A short story inspired, perhaps distastefully, by a news headline.
The beginning is always the same. Having dulled the razor’s edge of adolescence with nothing but a few nicks to show for it, young men of all creeds and backgrounds freeze wherever they happen to be and drop their expressions entirely. A long, twisted tunnel comes together before their eyes — a dumping ground for all the unreturned phone calls their addled minds have buried with time. Perspective descends in dizzying bits of lightning: they have always believed to some extent that nothing matters, a side effect of either generational apathy or evolutionary self-defense, but only during this swift confrontation with their lives’ most irreconcilable elements do they mold this belief into something concrete.
The odd and otherworldly takeover can strike anywhere. Ideally, the victims will be enjoying an afternoon jog when the sensation comes about, seized with a quiet panic to which they are the sole witness. Their Nikes scuff and their water bottles with loosely refitted tops made of recycled plastic spill, but that’s usually the worst of it.
Much less fortunate are the poor bastards who drop a glass of champagne at their best friend’s wedding or stop dead in the middle of an intersection while driving their girlfriends to the Cape for the weekend; they’re forced to feign normalcy or else publicly fall apart while succumbing to the greatest and least-explainable wave of existential unease they have ever experienced.
When it hits, there are two major courses of action. The insatiable dissect their every unfinished exchange and rushed valedictory, terrified by the threat of loose ends, striving with an alien sense of purpose to mold the raw material of their lives into something with a three-act structure.
Others — the restless — revel in the clarity of the experience and use it to revisit moments they have either forgotten or suppressed. Because they spend most of their lives fretting about getting to sleep on time or moving their conversations at a steady clip, this break from reality is a welcome reprieve.
The most common reaction, though, is typical of any person experiencing any sort of paradigm shift: an initial rush of concern, followed by disinterest that eventually gives way to amnesia. Lives are long and complicated, most eventually reason. No use legitimizing every gut punch that flies your way.
Carson Hille was alone in his sterile, boxy living room on the day it happened to him. He was stoned, folding socks, and waiting for a colleague to come pick something up from his guest room. For eighteen months now, he’d been living in a rent controlled single-bedroom apartment two miles north of the city that stewed in the stench of unfulfilled creative energy.
He was halfway through a suitably prestigious undergraduate education in neuroscience, so he wrote off the morning’s mounting dread as a particularly nasty bout of drug-induced paranoia. Chemical rebellion. The sudden slackness of his jaw and numbness in his extremities drove him to swear off the purplish strain of marijuana that rested in two neat, symmetrical piles to his right. But as he lifted and stretched his spindly legs, he began to notice that this unease was not the work of potent cannabis. This was something deeper, sadder, and far less fleeting.
The local news was on, as it always was on afternoons like this. For the past twelve or thirteen months, police had been searching for a boy named Kyle Cromley who was last seen being picked up from school by his stepmother. All throughout the state, it had become impossible to check the weather without encountering the tear-streaked marble faces of Kyle’s parents or the profiles of melancholy schoolteachers who spoke of his irrepressible light while their eyes unsteadily scanned the floor. Today, for the first time in weeks, the story was back in focus, and the Channel 7 news team returned to its standard method of coverage. The blonde field reporter who had covered the story from the beginning stood beside the station’s stocky anchor, her husband, in a frame that had the words “SECOND GRADE SCARE” and a large sheet of illegible math homework digitally keyed behind them. Carson found this to be in questionable taste.
“We have some breaking news about the Kyle Cromley case,” said the blonde woman, her voice a warm but pragmatic beam sawing through the studio’s artificial silence. Carson hated her. “Due to a number of dead-end leads and circular conversations with primary suspects, the sheriff’s office announced this morning that it will offer a $60,000 reward to anyone with information that leads to the discovery of young Kyle’s body.”
Their expressions were solemn, and the ticker that usually drove a rut into the bottom of the screen faded out politely, as if to allow viewers time to fish for an appropriately grave emotional response. Carson had been considering the pros and cons of extracting his two remaining, heavily impacted wisdom teeth for the majority of the broadcast, but his ears perked up at the mention of Cromley’s name. He turned the television down several notches, glancing over his right shoulder as he did so, as if to fend off a raised eyebrow or narrowed expression.
The focus then catapulted back and forth between the stone-faced reporter and her husband. Neither was able to mask a profound discomfort with the morning’s material. Carson, however, stopped listening after the introduction, letting the pair’s twisted faces and half-coughed professions of resigned sympathy bleed into his neutered surroundings.
The segment was notable for a number of reasons.
First, the woman’s use of the word “body” marked, to Carson’s knowledge, the first public admission that Kyle Cromley was probably dead by now. It was the realist’s assumption, of course, but he was surprised to see it wielded so flippantly.
Second, it felt strange that the sheriff’s office allowed Channel 7 to publicize their lack of direction by mentioning “dead-end leads” and “circular conversations with primary suspects.” In the hearts and minds of the entire free world, the incompetence of law enforcement was something to rave about over glasses of wine with like-minded relatives and try to fix in drug-fueled conversations on dorm room couches. A public concession of failure humanized an institution whose lack of humanity was often the only thing others saw fit to hurtle against it. Carson itched his right temple in discomfort; cognitive dissonance mounted.
Of course, he was also thinking about the money. His thoughts dropped into a dead sprint as he regained full feeling in his hands and switched off the small blue television. Sixty thousand dollars. Carson and everyone else in Channel 7’s broadcasting region was trying their hardest to pretend that this sum blew past them without a thought, but not a single housewife or future valedictorian was succeeding.
Sixty thousand dollars.
His head split into symmetrical compartments: one was horrified by the commodification of something as mundane as a human body, especially when Kyle Cromley’s death seemed so certain that officials were willing to use the word “body” at all. He shook an ideological fist at the West and its silly, Christian conception of life and death, drawing on a slew of chilly mornings spent in crowded lecture halls clutching margin-marked copies of Moby-Dick. The other, more primal part of Carson’s brain wanted to grasp $60,000 in his sweaty fists and wave it above his head, irresponsibilities of capitalism be damned. He needed a better television and a car that didn’t emit radio static when he used the AC and a job that he could stomach and align with the remaining moral traces of his faintly Catholic upbringing.
Carson stood and broke for the kitchen, meaning to swipe some peanut butter and congealed strawberries over two slices of white bread in a routine he’d associated with order ever since he was a young boy.
Order didn’t come.
It was in the kitchen, dripping jam onto his warped wooden floor, that Carson finally found himself seized by the vision of the tunnel that seizes all young men at some point or other. It came quickly and without recourse, as it was meant to. He saw into this strange watershed of memory and space that all men see, and he focused quickly on a small number of specific vignettes that nearly caused him to choke on the technicolor sheen of his own futility.
The first memory was the hardest.
It was a Thursday in the early winter. He was a freshman in college. The streets were spottily coated with a hesitant layer of deep brown snow, but on this particular night, it was raining. He was taking a night class on cognitive and behavioral genetics that ended an hour before his favorite Thai restaurant closed, so he would spend his Thursday evenings in camaraderie with the silent, diligent staff of Basil Thai as they performed their ritualistic closing duties. He finished a lukewarm Pad Thai and was smoking a cigarette underneath the restaurant’s flickering neon sign when he first saw the car pull into sight.
It approached slowly, just after Carson had taken too lengthy a drag. He held it in his lungs for what felt like white-hot decades, twisting his entire body toward the restaurant’s brick siding as he relaxed his throat and let out a sheet of light-gray smoke that disbanded more slowly than he wished it would. He stayed in place, torso at odds with his square lower half, while he flicked stray ash off the end of the still-burning cigarette and pointedly avoided eye contact with the driver. The rain came harder. The car slowed noticeably. Carson tried to keep his eyes occupied by pulling up an email from a distant relative that sported photographs from a tropical vacation. After a tense few seconds of hesitant motion, the car stopped and, suppressing the bile that seemed to rise from the soles of his feet, Carson stuffed his wiry frame into the backseat. Everything inside seemed musty, tired. He did not need to ask where they were going.
Blackness. Next thing he knew, it was one year earlier.
He was a senior in high school. His angular, taciturn mother had him perched atop a kitchen barstool with a room temperature hot dog in his left hand, and she was pacing around him in the kind of fervent concentric circles that can only be the work of a parent who is brushing shoulders with failure. For the first time since Carson laid his infant hands upon her pink face, she was yelling. He had just been accepted to his first choice university, and she was mishandling the delivery of the information that she and his father would not be able to pay the tuition. His grandparents had money, sure, but they hadn’t spoken in years, and goddamn it, can’t you just get a fucking job? Is that really so hard?
Carson blew the hair out of his eyes so he could see his mother rhythmically enter and flee from his field of vision, her voice sowing and watering the seeds for a deep-rooted inferiority complex that he wouldn’t shake until the day he died. When she stopped for breath by the refrigerator, finally taking the time to understand the magnitude of what she was doing, he thoughtlessly launched his hot dog at her chest. Carson’s expression became suddenly furtive, but his mother did not cry. She knew that she deserved it. After a deep, wounded inhale, she pooled all of her resources into expressing herself in a more direct, appropriate fashion. It wouldn’t mend what had come before, but it would keep her steady on her feet for at least a few days.
“Make the money, Carson.”
And with that, she was out the door, leaving behind a gruesome display of sauerkraut and blood-red streaks of condiment. Make the money, Carson. He reached for his cell phone with a defeated, trembling hand, once and for all convinced of the adult world’s failure to fulfill the duties that it advertised as its own. His finger trembled as he flipped through an ever-mounting list of contacts until he found the one he needed. A low ring. A gulp.
“Hello?” He sounded smaller than Carson expected.
“Hi — hi. I’m looking for some work.”
The tunnel twisted. He stayed still, one memory bleeding into another.
It was six months after the conversation with his mother; the summer before he would commence a lifetime of picking apart the inscrutable functions of the human brain. Rather than box up his childhood possessions in hard, cold suitcases and haul them six hundred miles north, he would load up the family car and take an hour-long road trip to the state university that he’d mocked with his friends since they were old enough to understand the future. He heeded his mother’s financial advice, but to no thrilling result: business at the diner was slow that summer, so they’d cut his hours, and he was still unwilling to let his parents see any of the money he made from his other job. The mere consideration turned his stomach.
It was nearly midnight and he was driving his father’s old Subaru on a rural stretch of highway with reckless abandon, every tap of the accelerator a caustic dismissal of the decisions both in and out of his control that had placed him here. He hated the dimly-lit markets that materialized on the horizon every four or five miles, and he hated that his father had worked at nearly all of them. He noticed an attractive couple about his age in a park that sat on the southern edge of town, blurred by the soft light of passing street lamps. Rather than meeting the pair with the kind of distant, smiling jealousy to which he had grown accustomed, he met them with vitriol.
His senses were heightened, and not at the hand of any substances — he was fueled by an incendiary unhappiness that seemed to sit inside his chest, just behind his solar plexus, and render him incapable of speech or reason. This was the last time he would ever feel like this. He took the long fingers of his right hand off the steering wheel for a moment and reached for a cigarette, but made a last-minute move for the volume dial. His softly creased pack of Marlboros remained in the passenger’s seat. A disheveled woman sang an empowered dirge about regretting her choices but embracing their results. He smiled a hard, empty smile that lived somewhere between condescension and solidarity with no one in particular. It was a good place for him.
And with that, he was back at the first memory, unable to fully leave it behind.
He was still inside the car that found him at Basil: the smell of cigarette smoke still clung to his jacket, and his mind hadn’t relinquished the topic of that evening’s neuroscience lecture. Alexa, a greasy black-haired woman whose face was home to the world’s unfriendliest eyes, glanced at Carson in the rearview mirror. His stomach was full, his nerves calmed, and his breath still smelled of spicy-sweet Thai iced tea. He fingered a piece of what looked like math homework sitting to his left.
“I’m not sure this is the right way,” Carson offered, not wanting to cause an uproar so much as satisfy a genuine curiosity as to what would happen next. Alexa, whose glossy nails gripped tighter on the steering wheel with each passing second, had recently married Carson’s boss, and she was the sort of person whose unkindness stretched plausibility for even the most jaded of onlookers. Her brand of coldness and inscrutability was supposed to exist only in comic books and religious texts. She and the boss made a good team, Carson thought — if not a savory one.
Carson knew what they were about to do, though he did not know why. He also knew that it would require a much more thorough commitment than anything he had ever done before. It would require him to lie, which he never much liked, but the lying was only one very small part of a fiendishly pleasurable mosaic. This was a job with moving parts and a trajectory that stretched far beyond the foreseeable future. A clandestine freshness would accompany each day after he and this woman he hardly knew carried out a plan drawn up by her husband as punishment for a litany of unpaid debts. It made him wonder how many lives were changed as a result of arrogant men losing touch with a system that they were certain they had under their control.
There was something so pathetic about ransom, especially as a business tactic. It left behind a viscous trail of one’s descent from assuredness to groveling. Carson belched quietly, tasting the sour recurrence of his sauce-drenched chicken, and frowned at the thought.
“I’m not so sure either,” Alexa replied, her eyes turning over a rare moment of vulnerability. Then, unexpectedly, she shot him a glance in the rearview mirror. An objective observer might even have called it warm. “Listen, kid. I know this is new for you. Just… remember where this is headed, alright? Don’t get attached.”
Even lacking the mark of sincerity, Carson was startled by her stab at connection. She flicked the turn signal. He held his breath. The vehicle swooped to the right and began working its way down a long gravel road. Rain was coming faster than the wipers could stomach. After what felt like minutes, Carson noticed a crumbling house at the end of the driveway and a young boy out front, pitting two plastic dinosaurs against one another. He imagined the boy’s soft, impossibly fragile body being stuffed into the tiny car. Would he scream? Would he smell the cigarette smoke that clung to Carson’s clothes? What did his mother look like? Did she love him?
His pulse began to quicken and he soothed himself by looking at the floor. The mats looked new, he thought. Recently cleaned, at least.
And then, just like that, Carson was back in the kitchen.
The walls had yellowed in his absence. He looked at his feet, now coated with strawberry jam, and cleaned them off with a nearby dish rag. As he wrung the rag clean of its treacly mixture, a clock above the oven caught his eye. Alexa would be coming to pick him up any minute now.
Before he could bring himself to move, Carson reflected on the collection of moments to which he had just borne witness. He searched and searched for a tidy platitude to attach to the experience, but his mind was seized by the news segment from earlier in the afternoon.
“A $60,000 reward to anyone with information that leads to the discovery of young Kyle’s body.”
He pictured what was to ensue: his boss’s wife bursting through the newly-painted front door to claim her prize — a prize to which Carson had, in fact, grown terribly attached, despite her warnings on that cold winter Thursday a year before. She saw the world as a web of incentives and manipulatable chess pieces. He wasn’t sure she’d ever felt for another person for as long as she’d lived, and on top of that, she would get the floor so unbearably muddy. She never took the care to remove her shoes, and Carson knew that now was not the time to get upset about something like that, but he couldn’t help himself. She would leave her shoes on and she would do something that she regretted, as she nearly had two months ago when they carried out a similar job and Carson noticed the pistol stuffed quietly in her back pocket. He said nothing then, because he had taught himself to grow a cold layer of remove during business exchanges, but there was no room for quietly stuffed pistols today. He wouldn’t have it.
But still. Sixty thousand dollars.
Make the money, Carson.
“Kyle!” Carson shouted, causing a stir in his study. Unwitting celebrity Kyle Cromley set down two filthy, dueling plastic dinosaurs on a square of beige carpeting, oblivious to the national panic of which he was the epicenter. “Get out here. We’re going into town.”
Kyle ran to meet Carson in the kitchen, and he flung his arms around the tall 20 year-old’s legs as he had so many times before. It was a startlingly paternal image, and it made Carson cough. He was jealous of young Kyle’s ignorance, amusedly considering the laced-up men and women that let out a collective gasp earlier in the day when Channel 7 uttered the word “body.” He wasn’t proud of much, but he could be proud of that.
“Go get in the car. I’ll be right out.”
The young boy pulled on the coat that sat waiting for him on a hook to the left of Carson’s front door. Carson waved him out and flipped open his chrome laptop. Alone in the living room once more, he laughed cruelly. What a show.
He Googled and printed directions to the sheriff’s department, drawing up a small sign that read “Out for the day!” and attaching it to his front door. He framed the sign with his hands, finding strange pleasure in the ways the edges of the paper fell flush against his index fingers.
Watching the clouds roll in as he walked across the parking lot to his 20 year-old Honda, Carson found new strength in every footfall. He slid into the driver’s seat, door slamming behind him.
“Where are we going?” Kyle asked.
Carson’s pulse quickened as he saw a black car approach slowly from the side mirror. He soothed himself by looking at the floor.