Yawning into the Staring Abyss Again
Nevin Trebec awoke on his futon wearing snow pants and a parka. Underneath the snow pants and parka, he was naked. It was the first day of June.
‘What the hell happened?’ he said, as he sat up.
He rolled off the futon and took off the snow pants and parka, found black boxer briefs hanging from a picture frame, put those on. He rubbed his head. The sole of his right foot ached, as if badly strained.
‘What happened last night?’
He wandered into the kitchen. There were shoes in the sink. White unisex Adidas runners. Not his shoes. He’d never seen these shoes before. There was a pizza box on the floor with a complete pizza inside, a cold complete pizza. Nevin ate a slice. He opened his breadbox.
A thing in the breadbox said, ‘Greet the day and whatever it brings with good humor, as well as you can.’
Nevin stared at the thing. The thing stared back.
The thing said, ‘Also, what’s bigger than a breadbox?’
Nevin closed the breadbox and rubbed his head. He found his phone under the shoes in the sink and called the Princess, hoping she might be able to tell him what had happened last night. He was sure the Princess had been at the patio: he retained a memory of her telling a joke, the one about the four-by-twos. Her phone rang and rang but the Princess wasn’t answering. Nevin dropped his phone back into the sink, threw on some jeans and a shirt and flip-flops, and left his pod for the big, wide world.
The big, wide world looked oppressively normal. Sunlight through abundant tree cover cast dappled blobs on the sidewalk, and so on. Nevin felt a sudden craving for strawberries. He walked down into the valley and followed the winding path that led to the tower where the Princess lived. He stood under the tower’s single window.
‘Princess!’ he called. ‘Hey, Princess! You awake? Hey, let down your hair!’
Moments later, a huge, glossy lock thumped to the ground by his feet. He climbed the hair up the side of the tower and over the windowsill. Inside, he found the Princess nestled in a massive silken coil. Her hair filled the entire room. She wore a rock T-shirt and panties and she’d clearly just woken up.
‘God, I love your hair,’ Nevin said. ‘You have so much hair!’
‘I know,’ the Princess said. ‘But I wish you’d use the elevator like everyone else.’
Nevin absentmindedly fondled her great pelt and said, ‘Princess, do you know what happened to me last night? I woke up in snow pants and a parka and nothing else.’
The Princess crossed her legs and said, ‘You showed up drunk at the patio and told some really offensive jokes. Then you disappeared for a bit. The last we saw of you, you were riding an ice floe down the river, singing about flying shoes.’
‘Flying shoes. So I don’t know what happened to you last night.’
‘What do you mean, I showed up drunk? I don’t drink anymore.’
‘You showed up drunk and then you drank everyone else’s beers and then you ordered a beer that you never drank because you disappeared and I ended up paying for the beer.’
‘That just isn’t possible. I don’t drink anymore. You know that. Liquor makes me stick my fingers into wall sockets and black out and stuff. I just don’t do it.’
‘Hm. Interesting. I guess it must have been some other guy, then. Some other guy who looks exactly like you and sounds like you and answers to your name and is you.’
‘Where did I get the ice floe?’
‘I don’t know. It’s summer. We all wondered that.’
Nevin had wrapped himself fully in the Princess’s hair. ‘Princess,’ he said, ‘what do you think the meaning of life is?’
‘I don’t think about the meaning of life.’ She uncrossed her legs. ‘Why don’t you go ask the Wise Owl?’
‘Okay. Maybe I will. Those are some cute panties, man.’
‘Take the elevator, Nevin.’
‘See ya later, Princess!’
‘Take the elevator, Nevin.’
Nevin slid down the luxurious rope of hair and wandered back along the winding path and out of the valley. He walked up 101st Street and found the Wise Owl sitting in the window at Starbucks, eating a Tootsie Pop and watching the girls go by in their shorts. Nevin didn’t bother to buy a coffee or anything. He just sat down next to the Wise Owl and watched the girls for a bit, and then he said, ‘Wise Owl?’
‘Did you see me on that ice floe last night?’
The Wise Owl closed her eyes and shook her head.
‘No,’ she said.
‘It’s just . . .’ Nevin said, and he watched a girl go by. ‘It’s just that I think I need to find better ways of waking up. Life can’t go on like this. I mean, snow pants. Sheesh.’
‘Waking up is hard to do,” the Wise Owl said. ‘And snow pants are deeply symbolic items.’
‘They are? What are they symbolic of?’
The Wise Owl closed her eyes and shook her head.
‘Nevin, I can’t just tell you.’
‘Because the path is the journey.’
‘The path you’re on.’
‘I’m not on a path. We’re in Starbucks.’
‘We are in Starbucks, yes, but even sitting in a Starbucks, you are on a path.’
‘You are? Which path? Is it underground?’
The Wise Owl closed her eyes and shook her head.
‘It is not a literal path. Most of what I say is not literal.’
‘Oh.’ Nevin watched a girl go by and shifted on his stool. ‘Are we still on the path?’
‘We are always on the path.’
‘Wise Owl?’ Nevin watched a girl go by. ‘What’s the meaning of life?’
The Wise Owl closed her eyes but did not shake her head this time. She opened her eyes and said, ‘You should listen to the thing in your breadbox.’
‘Yes, Nevin. What does it tell you every morning when you look inside the breadbox?’
‘It says, “Greet the day and whatever it brings with good humor, as well as you can.” And then it tries to play Twenty Questions with me. I wouldn’t have bought that breadbox if I’d known that thing was in it. What’s the point of a breadbox you can’t put bread in?’
‘Ah,’ the Wise Owl said. ‘What indeed?’
‘It’s not a breadbox anymore. It’s just a box. It’s not even really a box. It’s just a thing with a thing in it that takes up counter space.’
Nevin watched two girls go by. One of them was pushing a baby carriage.
The Wise Owl said, ‘Nevin, you seem lost.’
Nevin leaned forward and watched the girls with the baby carriage until they were out of sight. Then he sat back.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘did you say something?’
‘When was the last time you told the people you love that you love them?’
Nevin’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. Slowly, he stood.
‘It’s been…’ he whispered. He stared at the Wise Owl’s wise old, owly face. ‘It’s been forever.’
‘Yeah. I gotta go, Wise Owl. Oh, my god. I gotta go tell them. Before it’s too late.’
The Wise Owl crunched on her Tootsie Pop and said, ‘Godspeed, Nevin Trebec.’
Nevin ran out of the Starbucks, down the stairs to the LRT station and onto a train. He rode to the south side before transferring to a bus that would take him to the community where his sister and nieces lived. As he jounced around in his seat, he thought about what the Wise Owl had said about the thing in the breadbox. Did the thing in the breadbox have some kind of a point? Was it a thing in a breadbox with a point? He’d never taken the thing seriously before. Greet the day and whatever it brings with good humor, as well as you can. Was that some kind of a philosophy? Was the thing in the breadbox a thing in a breadbox with some kind of a philosophy? Across the aisle from Nevin, a woman chatted loudly on her phone. Suddenly, the phone spat threads of blue-white light that wrapped around the woman’s head and lassoed her wrists. Nevin jumped in his seat and recoiled. All around him, devices sprouted tentacles. People texting were trussed by luminous vines that wound up their arms. Someone taking a selfie was engulfed. The bus driver's Fitbit spun a web around him and took the wheel. Nevin grabbed a hand strap. He held on tight. The other passengers spilled into the aisle, gagged and hogtied, as the bus swerved and screeched to a halt. Nevin dangled from his strap for a moment, too stunned to make a move. Then he noticed tentacles groping up the seat toward him. He swung for the emergency release on the nearest window. He thought of his own phone, which he’d left in the sink this morning. He couldn’t say why he’d left it there. Good thing, though, he thought. He grasped the lever and popped the window out. He clambered from the bus.
The road was full of vehicles stalled haphazardly. Inside the vehicles, drivers bound by glowing tendrils kicked and thrashed. In their panic, some deployed airbags that knocked them back in their seats. A few managed to wriggle out of open windows, only to flop helplessly onto the pavement. Others merely sat and waited, their eyes darting left and right with an unformed, expectant terror. A fleet of self-driving cars wove between the stalled vehicles and parked and put up gullwing doors. Nevin ducked behind a Prius and watched with growing dread as young Visionaries poured out of the cars.
They wore hoodies and blazers and wielded tablets and spoke in quiet, insistent tones with total confidence. ‘Don't struggle,’ one of them said, to a man flopping by his feet. ‘We’re trying to change the world.’
The Visionary aimed his tablet and shot a beam at the man, who dematerialized in a flash of ones and zeroes. The tablet pinged and said, ‘Import complete.’
Nevin kept low. He ducked from car to car and made his way toward an off-ramp.
‘For the good of the System,’ the Visionaries chanted. ‘We are the System. You are the System. Please share. Please share.’
A Visionary placed her foot on the small of a woman’s back. ‘Lie still,’ she said. ‘Help us improve user experience.’ The woman shrieked through her gag and was summarily datafied. ‘We appreciate your feedback,’ the Visionary said.
Nevin slipped unnoticed down the ramp. He sprinted off in the direction of his sister’s community. Overhead, Visionaries strapped to self-driving kites swooped low to zap their defenseless victims. ‘Connect, engage,’ the Visionaries chanted. ‘Please share! Please share!’
Nevin ran and ran until he came to his sister’s community. Everywhere he looked, people’s devices held them pinned to their own front lawns, where Visionaries zapped them. He ran and ran. He came to his sister’s house—but he was too late. His sister and his beautiful nieces were pinned to their own front lawn. A trio of Visionaries stood above them. ‘It is time to update,’ the Visionaries chanted, and zapped Nevin’s family.
‘Import complete,’ the tablets said. ‘Reformatting in progress. Please do not turn off your device.’
Nevin watched this horrible scene from behind an azalea bush. He wanted to weep and wail. He wanted to rip his entire hair off in one piece. He wanted to jam his fingers down his throat and eat his own arms. But he did none of these things. Emojis were cackling and unfunny memes were running amok in the streets and Nevin just aimed his body away from it all and ran.
And ran and ran. He ran all night. He came to a mountain and ran up the mountain. He thought of his imported, reformatted family.
‘I didn’t tell them!’ he blurted, as tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘I didn’t tell them I love them! And now they’re stuck in the cloud and I can’t access them and it’s too late! It’s too late!’
He ran to the very top of the very big mountain. He didn’t know why he was running, whether he was running away or running toward or what the point of running was, but it felt good to run, it felt like being a living guy in a body that had functions. At the peak, he stopped for breath and gazed across the mountain range. He saw light on the eastern horizon. Then he watched in horror as a monstrous, blazing icon appeared and rose into the sky.
It was the sun. He faced it.
To the sun, he said, ‘What’s the meaning of it all! What's the point of waking up if you can’t remember last night and why does the Princess have so much hair if I can’t climb all over it and what’s the point of sisters and nieces if they just get reformatted before you can tell them that you love them!’
But of course, the sun did not hear and it did not answer. It couldn’t. It was just the sun. Just a confoundingly enormous spheroid of thermonuclear chain reactions hovering out there in space with no purpose except to consume itself and go dark. And bigger than a breadbox.
Nevin reflected on that. He thought about what else he had to say to this sun that did not hear and did not answer. He thought about the meaning of life.
And he stood bravely and faced the dawn and emptied his head and his heart of grief and cleared his throat and took a minute to get the sequence straight, then he raised his hands as if to quiet an audience, smirked a little, knitted his brow, and re-cleared his throat.
And then he told the sun the one about the four-by-twos.
Yawning into the Staring Abyss Again features in Somesuch Stories 3, now available for pre-order via AntenneBooks.
Illustration by Fraser Muggeridge studio