A solo sailor is one thing. A solo flyer is one thing. People get used to the idea that a girl in her mid-teens can face air or water or wind on her own. They don’t trust her to face people. Not without being overborne in some way or other. A girl needs a protector on land. That’s what they tell her, sometimes they’re right.
She was only fifteen. She lived in a railroad flat in Queens with no locks on the doors, and this was the early ’80s. It was a building full of crazy friends. She has stories about stealing mattresses from a hotel by throwing them out the window. She has stories about the friends testifying to each other’s insanity by turns so they could all get disability. She has stories about selling rooted spider plant cuttings in jam jars on the street on the twenty-ninth of the month.
She had a male friend who stayed with her there. She wasn’t stupid, she knew that a man who sees a girl with a guy figures she already has an owner and goes looking elsewhere. So, yes, she found a guy to pretend he was the owner if someone came sniffing around. The friend was kind of her boyfriend, but she had her life, he had his. At first they just looked out for each other, then they looked after each other, then they got together, then they got married. They’re still married.
She was never his type, he was never hers. They’re war buddies, is what they are. She has her friends, he has his. He’s a contractor. She’s a housing rights investigator for the state. They still live separately by day. They still watch each other’s backs by night.
Of course they’ve each thought about splitting away, looking for romance — but never seriously. Walking out on the ordinary kind of spouse is one thing. It’s tears and alimony and all that crap. But they were partners in the cop or detective sense, not married but sealed in blood. You don’t walk out on that kind of a partner.
If she’d been the approved kind of wimpy heroine who gets in the newspapers — if she’d been a solo long-distance sailor or flyer — she might have had the luxury of marrying on soft unreliable grounds like romance. She wondered what kind of soft souls would pair up without knowing if they had each other’s backs.
Martha Bridegam is a lawyer and freelance writer in San Francisco. She blogs about good and bad places to sleep at lodginginpublic.blogspot.com
Original artwork "the writings on the wall" created by Chris Voyce
“The earworms are the worst part,” she was saying.
Ivan looked up from his beer. She was staring at him with a nervous half-smile, her eyes wide black holes in the dim of the bar. Her fingers interlocked around a glass of cranberry juice that she still hadn’t brought to her lips. “What?” he asked.
She straightened. “You know what an earworm is? It’s a little bit of music that catches in your head and plays on a constant rotation. Have you ever spent a day humming the same line over and over?” Ivan nodded. She continued. “The only way to get rid of an earworm is to listen to the song from start to finish. But that’s the problem. If I get a song stuck in my head, I have to wait months before it’s even recorded. Before it’s even written. For weeks I’ve been humming this one chorus that I can’t remember the lyrics to, and I won’t find out for years.”
Ivan scowled. This doe-eyed talk of earworms was an attempt at charm, and he didn’t want to be charmed. “So that’s the worst part about the future,” he said. “Vague unwritten choruses?”
“I’m not from the future,” she answered. “Stop making it sound so sci-fi.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from right here, same as you.”
“But you knew me in another life.”
“The same life. Just another thread of it.”
The waitress stopped beside their table. Ivan made a swirling motion with his finger to indicate that they each needed another drink. The waitress nodded and continued toward the mahogany bar, ducking between tables circled with happy hour revelers in wrinkled business casual. Ivan returned his gaze to the girl across the table. She was still staring at him, absently drumming her fingernails against her glass.
Ivan sipped his pint and licked his lips. He felt like the butt of some carefully-orchestrated joke. At any moment a curtain would be pulled and the studio audience would applaud. Her sheepish presence across the table unsettled him.
“What did you say your name was?” he asked.
“It’s Amy,” she answered. She paused. “And you know it’s Amy. You always do that when you meet people you don’t like; you pretend to forget their names. You told me once you do it to make them feel less important, and I told you that was mean.”
“Thanks, Amy,” Ivan said. “And when did this conversation take place, exactly?”
Amy sighed. “That’s hard to explain.”
“When we were dating, right?”
“And when was that?”
“That’s hard to explain, too.”
“We would have started about six months ago.”
“We would have, but we didn’t.”
“Yeah, I get it,” she said, rolling her eyes. “God, Ivan, why are you being so nasty about this?”
“What is ‘this’?” he asked. “I don’t know you. You’re just some lunatic who appeared from nowhere and dragged me to a bar to say you were my girlfriend in another life.”
“You have a birthmark in the shape of a heart on your left butt cheek.”
“You have an apartment across the street from mine and a great pair of binoculars.”
“And before your mother died she used to tell you it was where an angel spanked you, to remind you to always be good.”
Ivan choked a little on his last gulp as Amy shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I want you to know that I’m not crazy. I really do know you.”
The waitress returned with the drinks and placed them on the table. Ivan slugged his pint and watched Amy pull the lime from her new glass of cranberry juice to squeeze it into the old one. She dropped the rind onto a piece of ice and laced her fingers around the sloshing red of the glass, still without drinking.
It was she who broke the silence. “Time is linear, right,” she said. “It only moves forward. Usually. My life moved forward, on a regular old timeline just like anybody else’s. The difference is that one day I hit a certain point and I jumped back, like a rewind button. And then instead of moving forward on the same path I’d taken initially, I made different choices. Where your timeline is a straight stick, mine had a branch that forked off to the side. Now I’m living that branch.” Ivan didn’t respond. “It’s like a do-over,” she said. “A second shot.”
He took another long drink. His head was spinning and he knew he was drinking too quickly, muddying an already senseless situation. But he needed the mouthful and the accompanying swallow, needed to buy himself some time.
Amy continued. “On the initial stick, the first timeline, you and I used to date. If I had gone through my life on the path I took the first time, we would have started seeing each other six months ago.”
Ivan stared into his glass, watching the suds pop one by one along the surface of the beer. The comment about his mother had shaken him. He coughed and tried to sound sarcastic. “So where did we meet, exactly?”
“At a stupid bar. The usual thing. We went home together but we ended up hitting it off. You used to say it was a one night stand that got out of hand.”
“What happened this time around, you just avoided that bar?”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “I’ve been,” she answered. “I even went that same night, to see you. But I hung back and we didn’t talk. You went home with some other girl. A blonde.” Her voice wavered a little on her last word, betraying a twinge of jealousy.
“That’s cool,” Ivan sneered. “That’s adorable. You go to bars just to watch me, you pounce on me on my way out of work and beg me to buy you a drink, and then you tell me you know what my ass looks like because you were my girlfriend in another life. This is really spectacular; you’re making quite a splash.”
Tears collected in Amy’s eyes and she swallowed hard, staring at her cranberry juice. It was driving him crazy that she still hadn’t touched it, while he had nearly finished his second beer. Again silence swept clean the table, and he looked at her hard, watching her lower lip wobble. She wasn’t unattractive, really. A bit plain, maybe. It was no wonder he hadn’t noticed her at a bar night six months ago. But she had deep, dark eyes that he found enticing, even when they were wet. And a nice rack, he thought. There was no denying that.
When Amy cut the quiet again, her voice was low and controlled. “I know,” she said. “I’m sure this is a lot to take in. And I’m sorry if I startled you by grabbing you outside your office, but I remembered that you use the side door, and you always leave fifteen minutes late because you don’t like sharing the elevator.”
“Will you stop doing that?” he said. “Stop describing my personal habits. All you sound like is a really accomplished stalker.”
“I’m trying to explain myself.”
“Why are you even telling me this?” he asked. “You’re saying you knew how this whole scenario would play out, so why didn’t you just follow the script from your other timeline?”
“It didn’t go well last time,” Amy answered, lowering her eyes.
“You thought it would go better if you threw this alternate-ending director’s cut crap at me?”
“Look,” Amy answered, meeting his unblinking gaze. “It’s been almost two years since my whole life was restarted. I’ve had plenty of time to think about this. At first I planned to avoid you altogether, but I wanted to see you. And not in a fake way, pretending to be some stranger who seduces you at a bar, acting surprised when you get that promotion a year from now.” Ivan raised his eyebrows and she finally looked away. “I know this doesn’t make sense to you,” she mumbled. “But I missed you.”
Ivan shook his head. “This is quite a fucking story,” he said. “Have you had these sorts of meet-ups with a lot of people?”
He’d been attempting a joke, but Amy didn’t laugh. “No,” she said. “It’s a little too crazy to explain to everybody. I haven’t really bothered trying to befriend people from my old life. I thought I should take the fresh start for what it was, and build myself a whole new future, all surprises.”
“Then why me?”
She shrank into her chair, flushed. Finally she lifted the first cranberry juice to her lips. She took a sip and dropped the glass on the tabletop, her eyes averted. “Because,” she said finally. “In that other life… on the straight stick, you meant a lot to me. You were important.”
Ivan didn’t respond. The waitress came back to the table and he nodded without looking at her, making the same circling motion with his finger. Amy brought the juice to her lips once again.
“So…” he said, searching. He was uncomfortable with the idea of a shared past with this woman, even a past that played out on another plane of existence. “If you’ve changed your whole life, has the world become dramatically different? Isn’t that the butterfly effect? The idea that everything everybody does affects everybody else?”
Amy smiled. “I thought about that,” she said. “I wondered if that would happen. But for the most part, the rest of the world seems to be rolling along as expected. Headlines are all the same. I guess in the scheme of things I’m not that important.”
“Have you tried to prevent any crimes? Murders? Or, hey, what about the lottery? Can you always just pick the right numbers?”
“I thought about being a superhero, but I don’t know how to do it without getting into trouble. It’s not like I could just call up the police to say, ‘Hey, there’s a bomb going off in this building tomorrow.’ And I never bothered to memorize any winning lottery numbers.” She paused. “I did okay in last year’s Super bowl pool.”
“Where do you think the old you is now? The one on the straight time stick. You think she’s still out there, living out your life in some parallel universe?”
“I don’t know if she exists,” said Amy. “I don’t really care, I guess. I’m here now.”
“On a twig full of earworms, right.”
She smiled. “Yes. Earworms from the future.”
“How far along did you get before you jumped backwards?”
“About three years from now. Three and a half.”
“And how did it happen?”
Amy’s smile faltered. She brought her cranberry juice to her lips again as the waitress deposited another round of drinks on the table in front of them. Ivan’s empty pint glass was whisked away. Amy placed her juice glass back on the table, in a straight line with the other two. She drummed her fingers against the glass.
“How did you do it?” Ivan persisted.
She hesitated, opening her mouth twice before any sound came out. When she finally spoke her voice was apologetic. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said. “I mean I wanted it to happen, but I didn’t think it was possible. Why would I?”
“How did you do it?”
Amy took another sip of cranberry juice. “I was at a really low point,” she said. “Really low. And all I could think was that I wished I could go back… ” She coughed and straightened again in her chair. “I wished I could go back and never have met you. I thought if you had never been in my life, none of it would have happened and I would have been better off. And I used to just say that over and over in my head, like a mantra, ‘Go back, go back, go back,’ like if I said it enough times I could make it happen. For weeks, probably months. I was obsessed with it. And then one day I woke up, and it had happened. I didn’t know how. But I had jumped back to my life before you—way before you, actually. I calculated and I think I went back about five and a half years. I mean obviously at first I didn’t believe it was real. For three days I thought I was having a very vivid dream. But eventually, when I saw everything play out the way it had before, when I started to act differently and to see that I could make changes to my future, then I started to believe it. ” She looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“That’s it?” asked Ivan. “Just ‘Go back’? You altered the space-time continuum through the power of your mind?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know why it worked. Maybe because I said it enough times, maybe because I thought it hard enough. I have no idea. Like I said, I just woke up one day and I was five years younger.
“You’re glossing over something,” he said. “The fact that you wanted to go back to a life before me. What did I do that was so horrible that you had to change the rotation of the earth to undo it?”
Ivan watched a little shiver work its way through Amy’s shoulders, left to right. Her breasts bumped briefly against the edge of the table, a subtly intoxicating movement. If he had ever picked her up at a bar, he thought, she would have been wearing a V-neck.
“We got serious,” she said. “We were living together and it was pretty good. I started law school and you were making money with your promotion and we were doing okay. But then I got pregnant, and it messed everything up. I didn’t want to drop out of law school and you didn’t want to get married, so we decided that I would… you know. That I would terminate it.” Her hands shook a little as she brought the glass of juice to her mouth, barely making contact with her lips before she dropped it back to the table. “And it turned out, you know, it turned out I just couldn’t handle it. I got so depressed… I felt so guilty. This crazy sense of loss. And you didn’t feel that way at all. You didn’t really… care, I guess. At first you tried to comfort me, but after a few weeks I was getting worse and you were mad that I couldn’t snap out of it. I stopped eating, stopped going to class, after a while I stopped getting out of bed.” She took a deep breath and met his eyes again, searching for something, but Ivan looked away. “So, I mean, naturally, that was a pretty serious strain on our relationship. You couldn’t take it and you didn’t know how to deal with me. So you moved out. And I couldn’t do anything, I just lay in bed crying and wishing that I could go back. Because if I had never met you, none of it ever would have happened.”
Ivan’s beer was a little warmer than it should have been for a fresh pour. He was trying to feign indifference, but something inside him was twisting. He felt suddenly furious with this woman for trying to make him feel guilty about something that had never happened. She was just some stranger, insistent that their intimacy had ruined her life. And yet an aching sense of culpability chewed at his stomach. It confused him and made him even angrier.
Amy was lost now, her dark eyes gazing past him at the dark bar. “What’s weird,” she said, “is the way I feel today. I really did change my whole life. I didn’t go to law school; I went to nursing school instead. And on weekends I volunteer at a nursery for HIV-positive babies. But I still feel so guilty. Even though, in this life, I never did it. She never even existed, but I still miss her.”
“Her?” said Ivan. “You anthropomorphosized your abortion?”
Amy blinked and dropped her eyes. “Fuck you.”
“Lady,” said Ivan, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re like my own personal Ghost of Christmas Future, trying to warn me about the dangers of unprotected sex. Who are you?”
“You asked,” said Amy. “You wanted to know so I told you.”
“You told me you rewound your whole existence to write me out of it, and then you came to find me anyway.”
“I wanted to see you,” she said. “I missed you.”
“Because I was this monster who destroyed your whole life despite the fact that I don’t even know you.”
“I told you,” she said, “I didn’t do it on purpose. It just happened. Everyone has regrets, I’m just the lucky one who got a chance at a re-do. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like to change your past. Isn’t there a point you’d like to go back to, to start again?”
“I don’t know,” said Ivan. “Is there? You seem to know everything about me; you tell me. What is it I want to undo?”
Amy stared into her half-empty glass of juice, still gripping it with both hands. “I think,” she said quietly, “that you’d go back to Columbus Day weekend of your freshman year. I think you’d tell your mom not to come pick you up. Tell her not to get in the car.”
Ivan rose from his chair, jostling the table. Some cranberry juice sloshed and dribbled down the side of one of the glasses. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got to be somewhere. And it looks like you’ve still got quite a bit of juice to finish here.” He pulled out his wallet and tossed two twenties in Amy’s direction. “Thanks for the chat; it was nice meeting you.”
“Ivan, can you wait?” she asked. “I know you’re confused, but I’d really like to talk to you—”
“You know how to get a hold of me,” he spat. “Right? You probably know my address and phone number, don’t you? What else? My credit card? Social security number? I’m sure you’ve got all of this information, since we were so tight in that other dimension. You think of something else to say, come find me and say it. But I’ve got nothing more to say to you.” Ivan took one last hard look at the girl shivering across the table, at the bills soaking up the red juice. Then he turned and barged between the other crowded tables, leading with his shoulder against the boisterous after-workers who blocked his way out.
The heavy front door swung behind him as he stepped into the chilly city streets. Ivan shoved his hands in his pockets and tucked his chin to his chest, stomping against the wind in the direction of his apartment. Go back, he thought. Go back go back go back go back…
Kaitlyn Gentile has lived out of a suitcase on four continents, but she finally unpacked in New York. She writes personal essays and travel pieces.
Original artwork, "The Branch," created by Aimee Cozza.
The suicide machine was created as a mobile unit, an in-home service available with just a phone call or an online order. It rolled on treads, and features many attachments that get the job done. Pincers, hoses, retractable lengths of rope, needles, and bludgeons come out of the stout body of the machine when summoned. It was a machine designed for the utmost practicality, which makes what happened to it all the more surprising.
The suicide machine produced its first painting last year, in the wreck of a house mid-renovation. The owner of the house, perhaps in financial ruin over his renovations, had ordered a home delivery, leaving his project unfinished. The machine was dispatched in the morning, and by evening had not yet rolled back into the factory. They found it amongst the rubble, in front of a large tarp that was hanging dividing a room. The tarp was entirely covered with paint, a messy Pollack-like collage of streaks. A brush dangled from one of the suicide machine’s pincers.
The machine was taken out of rotation and placed in a room at the suicide machine factory by itself with a canvas and some paint. Its owners had to know what was causing the problem, and if it could be reproduced. The next painting, unlike the later commissioned works, was more of an experiment in repetition than a work of creative discovery. It was almost a reproduction of the first. The major difference was the use of proper canvas, provided by the management of said company. Using a better brush and cleaner paints, the suicide machine was able to to produce a more polished work.
The machine was left in its room, provided with new canvas. A backup machine was sent out into the field in its place. Word of the machine’s artwork had got out—people had seen the first two paintings and wanted more. Of course the novelty of the thing, like a painting elephant, was what really drew people, but the factory’s owners weren’t about to turn away free publicity. No one was more curious as to the machine’s process than its owners, but the design of the machine made the process unobservable. The machine was designed for the utmost privacy—it wouldn’t operate in its intended function unless it was alone in the room with the person who wanted to die. In the same way, the machine wouldn’t paint unless it was alone with its desired medium. A canvas would be left in a locked room with the machine, and in the morning it was covered in paint. Attempts to observe the machine through two-way glass or on camera were ineffective; the machine never moved if it was being observed.
The factory owners gave up trying to figure out how the machine painted and set it up in its own room at the factory with a pile of canvases and many gallons of paint. Given complete artistic freedom, its paintings began to take shape. The fifth painting showed signs of the first attempts at experiment—radiating circles replaced the broad horizontal strokes and splashes of the early works.
This change in technique led again to questions about the suicide machine’s process. It was generally assumed that the machine painted the first four paintings by moving back and forth in front of the canvas, pincer outstretched grasping the paintbrush. This technique accounted for the horizontal design of some of the works, and even the splashy design of others. But this circular painting meant that the machine was rotating the brush in some way, not using the arm with the pincer attached—this arm moved only on a tight up-down, side-to-side series of tracks. One theory that could account for the curved artwork first seen in the fifth through seventh paintings is the machine’s hose—though how the machine was able to grasp a paintbrush with the rigid plastic rounded end of the hose is a mystery. The interior of the hose was examined for paint residue, in case the machine was sucking up the paint and spraying it on the canvas, but this was not the case.
The eighth painting is often referred to as the suicide machine’s “Scream.” The strokes were wilder than in previous paintings, the colors more jarring. And in the middle, the famous almost-face. Some say it’s just another circle and that the natural human inclination to search for human representation makes too much of the smaller circles within the bigger one. The psychological school of study makes much of this painting and its timeframe—it was painted around the time when the backup suicide machine broke down.
There was always a concern, of course, that the second machine—an exact duplicate—might eventually develop a taste for art as well. To this end the owners of the company had a second room prepared just in case, though of course it was never used. The replica machine was making its way up a steep hill when its treads slipped and and it rolled swiftly back, eventually crashing into the brick wall of the gated community. The billionaire at the top of the hill who had summoned the machine sued the company for breach of contract and mental hardship (he had been scheduled to go to prison the next day, and the backup suicide machine’s breakdown forced him to fulfill his sentence). The cost of the subsequent litigation ruined the company and the whole suicide machine project was abandoned. The suicide machine itself also abandoned the painting it had been working on. It has since showed no interest in returning to this painting.
The suicide machine now resides in a museum next to its paintings. The final painting is on display nearest the machine, behind glass. A return to form, this almost geometric collection of straight lines was again painted in a single night. Some claim that the lines near the bottom of the painting resemble blades of grass. The museum keeps the suicide machine in working order and a blank canvas also in the room with it, but the machine has never painted anything else. It has not been used for its original purpose either.
Only one painting is missing from the exhibit. It was painted between the unfinished painting and the final one, and resides in a private collection. After her husband went to prison and before the suicide machine company went under, the wife of the billionaire summoned the suicide machine to her house. In the absence of the second machine, the company decided to take the old machine out of its painting room and send it back into the field. The machine, perhaps better built than its twin, made it up the hill and back down, but the woman who had called it remained alive. She claims to have commissioned a painting from the machine instead of a death. She says she keeps this painting in a special room—that it’s the largest painting the machine has ever done. She also claims to have observed the machine at work, though this is of course impossible. The suicide machine works alone.
But she refuses to disclose what she claims to know. This is the only statement she has ever given on this topic:
I have watched the machine paint. It produced at my request the most gorgeous wall-sized outdoor scene I’ve ever known. I sit often and observe this painting—it is a great comfort to me. But I try not to remember what I saw when I watched the artist at work. And I can’t describe it to you—I won’t. Some things are too terrible for words.
Ben Black’s work has appeared in fiction365, Identity Theory, and New American Writing. He recently completed his MFA at San Franciso State University, where he also teaches. His work is regularly performed at the San Francisco reading series Action Fiction! Find out more at benpblack.com
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by the San Francisco Writer's Community, Fiction365, and Omnibucket.
Every night, around four in the morning, on the rue Benoit Bunico in Nice, there is a shouting match between a man and a woman and though they are not always the same man and woman the shouting match always ends with a gunshot. The man is the one clapping and laughing and his voice is much stronger, but the woman shouts more and it is the shrill pitch of her voice that first invades the minds of the two foreigners, a husband and wife, sleeping four stories above the street. “I hate this place,” says the wife, turning over in bed, cramming toilet paper into her ears, the rest of her hot and naked, barely covered by the thin sheet. Her husband turns over too, adjusts the paper in his own ears. “Don’t hate the place; hate the people,” he says. He wonders if he locked the door. Of course he did, the door is a thick slab of metal and there are not one or two but six deadbolts that all lock together when he turns the key. There is no doubt they are locked away inside. The shouting match continues down on the street, in French, which neither husband nor wife understand until, this particular night, the shouting woman’s French breaks into the Queen’s English – not for long, but long enough for her to say, “Pascal, if you go now, that’s it, fine, brilliant, that’s just brilliant,” and then like all these shouting matches it proceeds again in French and the foreigners pushing the crumpled toilet paper deeper into their ears understand nothing of the shouting. And it does not end until the gunshot sounds.
SCOTT LAMBRIDIS is co-founder of Omnibucket.com, with a BA in neurobiology and an MFA from SF State. His debut novel – a scientist discovers the end of time – is seeking publication. Check him out in the new New American Writing. Email him at email@example.com
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by The San Francisco Writer's Community, Fiction365 and Omnibucket.
The ants always burned too quickly for their adolescent pleasure. The three of them would spend weeks building the miniature metropolis in Sam’s back yard, and it was all over in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t fair. Or fulfilling. It would have to change.
They’d begun with ant colony kits, but the glass aquariums and earthen infrastructures were a poor substitute for the civic centers they envisioned for their subjects. This was to be a grand simulation, an exercise in utopian world building and the apocalypse of divine caprice; they didn’t want it to look like a glorified science fair experiment. So they ditched the aquariums and advanced their urban planning, delineating the borders of the antropolis with bricks stolen from the construction site down the street. The bricks were too large to serve as practical barriers for the citizens, who could shoot through the gaps between them like watermelon seeds spat between the boys’ teeth at summer barbecues. But they served as functional frameworks for the mise en scene. Considering the scale of the citizenry, one brick constituted a house, three bricks a mansion, five a supermarket. By the end of the summer, twelve-brick skyscrapers towered over nine-brick strip malls. Crumbled brick parks sat next to chiseled brick churches. To anyone else, it may have looked like child’s play. To the three of them, it was paradise and Pompeii rolled up into one brilliant tableau.
Discarded IV tubing from the hospital where Sam’s mom worked snaked through the bricolage architecture, providing perfectly scaled passageways for the ant population that hustled and bustled through the city’s streets and structures. The boys would spend hours every evening watching them live their little lives, scurrying from place to place as if they were going to work, doing their shopping, returning home to their families every evening. Knowing that the ants had
no idea of the reality of their situation–that they lived in the end times of their particular entomology–knowing this provided moments of ecstasy and anticipation the three of them would spend most of their lives trying to rediscover.
Despite the universal nature of the apocalypse, the catastrophe was always personal; the engineers knew that all ants die alone. They would wait for an appropriately sunny day right before the school year commenced and gather at the side of their burgeoning megalopolis. Sam would produce the magnifying glass with a flourish, Jonah would start to sing his dirge, and the future leader of the free world would create a traffic jam on one of the busy thoroughfares by pinching the ends of the tube together–leaving the commuters to scramble back and forth across each other’s bodies, desperately seeking a way home, sensing that something awful was about to happen.
Together they were the Three Musketeers of Mayhem, the Three Horsemen of the Ant Apocalypse, and they would always do the deed collectively. A hand from each steadied the magnifying glass, their arms radial spokes in the great wheel of destruction begetting creation begetting destruction. Each helped focus their act of reverse alchemy–gold to shit, life to death– as they hunted each ant down with their low-tech doomsday ray. It was always over within a matter of minutes. Far too fast.
Afterwards, they would remove the tiny bodies and bury them in the graveyard of the carved brick church, imagining the names on the markers: Icarus, Hiro, Nagi.
By the first day of school, their teeming urban environment would be a ghost town. Only one ant left, whom they would allow to escape, the last survivor of his kind set free to find a female refugee to jump-start his culture with, save it from extinction. And while he might run wild for now: they would certainly round him and his family up next year.
The following summer the experiment evolved. The previous year’s efforts had been satisfying, but the Three Musketeers were older now, wiser, more ambitious. They didn’t want to stalk the citizenry with magnified sunlight one by one, like some ridiculous serial killer. They wanted Atlantis. They wanted New Orleans. They wanted to be wrathful gods ushering in instant armageddon, cataclysm the likes of which ant-kind had never known before.
And so they repaired any elements of the city that had become weather-worn over the past nine months. They added subdivisions and shopping malls, prepared for a doubling or more of their population. And they shipped in ants from all over the county. Fire ants from Deer Creek Park, army ants from the new construction site next to the old construction site down the street, obese ants fatted on the scraps of careless picnickers, skinny ants from the abandoned downtown where soil was as scarce as employment. They wanted to create the perfect population mix, a utopian diversity that naively believed it would be able to weather any storm through bonds of species solidarity. And at the end of the summer, on the day before fifth grade beckoned, they retrieved the oversized lens they had stolen from the science museum and stashed under Sam’s porch. Three-headed hydra, six-armed Kali, the three of them hefted it high above their city and watched the entire population burn in one triumphant blaze.
The summer after that, they realized they had gone as far as they could with their current paradigm. They needed a new kind of catastrophe and a new kind of subject, something that wouldn’t relinquish its hold on life so quickly, wouldn’t disappoint them with ten-second death throes as it died with the silence of a mime. So they rounded up as many mice as they could from the last remaining field in the neighborhood, they rounded them up and put them in a holding pen while they broke ground on their most ambitious urban planning yet.
Eric Myers writes and teaches, splitting his time between San Francisco and Columbus, OH, before a full time return to the Bay later this year. In one previous life, he founded MadLab, an award-winning experimental theatre company, where he wrote and produced three full-length and a dozen one-act plays. In another, he co-founded and produced Burning Man Information Radio for over a decade. A self-described “playwright in remission,” he recently completed a 170 page play that he is now adapting for the screen.
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365, Omnibucket, and the San Francisco Writers Community