mother-in-law who’s a certified life coach to help me with some job interview skills and sprucing up my resume. The career coaching session quickly turned into more of a therapy session where I explained a lot of the anxieties I have been experiencing since losing my job. She referred to these anxieties as Gremlins for the way they constantly hang around and start pinching and nudging us when we start to feel good. The best thing she told me was that having Gremlins, especially after getting laid off, was completely normal. Accepting I’m not perfect suddenly became a little easier: I’m not perfect, I’m human.

A lot of what my future mother-in-law said echoed a lot of the things my therapist has been telling me as well. I started seeing a therapist back in August after I noticed my work-life balance turned more into haunting anxieties. As I’ve been going through sessions, I realized two things: first, I should have started this a lot sooner, and secondly, I’m obsessed with control. From my day to day work to social situations, I want to control everything. Everything has to be perfect. This isn’t healthy.

In fact, I discovered that a lot of what I was trying to control in order to save or preserve it was causing significantly more damage than any good. My control issues even rooted into why I avoid a lot of social situations and even have a difficulty in meeting and connecting with new people sometimes: my guard is up, I don’t feel like I can control how things are moving, so instead I completely cut it off. It’s not a good way to operate and I’m slowly learning to let things go and move how they move. But it’s been difficult. I’m making progress and I take some solace in that. But I’m also trying to make sure I don’t become controlling over how I’m not trying to control everything anymore. It’s been really difficult.

Of all the things said to me the past while, one thing has struck a particular chord that’s ringing true to me. My future sister-in-law said, “Progress over perfection.” Really simple. But it encompasses everything I’ve been struggling with. Not everything will fall exactly where I want it, but at least I’m working to get it closer. And that counts for something.

I find I’m getting less angry at people all the time. I’m not frustrated when I hear stories about silly or dumb things people do and how they clearly didn’t see what was coming. I shrug now, laugh a bit if it isn’t too tragic, and realize people have all kinds of things on their minds all of the time. Living day-to-day isn’t easy. And sometimes you just don’t see what’s in front of you.

I didn’t get mad at Atticus for chewing my headphones. I gave the headphones their proper burial in my garbage and thought about all the awesome stuff I listened to on them. I had a pair of backup headphones, not nearly as nice sounding as my Sennheisers, but they do the trick until I get a new job and am able to afford another pair of higher-end headphones. I thought about my Darth Vader action figure and my homework from when I was a kid, early victims of the family poodle. And I laughed. And I’d like to say I haven’t left anything on the floor since.