This month's pitch is to take turns telling each other horror stories, each rooted in a modern anxiety.
So we were sitting at a table, in a restaurant, on a Sunday, it was the middle of the day, the sun was shining. And some girl next to us, she was talking about this new job she had, she was very excited about it, financials, some big company. And I was trying to listen to what Sally was saying about a dream she had, a dream about spiders, but the girl next to us, her boyfriend, he kept drumming his fingers against the table like he couldn’t wait for her to shut up. Then the blast came.
Change can happen quickly, or not. Sometimes it happens slowly and you don’t even know it’s happened until after it’s gone. That’s how I felt the first time I saw Jon’s face, when he knocked on our door, when he told us to stay inside and not come out. It was grey, bulging like a vein, soft and furry like mold, that soft and furry where you don’t want to touch it because you know underneath it’s just garbage. And he didn’t seem to even notice. It grew so slowly like that.
“Anyone come round here?” he said. “Anyone ask any questions, anyone seem funny?”
“Just you,” I said.
“Good,” he told me. “You keep Sally inside there and turn on the tv, and the radio too if you got one. I heard they’re out there.”
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“Me?” he said. “Yeah, I’m just fine. I’m just fine, Robert. You sure you ain’t seen nobody? They’re everywhere now, you know.”
And I did know, because that’s how it was by then, they were everywhere. And I remembered for some reason that guy with his fingers tapping, drumming, drumming against the table while his girl, sweet as pie, just chatters chatters chatters away, and she has no idea there’s going to be a blast. No idea.
Everything happens so fast, sometimes, so out of nowhere, and your mind can’t stomach the sudden change, it keeps making excuses for what’s really happening and saying things like “it was just an accident, it was just a horrible accident” or “it would be so easy to avoid, I’ll just step back a second and fix it and it won’t happen again.” But of course it isn’t like that.
What it’s like is it’s like Sally sitting in the bathtub with that radio on her lap chewing at her fingernails even though she ripped into the quick and she shakes her hand every time she does it again but she can’t stop.
“Jon came by,” I told her and she nodded. “He had something growing on his face.”
“You’re not supposed to talk about it,” she said. “The radio says that if you mention it they go crazy and that’s when they get you.”
“I thought they were the good ones,” I said. “I thought the TV said to trust them.”
She stared at me like my nose had just fallen off. “You can’t trust the TV,” she said, matter-of-factly. “That’s how they get you.”
So that is how they get you. One day you hear a knock on the door and you answer it and it’s someone like Jon, only they look different, their face is loose like a puppet on someone’s hand and they ask you to come out and talk about it and you open the door and then they get you. Or you’re in your car, listening to the radio, and a voice comes on and it tells you that the world’s turned upside down and asks you to step out of the car and then they get you. Or you’re sitting in a restaurant and the sky is really blue that day, and you look over at her hand and you think, I should put a ring on that finger. And you think, this afternoon I think I’ll have a beer and sit on the porch. I hate to have to work tomorrow, but this afternoon, I don’t. And then the man next to you starts drumming his fingers against the table and they get you.
I found a chat room once, before the blasts started going off in earnest, before we stopped leaving the apartment entirely, a place for survivors. Survivors of this, survivors of that. Iraqi prisons, airplane crashes, mass murders, you name it.
One of these guys, he claims to have had his leg caught in a bear trap in Saskatchewan. He says he sawed it off himself, him and a little pen knife, and dragged himself all the way back to civilization, just on his hands, tied the wound off with a sleeping bag draw-string. He told me once, when I was on late, that nothing that was going on really worried him. That he has seen it all before.
How’s that? I asked. Explain that to my girlfriend, who’s sitting in the tub biting her nails off.
Oh it’s not the same, he says. But you know it is. It’s like that bear trap. One day you step in it, and then you’re stuck, and you didn’t ask for that. And you have decide what side of that trap you’re going to end up. Whether you’re going to tear off what’s stuck or die along with it.
“That’s bullshit,” Jon told me a day later. “You need to fight, Robby.” Those weird grey veins were running across his forehead by then, and now they were starting to look angry and red.
“Fight who?” I asked.
He laughed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Whoever! Jesus, it’s about survival, Robby.”
“Is it?” I asked. “Sally says the radio is saying this will all blow over. That’s it just a natural phenomenon.”
Jon let out a sigh and looked straight at me, through the crack in the door. “You can’t listen to the radio, Robby,” he said, his voice heaving like air rushing out of an old tire. “That’s how they get you.”
Sally and I watched when they came marching over the city. The lights bobbed like a thousand fireflies in unison, and the blasts went off all around.
“That’s us driving them back,” Jon told me.
“That’s them tearing down the world,” the radio said.
“That’s the sound of freedom coming,” the tv buzzed.
Maybe they were all right. Maybe the only proper thing to do was to never find out, to stop listening, to keep running, to trust no one except yourself.
"Come hold me," Sally said. "Out on the balcony."
Tear off what’s stuck or die along with it. That’s the survivor’s credo.
I held Sally tight and tried to imagine the sound of fingers tapping.