Copyright is held by the author.
IN THE tiny dull space between one song’s fade-out and the next’s fade-in, a loud pop sounded, and the bus’s slow grind up the hill turned into an alarming backwards slide. The bus driver pulled hard on the yellow parking-brake diamond, and soon all the passengers were standing aimlessly in the piercing wind, calling friends on phones with cracked screens or watching the oily column of smoke wend its way up from the back of the vehicle.
Nolan decided that he was close enough to walk home, and set to tromping up the rest of the steep and potholed road, arms tucked close and shivering. Arvilton seemed a completely generic city, made up of chain restaurants and squat buildings that were too uniformly beige to be interesting, but not uniform enough to be striking. After a few blocks of counting gaudy Cash-4-Gold signs, Nolan’s mind began to wander. Benignly at first, deciding on what to order for dinner, what he had planned for the weekend, and whether he liked the song dribbling tinnily out of his earbuds. Soon though, he began thinking about small worries. Were the ant traps working in his apartment? Was his package just late, or had it been stolen off his stoop?
Primed by the minor misfortunes, but morbidly unsatisfied by their banality, it was easy enough to slip into the well-worn pattern of agonizing uselessly over larger existential concerns. The repeating purposeless of his office job, days spent typing endless numbers into numerous fields, not understanding any element of the larger process. The directionless shuffle of his early 20s, unsure of what he wanted to do, or even who he wholly was.
He even thought about Amanda, a brief shaft of pain blossoming somewhere in his chest before the three syllables of her name were even fully formed. What if he saw her again? What if he never saw her again? What if he saw her tonight?
These ceaseless and cyclical questions would normally have ruined his Friday night, leaving him to eat take-out alone and in a foul mood. Then an equally wasted weekend would follow, spent lying in bed, trying to distract himself with movies, rather than give into the screaming insecurities and howling guilt.
This weekend however, would be nice. Normal and nice. All these thoughts would be packed up and dropped away, and not even Amanda could bring them back.
Tonight was the Whole.
Within moments of stomping down the plywood stairs of his basement apartment, Nolan had stripped and was standing in the shower, letting the liquid warmth unfreeze his joints. Swathed in a towel and still dripping onto the dusty floor, he used his laptop to order food, and started catching up on his shows. After each episode was a round of checking social media, refreshing the same three websites to see what his acquaintances were up to. The pervading emotion was excitement for the weekend, but he had no notifications actually aimed his way. This rotation continued uninterrupted for the rest of the night; show, surf, show, surf. After running out of new and new-ish episodes, Nolan was relieved to find that enough time had passed to get ready for bed. Dinner dishes were “cleaned” by throwing the half-empty plastic containers into an overstuffed trash bag and rinsing utensils in the sink.
It was time to get ready for the Whole. Even in his boxers, Nolan had a reverent air around him, performing each of his preparatory actions with ritual attention. He took an unfolded box out from a narrow and otherwise seldom used closet, the thick cardboard shaped like a lowercase “t” and creased so it could be assembled easily. Next to the stack of flattened boxes was a pile of square cloths, silky and cream coloured, and Nolan pinched one with his free hand.
In his narrow room, Nolan spread the cloth out on the floor next to his bed, and placed the unfinished box carefully on top of it. He made another trip to retrieve two black pull-on shoes, shiny and clean, which he placed at the foot of his stained mattress. Lastly, Nolan dressed, putting on a pair of stormy grey flannel pants, and matching blazer over a freshly ironed shirt. After he was satisfied that everything was in place, and making a minute adjustment to the box, Nolan eased into bed. He was careful not to wrinkle his pants as he pulled his threadbare comforter over himself. Sleep found him within minutes.
Unsteady buildings creaked and groaned as they towered over him, every window either boarded or broken. The town stretched off into the fog, an uneven collection of corrugated metal and damp plywood. Nolan ran as fast as he could, wet socks slapping noisily against the cracked pavement. No matter how abrupt he made his turns, he could feel it just behind him, scrabbling and scratching at his back, breathing sour air down his neck. He screamed for someone to help him, but they stood in empty parking lots, sorting through trash, not noticing his flight or the thing that was chasing him. Nolan inevitably turned into a dead end, and the breathless panic that was sustaining his flight threatened to overwhelm him completely. It couldn’t be far behind, and he knew this because it had so, so many more feet than he did. The only way out was to rush at the far wall, and try to scale it, but the rusty metal was sharp where it wasn’t crumbling, and his hands were quickly torn to pieces. He collapsed on the ground, fetal and awaiting his fate. The thing towered over him with its appendages raised to strike. But Nolan finally, in the last instant, remembered. He got up, and turned to look the thing in its many eyes. He grabbed it by its ear, wondering why he had ever run from it, since the unfolded box was right here, nestled on the cream cloth. Nolan put the thing on the unfolded box, and was satisfied to see it obey, fidgeting and docile like a puppy.
A laugh began in his throat, delirious and relieving, but it died before it could escape. After all it was only 12:30, and there were five hours left in the day. Nolan picked at the deteriorating arm of his rolling chair, dropping the little foam specks onto the white tile floor. Maybe I can finish early, he thought, I haven’t finished early since I started, but maybe today. So he went back to typing, double and triple checking each entry so that he was not penalized for getting a digit wrong. He was focused now, typing and checking faster each minute, the clatter of his keyboard standing out from the hundreds of similar clicks because of its relentless, rapid, pace. The crazy pace wore him out though. It might be manageable for today, but for the rest of the week? The month? His eyesight blurred, his back hunched, and arms withered, a million hours wasted. A lifetime. One by one, as a final rebellious action, his fingers dropped off. Each one made a pop as it detached and rolled across the keyboard, or into his lap. Nolan again remembered. He picked up his fingers, somehow, and swiveled in the chair. There the thing is, still sitting on the flat box and cloth. He handed it his fingers and dentures, watching as it took each one gingerly in a separate hand. Nolan, elated, leapt down the stairs to the lobby, wondering, now that he has finished early, what he would do with all that extra time.
But there she was, standing in front of the double glass doors. She was checking her phone with one hand, and had the other in her hoodie pocket. Nolan had bought that hoodie for her, and even though she had forgotten this, he had still been happy to see her wearing it. This time, Nolan could remember right away. He picked her up gently, catching a whiff of her hair. It felt like holding a burning cactus, but the box was right behind him, and she fit next to the thing.
Was that it? Almost. Nolan felt something hard in his gut. He coughed and heaved, and eventually hacked up a black pearl as large as a tangerine. It flashed with anger, glittering in the sunlight, but that glint could have just as easily been sadness or loneliness. Nolan nudged it onto the box with his toe, then knelt and began to fold the box up, careful to only crease on the guidelines and keep everything in the center. Amanda did not look up from her phone. With the box’s lid tucked in, he twisted the cream cloth around it, and was left with a final product that looked similar to a tightly swaddled loaf of bread.
Nolan took the package in hand, got out of bed, slid his feet into his waiting shoes, and woke up.
The school bus pulled into the gravel parking lot and disgorged its passengers, idling only as long as it took for those already finished to board. Nolan stepped off the bus into the bracing night air, and winced as the larger than expected drop caused his box to bang into this leg. It was remarkably weighty. The people behind him pushed rudely past, walking purposely, fabric packages swinging as a belated counterpart to each brisk step. Those waiting to go back were patient, full of placid smiles as they shivered and stamped to keep warm. Nolan crunched over to the end of the line, where hundreds of people already stood, waiting to snake their way deeper into the forest at regular intervals. The whole city of Arvilton would pass through these trees tonight, silent and stern. Everyone looked out of place, like seeing a teacher in a grocery store, and the uniformly formal clothes only exacerbated this effect. Up ahead the line twisted left, and Nolan could see Sam, someone he knew from college, standing at stiff attention, pants ironed and shoes shined. On any regular day Sam could be found in a greasy shirt, slouching behind the counter of whatever establishment had hired her for the week.
Gusts of wind occasionally cut through the trees, blowing brown pine needles around and forcing frigid air up his pant leg. He was too preoccupied to care, focused instead on standing straight and marching forward. Every meter towards the Whole caused his head to buzz that much more. In anticipation sure, but also with something else, intangible echoes of his dreams.Whispers from the box, keeping him aware of what it held.
Time passed quickly, measured only in paces, and Nolan was soon deep in the forest, thick trunked trees towering over him. He was finally able to catch a glimpse of the Whole. Held in a clearing, the Whole was an anomaly in the otherwise wild woods. A circular pit, perfectly round and stretching deep into the earth. So deep no one could see the bottom. So deep there probably wasn’t a bottom. The line ended at the clearing, allowing each townsperson to approach the Whole alone. They would stretch their arm out and—after a few seconds—drop their fabric wrapped box, turning back into the forest and walking through the trees in the general direction of the parking lot. Nolan watched each person’s drop hungrily, in expectation of his own. Only seven to go. Six. Five. The buzzing grew in intensity, blocking out the rustle of trees and patter of feet. Four. Three. After the next one, he would be the next one after the next one. Two. One.
Nolan stepped into the clearing and wasted no time walking up to the Whole. He placed his feet at the edge, scraped clean of dirt or needles, and looked down. The bare stone walls of the Whole were bright in the moonlight, darkening as they descended. Like a great iris with a pupil of darkness, staring back at him. Nolan stretched his arm out, and the whispers turned into shouts. You are pointless! You are alone! You will accomplish nothing! He held his arm out for what seemed like forever, watching as the dangling box bucked and writhed in the wind. Powerless.
The fabric between his thumb and forefinger was soft and then it was gone. The bundle fell straight down, faster than it looked like gravity should be pulling it. The yelling stopped, and Nolan turned to leave. He felt warm and satisfied, happy with what life had provided him, ready for what it had planned next. Ready for a relaxing weekend and then another week.
On his way back, Nolan did not notice as he passed Amanda, standing in line. Or even if he did notice her, in her blue dress and black pants, long hair twisting with a mind of its own — Amanda who was vibrant and jubilant even when stationary—he did not care.
The apartment was flooded with amber light and Nolan sat next to Eliot, luxuriating in the feeling of a sunset on Sunday. The movie they were watching had ended long ago, but with no plan for what was next, they just remained slouched on the couch, talking about small things and considering each ‘You Might Like’ suggestion as it scrolled past. Tomorrow Nolan would go back to being productive and Eliot would go back to class, so tonight they waited in anticipation. Content and ready to work. Or mostly?
Nolan had noticed that Eliot had been distracted, lapsing into long bouts of silence, brows furrowed and lips pursed. Strange since nothing should be troubling him. Nolan waited patiently for another lapse before commenting.
“I can hear you thinking from over here.”
Eliot looked startled for a second, but smiled easily. “Ah, just getting a mental jump on my stuff for tomorrow. I hate having class first thing on a Monday, especially after last semester. Having Dr. ‘I challenge you because I care’ for a prof probably doesn’t help either.”
Eliot looked everywhere but at Nolan, and his easy conversational tone was at odds with his stiff shoulders and fidgeting. Normally, Nolan would have accepted the misdirection, offering an anecdote about his own boss, or changing the subject altogether by demanding that they finally make a choice about where to eat. Anything to avoid an awkward situation. But tonight he was feeling relaxed and inquisitive.
“Okay, but Eliot, its math. Your two skills are math and mooching fries. So what’s really up?”
Eliot fixed him with a piercing blue stare. Nolan met the gaze, trying to look inquisitive and unconcerned at the same time. When Eliot finally spoke, it was in a tumbling rush.
“Well, you know how we have to take some general courses even if we know the degree we want? Like I’m stuck in a poetry class? I figured that it could sort of be like math. Five, seven, five and all that? Just find rhymes. Did I tell you about this already?” He did not pause after any of his questions, launching into the next thought.
“So it turns out I was pretty wrong, like there’s this whole dimension of feeling you have to tap into as well. Structure serving emotion — or so Wittermeir says. Anyway, we’re looking at these poems by the ‘greats’, and they cover pretty much the entirety of human…” Eliot gestured expansively. “Everything! Love, purpose, existence. There are poems to houses, to dinners, to places, for rivalries.” He brought his hands together, like he was crushing an apple. “And they are dense, and . . . there are a lot . . . and . . . anyway.” He gave an embarrassed laugh.
“Anyway what?” asked Nolan.
Eliot was a ball of energy now, knees bobbing, hands tapping out some pattern on his thighs. Promise you won’t judge me?” he asked timidly.
Nolan couldn’t help but laugh at this. “You remember that one time you slept over?” The stricken look made it clear he did, but Nolan pressed on away, relishing the retelling. “As I remember, you—”
“Stop! I remember!” Eliot punched him in the shoulder.
“The point is, I have seen you at your lowest and you have been judged! You can tell me that you secretly want to elope with poetry or whatever, and it won’t matter.”
Eliot gave a meager smile, and was silent for another while, studying his toes. “Why does no one write about the Whole?” he blurted.
All the joviality was sucked out of the air in an instant, and Nolan could feel his cheeks burning. He spoke carefully, forcing each word through a clenched jaw.
“Some things are private.” Nolan got off the couch. “Now let’s go get something to eat. Now.”
Eliot stood too, red as a beet, but emboldened by his first transgression. “No, you said you wouldn’t judge! Why is it that sex and birth and dying and monstrous acts have been put to film, but never the Whole?”
Nolan turned around and left, up the stairs and outside, not stopping to put on his shoes or coat. He didn’t know where he was going, but he marched there with purpose anyway, bare arms already feeling the cold. Eliot ran after him.
“Sorry! I’m sorry. Forget about it okay?” he shouted at Nolan’s back. Nolan kept walking. Eliot fumed. “Actually no! Don’t forget it! Who made it taboo to talk about? It’s not illegal! Aren’t you curious?”
Nolan spun on his heel, fist raised in anger. Eliot shrank back, arms pulled in tight over his head. The pose was intensely familiar to him. Nolan was reminded of his father, fickle and furious. Why was he so angry? He sat down hard on a nearby bench, wood bowed by age. After a few seconds Eliot perched on the other side, as far away as possible. Thoughts whirled through Nolan’s head, mixed with anger and denial. He tried to cobble together a coherent statement, anything but lashing out.
“It’s like a bodily function right? No one writes songs about the intestine, drawing nutrients out of food, forming and expelling poop. It’s private.” Nolan spoke softly, and did not look at Eliot.
Eliot responded immediately, also whispering. “I thought about that too! But you can look up all those functions in a medical text book. Or Wikipedia. Wherever. People know how poop works!”
Nolan could not believe he was having this conversation. But now that he was thinking about it . . . How come it never came up? Even in really arty personal movies? Do big cities have more spots than towns? Who makes the boxes and cloths? Questions mounted, numerous and unbidden, tumbling after each other, all unanswered.
“What if we are the only ones who have it?” Eliot asked gingerly “Like only Arvilton?”
“That can’t be true,” Nolan replied, “How would anyone survive? What if you were unable to get rid of all your free floating guilt? What if every little fear and failure stuck with you forever? No one would get anything done. They would be too afraid to even start!” He laughed at the absurdness of it all. “Who could create anything with so much junk hanging around them?”
Nolan was sure now, and the whole thing seemed silly. Inappropriate and silly, them sitting here on a bench in their socks, whispering about personal things. “No one knows exactly how the universe was formed right? Fundamental rules of existence were probably broken, and we will never find out why. But here we are. Some things are unknowable. Essential, everywhere, but unknown.” He got up. “So let’s go back and get our stuff. I don’t want to get a cold. Not with so much important work to do tomorrow.”