Will returns my bright-eyed stare. The printers ran out of paper a half hour ago, and we’re standing beside each other, wondering what’s going to happen next.
This is exactly how the world will end, I think—not with a bang or a whimper, but when the machines suddenly can’t print any more tickets.
Stars will come out again. They won’t be tiny holes poked into the black, paper sky that people glimpse on the way to buy popcorn and candy. Instead, they’ll roll over in silver sheets, blinking awake after thousands of years of human-induced sleep. Folks will come outside and brave the cold and mosquito bites to see them. Meanwhile, a cyclone-like vortex will form and drop to earth. It will suck all the office equipment into outer space and shatter it into infinitely small pieces.
I wait for the countdown to usher in this new reality as I stand there, my legs throbbing at the end of the ten-hour shift. My co-workers are torpid by now, fantasizing about the cold beer that’s waiting for them back home in the fridge—a drink that will lace their brains with pleasant memories as they enter oblivion. They’re not concerned about what will happen tomorrow when the next shift arrives to discover there’s no paper left to feed the throngs. They are picking up programs that fell to the floor and fetching their belongings from under the table runners. When the hand strikes twelve, they will be gone.
As I’m convincing myself to do the same, I realize I don’t want to enter oblivion: I want to gallop into the orange sunset. I want to hang by my fingertips from the flared nostrils of gargoyles over a pit of hellfire. What’s more, I can’t seem to convince myself I’m about to actually leave this place. Once I’m here, I’m really here, and after eleven hours of glorified servitude, it’s hard to walk away. I secretly hope something spectacular happens at the end, right before I cross the floor of the lobby and exit through the row of glass doors.
“I’m starring in a play tonight,” Will says suddenly. A smile lights up the hollows of his face. “It’s the lead role. I’m the king. I’m really kind of excited about it.”
His co-workers all nod and smile with the reassurance of hearing a young, upwardly mobile individual talk about how his life entails more than coordinating events and handing out tickets.
Will Low is his full name, and it’s a fitting one: There’s not a tinge of fat on him—only a slender neck and long limbs with joints so flexible, his knees look like they might bend backward when he walks. It’s alarming to watch this ectomorph in motion: The parts seem to flow too gracefully to be human.
There’s something familiar about Will that I can’t place. The two of us seem to have a lot in common—so much that I feel like we’re the same person.
“That’s thrilling,” I say.
Yes, he agrees, but it’s also scary. I’m sure. Never did like being on stage, myself. Will says he’s worried, because his part includes a nude scene.
“It’s not the nakedness I’m dreading. It’s that I have to undress right at the end of the act, so I know there’s going to be an awkward moment before the scene fades to black. Also, some of my friends are going to be in the audience.”
I agree it could be embarrassing—but wasn’t a big part of being on stage to relish the limelight without caring who was watching?
I’m wondering why the hell someone who didn’t want to be naked on stage would audition for a part with a nude scene, when Will tells me he didn’t find out he’d have to get naked until after landing the role.
“You didn’t have to do the scene in the audition?”
“No. The director is saving it for the stage—to keep it spontaneous and organic, he says. They don’t even want me rehearsing it, though who would know—and really, what good would it do?”
As he goes on, he describes his fear in a strange way. It’s not just the sheer fright of being naked while strangers stare at his balls. It’s like he’s preparing himself for a tornado, or flood. It’s the same dread he faced at the start of the shift, right before the guests began pouring through the lobby’s main doors—all three-hundred thousand of them whizzing by to pick up their tickets. Though there were many more people then, he didn’t have to get naked in front of them. I could see how this would be worse.
There’s a long, heady pause as we contemplate it, and I realize I’m salivating.
“It’s the dread that it might be bad,” he says with an air of finality.
He keeps using the word dread, and it gives me an inkling of it myself, because I know the root cause: that the worst possible thing will happen. An audience member will shout something, or he’ll fart, or a prop will fall on his head, or some other thing that would cause the effortlessly simple act of undressing to go horribly awry in a way that a person could never live down.
“I think it’s one of those things where you can’t really worry too much ahead of time—you just have to do it,” I say.
That’s brilliant, Diane. Really, fucking insightful. Like he hadn’t thought of that.
“Yes,” he replies. “That’s it, exactly.”
“It’s not so much the act of being naked, as knowing that you’re being put on the spot—that you might be embarrassed or ashamed,” I continue.
He mulls it over. “Yes. Right again.”
Soon, one of the event managers comes up to us and confirms there’s no paper left, there won’t be any tomorrow (Sunday), or likely until late Monday, when the order that was placed today is delivered. When that happens, paper will materialize quickly, but there is nothing anyone can do about it until then. What’s more, none of us is coming back. Today’s our last day to cover the event.
The hand strikes twelve.
“They’re cutting down trees in the forest as we speak,” one of our co-workers says suddenly as she exits the gate and treads gladly across the floor. “Paper will be here before we know it.”
I try to decide whether her words are a joke, or a form of protest. I know she can’t be serious: None of this is. I want that unspoken truth to console me, remind me I should be glad to go home. I am, but I’m also thinking about her parting words. I resent that she put the image of trees having their limbs sawed off into our heads just as we’re all about to leave.
On the drive home, I imagine doing something heroic in place of saving trees, like rescuing someone from a ditch. As I’m thinking that, I realize it’s because my day lacks closure. Despite the sheer, repetitive exhaustion of labor, there’s no way to really forget about it.
Instead of performing a heroic act in the trenches, I climb the stairs to the apartment and strip, leaving my clothes in a wild heap on the carpet. I sprawl naked on the bed, letting my arms and legs flail across the mattress as I stare up at the ceiling.
I’ve never been afraid to be naked, could have been one of those horses that pulled the buggies through downtown if I were born equine. I close my eyes, picturing my muscles rippling beneath my lustrous, brown fur as I shake my pom-poms and clop through the street.
My mind wanders as I begin to relax. Climbing through a chaparral-choked canyon, I see the emerald eyes of a lynx flash from the dark mouth of a cave. Scenes like this appear on the backs of my eyelids: visions of roaming through the desert beneath a blue-blooded moon.
The smell of sweat fills my nostrils, vinegary and acidic. Traces of it were on my clothes when I undressed earlier: a scent I’d masked with countless dabs of Jamaican jasmine. But all the flowers of Egypt couldn’t hide the smell of my inborn energy.
Soon, the visions progress into something else. I picture a woodsman climbing a steep hill, grunting and swinging an axe until he finds the one. He draws the axe back and swings, plunging the blade into its side. It’s a clean slice: A thin line appears in the severed flesh, and it begins to topple.
Suddenly, sunlight shines through the trees enrobing the forest. It’s as bright as a bulb that casts them in spotlight. The light intensifies as the trunk falls to the ground. The woodsman thinks only he hears the sound, but all the birds and creatures rustling in the forest fall silent. Now, the light is shining on the exposed trunk, illuminating the fresh sap that oozes like blood. Something or someone is screaming—voices in a crowd that join in a whisper.
I awake from the nightmare and jolt up in bed, my eyes panning like cameras through the darkness, seeking to give lines and form to the room’s blunt objects—a dresser, a lampshade, the outline of the closet door. I blink once, twice, trying to get my bearings.
Then, it’s all changing. The room’s not dark and quiet anymore. Light is streaming through the window, and figures are popping up on all sides, rising to their feet and clapping. The crowd is applauding. Cries of elation fill the room as the cast members return to the stage, holding hands to form a long chain that stretches from wing to wing. The actors take turns going down the row and bowing. The cheering and clapping grows louder as the star steps gracefully forward.
Once awake, fed, and groomed, I sort through the hangers in the closet, pulling out a clean, white shirt and a pair of black pants. I dress in the full-length mirror, grab my jacket, keys, and purse and open the door.
Was it a dream or a nightmare, I wonder? It doesn’t seem to matter: only that the person in it succeeded and pleased the crowd.
I smile softly as I pull the door closed behind me, stepping outside. Another day of work is beginning.
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack consisting of a map of Shallow Creek, a character profile, a specific location, and an item of interest.
These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.
For more information and full terms and conditions click here…
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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