Acid Nightmares

Ashley Banks peered down the telescope to the pale dot of light at the other end. He could see his own eye reflected in the mirror around it. The dot darkened and disappeared.

“You’re looking through the wrong end, dummy,” Milton said.

“You don’t understand the exercise,” Ashley said without looking up. “Focusing all your attention onto a single, infinitely small point––that’s the meaning of life.”

Milton sighed. The dot reappeared, first red and then white. The floor creaked under Milton’s feet. Ashley looked up at his friend, who was now turned away from him, facing the bookshelf.

“You should try it,” he said. “You’re young. You should be expanding your mind. This––” he tapped the telescope with his finger “––this is the newest form of meditation.”

“It’s a new way to look at yourself with approval.”

Ashley laughed. Milton turned. He was holding a book in one hand, the other pressed against a stack of books teetering over on one of the shelves.

“Come on, Ash,” Milton said. “It’s still early. Why don’t we go to the park? Maybe we could get a sandwich. I know a girl, Carolyn, who works at the King Street Deli. She might…”

Ashley wasn’t listening. He returned his attention to the small dot of light surrounded by a mirror image of his face. Milton petered off and stabilized the stack of books on the shelf. He stood there for a few minutes, before walking across the room to the couch.

Ashley peered into the telescope while Milton tried to read the book. At noon it grew hot, and Milton got up to turn on the fan and take off his coat. Ashley didn’t move. Milton returned to the book, and read five pages without taking in a word. He looked at the cover and quickly forgot what it said; the image of a girl, dressed in white, with large, imploring blue eyes stuck with him.

Milton looked at the cover again. The words Acid Nightmares screamed up at him in jagged, yellow letters. The girl’s white dress stood out against a tie-dye background; demonic shadows attacked her from all sides. One figure held a knife to the girl’s throat, while a hand from the crowd tore at her dress.

“Jesus,” Milton said. “What is this, anyway?”

“Everything,” Ashley said. “Everything in the entire universe.”

“You didn’t even look.”

“I did,” said Ashley, and swung the telescope so the viewfinder was pointing at Milton. “Everything that ever was or is or will be, it’s all inside your soul––”

“––My soul isn’t in that viewfinder,” Milton said. He slammed the book on the ground and stomped across the room. He yanked the telescope out of Ashley’s hands and took it to the far corner.

Ashley took a moment to focus on the other boy’s face. When their eyes met, Milton was scowling.

“You’ve wasted a morning on nothing, Ash. I’ve had it. Why don’t we––”

Milton’s scowl vanished as his gaze turned inward. His face sunk. He walked across the room, picked up the book and placed it on the couch. Ashley watched him without moving.

“Milton?” Ashley asked. “What’s the matter?”

Milton didn’t answer. He crossed the room and left without picking up his coat. Ashley heard him descend the stairs two at a time. The door creaked open and slammed, rattling the blinds.

Ashley saw Milton once more, twenty years later. They were crossing King Street, traveling in opposite directions. When they were two feet away from each other, Ashley’s eyes passed across his old friend’s face. He didn’t recognize him, and the memory of the bald man crossing the street vanished as soon as he turned the corner.

Milton was in his car when the realization hit him. The man he’d just passed was wearing an old coat with a patch of faded calico fabric on the chest. Milton remembered sewing that patch on that coat after tearing it on a branch. He lost it before he moved away, probably in a break-up or a spring cleaning. Back then, he would put the clothes Goodwill rejected in a box on the sidewalk. Occasionally he’d see his old sweatshirts on teenagers or one of the homeless downtown. But many years had passed since then. He’d assumed that was all in a landfill by now.

Isn’t it funny, he thought to himself. The first day of my visit, and I see my old coat on someone else’s back! I wonder where it’s been all this time?

He considered running after the man, but decided against it. How would you feel if someone came up to you and said that your coat used to be theirs? He imagined the girls laughing at him while Carolyn rolled her eyes.

“And then what happened, Dad?” Marina would ask, before collapsing into a giggling fit.

Maybe I’ll tell them a story when I get home, Milton thought. I’ll say that I went after the man. That I told him about the coat. He didn’t understand––he thought I was making fun of him. He thought it was a t.v. prank. Maybe he was a wino. That would work…

He drove past Ashley walking on Commerce Street, his head bent against the sun. A wino, for sure, Milton thought. A wino plays better than some poor, nondescript bastard. He took one last look at the coat before driving off.

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The Atheist at the Machine

I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in a better light than any light that ever shone — in a land no one can define or remember, only desire — and from forms divinely beautiful.
— Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The young man’s face glowed in the evening light. He worked next to the window, and management had removed the window-side cubicle walls to cultivate a “culture of openness.” They also forbade hats and sunglasses indoors. The young man shaded his eyes with his hand or else pretended to work. No one had pulled the blinds down yet, or even attempted it.

Outside, a few men in suits walked through the parking lot. He liked to watch their long, purple shadows trail behind them, slipping across cars, windshields, and the lines painted over the asphalt.

“How long have you been here?” a woman said behind him.

He turned around and blinked away the sun. Suzy squinted down at him. Henna-red hair framed her soft, jowly face. He saw her smile at the Christmas party last year, touching Martinson’s forearm with her free hand.

“Since seven,” he said. Suzy whistled.

“That’s dedication,” she said, her voice as flat and insipid as a gluten-free pancake. “You coming in tomorrow, too?”

“I expect so.”

She walked away scowling.

The sun set. When the young man put down his hand, everything in the world outside was tinted blue. A few stars shone near the roofline; he could see them if he rolled his chair to the window and looked up.

He watched light fade from the world. At seven, the parking lot lights came on and the stars disappeared. He drew one of the lights on a Post-It note.

The janitor vacuumed and turned off half of the overhead lights. The light in Suzy’s suite communicated a translucent, refrigerated glow to the rest of the office. Keys and keypads clacked all around him. The young man looked over and saw Martinson’s face, illuminated by a desk lamp and the bluish light of the screen.

Whatever They Like

The clerk was on his last hour of overtime before a mandatory four-hour break. Four hours wasn’t enough time to sleep off a sixteen hour workday, and this break would make him late for his next shift. He wasn’t looking forward to the abuse he’d get from Hailee Winstead for being late, again.

“By order of the state” was no excuse, even if he had LA’s top labor lawyer on retainer, which he did. He’d spent the money his dad left him on a mink coat for his then-girlfriend and funneled the rest into paying the monthly retainer fee for Weiznacki and Harmann. He’d regret buying the coat until his dying day, but the retainer fee was worth every penny. He’d never used Weiznacki’s services, but knowing these services were there gave him great peace of mind, like a gun in the nightstand. He had eleven more months of peace of mind left, then the money would be gone. What on earth would he do then? He should have quit his job and moved to Puerto Rico, like his brother. At least then he’d get laid.

The man in front of him had a black eye and red cotton in both nostrils. A string dangled from the left nostril that quivered whenever the man spoke; the clerk’s attention, or whatever scrap of it wasn’t attuned to the slow passage of time, was hypnotized by the movement of this string.

“Slow down, sir,” said the clerk. “What happened?” The man did not slow down. He launched into the same story he’d been telling for the last twenty minutes. This story, without beginning or end, involved the man’s daughter, last June, a neighbor who didn’t speak English and a purse in something called a culvert. What was a culvert? Never mind. The clerk tried to piece the man’s story together with the tiny shred of attention he had left for it. He couldn’t.

“I’m not sure how we can help you, sir,” the clerk said finally.

“You don’t see? Last night she didn’t come home!” said the man.

“People can do whatever they like, sir,” said the clerk, “So long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

“It hurts me.”

“You’re not anybody.”

The man started crying. The string in his nose rose and quivered mid-air with each sob. The clerk looked at the clock. Thirty-eight minutes left!