It was a Tuesday like any other. I was in the den listening to music, as was my wont in the evening. Dinner had settled fine, there had been no problems there. The lights were still flashing in the windows at the neighbor's house across the street. I wondered what they could be up to.
It had been a week since I'd last left the house. I'd barely made it back last time. The supermarket had been positively overrun, you almost couldn't get through to the checkout lines, and those fluorescent lights had really been doing a number on my head. I'd heard something on the radio recently about some service where you could have the groceries delivered right to your doorstep, I was going to have to look into that. That would take care of a big part of the problem, all by itself.
I was fortunate enough to work from home, doing customer service for a health insurance company. I'd been with them for a few years now. I hated the job and the money was crap, but hey, it paid the bills. All day long I listened to people complain about how much they had to pay. It was hard to blame them, really, considering that they were being charged thousands of dollars for shit they needed to keep themselves alive, but all the same, it really wasn't my fault. My life was fairly simple, really. The days came and the days went. I fielded my calls, listened to peoples' crap all day, and played my music in the evening. Once a week I went shopping for food. Roughly once a week, I was visited by my friend Molly. She was one of two friends I had, the other being Nick, who was even more screwed up than I was. Molly was here now.
"So, gone anywhere lately?" she asked, dumping herself in a chair.
"That's not funny," I replied.
Molly smiled and looked around the room. She was a short redhead with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humor. We'd met in college and stayed in touch ever since. For some reason, whatever bothered other people about me didn't seem to concern her too much. I think she just liked lost causes. Some sort of maternal instinct kicking in, or something.
"I thought you said you were going to go for a walk downtown," she finally said after she'd finished inspecting the place.
"Well, I haven't gotten around to it."
"And you know damn well you never will, not unless someone kicks your ass out the door."
"Look, you know how it is. I've described what's going on, in great detail, you know how I feel, and you still keep acting like it's no big deal. I wish you'd just show a little more empathy."
Molly scoffed. "Empathy? You'll get none from me, mister. Tough love, that's the ticket."
Sometimes I wondered if Molly didn't derive some secret perverse pleasure from watching me squirm. Then again, a lot of people did. Sometimes it felt like that's what the entire world had been specifically designed for, to watch me squirm.
"You also said we'd go out for dinner one of these nights," she said, pointedly observing my face to gauge the reaction.
And, see point one."
There was a knock at the door.
"Jesus Christ," I said, my heart catching in my throat.
Molly's smirk transformed into a chuckle. "Head for the fallout shelter," she quipped.
"You get it," I said to her, half imploring.
"It's not my place, get it yourself."
I crept to the window and cautiously peeked through the blinds. It was just those goddamn religious people again, those old crones with the bonnets on their heads and the pamphlets in their hands.
"It's just the wackos again. I'm not answering it," I said.
"Not in the mood for company?" Molly said.
"Fine. Let's play cards."
"Fine," I said, going to retrieve the deck from the other room.
It had been like this for a few years now. When I was younger, I'd been just your normal average kid, hanging out with friends and playing sports, chasing girls, and going to the movies on weekends, all the usual stuff. After college, I'd gotten a job just like everybody else, and everything had been fine, nothing appeared too out of place - if I was being perfectly honest with myself, I'd never been overly comfortable around people, but it had never been any sort of show-stopper. But then fairly recently, things began to change. Wherever I went, the walls were now closing in - be it supermarkets, bars, post offices, whatever, it didn't matter. The lights glared too brightly, and the people all stared as if I'd done something wrong like I was wearing the scarlet letter, like they were about to make a citizen's arrest. My eyes would flash and my heart would start racing to the point where I thought it would leap right out of my chest, where I thought I'd actually pass out or worse. Next, I started to develop a series of tics, little facial flinches and tossings of the head and things, stuff it was impossible to hide. The stares grew worse. I retreated back to the house and stayed there. It became harder and harder to see my friends, to see anyone at all, it became downright difficult just to get food. And even if I could get ahold of it, I couldn't keep it down; my stomach was now permanently off. At night, I couldn't sleep - every slightest little noise would set me off, would keep me up for hours fixating on the source, tensely holding my breath like some kind of lunatic. I started worrying about strange things, like my breathing, my blinking, my heartbeat, the air-conditioning unit, the rattling noise in the car. I'd never known there were so many things to worry about until now.
So I went online and looked into the grocery delivery thing. They wanted an awful lot of money for it; I supposed I'd try to stick it out and keep doing it myself. I'd discovered if I went to the market at odd times, say like ten o'clock on a Wednesday night or something like that, the crowds were sufficiently light to keep me from having a meltdown. I'd realized over time that there were really very few things that were truly necessary: I mean if you thought about it, there was food, and what else. If you worked from home, that was about ninety percent of the battle right there. You had to go get the car inspected once a year. You had to visit the accountant to get your taxes done. You might have to see your parents over Christmas, or your brother, or whoever it was. But most other things were pretty damn superfluous.
The worst though was when someone had to come inside the house. Thankfully it didn't happen often. The heater had broken last winter and I'd just about had a fit when the guy came through the door; for a minute I felt like either screaming or throwing something at him, and the guy must have seen it on my face, too, because suddenly he became angry and confrontational like he was revving himself up for a fist fight. I got the old heart rate down to a more manageable level after a while, but the smile I was trying to force on my face was utterly inadequate and the things I was saying were silly and strange. Fortunately, he was only there about an hour and then he was gone; I closed the door and locked it behind him, then put my back to the door and shut my eyes tight, breathing a long sigh of relief. I didn't want to go through that again. If the damn thing broke again this winter, I was going to buy a bunch of space heaters to replace it. Online. From a place that delivered.
Besides Molly, the only other person I let inside these days was Nick. Nick was a mess. He was a suffering artist, a writer living in his parent's basement who was going nowhere fast. Worse than nowhere - he was going backward. Every time I saw him, his eyes were more glazed over, his hair scruffier, his fingernails dirtier. He'd come over now and then to show me what he'd written recently - it really wasn't bad stuff, but it was just way too extreme for the mainstream; in fact it was probably too extreme for humankind in general. Everything about how much he hated everyone and wanted to kill them all, about how bad he always felt, end of the world, doom and gloom, that kind of thing. He was an intelligent dude but he went about it all wrong, he'd come into the room spouting Nietzsche like you were supposed to care. Nick had never had a girlfriend in his life, and probably never would. I suspected that was the main part of the problem.
On Saturday afternoon, Nick came over. We had set up a double-secret knocking system so that I knew when it was him - three short, followed by two long. Every so often he'd screw around and use a different pattern, but seeing as it took twice as long to gain admittance that way, he did it less and less these days. He came in and sat down at the kitchen table, saying nothing as he always did, waiting for me to speak first. I always had to start the conversation. Nick had just about as many compulsions as I did.
"So, write anything new this week?" I asked, per the ritual.
"Yes," he said.
This was part of the game - he wouldn't offer up details on what he was working on unless I expressed great interest first, in advance, unless I showed how anxious I was to hear more.
"So, tell me about it, man, don't leave me in suspense," I said, joining him at the table.
"It's about this girl I'm dating, who's totally insane. She gets obsessed with me and starts breaking into the house, coming in through open windows, ripping down screens and things. I have to kill her in the end."
"How do you kill her?"
"With a fork."
"A fork? That sounds pretty drastic."
"Well, the way I look at it, people are getting killed with knives all the time. I figured it would be an interesting plot twist to use a fork."
"Look, no offense Nick, but have you ever thought about writing something a little bit... happier?"
Nick looked at me for the first time. "You should talk?"
"No, I know, but when it comes to your writing... I mean, someone gets killed in every single story you write."
"I write what I feel. I'm staying true to my muse."
That was the end of that conversation. I offered Nick a drink, but he declined. He usually didn't stay long.
"Been out lately?" Nick asked.
"You know the answer to that," I replied drily.
"We all have our crosses to bear," he said. "Although I can't really say I blame you. The world has become intolerable."
Nick got up and left a few minutes later, as abruptly as he'd come in. The world had always been intolerable, but at least I'd been able to pass through it before. They had me backed into a corner, down in my hole, sitting around waiting for death like some frightened rodent. This was no way to live. Something eventually would have to be done.
It was Monday night, the music was on and the lights were way down low. A million thoughts were rolling around in my head. Monday was normally grocery day and I hadn't gone. Probably time to go the delivery route. I could see through the blinds that the neighbors across the street were still flashing those blasted lights around; they were clearly up to no good. It was making me nervous. I turned the stereo up a bit louder to distract myself.
Molly called. "It's your Dad's birthday tomorrow, don't forget," she said.
"Did you go shopping today?"
"Why not?" There was sinister laughter at the other end of the phone. I didn't answer.
"If you're not going to take me to the movies like we talked about, then I'm going to go with that guy at work, the one that keeps asking me out," Molly said.
"Go right ahead," I said.
"It's going to bother you if I do, and you know it," she teased.
"Why would it bother me? You can do whatever you like, it's a free country," I grumbled back. Molly was a little full of herself sometimes.
We hung up and I went into the kitchen for a snack. My heart was beating too fast again, it was going to be one of those nights. I wouldn't sleep a wink. The damn thing was just thumping away, and the stupidest part was, I didn't even know what for. I went back into the den and put another CD on. Might as well stay up for awhile.
The next day it was raining. I had some vacation time coming to me and had decided to take the week off. The water was coming down in heavy sheets, drenching the backyard and making big puddles everywhere, and suddenly for no reason at all, I had the crazy idea of going out there and just jumping around in it, like a dog frolicking, of throwing myself down and rolling around on my back, wagging my tail the whole time. Things were getting to me, the walls were closing in again. It had been way too long since I'd even tasted fresh air, and yet the thought of going out there amongst them made me sick with nausea. I searched my brain for a reason for feeling that way, and couldn't come up with much - granted, the looks I got from people were bad, but this was something else, it was like some physical or chemical reaction, something beyond thought, almost reptilian. I sat and waited, listening to the raindrops pattering away on the roof. I examined my fingernails, counted the books on the bookshelf again, and played solitaire once or twice just to make the time go. Someone came to the door around four and I didn't answer it. They couldn't make me if I didn't want to. When I opened the door a half hour later, there was a letter waiting for me in a cardboard envelope, propped up against the doorjamb. The new credit card I'd ordered. The sun was setting but there were still more hours to kill. The hockey game came on and so I watched that. Laying on my back in the dark, I stagnated further. I imagined the forces arrayed against me out there: all the curling lips, the balling fists, the scoundrels and scamsters and general causers of trouble. Somewhere out there existed some little corner of the world where I could curl up and relax, some refuge built especially for me; I just hadn't found it yet.
The following day, it was nicer out. I was spending half my time checking the weather forecast. Molly had said I was becoming like an old man. Molly had too much to say. Two more days went by. More rain, this time accompanied by thunderstorms. The days were long and the nights were longer; it was quite some time since I'd had any sleep. Every slightest noise had me jumping about two feet in the air. Cars would go by in the street and I'd rush to the window to see who it was, to see if they were turning into the driveway. The headaches were starting again. My eyes were clenching uncontrollably and my arms were spazzing out whenever I lay down in bed. Incredible the way it came over you over an extended period of time - there seemed little change from day to day, but then one day you woke up and you were a total basket case, completely unrecognizable from only a few short years before. Where was the end of the line, how bad could it get?
Nick called up the next day, wanting to come over. I told him no. Then it was Sunday. I'd been up half the night, scratching at every square inch of my body, as if I had fleas or something - nothing new, it had happened before. I tried eating breakfast in the morning but it didn't take; my stomach was grumbling and the old electricity was shooting through my veins again. If I didn't get out of there today, I was going to go mad. I went to the window and looked outside, at the bright sunshiny day with all the people strolling to and fro. The sight of them made me angry. Why should they be allowed to come and go as they pleased, while I had to stay cooped up like some dog in a kennel? It was my world too, they didn't own it, it wasn't reserved for them alone. That was it - I was going to go out for a walk that day, if it killed me I was going to do it.
It was two o'clock in the afternoon. Traffic was always lighter on Sunday afternoons, so that would take some of the pressure off. I gathered up my things, threw my good shorts on and tied up the laces of my sneakers good and tight. The ringing in my ears was getting louder as I did so, and my head was already beginning to swim. Screw it, I was going anyway. If I died, I died. I got in the car, hit the button on the garage door opener, backed the car out of the drive, hit the button again, turned left on Colson Street, and headed for downtown. Exactly fifteen minutes and seven traffic lights later, I was there. I parked the car, put my sunglasses on, got out of the car, and made for the center of town, a nice little pedestrian walkway full of shops and lampposts and big flower pots and things. There were only a few people around, little groups here and there, mothers with children and old men sauntering aimlessly, nothing too crazy. I felt unsteady on my feet, and despite the fact that the afternoon sun was quite mild and pleasant, for some reason it was absolutely beating down on my forehead and it felt like my brain was about to explode. As I made my way along the brick-laid path, from the corners of my eyes I was catching glimpses of apparitions, shadows being cast by no one, figures emerging from doorways who weren't there. The air felt close, closer than it did in the den, and I felt myself slowly beginning to suffocate. I came to the fountain and sat down on a bench. The children there were instinctively shying away, and the old ladies sensed it too, they were looking up in alarm. Heart racing, eyelids fluttering, ringing in ears now an outright buzzing, a host of flies taking over the control center in my head. One of the old ladies came over.
"Are you all right?" she asked tentatively, taking her frilly blue hat off to get a better look at me. "You look faint - do you need a drink of water?"
"No, thank you, I... I… just need to sit… for a moment," I said, looking down at the shimmying ground.
"What's wrong with him, grandma?" the little girl who'd scampered over asked.
"It's the sun, darling, the man just needs to rest for a little while."
The voices were coming in and out, all drowning together in a confused garble. The whole square was collapsing in on me; I tried to fight off the panic and failed utterly. In desperation I got up off the bench and went veering down the nearest side street, hoping to get away from everyone and find a hole somewhere to crawl into. There were no holes, though, only more people. As I staggered against the wall, a couple of teenage kids came past. The one popping her gum sneered.
"What the hell's wrong with this guy?" she asked her boyfriend.
"He's a drunk," the boyfriend said.
There was a bright white sunrise in my head, a mushroom cloud of unbearable radiance and slow crashing noise, and then my head exploded.
When I woke up, there was no one else there. I sat up and leaned my back against the wall, resting my head against the windowpane of the store behind me. My head was throbbing mightily and nothing was making any sense, and for a moment I didn't know where I was. Out of habit, I reached down and checked my pockets and through my sluggish stupor realized I'd been rolled, that my wallet had been taken. The sun was a fair bit lower in the sky than it had been previously - I wondered how long I'd been laying there for.
I clambered to my feet, my balance completely off, skittering like a crab and diving along the sidewalk in what I hoped was the right direction. The problem was, I had no memory of where I'd left the car. An hour later, night was falling and still I couldn't find it. I went to the park and found another bench to sit down on. My mouth was all cotton and I had the most intense headache I'd ever had in my life, a shaking, pulsing force of doom that was threatening to rip my head clear in half. I tried the water fountain and of course, it didn't work. The damn things never did, especially when you needed one. After a twenty-minute rest, I went to stumble around some more, and then there it was, the sign reading Colson Street - it was only by pure accident that I'd come across it. Another two blocks and the car was there waiting for me. I slithered into the driver's seat, made a U-turn, and went back home going fifteen miles an hour the entire way.
The next morning it was hot and muggy. I left the blinds all closed and went to put the coffee on. My headache had died down somewhat, but it was still hanging around, lingering in the general vicinity. I tried a couple of pieces of dry toast and was able to keep it down, although my parched throat accepted it only reluctantly. I collapsed in the kitchen chair and stared at the wall. The world was still out there, I was sure of it. It wasn't going anywhere. I sat and did nothing all day, then put the music on at night. The phone rang once, it rang twice. The world was still out there. It wasn't going anywhere.