Like Tears in Rain

Blade Runner was a slow burn in American cinema. The film didn’t necessarily tank at the box office (in fact it still made a tidy profit), but it took some time for it to become one of those underground classics that emerges into the mainstream some number of years later and ends up directly inspiring virtually everything in its genre afterward.

Based on the book by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story is great, but not necessarily because it is novel. It boils down to philosophical questions many works brought up before it and will continue to bring up for the rest of human history, namely: what does it mean to be alive?

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Outside of its plot and memorable cast of characters, Blade Runner is remembered fondly for its incredible visual imagining of the future. Set in 2019 Los Angeles, one of the reasons director Ridley Scott’s vision is so striking even by today’s standards is how strategically he introduces the look and feel of the world he’s created. L.A.’s inhabitants aren’t wearing shiny silver spandex bodysuits. Its law enforcement officers aren’t running around with laser swords and space blasters. Deckard, our protagonist, has an apartment filled with familiar household staples like a refrigerator, a kitchen sink, a couch, a shower, a closet. The entire city’s architecture has expanded upward, but still has a familiar feel of a hulking concrete and metal jungle, albeit with significantly more neon everywhere.

How The Dark Future Of Blade Runner's 2019 Los Angeles Looks In The Light  Of Actual Today: LAist

Perhaps that’s as good a place as any to start with Scott’s vision of the future. One of the things that stands out about Blade Runner immediately is the influence of the hustle and bustle and bright neon-tinged sights and sounds of downtown Hong Kong. The film was partially filmed in real life Hong Kong and it’s clear that one of the subtle commentaries on a futuristic 2019 Los Angeles is that Scott imagined it would be an increasingly globalized city. As Deckard wanders through the streets we regularly see Chinese characters on billboards and neon signs, and Deckard appears to be a regular at a street-side restaurant where in one scene he speaks jovially with the chef while enjoying a satisfyingly steamy bowl of noodles. The people wandering these streets are diverse and their fashions seem to be largely inspired by Chinese culture; conical hats and umbrellas appear often. In one early scene we see a large movie theater with all of its marquee listings in Spanish. Without spoon-feeding the audience that our world would continue to become increasingly diverse, we’re given bright clues on our periphery at all times that the big cities of the future will continue to be influenced by America’s numerous cultures who live within them.

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It’s also worth noting that the majority of Blade Runner is veiled in darkness, and often pouring rain. Scott has mentioned in the past that part of that was out of necessity; he was supposedly afraid that the edges of some of the sets might be more visible in daylight. Limitations aside, the largely black backdrop serves the important purposes of making the society feel bleak and dangerous, as well as also hammering home the point that one of the central inspirations for Blade Runner is the old gumshoe detective/film noir story. Deckard’s mission is to find and “retire” a number of replicants that are on the loose, but a deeper concern as the film moves forward is solving the mystery of what it means to be human. His journey ends up leading him to more questions than answers and forces him to ask frighteningly existential questions of himself in the process.

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One of the more endearing aspects of throwback appeal in Blade Runner is seeing which companies Scott believed would still be powerhouses in 2019. Prominent ads are on display throughout the city for some companies which are still household names (Coca-Cola and Cuisinart, for instance), and many which were big names in the 80s but didn’t exactly hold up in the real life future (TDK, Atari, PanAm, etc.). Fun side note: the Denis Villeneuve sequel Blade Runner 2049 would still feature many of these defunct companies in his own cityscapes as an homage to its predecessor.

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As aforementioned, the clothing fashions in Blade Runner feel realistic in comparison to other visions of the future in large part because they still have an air of utility and familiarity in respect to the fashions we recognize. There are certainly scenes where characters are more futuristic/steampunk inspired (Pris in her kabuki-inspired makeup and Zhora in her clear vinyl jacket come to mind) but the main characters wear fashions that look similar to things we would recognize with a few alterations. Deckard wears a button-down shirt and tie with khakis, dress shoes and a trench coat for most of the film. Virtually the only thing about him that looks futuristic is the collar and buttons on his coat look a bit strange. Even replicant Rachael wears dresses and coats that look like items you’d see on fashionable passerby in the real life streets of New York or L.A. Her hairstyle may be the only thing about her that seems “futuristic,” and even that seems to feel like a natural possibility and less kitschy in comparison, to say, Star Wars’ Princess Leia’s “cinnamon buns.”

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Pris Stratton
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The industrial look of the city makes everything all the more visceral, grimy and realistic. Streets are littered with garbage, sketchy characters lurk in the alleyways, steam pours from the sewer grates and smoke wafts from food carts and restaurants creating a rolling fog that mixes beautifully with the bright lights and dark, foreboding sky. Even when we see a staple of futuristic imagination, the hovercar, it’s not a clean ascent from ground to sky; it erupts in another cloud of smoke, perhaps winking at us that future advances aren’t going to necessarily be birthed in the squeaky-clean utopia we sometimes imagine, that pollution and smog and the byproducts of innovation may be something humanity refuses or is unable to get away from throughout our generations.

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Another interesting stylistic choice is the stark differences in architecture between the government buildings, businesses and homes of wealthy individuals in contrast to the “everyday” structures we see throughout the majority of the movie. Most of the residences, restaurants and bars look pretty similar to places we would recognize personally. The elites however live and work in places that resemble lavish temples from bygone eras. The Tyrell Corporation building looks like something the ancient Mayans or Egyptians would have constructed.

A palatial floor of the Tyrell corporation building. One of the most  breathtaking scenes of Blade Runner, IMO. | Blade runner, Film blade  runner, Cinematography

When we see Tyrell’s living quarters he is surrounded by candelabras, lying in a bed adorned with elaborate linens and pillows, draped in a pure white robe. He resembles what we imagine a medieval king would look like.

36.Tyrells Bedroom – [FILMGRAB]
BRmovie.com: BR Locations - Tyrell's Bedroom

I think the most interesting discussion to be had about this film stems from this aspect. What exactly is the commentary that Scott is making by showcasing the wealthy and elite in the trappings of ancient civilizations while the common people are surrounded by astounding technological advances and somehow seem far lower on the societal totem pole?

Personally I choose to believe that, other than making these places and individuals visually appealing and beautiful in a cinematic sense, it’s an allusion to the way our society is run and the way Scott believed it would continue to be run: the folks at the top believe themselves to be kings, if not gods, and the notion of previous civilizations who literally operated under these systems is incredibly appealing to the upper class. Class warfare is possibly a secondary theme in Blade Runner, in comparison to its more centralized themes about humanity and existence, but seeing as how an individual’s place in the world inevitably weaves into class and societal standings, it’s certainly an important theme regardless.

VI

My DAD is floating cheerfully around my new room playing a Beach Boys album on repeat.

One of the first questions he had asked me when I arrived was what sort of music I enjoyed and the only thing I could think of was a song my mom would sing to me when I was little.  I asked my DAD if he knew a song where they sing “God only knows what I’d be without you” and he found it immediately.  I guess until I tell him otherwise he’ll just keep playing the same album over and over again.  I hadn’t actually heard the recorded version before so it hasn’t worn thin for me yet.  Honestly the first time he played that song I started sobbing.  I had heard maybe two actual recordings in my whole life and neither of them made me feel anything.

It was true what I told the others about my mom.  She wasn’t prepared for a child and wasn’t a good caretaker.  Even still I had my good memories of her.  That song knocks the wind out of me every time it comes back around.

“Do you have any preference on your lighting or decor, November?” DAD asks me politely.

I’m more than a little distracted.

“Can you make the main lighting a soft violet color?” I ask after a few moments.

“Of course,” DAD says.

He floats into the mouse hole beside my bed and docks there.  Within a few seconds the entire room glows lavender.

“That’s perfect,” I say.  “Can you tell me the time by the way?”

“It’s 6:45 AM,” DAD says from inside his hole.  “Are you thinking of getting an early start on your assignments today?”

I clear my throat and try to settle my nerves.

“Not today,” I say.  “I’m going to go get cleaned up in a few minutes.”

“Don’t forget that you have a Voyager session this afternoon,” he says sternly.

“I know,” I say.  “I’m looking forward to trying it.”


 

A little over a year ago I was given the instructions.

“You’re aware of Friend clusters?” David asked.

“I’ve seen the advertisements,” I said.  “They offer steady work with food and lodging.  I know quite a few people who applied.”

“That’s how they market it,” Jenn said.

I laughed.

“You mean to tell me a major company isn’t doing what they say they’re doing?  That’s a first.”

“Sarcasm aside, it’s more sinister than embezzlement or pollution,” David said.  “We’re talking full on slavery.”

Jenn nods.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“There were whispers for a long time, ever since the project went mainstream,” Jenn said.  “Any time something’s too good to be true you have to be wary, especially in this world.  There’s a ‘company store’ aspect to these clusters that constitutes servitude to  begin with, but now we have evidence of mental experimentation on these employees.”

“Experimentation?” I asked.  “Like, with drugs, or what?”

“The details are still fuzzy,” David said.  “The information we managed to procure was delivered at a great cost.  Many of our insiders were discovered and we didn’t hear from them again; we suspect they’ve been murdered.  Two made it out and gave us as much information as they could.  They both had severe brain deterioration and their memories were muddled to a disturbing degree.  They’re vegetables now.”

“How do you know what they told you was true then?” I asked.

“They had photos, stolen files, anything they could get their hands on,” Jenn said.  “Internally they’ve gotten more and more careful, obviously.”

The three of us were sitting inside of what was once a cafe.  The windows were predominantly boarded up and the light that did come through the openings was a hazy orange, stained with the perma-smog that rolled through the streets of London at all hours of the day now.  The city was largely uninhabited since the end of the last war.  There were people like us who came here to try and put the pieces together and to attempt to rebuild, and not much else.  Even the uber-militarized storm troopers that emerged victorious had mostly abandoned this place.  The world’s capitals were now in places that survivors couldn’t, or wouldn’t, dare go.

“The company has a veil over it,” David said.  “They advertise as Bloom Designs.  You said you’ve seen the commercials.  They present themselves as a manufacturer, and Friend clusters are presented as camps of labor workers who can rise up through the company through loyalty and hard work.”

“Okay,” I said.  “So what is it really?”

“They have a pretty ingenious process,” David said.  “They interview potential candidates.  The ones they believe have something they want they’ll invite to an ‘orientation.’  At the orientation they’ll present some of their actual objectives.  They’ll talk about a machine that reads brainwaves and they’ll make mention of how the employees are actually used for testing purposes.  They’ll make no mention of any dangers to this machine, or what their actual intentions for using it are.”

“And?” I asked.

“We have pretty good reason to believe most of the ones who get to orientation are pretty open to whatever is presented to them,” David said.  “They were desperate in the first place, so they couldn’t care less about what the work is.  Not to mention the fact that the company presents itself slickly and has an air of validation about it so even the ones who might be scared initially convince themselves they’re overreacting.  We have good reason to believe that the few who try to back out are dealt with.”

“Fuck,” I said.  “You’re saying they just murder them?”

“We don’t have enough proof of any of this,” Jenn said.  “Even if we did who would we take it to?”

I tried to process everything they were telling me.

“So what are we doing then?” I asked.

“Liberation,” David said.  “Bloom Designs doesn’t actually exist.  They’re a front for whatever it is they’re doing behind the scenes and they’ve been around since before the war began.  It’s almost a certainty they have a hand in initiating the war.  Now they’re engaging in literal slavery.”

David and Jenn were part of the few remaining fringe members of an activist group who had taken me in when I had nowhere to go.  I sympathized with their aims, but if I’m being entirely honest the main reason I agreed to help them with any of their endeavors was simply that I owed them my life.  I was the only one of the three of us young enough to have a shot at getting into a Friend cluster so naturally I agreed to help.  The more we talked about it however the more worried I became.  I knew they had connections they didn’t talk about and that there was some sort of cavalry being built behind the scenes in the event we could start this liberation.  I had no delusions though; I knew full well I was a front line soldier who wouldn’t be around to see the endgame if I did my job correctly.

“We’re asking a lot of you here,” Jenn said.  “I don’t want to make you feel like you have no choice in the matter, but I also can’t stress enough how important you are in this whole plan.  You really might be the last hope of imploding this thing from the inside.”

“You already know I’m in,” I said.

David rubbed my shoulder.

“You’re going to be remembered forever if you can pull this off,” he said.

“I don’t care about any of that,” I said.  “Just tell me what you need.”

“We have an interview secured for you a few months from now,” Jenn said.  “We’re going to coach you on surefire answers and attitudes that will get you selected.  It could take a while for your cluster assignment as there’s likely a waiting list, but you have a specific cluster that you’ll be heading to.  There are contacts in that cluster that are with us who have been setting this up for years.”

“How do we know I’ll be placed where I need to go?” I asked.

“Like I said, this is years in the making,” Jenn said.  “You’re the final piece of this puzzle.  All the other pieces have been put together for some time.”

I nodded.

“The most important things you need to remember are your contacts and your new name.  Janus won’t exist anymore after you go through orientation,” David said.

“Do you know what my name will be?” I asked.

“They rotate through 26 possible names per cluster.  It’s hard to say what yours will end up being.  That’s one piece of info we don’t have any control over whatsoever,” Jenn said.

“There are two contacts that we know of who will be safe for you, though you’re going to be watched at all times so you need to let them take the lead on touching base with you,” David said.  “One of them is a doctor and the other is a Friend.  All we know about the Friend is she is female, she’s approved for what they call ‘loose behavior,’ and she’s older than a typical participant.”


 

I walk down the hallway towards the showers.

It’s almost completely silent except for the low hum of electronics that reverberates around this place in the background at all times.  The lights in all of the hallways are still dimmed.  All of the other Friends are still asleep.  The kitchen is locked up tight and The Chef hasn’t started distributing plates of vitamin pastes to the table for breakfast.

I had to get pretty cross with my DAD until he stopped asking why I wanted him to stay in the room.  He eventually relented and agreed to task himself with expanding his music library.

I enter the bathroom quietly.  The lighting is still dim here as well and the mirror panels are asleep like everything else.  Normally the quiet would be refreshing, but with the normal hustle and bustle I’ve seen here within just my first few days it makes me anxious.

There are ten shower stalls.  I found this funny immediately since there are only six of us total and there are even separate men’s and women’s facilities.  I count three from the left and walk toward the door panel slowly.  It opens when I touch it and I step inside.

The vestibule is empty.  I wonder if I beat Charlie here.  I open the panel to the shower and see it’s empty as well.  I start to worry something might have happened, but then I hear the main door to the bathroom slide open.  I don’t know exactly what to do so I sit down on the stool inside the vestibule and fidget with my newly painted fingernails.  Charlie painted them what she called “midnight blue.”

What seems like a long time passes and I start worrying again.

She’s the one who set this whole thing up, so what’s she waiting for?

I hear a door panel slide open a few stalls away from me, and then another.  It dawns on me that it can’t be Charlie.  I’m realizing that someone is looking for me and doesn’t know where to start.  I stand up to try to rush into the shower when the vestibule door slides open.

“Don’t make a sound,” Victor says as he steps inside.

He’s holding a long, thin knife in his right hand.

“I’m going to ask you a few questions,” he continues.

V

“Sierra is going to die soon, you understand that right?”

Doctor Carson glares at me, but says nothing.

“Is that what happened to Mike?  He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.  I’m guessing you guys even managed to push him too far, yeah?”

“You know I’m not going to discuss any of this with you,” Carson says.

“Here’s the thing,” I say tersely.  “You keep treating me like I’m in the same boat as the rest of them, but you know damn well I’m not.”

Carson smiles.

“Are you threatening me, Charlie?” she asks.

“I love that you can’t even speak candidly when it’s you and I alone,” I say.  “You’re like one of those actors who stays in character even when the cameras aren’t rolling.”

“The cameras are always rolling here,” she says bluntly.  “You of all people should know that by now.”

I haphazardly pull my hair into a messy bun.  Carson is playing a role and that’s undeniable.  We both understand each other, but the insufferable thing is she can’t seem to be straight with me even though she knows my situation.  The Manager knows I’m cleared for what he calls “loose behavior.”  I keep tabs on the Friends in my group, I report when I think things are getting out of hand or dangerous, I get to enjoy certain benefits.  Simple as that.

Lately things have been dangerous all day, every day.  It used to be that I could look the other way, however selfish that is, when a Friend got pushed a little too far.  The Voyager isn’t well understood even all these years later.  Issues are going to arise.  But the disappearances have gone from one every couple of years to multiples every single month.  I know this because I’ve seen the files.

I’ve also seen the treatment of the Friends, just in my cluster alone, go from bad to worse.  Sierra is a grave concern of mine.  She’s extremely bright, and I know that they know that.  Whatever they’ve been ramping up their testings for, they must see a major puzzle piece to their endgame locked inside her brain.  They aren’t treating her with any sort of care however.  If they keep pushing her like they did the last few weeks, she’ll be “fired” in a matter of days.

“Can you stop jerking me off for a second and answer something that’s been bothering me?” I say.

“Charlie, I’m going to prescribe you something to calm you down,” she says.

“Sierra saw the man with the white eyes in one of her sessions,” I continue.

“You saw someone similar in one of your sessions if I recall correctly,” Carson says.

“Not similar,” I say. “It was a nearly identical scenario.  Not the same location, but everything else was the same.”

“What are you insinuating?” she says.

“As far as I can tell, and from what I’ve been told indirectly, the Voyager facilitates our minds at play and may steer us gently in certain directions.  But if Sierra is seeing scenarios that I’m seeing, that seems to indicate you’re steering us in more linear directions than you’re admitting.  You’re submitting us to premeditated scenarios we don’t have a say in.”

“That’s a strong accusation, especially coming from someone who doesn’t understand the ins and outs of this machine to begin with,” Carson says.  “I also think you need to be very careful about what you snoop around in.  It sounds to me like you’re poking into files you aren’t supposed to be privy to.”

“Sounds like you’re threatening me now,” I say.

She sighs.

“Charlie, have you met November yet?” she asks.

“In passing,” I say.  “I wasn’t really in the mood to make small talk when she arrived last night.”

“She’s one of the Friends who’s been on the waiting list to join this cluster,” Carson continues.

“Super,” I say.

“Could I trouble you to bring her up to speed on how things work?” she says.  “I have her background information here.”

She hands me her DigiClipboard and I look it over.  I feel Carson staring at me and I look up to meet her gaze briefly.  She pretends to brush a strand of hair from her face and I catch her wink at me.  It’s almost completely unnoticeable, but now it’s sinking in.

I look back at the DigiClipboard and start to read a portion of it more carefully:

 

Assigned color: Purple.

Birthdate/Age: 05.06.2XXX – 24 y.o.

Birthplace: Sheffield, U.K.

Birthname: Janus Baker

 

I catch Carson’s gaze again and she nods slightly.

“So is that okay?” she asks.  “Doesn’t add too much to your plate does it?”

I swallow hard.

“It’s my pleasure,” I say.  “Sorry to be such a pill.  This shit just stresses me out.”

“Speaking of pills, I’ll have that prescription delivered to your room later,” Carson says.  “You really could use some reprieve from all the stress.  I hope you realize we all appreciate everything you do.”

“Thanks, doctor,” I say.  “I’ll check back in with you tomorrow.”

She nods again, her eyes piercing mine.

It comforts me more than I can describe to know she’s just playing this role more spectacularly than I imagined.


 

November is a sweet kid.

The boys keep buzzing around her, and it’s pretty clear that Juliett isn’t a fan.  Sierra seems taken with her too but she’s been much quieter than usual since her last scare.  My heartstrings tug at me to try and talk to her again and provide some sort of comforting advice, but November is supposed to be my key focus and time is short.

I’ve been listening the last few days to try and find some sort of natural segue where I can get her alone.  Opportunity finally appears to be knocking as we all gather around another Sunday breakfast.

“You barely ever eat anything, you’re going to starve,” Oscar says, softly nudging November in the ribs.

Juliett’s face and neck turn red.

“I’m never hungry in the mornings,” November says.  “I don’t know why.”

“You barely eat anything for lunch or dinner either,” he says.

“I didn’t know you were my dietitian,” she says, laughing.

“Don’t mind him, he’s trying to make himself feel better for eating an entire pig’s worth of bacon,” Victor says.

Oscar ignores him.

“Then there’s Charlie with her little espresso,” he continues, miming a small cup with his pinky extended.  “I think you eat even less than Nova.”

I smile at him from across the table.

“Someone’s feisty today,” I say.

“I’m just talkin crap,” he says.  “Victor’s right, I’m just self-conscious about my girlish figure.”

November giggles.

I notice Sierra is just staring at her bowl, stirring her oatmeal slowly.  Her expression is completely blank.

“So ladies, we have an entire free day,” I start.  “Anyone feel like letting me do their nails?  I had some polish delivered and I could use the practice.”

“That sounds nice,” November says.  “I don’t honestly remember the last time I got to do anything like that.”

Juliett doesn’t say anything and just stares daggers at Nova from across the table.

“Sierra?” I ask.

She blinks as if she’s just woken up.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” she says.

“Perfect, come by my room after everyone gets cleaned up for the day,” I say.  “You’re welcome too, Juliett.”

Juliett briefly turns her attention to me.

“Thanks, I’m trying to finish reading a couple of books though,” she says.

“You didn’t even invite me or Vic,” Oscar says. “That just seems rude.”

“Cry about it,” I say, extending my pinky and taking a sip of my espresso.


 

Nova and Sierra both shuffle into my room around noon.

Nova gushes over my decor (almost exactly the same way Sierra did the first time she came in).  The walls and floor are faux bamboo and I have a number of shelves with China dishes and hundreds of other tasteful tchotchkes.  She can’t get over the vase full of cherry blossom branches in the corner.

“I didn’t know trees could be that color!” she exclaims.

“You didn’t have any cherry blossom trees in England?” I ask.

“I don’t remember any,” she says.  “But then again I only saw a tree with green leaves on it once, and that was when we were touring one of the bio-domes.”

Sierra has been sitting on the bed since she walked in, staring at her feet as she wiggles them slowly up and down.

“I remember looking into those when I was really little,” Sierra says all of a sudden.  “We couldn’t afford to live there even if we had double our income.”

I smile softly at her.

“Do you miss your parents?” I ask.

“I can’t really remember anymore,” she says without hesitation, and with such a lack of interest that it shatters my heart into pieces.  “I assume if I was looking for a way out they must not have been that amazing.”

Nova sits on the bed next to her and rubs her back gently.

“I never met my dad,” Nova says.  “And my mom, bless her heart, wasn’t the best at taking care of anyone other than herself.  There’s a reason this seemed like the best option for me.”

I like both of these girls a great deal.  I have the overwhelming urge to hug them both and tell them this is the best possible place to be, that it’s going to alright and that we’re all in this together.  Not only is that a huge lie however, it’s also not what I asked them here for.

I wheel a little cart over to the bed with a tray of different nail polishes, polish remover, cotton balls, and a couple of magazines on it.  I push the tray right up against the bed between them and kneel down beside it.

“That’s enough gloominess for now,” I say.  “Now are you guys classic red, or something crazy like blue or green?”

Nova laughs.

“Dealer’s choice,” she says.  “You seem like a good judge.”

I turn my attention to Sierra.

“How about you?” I ask.

“Red,” she says. “Definitely.”

I swallow nervously.  I’ve got one shot to make this look natural.

“Okay great,”  I say.  “Now, I managed to get my hands on a couple of old fashion mags.  Do any of these styles look interesting?”

I flip open the magazine on top and stand up to lean over the tray.  As I do so I take a hand of each of the girls and pull them over the tray as well.  There’s a tiny slip of paper resting in the binding of the page I’ve turned to.  I put my finger on it as if I’m pointing out a picture on the page and look directly at Nova.

“I always thought this lady was beautiful,” I say.  “She was on an old television program about a group of friends that lived in the big city.”

Nova looks down at my finger.  The slip of paper reads:

SHOWER 7AM TOMORROW THIRD STALL FROM LEFT

Sierra looks to her and then to me.  I see her eyes flash with a sort of recognition.  She looks for a moment like she did before the Voyager started turning her brain into scrambled eggs.  She’s processing the notion of hope.

“Jennifer Aniston?” Sierra says.  “Wow, she was lovely.”

Nova nods.

“That’s the one,” Nova says, looking me in the eye.

“Perfect,” I say.  “I think you can pull that off well.”

IV

The rain is falling in sheets, so thick and persistent that it’s deafening.

I stand under the front awning of my hotel watching the world go by.  Everything is drenched in a syrupy glaze, reflecting each and every light the city has to offer.  The storm drains can’t keep up.  Trash and leaves float around in the gutters like aimless ships at sea.

I reach into my trench coat pocket and produce a half-empty pack of cigarettes and my gold lighter.  I light up a smoke between my cupped, gloved hands and take a long drag.

“Would you like me to hail you a cab, sir?” the doorman asks.

“Not necessary,” I respond curtly.  “My ride should be here any moment now.”

“Very good, sir,” the doorman says.  “I keep wondering when the rain is finally going to stop.  Feels like we’re going to need to build an ark soon.”

I give him a weak smile.  The rain has been incredible the last couple of days, but I’m not especially interested in talking about the weather.  My mind is on more pressing matters.

The doorman goes on about how it never rained this much in his hometown.  I can’t remember his name or the name of the town he literally just mentioned a few moments ago.  I don’t mean to be rude, but he’s excruciatingly dull.  I wish he’d take the hint and shut up.

As my last nerve is about to snap, a nondescript slate blue sedan pulls into the flooded gutter beside us.  I nod to the doorman and he goes to open the passenger side door.

“Have a safe night, sir,” he says after I’ve already slammed the door shut.

The sedan picks up speed as soon as we roll away from the hotel.  My driver is weaving in and out of traffic with split-second precision.  He taps a gloved finger against the red digital clock on the dashboard.

“We’ve got six minutes,” he says calmly.

I nod, even though I know The Square is at least twenty minutes away in this traffic.  There’s no way we’re making this.

I try to look out the window casually to pass the time, but the driver keeps picking up speed.  We’ve somehow managed to avoid any red lights so far, but he’s almost hit numerous passerby.  I’m biting my tongue to keep from showing I’m nervous.  Sweat is beading up on my temples.  I pat the gun in my front coat pocket gently, making sure it’s still there.

“Hold on,” the driver says.

The light ahead of us is red but the car keeps picking up speed.  The driver leaps the sedan over the curb and starts driving down the sidewalk.  He narrowly misses a hot dog vendor, clipping the umbrella on his cart and knocking it into the street.  Terrified people leap out of our way to either side as he continues to drive faster.  I grab onto the ceiling handle with white knuckles as I see a whole group of people under their umbrellas waiting at the intersection to cross the street.  Somehow he misses all of them, knocks over a row of newspaper machines, and peels back into the road while dodging oncoming cars.

“We aren’t going to make it, slow down,” I finally say, unable to keep my cool anymore.

The driver is wearing a coat identical to my own, and a large black fedora covers his head and shadows his face.  Eerily, the only feature I can make out through the darkness is his broad smile.  His bright white teeth look like pearls.

“We have four minutes,” he says.

Faster and faster.

I feel myself disassociating from my body.  I don’t know how we haven’t crashed yet or killed anyone.  He moves the steering wheel like it’s an extension of his arms.  His jerky movements are cat-like.  We come within inches of pedestrians, semi-trucks and buildings.  The soundtrack to our rally race is honking horns and blood-curdling screams.

The clock keeps ticking away.  With less than a minute to go we’re still a few minutes away from The Square.

“It’s not happening,” I bark.  “We need to abort.”

“Nope,” the driver says without hesitation.

“We have one shot to catch him in the open,” I say.  “He’ll be in his car driving away from The Square in less than sixty seconds.  We aren’t going to make it.”

“We’re going to make it,” the driver says.

This man is insane.

I reach into my pocket to retrieve the gun.

He’s faster though.

“Save it,” the driver says.  “This is happening.”

He presses the point of a switchblade against my Adam’s apple.  I pull my hand out of my pocket slowly and put my palms on my lap.  My eyes are squeezed shut.

After what feels like hours I finally notice we aren’t moving.

I open my eyes to slits.  We’re parked in a parallel spot right beside The Square.  The driver is gone.  It takes me a few moments of gathering my bearings to notice him leaning on the hood of the car with his back to me.  He’s smoking a cigar so large it’s cartoon-like.  The rain is still falling, and it must somehow be harder than before because I can’t even hear it anymore.  The red clock display reads six minutes.

I step out of the sedan and immediately feel like I’m in a swimming pool.  My clothes are so drenched it’s as if I’m dragging a suit of armor along with every movement.  I can’t figure out how the driver is able to keep his cigar lit but he puffs on it continuously, the cherry burning brightly, clouds of dense white smoke billowing from underneath his fedora.

“What happened?” I venture.  “Did we miss him?”

“I asked for an extension,” he says.  “We have six minutes.”

I don’t have any idea what he’s talking about.

“An extension?” I ask.

“I really don’t like repeating myself,” he says.

I look over at The Square.  There’s no one out, which isn’t so surprising with the weather, but I also don’t see another car in sight.  There are no lights on in any of the windows in the surrounding buildings.  It’s quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

“This is weird,” I say.  “Where is everyone?”

“Five minutes,” the driver says.  “You want a smoke?”

I don’t smoke cigars, but I get the feeling I should indulge him.  He pulls one out from his inner coat pocket and I take it, placing it between my teeth.  I pull out my gold lighter and to my surprise the flame is completely unbothered by the rain.  I let out a plume of smoke when I get it started.  It tastes amazing.  I don’t know enough about cigars to know a good one, but if they all tasted like this I could get into that lifestyle.

“About before,”  I start.

“Shh,” he says.

“Do you even know what we’re doing here?” I shoot back.  “Did you get the instructions?”

“No, tell me why we’re here,” he says.

I open my mouth to spit out the importance of our mission, but I can’t remember it.

“You’re lost,” the driver says.

“But you brought us here,” I say.

“Enjoy your last smoke,” he says.

I reach into my pocket and pull out the gun.  I press it against his cheek forcefully.

“Pull the trigger,” he says.

I do as he asks and there’s a loud pop.  Not the deafening bang of a revolver, but the sound of a firecracker going off.  I turn the gun sideways and notice the nozzle is bright orange.  It’s a pop cap gun, one of those cheap toys you can buy at the supermarket.

“Three minutes,” the driver says.

I reach back into my inner pocket and feel a folded piece of paper.  I pull it out with a shaky hand and unfold it.  The rain doesn’t affect it either.  Plain as day, in permanent marker, is written:

1307 – 226 – JANUS

“What is this,” I ask.

“It’s the answer to a mystery you’ve been trying to solve,” he says.  “You’ve seen it many times before, but you can’t ever seem to hold on to it.”

“What mystery?” I ask.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he says.  “Finish your cigar.”

I notice the rain has stopped.  When I look up at the sky, I can’t make out clouds or stars or anything for that matter.  In fact it looks as if the texture is pixelated.  When I look back at the buildings I see they don’t have windows anymore.  They’re just vague gray blocks.  The street is smooth with no lines.  The car we’re sitting on looks like it’s made of building blocks.

“Do you want a drink?” the driver asks.  “Will that make you feel better?”

He offers me a tall Heineken, my favorite beer.

“Thanks,” I say.

I crack it open and take a long swig.  It tastes perfect.

“Just a few moments now,” he says.

He takes the fedora off.  I can’t see his face because he doesn’t have one.  Even his mouth is gone.  His entirety is made of a few large incoherent blocks.  His disembodied voice starts having a comforting effect on me.  I feel like I was struggling against something with all of my strength and now I’m finally relaxing.  I’m no longer frightened at all.

“It’s going to hurt your eyes for a minute, and then it will fade,” he says.  “You’ll feel like your heart is dropping through your feet.  Your mouth will be very dry, you’ll keep trying to swallow, and then you’ll feel a tingling in your extremities.  Hold on to that as long as you can.”

I nod sleepily.

He pulls the switchblade out of his pocket which now looks like a long silver line.  He plunges it into my chest and my black coat turns burgundy.  Everything fades out except for a searing white-blue light.  I shut my eyes instinctively but I can still see it.  The tingling begins in my fingers and toes and I start to giggle.  The feeling is indescribable.

I hear the alarm clock blaring from inside the car.

I’m laughing and crying and I feel every atom in my body start to vibrate with such force I can’t see straight.  They start to fly out of me like popcorn, shooting away in streaks in every direction.


 

“He’s a vegetable,” The Manager says.

“I don’t understand this,” Doctor Carson says.  “We were limiting him to once a week at the most.”

“You’ve been here long enough to know that some people just don’t have the necessary mental acuity,” The Manager says.

“What do you make of this session?” Carson asks, her voice wavering.  “I don’t understand a lot of it.”

“The plot was a pretty common one,” The Manager says.  “At least until the end.  When they can’t complete the task they started with things always get a little overbearingly philosophical by the finish.”

“That’s not exactly what I mean,” she replies.

“I know what you meant,” The Manager says sternly.  “You’re asking me how he had a similar place-marker to Sierra’s.”

“Similar,” she laughs.  “It was the exact same code.”

“I can speculate on this all day long, but the possibilities are infinite,” The Manager says.  “The easiest explanation is that she told him.”

“It’s my job to watch their interactions,” Carson says.  “They spoke alone rarely, if ever.”

“Let me rephrase it: I don’t care.  It doesn’t matter,” The Manager says.  “Take care of him.  There’s another subject on deck.  Her name’s November.  Bring her up to speed and I’ll debrief with you this evening.”

Carson lifts a glass cover and flips a switch on the Voyager panel by Mike’s head.

A loud alarm sounds as his vitals flat-line.

III

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m finally feeling a little better.

DAD is playing a Mozart sonata through the input panel while he charges in his mouse hole.  Oscar is sitting at the foot of my bed and Charlie is sitting on the floor.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” Oscar asks me, extending both middle fingers up and moving them around.

“I can’t tell,” I say.  “I’m distracted by the asshole they’re attached to.”

Oscar laughs.

“We were worried you were gone,” he says.

I move the ice pack further up my forehead and wince.  The inside of my head feels like it’s been beaten to a pulp with a baseball bat.

“That makes two of us,” I say.  “I can’t really remember anything since talking to Doc on Sunday.”

Charlie is staring at me with a concerned look.  She hasn’t said a word since they came in.

“I’m alright, I promise,” I say to her with a smile.  “I don’t know what happened but I’m resting up and I’ll be back to one hundred percent soon.”

She doesn’t say anything, but nods a little.

“You feel like coming to lunch today?” Oscar asks.  “Chef said he’d make you anything you want.  You earned it.”

The thought of food makes my stomach turn.  I can’t even imagine getting out of bed.  Moving my head in any direction makes me feel like I’m going to vomit.

“Doubtful,” I say.  “I’ll probably just take my meal through an IV again for the time being.”

Oscar’s DAD drops a small parcel wrapped in paper beside my face.  I pick it up and examine it.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Got you a little something,” Oscar says.  “It’s not much, but I thought it might make you feel better.”

With this he stands up and pats one of my blanketed feet.

“Let me know if you need anything,” he says.  He and his DAD take their leave, but Charlie doesn’t move.  

“They’re killing you,” Charlie says bluntly.

I’m shocked enough to sit up in bed.  I temporarily forget that I shouldn’t be moving around and I feel the dizzy nausea hit me immediately, forcing me to lie back down and close my eyes tightly.  This is the second time in the past few days that she’s been bold enough to come out and say something like this.  She’s one of the most intelligent Friends I’ve met here, so I don’t know what she’s doing.  Friends have been fired from the program for a lot less than questioning The Manager’s methods.

“It’s temporary,” I say trying to reassure her.  Or maybe I’m trying to reassure myself.  “I have a feeling they saw something in one of my Voyager sessions they were excited about.  They got a little overzealous maybe.  They know my limits now.”

Charlie laughs.

“You’ve been here most of your life and you’re still this naive,” she says.  “Amazing.”

I’m miffed by her condescending tone.

“I’m not dumb, Charlie.  I know something went wrong,” I say defensively.  “I’m also not going to start crying about discontinuing the program because of the first bad experience I’ve had here.”

“Don’t get offended,” she says.  “I’m just worried about you.  I’ve seen this before.”

“Seen what before?” I snap.

“They don’t give a shit about you, Sierra,” Charlie says.  “They see something that they’ve seen in a few others, and let me put it this way: none of those other Friends are in our program anymore.”

I’m starting to get annoyed, but I’m also quite sure she’s telling the truth.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” I finally respond.

She gets up, picks the ice pack up off of my face and kisses my forehead.  Her long auburn hair smells like lavender.

“When you’re feeling better, come talk to me,” she says quietly.  “And if you take anything from this conversation at all, don’t let them push you back into that thing before you feel like yourself again.”

With that she leaves, looking back at me over her shoulder as the door closes behind her.

I turn the little parcel that Oscar gave me around in my hands.  I tear the paper gently and giggle when I see what’s inside.  It’s one of those “Magic 8 Balls.”  I saw one in a television program a while ago and didn’t shut up about it for weeks.  I couldn’t stop laughing at how silly and pointless it was.  I have no idea how Oscar got one, but I love it.

“Am I going to keep solid food down today?” I ask before shaking the Ball furiously.  The answer slowly floats to the top of the indigo liquid sloshing within:

REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN.


 

I wake up Tuesday afternoon and find Doctor Carson sitting at the foot of my bed.

“How are we feeling?” she asks.

“I’ve been better,” I say honestly.  “I forgot we had an appointment today, I’m sorry.”

Doctor Carson shakes her head.

“You aren’t well.  I’m perfectly capable of visiting you here,” she says.  “I’m going to do a brief exam however, is that okay?”

“Of course,” I say.

She pulls the diagnostic device out of her white coat pocket.  It’s about the size of a toothbrush with a little white ball on the end of it.  She rubs it across my forehead, behind each ear, and slowly down the middle of my head.  The inadvertent massage feels amazing.  The data gets transferred to her DigiClipboard and I start to doze again as she looks it over silently.

“Sierra,” she says after a few minutes.  My eyes flicker open and I try to pretend I wasn’t nodding off.

“Sorry, I’m still so exhausted,” I tell her.

“No apologies necessary,” she says.  “I wanted to discuss the results with you.”

I swallow nervously.

“Is everything okay?”

She nods, but I’m not buying it entirely.

“This is pretty common for anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the Voyager without rest.  You probably know enough to know that none of your peers have been able to use the Voyager more than two days a week without this level of discomfort.”

“Discomfort,” I say dryly.  “That’s mild.”

She laughs softly.

“Valid point,” she says.  “You’re going to need an extended period of rest, but you should be fine by next week.”

“So everything looks okay?” I ask with more than a little trepidation.

Doctor Carson pauses.  It’s enough to confirm my suspicions that she’s not being entirely truthful with me.  I’m frightened by this prospect greatly, because I thought I could trust her.

“Everything will be back to normal soon,” she says.  I look at her face and she flicks her eyes to the input panel.  It’s almost indiscernible but I catch it.  I almost breathe an animated sigh of relief.  She’s unable to talk about it here.  I don’t know how, but I’ll have to find a place where we aren’t being supervised if I want some solid answers.

“Thank you, Doctor,” I say.

She has the same look of fear on her face that she had before I went to the mainframe last.

“Do you remember what happened to you on Sunday?” she asks.

Before I can answer the visual panel switches on behind her and The Manager’s face is front and center.

“Good afternoon, Sierra.  Good afternoon, Doctor Carson.”

Carson looks startled as she turns around to face the screen.

“Good afternoon,” she says.

“Good afternoon,” I say.

“Doctor Carson you are needed in the infirmary,” The Manager says succinctly.  “Sierra, in a few minutes you and your Friends will be summoned to gather in the den for a special announcement.”

Carson nods to me and begins to walk to the door.

“Very good,” she says before exiting.

I sit up and look at the screen.  I’m still overwhelmed every time I move my head.

“I’m not sure I can make it,” I say apologetically.  “I’m still feeling awful.”

The Manager pauses for a moment, seemingly processing my response.

“I’m afraid this is a matter of importance,” he says sternly.  “I will have someone help you there and back, and you may resume your rest after the short announcement.”

I don’t know how to refuse a direct order.  We can’t all be as outspoken as Charlie.

“Understood,” I say.

“Very good,” The Manager replies.  “Stand by.”

After the visual panel flashes off again I lie down again in a heap.  I start giving myself a silent pep talk.

It’s just few minutes.  You can make it.  You can go back to sleep after.


 

Oscar and Juliett help me to the den.  I’m surprised to see her.  The cynical part of me thinks she was probably given the order to help me rather than her volunteering.  Every step is brutal.  Just a few steps from my seat I grab the collar of Oscar’s jumpsuit and beg him to stop for a moment.  I valiantly fight off a tsunami wave of nausea before letting the two lower me into my chair. They sit on either side of me.  Juliett completely takes me by surprise and gingerly places the back of her hand on my forehead.

“You feel warm,” she says with concern.

“Yeah, it comes and goes,” I say.  “Thanks for helping me.”

“Of course,” she says.  “I’ve gotten the sickness before, but mine was never this serious.”

“Me too,” Oscar says.  “You’re a trooper.”

Charlie and Victor come into the den to take their seats a few moments later.

“Has anyone seen Mike?” Victor asks.

“He was at breakfast this morning,” Juliett says.  “I haven’t seen him since then though.  Maybe he’s still in the middle of an assignment.”

Right on cue, the den’s massive visual panel turns on.  The Manager’s face towers over us.

“Good afternoon, Friends,” The Manager says.

“Good afternoon,” we reply in unison.

“I have a short announcement for you all.  Mike has been fired from the program as of this morning.  His skill set is no longer needed and we thought it best to let him go.  We wish him the best of luck, and are happy to report that we have parted ways amicably,” The Manager says.

The room is silent.  I catch Charlie’s eye as she bites her lip worriedly.

“As you all know, Friend groups consist of six members.  As such, we have a replacement Friend lined up who will be joining you this evening.  I know I can count on you all to make them feel welcome and to show them around,” he continues.

“Why was he let go?” Charlie blurts out.

“His skill set is no longer needed,” The Manager replies.

“What was his skill set?” she shoots back.

“That is not your concern,” The Manager says.

“If it was amicable why couldn’t he say goodbye?” Charlie continues, her voice wavering.  “He was part of our group for years.”

“Charlie, report to the infirmary to see Doctor Carson immediately,” The Manager says.

I can see her eyes begin to water.  She stands up abruptly, knocking her chair over loudly and leaves the room.

“That will be all,” The Manager concludes.  “The rest of your day will be free of assignments, so please enjoy yourselves.  Dinner will be served at 1800 hours.”

The visual panel flickers off.  Oscar, Victor and Juliett are all silent.  The three of them all help me back to my room and then wander off without a word.

I roll onto my side and stare at the wall for what feels like a long time.  DAD comes out of his mouse hole after I tell him to turn the music off and asks if I’m feeling alright.  I tell him to be quiet and he goes to sit in the corner silently.

Friends getting fired or transferring isn’t a rarity, but it’s also not common.  I’m actually the only one in my current group who was here from the beginning.  Oscar’s been here for something like 6 or 7 years.  Mike was here at least that long from what I recall. Juliett and Charlie replaced a couple of others within the same day about 3 years ago.  Victor replaced someone maybe a year after them.

I’ve been here so long I actually can’t remember how old I was when I joined the program.  I think I was only about 5, but it’s so hard to think that far back.  I don’t recall anything from outside of this facility, so I must have been very young.  I’ve thought about transferring or quitting before to see what life is like on the outside, but I’ve heard it’s awful.  DAD told me most Friends who discontinue are homeless or worse within a few months.

I roll over onto my other side and look at my nightstand.  My new Magic 8 Ball sits beside my little glass rose and my origami cat.  The rose was another gift from Oscar for my 25th birthday.  The little cat was something I had DAD make for me after I downloaded a paper-folding program for him.  I pick up the Ball and shake it again.

“Is the new guy going to be cool?” I ask.

BETTER NOT TELL YOU NOW


 

Our new Friend is named November.

She has long dark hair like mine, but her skin is dark whereas I’m white as a sheet.  Oscar asks where she’s from and she tells him England.  I recognize that accent from some of the movies and shows I’ve seen, and I love the way it sounds.  I keep asking her questions to keep her talking.  Everything she says sounds so pleasant.

She’s very bubbly and happy, and I can tell immediately that Victor and Oscar think she’s attractive.  Juliett doesn’t say much during dinner, and I know it’s because the boys aren’t paying her any mind.  Charlie hasn’t said anything and I want to ask her if she’s okay, but she leaves the kitchen as soon as she’s done eating and doesn’t even ask for permission to go to bed.

“Is she okay?” November asks.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind of a day,” Victor replies.  “The Friend you’re replacing was here for a long while.  None of us knew he was going to be fired.”

“That’s terrible,” November says.  “I’m so sorry.  I hope I can fill their shoes.”

“You seem great,” Oscar says.  “It’s nice to have a fresh face.”

I’m feeling a lot better this evening.  DAD ventured off to the infirmary to gather some medication that Doctor Carson ordered for me, and the little white pills are helping immensely.  My appetite returned and I scarfed down two plates of vitamin paste and two glasses of protein drink.  I’m full of questions and excitement with our new Friend and I’m unable to keep from talking her ear off.

“What’s England like?” I ask.  “Is it always rainy like it is on television?”

“It’s constantly raining,” she says.  “I love it though.  I’ve always preferred those gloomy days to sunshine.”

“Have you ever seen the Queen?” I ask.

She laughs at this.

“We haven’t had a Queen in decades,” she says.

Oscar seems confused by this response.  I can tell by the look on his face.  He doesn’t say anything though.

Before we know it a chime rings from the kitchen’s input panel signalling it’s time for us to go to bed.  Oscar volunteers to show November to her room, but Juliett pinches his arm hard and he changes his mind.  She says she’s perfectly capable of finding it herself and bids us all good night.

I lay back down for what seems like the hundredth time today and I’m suddenly too alert to sleep.  Something popped into my head as I was getting ready for bed and I can’t stop thinking about it.  I commented on how much I liked November’s name when she introduced herself, and I had this overwhelming feeling of deja vu when I said it.  It took me all evening to place that feeling.  I keep thinking we used to have a Friend named November in the past.  When I start trying to remember more about previous Friends I end up scaring myself.  I can’t for the life of me remember what Mike looked like even though I just saw him on Sunday.  The harder I try to grasp at the memory the quicker it dissipates.

Just before I fall back asleep I struggle to remember if Mike was a girl or a boy.

Edited on 5.20.20 (polished a few typos)

II

The smell of sizzling bacon makes my eyes snap open.  My ears focus through the quiet all around me to tune in on the sound of it crackling in the pan.  I stretch my arms out wide and yawn.  It must be Sunday.

I roll over to face the wall beside my bed and the input panel glows happily at the sight of my face.

“Good morning, Sierra,” DAD says.

“Good morning, DAD,” I say sleepily.  “What time is it?”

“It is currently 0800 hours,” DAD says.  “You overslept again.”

I scoff playfully.

“It’s Sunday, they can wait,” I say.

“If you say so,” DAD says.  “Better get some breakfast before you miss out.”

I pull on my red linen pajama pants, slip my feet into my red furry slippers, and slip on my red terrycloth robe.  DAD turns his camera on so I can get a glimpse of myself in the mirror panel.  My hair is a rat’s nest, but I don’t care to fix it.  I get closer to the panel and inspect the heavy bags under my eyes.  I haven’t been sleeping all that well lately, but I felt like last night I was out cold.  I get the feeling I’ve been spending way too much time in the Voyager.  Restlessness during sleep is a pretty common side effect, or so I’ve heard.

“Alright, I’m as ready as I’ll get this morning,” I say cheerily.

The input panel and mirror panels fade out and DAD’s mouse hole slides open.  DAD rolls out of his hole and stops next to my feet.  I don’t take much time to look him over these days because we’ve been together for so long, but he’s probably getting close to needing an upgrade.  My model is at least a couple of years out of fashion.  He’s about the size of a small house cat, solid black, and shaped like a half-sphere.  One of his utility panels is permanently stuck ajar, actually giving him the appearance of having a tail like a house cat.  I refuse to fix it because of this.  I’ve never gotten the chance to see a house cat in person, but the pictures I’ve seen make me think I’d really like to have one someday.

The new DADs hover instead of roll and do all sorts of new tricks.  I’m attached to this one though.  Juliett says it’s stupid to get attached to a machine, but Juliett also eats her own hair so I don’t really give a shit what she thinks.

DAD opens the door panel for me and we stroll together down the hall to the kitchen.  The Chef is slicing onions and garlic to go into our omelettes as we come in through the entryway.

“Make sure to bring Sierra a glass of orange juice,” DAD says to The Chef.  “Her vital signs show she is experiencing mild cold symptoms.”

“I’m fine,” I protest.

“Drink your fuckin orange juice,” The Chef says gruffly.

I always have to fight not to giggle when The Chef plays stern with me.  He looks a little like a version of the Terminator from one of those old action films, but he wears a stupid white puffy hat and an apron.

DAD and I go to the big round table.  I take a seat and DAD rolls under my chair.  I’m the last to Sunday breakfast like always.  Juliett, Oscar and Mike are all already sitting patiently.  Victor and Charlie are standing in the corner whispering about something.

“Sleep well?” Juliett says.

“Excellently,” I say ignoring her snark.  “You?”

“Just fine, thanks,” she says.  “Would have been nice to just blow off morning chores to sleep an extra hour though.”

“Must be draining having to push two buttons to compact the trash capsules,” I reply, laying on the sarcasm even thicker.

“Ladies,” Oscar says smirking.  “Just start throwing hands already.  You’ve been dancing around it for months now.”

I like Oscar.  He’s sarcastic, but in a fun way.  I don’t know what he sees in Juliett, but they spend a lot of time together.  I guess she’s attractive, but I just want to slap her every time I see her stupid face.

“I’m going to start eating my own hands in a minute,” Mike says.  “I had a dream last night I was in a chocolate factory and I woke up with part of my pillow in my mouth.”

“That’s because you were watching that weird movie before bed again,” Oscar says.

“Yeah, I know,” Mike says.  “I was hoping it would start leaking into my subconscious a bit so I could use it in the Voyager.”

I’ve never seen the movie they’re talking about, but Mike’s a bigger guy so I assume it’s about a fat kid eating all the chocolate he wants.  Sounds like a pretty nice dreamscape actually.  Maybe I should see if DAD can find that film later.

Charlie and Victor come to sit down at the table after they see the rest of us chatting and carrying on.  Victor is the most attractive male in our group.  He’s about my age, tall and statuesque with a square jaw and a well-toned body.  His eyes are a bright hazel and he shaves his head and face daily.  On a lot of guys that look doesn’t work so well, but he’s a gorgeous specimen.  I’d be lying if I said he didn’t appear in my Voyager sessions now and then.

Charlie is beautiful as well, but she’s at least ten years older than I.  She has long flowing red hair and the build of a runway model.  Her eyes are a bright emerald green.  Oscar always jokes that she has a “classic Irish paint job,” but I’m apparently not cultured enough to know what that means.  She’s showed up from time to time in the Voyager as well, but I’ve always been too embarrassed to see where she wants to go.

“Breakfast is served,” The Chef says as he begins to bring in the plates.

Each of us scarf down our food as quickly as we can get to it.  Every other day of the week is bland vitamin pastes and protein drinks to make sure our nutrient levels are well balanced.  Sundays are for enjoying life a little bit.  The Chef eyes me from the doorway to the kitchen and I take a big swig of orange juice to appease him.  He nods approvingly and goes back to the kitchen to start cleaning up.

After five or ten minutes we’re all sitting and chatting happily, filled to the brim with pancakes, eggs, and cured meats.  Mike is finishing the scraps off of everyone’s plates and Charlie is sipping an espresso.  I’ve tried to enjoy coffee like Charlie (she looks so glamorous when she drinks it) but I don’t understand it.  It’s bitter and tastes a million times worse than the protein drinks in my opinion.

“So when are you going to get rid of that hunk of junk?” Mike asks me between bites of grilled sausage links.

I scowl at him.

“He’s still great,” I say defensively.  “It isn’t broken, so why fix it?”

Mike snickers, a bit of egg falling out of his mouth.

“I’m just saying,” he replies.  “You don’t know what you’re missing.  My DAD taught me how to play this old game called Solitaire the other day.  Totally analog.  He knows all sorts of cool old school shit like that.”

“I can learn games,” my DAD chimes in.

“Don’t listen to them,” I say glaring at Mike.  “I’m not 12 anymore, I don’t need to play games to pass the time.”

Mike sticks his tongue out at me before shoving another half of a pancake in his face.

Each of the rest of the group has the newest model DAD, except for Charlie who refuses to use one.  They’re a sleek matte gray, shaped like a multi-faceted diamond, and hover silently and obediently over their counterpart’s shoulders as they sit at the table.  I asked Charlie once why she didn’t have an assistant and she went on a long tangent about how she feels like she’s “drowning in circuits” wherever she goes.  Most of what she said confused the hell out of me, but I took it to mean she’s one of those people who feels like they were born in the wrong time period.  I guess I feel like that sometimes too, but I can’t imagine not having an assistant, so who knows.  Mostly I just wonder how she has the power to deny an assistant when we’re all required to have one.  Charlie’s a mystery that way.  I think that’s why I’m so enamored with her all the time.

The wall panels dim and the visual panel flashes on above the tabletop.  Everyone goes silent immediately.

“Good morning, Friends,” says the chipper voice of The Manager.  The Manager’s avatar is a cartoon bear.  Oscar told me once that he found the source of the visual once when he was digging around in some old media files.  He said it came from a show where this bear and a smaller bear tried to steal baskets of food while a policeman chased them.  The whole thing doesn’t sound very interesting to me, but the bear is very cute.

“Good morning,” we all respond.

“I have an important announcement for you all,” The Manager says.  “I know that Sundays are typically free periods for you, but today we will need to change things slightly.”

No one in the room makes a sound, but it’s clear we’re all a little disappointed by this news.

“I know that’s not something anyone likes to hear,” The Manager continues.  “But I can assure you all that it is necessary.  As a reward for your compliance, you will be given three free periods in a row next weekend.”

At this news we all brighten up again.  I can’t remember having that many free periods in a row since I was a child.

“You will report to your rooms by 0900 hours,” The Manager says.  “Each of you will be briefed individually about your assignments for today.  Thank you in advance for your professionalism and continued service, Friends.”

“Thank you, Manager,” we all respond.  With this, the visual panel fades and the wall panels light up again.

We all stand up to go back to our rooms.  Oscar pats me on the head as he passes me and I poke him hard in the side jokingly.  Mike brushes the food off of his robe as The Chef chastises him for making such a mess.  Juliett brushes past me without a word, and Victor gives me a little nod as he takes his leave.  Charlie grabs the sleeve of my robe before I can walk away.  I turn to look at her attentively.

“Hey,” she whispers.  “What happened to you in the Voyager the other day?”

I look at her confusedly.

“What do you mean?” I whisper back.

She looks around knowing full well that The Manager could be listening.

“I know we’re not supposed to talk about this stuff, but I heard a rumor,” she says.

I start to get nervous.  She’s a lot more brash than I am.  I’m not trying to get in any trouble.  I’ve had a clean slate for years now.

“We can’t do this,” I whisper back sternly.  “Not here anyway.”

I start to walk away.

“Did you see the man with the white eyes?” she asks at normal volume.

I stop in my tracks and DAD rolls straight into the back of my ankles.  I turn around swiftly and look at her with wide eyes.

“What did you say?”

Charlie smiles.

“That’s all I need to know,” she says.  “Something weird is going on.”

I stare at her in disbelief.  I want to press her for more details, ask her how she could possibly know.  She seems satisfied with my shock however and she’s already leaving the room.


 

I sit in my room, patiently waiting for 0900 hours.  I can’t stop thinking about what Charlie said.

“Just a couple more minutes now,” DAD says through the input panel.  He’s currently charging back in his mouse hole.  Unfortunately these old models need to charge multiple times a day when they reach this age.  I don’t care, I’m still not going to trade him in yet.

“DAD,” I start. “Do you have knowledge on the Voyager?”

The input panel stays silent for a long moment, almost as if the little droid is thinking.

“A limited amount,” DAD says.  “I’m not allowed to disclose much about it.”

“But you do have the knowledge,” I say, pressing him a bit.

“I can answer basic questions,” he says.  “I am not permitted to disclose more than that.”

“Who says?” I ask.

“The Manager,” DAD replies.

The input panel dims and DAD is muted.  The visual panel on the far wall switches on and The Manager is looking at me cheerfully.

“Good morning, Friend,” The Manager says.  “How are we today, Sierra?”

“Good morning,” I reply politely.  “I feel very good, thank you.”

“DAD tells me he’s worried you may be coming down with something,” he says.  “I hope you had your orange juice today.”

“I did, thank you,” I reply.  “The Chef made sure of that.”

“Very good,” The Manager says.  “Are you ready for your daily assignment?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Very good.  At 1200 hours today I want you to report to the infirmary.  You will be meeting with Doctor Carson briefly for an eval.  Around 1300 hours you will report to the mainframe to continue your testing with the Voyager.”

I furrow my brow.  The Manager notices immediately.

“Is this acceptable?” he asks.

“Of course,” I say.  “I’m worried though.  I’ve heard too many days in a row with the Voyager can damage you.”

The Manager’s cartoon bear avatar looks annoyed.

“You’re making a lot of useful progress, Sierra.  More than any of our other Friends, actually,” he says.  “Doctor Carson is meeting with you to make sure you’re in order.  I can assure you if there is any hesitance reflected in her write up we will forego your testing for a few days.”

I don’t trust The Manager.  I worry that he knows this.  Unfortunately there isn’t much I can do about that right now.  I’m concerned about all of this because I’ve been in the Voyager every day this week.  Most of the others have only been in twice a week at the most.  Oscar told me he gets awful headaches if he goes in more than that.  He told me Juliett has complained about the same thing.  I haven’t experienced headaches personally, but I’ve noticed I’ve been clumsier than usual lately.  I trip a lot.  I sometimes knock things over that are right in front of me.  On more than one occasion I’ve forgotten things.

“Thank you,” I say.  “I don’t mean to question you.  I simply wanted to get some peace of mind.”

“Very good,” The Manager says.  “Enjoy the rest of your morning and we will see you this afternoon.”

The visual panel dims once more.  I crack my knuckles absentmindedly.

“DAD?”

The input panel glows.

“Yes?” he asks.

“What can you tell me about potential danger with the Voyager system?”

Another long pause.

“There is no danger associated with the Voyager system,” DAD replies.


 

I do all my best thinking in the shower.

It’s peaceful and quiet.  The white noise from the shower head seems to make all of my thoughts crystal clear.  The hot water makes my skin sing.  I like to imagine each droplet shooting through my atoms, making me clean and fresh and new.

I think about what Charlie was trying to get out of me.  I think about what seven days straight in the Voyager might be doing to my poor gray matter.  I think briefly about Victor accidentally stumbling in here while I’m showering, but I decide now isn’t the best time to be focusing on that daydream.

After twenty minutes my allotted time is up and the shower head turns off automatically.  The glass door to my stall slides open and a warm towel is produced from an arm inside the vestibule outside the door.  I take it and wrap it under my arms and around my body, tucking it in the back.  The wall produces a second towel and I take it, flip my hair into it, and tie it off to dry.

I walk to the far wall and the full length mirror panel appears beside the sink.  I shake my hair to and fro in the warm towel.  I could easily use the dryer if I wanted, but it always makes my hair frizz up.  Oscar says my hair is as soft as a house cat’s fur when I let it dry naturally.  He used to have one before he came here.  Its name was Kitten and it was gray and white.

I turn my face back and forth, looking at myself closely.  The bags under my eyes are still there.  I wish I could spend the day napping like I wanted to before The Manager gave us assignments.  If I can make it through today and next week, I promise myself I won’t get out of bed for two of my three free periods.

My hair is shoulder length and dark brown, almost black.  I’ve always wondered what I’d look like as a blonde.  Juliett has lovely blonde hair, but I think I’d put her to shame.  Charlie says they have dyes that can change your hair color, but The Manager says nobody makes those anymore.

DAD told me about a week ago that I was 27 now.  I still can’t believe that.  I feel so much older.  Oscar says I’m beautiful, but I don’t know about that.  He flirts with everyone, including Victor, and he can somehow look past Juliett being an absolute bitch to hit on her so I don’t know how to take that compliment.

I put on my underwear and a white tank top before slipping into my red jumpsuit.  We had colors assigned to us long ago, and it’s the source of some interest for me.  I often try to remember if I loved the color red before it was given to me, or if I was conditioned to love it because it was my assignment.

I slip into my boots, hurry to throw on a little bit of eyeliner, and rush back to my room to soak in more alone time.


 

“How have you been sleeping?” Doctor Carson asks.

“Good for the most part,” I say.

“For the most part?” Doctor Carson presses.

“I slept like a stone last night,” I say.  “There were a few nights this week I couldn’t stop tossing and turning though.  I probably could have crawled back into bed and slept for the rest of the day today to be honest.”

Doctor Carson lets out a little chuckle.  I like her a lot.  She’s Charlie’s age, maybe even a tad older, but she has this sort of simultaneous mother/best friend vibe surrounding her.  I feel comfortable telling her a lot, and she seems to genuinely care about my well-being.

“Have you been experiencing any headaches?  Chest pains?  Shortness of breath?”

“No, nothing like that,” I say.

“Have you felt strange in any way?  Dizzy spells, anxiety, anything?”

I think about my suddenly diminished motor skills and my sudden bouts of vertigo.  I think about how the other day I couldn’t remember my own name for a few minutes.

“Nothing I can think of,” I lie.

Doctor Carson stares at me over her glasses.  She looks very smart in her pencil skirt and cornflower blue button-down blouse.  She’s been writing on her yellow legal pad feverishly as she always does, but now she’s just staring.  I take a moment to admire her sandy blonde hair which is pulled back in a loose bun.

“I know I say this all the time, but you know you can tell me if you’re having any problems at all, right?”

I crack my knuckles.

“I have felt…off lately,” I say finally.

“How so?” she asks.

“I’ve gotten dizzy now and then,” I say.  “Kind of spacey and clumsy I guess.”

“Hmm,” she says simply, scribbling something on her little pad. “How long has that been going on?”

“A couple of weeks, maybe,” I say uncertainly.  “Maybe longer.”

She clicks her pen and stares at me again.

“No headaches though?”

“No,” I say.

She clicks her pen a few more times.

“I’m going to clear you for today,” she says.  “I want to see you on Tuesday, however.”

“Oh, okay,” I say.  “Do you think something is wrong?”

She shakes her head.

“No, no,” she says.  “Just precautionary.  DAD tells me you seem to be coming down with a cold or something, I just want to make sure you’re medically tip-top.  I’ll let The Manager know that you’ll be exempt from any assignments that afternoon.”

“Sounds good,” I say.  I’m trying not to sound nervous, but I think Doctor Carson can tell that.

“Don’t be concerned,” she says, reading my mind.  “I promise you have nothing to worry about.”

As soon as she finishes her sentence the door slides open behind me.  I stand up on cue and start to turn around, but I see a look on Carson’s face that makes me stop.  For just an instant her eyes look different.  She looks afraid.

“Please proceed to the mainframe,” DAD urges me, doing little concentric circles at my feet.

“I’ll see you on Tuesday, Doctor Carson.”

She reaches up and quickly rubs my shoulder.

“Yes,” she says with a weak smile.  “I’ll see you then.”

10 Influential Albums

During the quarantine, people have been coming up with all sorts of ways to keep themselves occupied.  I’ve seen a ton of people playing list games on social media again, something I haven’t seen a lot of since the days Facebook was just beginning to become a household name.  I’m pretty indifferent to those things, like most things on Facebook, but a friend tagged me in one of them that was music related and it looked like a fun way to reminisce.

The exercise was to post 10 albums that most greatly influenced my musical tastes.  Part of the rules were to post just the cover with no explanation of what the album was or why it influenced you (I assume partially to entice people into researching albums they didn’t recognize, and partially to not clog up people’s news feeds with personal essays).  I kind of wanted to expand on that slightly, in a place where people can read about it if they like and ignore it if they don’t care, and also because I’m desperately trying to keep myself occupied as well.  None of us are immune to isolation boredom.

These are 10 albums that changed the way I listened to music and a brief explanation of when and how they did so.  There are probably 100 more that were incredibly influential to me, but after a whole lot of thought these are the ones that shifted my tastes forever.

10 meaningful albums.JPG

“Rubber Soul” – The Beatles:  I grew up in a household with parents who were Beatles maniacs.  I listened to every one of their albums multiple times and knew all the words to “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the time I was 5.  The Beatles’ whole discography means a lot to me as it was the first music I really treasured in my life, but Rubber Soul is the album that stands as completely and utterly perfect in my eyes.  “If I Needed Someone” contains one of the best guitar intros to a song ever written. “In My Life” is one of the most beautiful overall songs ever written; it also happened to be my high school class song, and when they played it during my graduation it knocked the breath out of me.  This album was likely my first direct path to loving music in general.

“Let It Be” – The Replacements:  The irony of this being the title of another Beatles album is not lost on me, and the story of how The Replacements came up with it is a great anecdote I encourage you to check out.  One of my closest friends turned me on to the Mats in college and it’s hard to describe how they seeped into my subconscious.  I went through their whole discography one day and was honestly kind of indifferent to it.  As the day went on I couldn’t get certain songs out of my head.  Then they were all I listened to for months.  Let It Be showed me you can be eager, melancholic, desperate and ridiculous on the same album and it can be a timeless classic due to its honesty and the unadulterated mirroring of the people creating it.  This album became the basis of how I’ve wanted any music I’ve ever created to sound.

“Doolittle” – Pixies:  The same friend who turned me onto The Replacements turned me onto Pixies, and around the same time.  Pixies are one of the strangest, most talented groups in rock history, and if you listen to their music and it starts to click you’ll start chasing that feeling of exhilaration.  The gift and the curse is that there’s nothing else like them.  Doolittle is an album that furiously burned a hole into my brain from the opening bass line on “Debaser.”  The mixture of styles, the vocal range, the cryptic macabre lyricism; what a rush.

“Bazooka Tooth” – Aesop Rock:  Back when I was in high school, MTV still played music videos and had a bunch of cool music shows that you could stumble upon even in the midst of the encroaching waves of reality television.  I believe it was on a show called Subterranean, but I accidentally saw the video for Aesop Rock’s single on Bazooka Tooth, “Freeze.”  I had never heard a rapper like Aes before.  His monotone drone mixed with dense lyrics that you needed multiple thesauruses and dictionaries to decipher gave me this palpable awakening I can still see in my mind.  This was my first introduction to the underground rap scene.  I bought this album at the mall the next day.

“Room On Fire” – The Strokes:  A good friend in high school introduced me to so much great music and he’ll likely never know it.  My tastes at that point in my life were cringe-worthy.  During a class trip to England and Ireland, he showed me a whole slew of good albums and bands I still love to this day.  One of my favorite memories is walking into an HMV store in London and asking him what I should buy for my Disc-man, something I could enjoy during our long bus rides between tour locales.  He recommended Room On Fire, and from the opening notes it sunk its claws into me.  I still listen to this album constantly, seventeen or so years later.  It’s a masterpiece to me, and every time I listen happy memories come flooding back.

“Bleach” – Nirvana:  I was a youngster when the grunge movement was in full force, but it still had a major impact on me as I grew up.  I think Pearl Jam and Soundgarden may have been my first experiences with grunge, but AiC and Nirvana fell into my hands quickly after.  Bleach is still unlike anything else in that era, and in general.  It’s hard to say if it’s my favorite Nirvana record but it certainly had the biggest impact on me.  It’s raw, it’s unshakable, and it’s incredibly varied.  Kurt made me (and probably just about everyone from the 90s) want to be a rock star realist.

“De Stijl” – The White Stripes:  I’ve enjoyed the White Stripes for a long time but when a good friend burned me a copy of De Stijl, one of their older and lesser known albums I didn’t have in my collection, I fell in unconditional love.  It’s such a simple album that runs the gamut of styles and emotions.  “I’m Bound to Pack It Up” and “Sister, Do You Know My Name?” choke me up every time.  “Let’s Build a Home” and “Jumble, Jumble” make me want to thrash around and break everything in my house.  How two people can make such noise will always be inspiring to me.

“Songs for the Deaf” – Queens of the Stone Age:  I saw the videos for “Go With the Flow” and “No One Knows” on MTV in high school and it was over.  I bought the album, then bought all of their albums.  SFTD is an absolutely perfect concept album.  Written as an ode to a desert drive from LA to Joshua Tree, it does a whole lot of different things and does them all well.  There are only a few hard rock bands I’ve fallen for over the years, but QotSA’s lyricism, instrumentation and overall swagger has intoxicated me since I first heard them.  I try not to listen to SFTD in the car because I can’t control my speed.

“Turn On the Bright Lights” – Interpol:  Everyone likes to compare The Strokes to Velvet Underground and Interpol to Joy Division.  I love all of the aforementioned bands so I didn’t have to choose sides.  I saw the video for “Obstacle 1” late one night in high school and couldn’t get over how different these guys were: dressed to the nines in tailored suits, skinny ties, and aviators.  I wanted to be Paul Banks.  I still do.  This album is perfect.

“Funeral” – Arcade Fire Funeral marks the point I stopped thinking of indie rock as a derogatory term.  “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” were the first tracks I heard off of this album in high school and I was blown away.  I found the video for “Rebellion (Lies)” making the rounds on MTV soon after.  Funeral isn’t even my favorite Arcade Fire album, but it opened the door to so many things I may not have ever discovered otherwise.

Jor-El

My view of Cameron Jerrell Newton was destined to be complicated from the start.

If you ask me if I’m a sports fan I’ll reply “yes,” but the truth is one sport has always reigned supreme while everything else has been second-tier, and that is the gladiatorial pastime of American football.

I was born in Alabama to a family of rabid Crimson Tide fans, and since the time I could even partially decipher the rules and strategies of the sport I’ve been a rabid fan myself.  If you’re largely unfamiliar with college football, here’s all you need to know: college ball may be important in a lot of places in the country, but in the south it is a religion.  As with any religion there are patron saints (Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler, Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry), places of worship (Bryant-Denny Stadium), and evil which must be extinguished (Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, LSU….and of course, Auburn).

Cam Newton was once the backup for Tim Tebow at Florida, but few people knew anything about him then.  It wasn’t until his one record-shredding season as the starting quarterback for Auburn that everyone took notice.  As an Alabama fan, all I can remember about that 2010 season was how every Sportscenter clip, every too-early Heisman talk, every speculation of the National Championship that year was inundated with talks of Newton and his stunning performances.  The Iron Bowl (the yearly rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn that is arguably the most heated, beloved rivalry in all of sports) comes at the end of the college regular season, and we Alabama fans waited for nearly three full months of play to take our shot at him.

At one point in the 2010 Iron Bowl, Alabama was on top of Auburn 24-0.  Alabama fans, myself included, rejoiced in exposing Cam as an overrated entity.  We laughed and celebrated the power and grit of our guys, their refusal to let the hype surrounding this young man psych them out.  We were ready to coast to victory and hold this over Tigers fans for the next millennium.

Cam proceeded to engineer one of the most incredible comebacks of all time, making himself responsible for four touchdowns with just over half of the game to play.  Alabama would retaliate with one field goal in all of that time.  Auburn would win the Iron Bowl 28-27.  They’d call the game “The Camback” and anoint it as one of the greatest performances of all time.

Image result for newton iron bowl

Needless to say I didn’t have much love for Cam Newton.

When I was younger my family relocated to North Carolina for a time, and in 1995 Charlotte was awarded an NFL franchise: the Carolina Panthers.  Before that I hadn’t paid any attention to professional football.  In the south, no one really did.  College football has always been king.  When we got the Panthers, the entire state (two states really, since South Carolina got to claim them as well) was suddenly electrified and I can say I’ve been a fan of this team since its birth.

As a small-market professional team, we don’t get the coverage of the big guys, we have many more ups and downs, and we’ll always be in a fight to rise to the level of a “classic” franchise.  The year Cam Newton won the Iron Bowl, the SEC Championship, the Heisman Trophy and the National Championship was a perfect storm: the Panthers had one of their worst seasons in franchise history and had the first pick in the upcoming NFL draft.  Suddenly all eyes were on Charlotte.

The Panthers selected Cam Newton, with the #1 pick overall, to be their new quarterback and I was livid.  Most of that came from extreme bias because he had broken my heart a few months earlier, but I had also convinced myself that he was going to be a bust.  I thought he’d be another big time collegiate athlete that couldn’t hack it in the pros.

Cam taught me a lesson that a lot of adults still need to learn: armchair quarterbacks don’t know anything, and the guys who get paid insane amounts of money to make these draft decisions usually know a little bit about what they’re doing.

Image result for newton nfl draft

All Cam “Superman” Newton did was light record books on fire and confound defenses for years.  When he was at his best he could beat you with his legs, his arm, or a combination of both.  He was fast and agile, but he was also enormous: you could hit him with multiple defenders and he’d run over them all to the goal line.  On more than one occasion he’d lower a hit on a defender that actually made you feel bad for the guy trying to get physical with him.

With Cam putting Carolina on the map and becoming the face of our young franchise, I made a little promise to myself: if he ever helped the Panthers get to the Super Bowl, I’d own a Newton jersey, the first piece of anything relating to Auburn that I’d ever allow into my house.  In 2015 he led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and ran roughshod through the playoffs to get us to Super Bowl 50.

Image result for newton nfl mvp

As a southern transplant living in Colorado, the Panthers getting stopped by the Denver Broncos on their way to try to grab their first championship was devastating.  National respect was within our grasp.  One of the greatest seasons and single-season performances in NFL history fell just short.  Cam, the 2015 NFL MVP, had achieved everything but the biggest prize.  Through all of that heartache I had to watch everyone in the state celebrate.

Super Bowl hangovers are real, and Carolina struggled the next year.  In fact, since that Super Bowl run they’ve only made the playoffs once, and that was a quick one-and-done.  Through all of the ups and downs I came to love watching Cam play.  He has a joyful childlike love for the game and a swagger all his own.  While rival fans and rival players talked trash about his style or character, all he did was donate time and money to his community, spend time with sick children who needed a visit from a hero, and hand out footballs to lucky kids in the stadium after every touchdown he scored.  He made Charlotte a place to recognize.  He made the Panthers a team to take seriously.  He changed the way defenses play the game of football forever because he was just that good.

The Panthers are releasing Cam after nearly a decade.  The future is bright for him and for the Panthers as each side gets a completely fresh start.  No matter where he ends up, I’ll always remember that spark he brought to my team.   I’ll never forget how fun it’s been to watch him play for a team I love.  I’ll never forget the infuriating magic he brought to the game when he played for a team I hate.

People are still counting him out like they’ve always done, but that’s a big mistake.  Superman has a hell of a lot of tread left on those tires.

I

It always starts like this.

You know that head-space you’re in when you first wake up from a deep sleep?  How everything is sort of blurry and watercolor-y and confusing?  How it’s tough to remember who you are, where you are, and why you are?

That’s the best way I can describe it.

I wake up in a forest.  That overwhelming pine scent is the first thing I notice.  It’s not that fake pine car-air-freshener scent, but that real outdoors smell.  I’m face down in a ditch.  I push myself up on my knees and then roll over onto my butt.  I’m sitting criss-cross applesauce and brushing the dirt off of my dark blue jeans.  I reach up to swipe a few brown pine needles off my face.  They leave deep indentations on my windburned skin.  I can feel little bits of sticky sap here and there on my cheeks and neck and nose.  There’s an ant crawling around the outside of my ear and I flick it away.

Where the fuck am I?  

The ditch I’m sitting in is very small.  The tiniest creek I’ve ever seen is running through it.  I consider myself lucky I didn’t wake up lying in it, soaked.  The chill in the air would have been even more miserable than it already is.  A breeze blows steadily past me.  It isn’t swift, but it’s persistent, and it makes me shiver.  I realize for the first time I’m not wearing a coat.  In fact, I’m only wearing a thin tank top.  I can’t imagine a worse outfit for this climate.  My skin is covered in goosebumps and my arms are covered in pine needles and sap and dirt.  I have little scratches all over my hands and scrapes on my elbows.  I instinctively touch my face again and feel a tender bruise over my left eyebrow.

I decide to stand up and immediately feel a shooting pain through my left ankle.  I reach down to test the damage, wriggling it around gingerly in my hiking boot.  Feels like it might just be a sprain.  Still hurts like hell though.

I start to look around as I’m standing here gathering myself.  I’m frustrated to find that I don’t have any belongings scattered on the ground.  I was hopeful I had just misplaced a jacket or a blanket or even a long-sleeved t-shirt.  I reach into the pockets of my blue jeans to take inventory.  Girls pockets don’t hold shit, I growl to myself.  I find a lip balm in one of my front pockets.  I discover a folded slip of yellow legal paper in one of my back pockets.  I unfold it and try to make sense of it.

1307 – 226 – JANUS

I scoff at whatever cryptic encoded bullshit this is supposed to be.

Now it’s time for mental inventory.  This scares me more than my lack of proper clothing or a clear memory of how I got into the woods, because I’m having trouble remembering basic details.  I can’t remember my name or my age, for instance.  I wish I had a mirror.  I feel the top of my head and discover my long hair is in a high ponytail.  It’s long enough to pull in front of my face, so I do so and discover I’m apparently blonde.  I’m distressed to find this information doesn’t jog loose any memories or help me in any discernible way.

The forest is expansive, but the trees aren’t all that close together.  I look up to see the sky is an ugly overcast gray.  I wonder if it might snow.  Wouldn’t that be fun?

It’s been steadily getting darker since I came to, but I hadn’t really had the time to notice that until now.  It occurs to me if I don’t start moving and find somewhere to take shelter that I may freeze to death tonight.  I don’t think I’m religious, but I say a silent little prayer.

Please don’t let me freeze to death.  I promise to…uh….stop doing whatever it was I was doing to end up beaten senseless face down in a ditch in the middle of the woods.  I’ll start going to church and stuff.  I’ll…uh…give more change to those guys outside of the supermarkets with the red buckets and the little bells.  Just let me get out of here.

I start to walk.  I don’t know which direction I’m going or if I’m heading towards anything in particular.  I don’t have a plan beyond finding someplace where I’m not so cold.  The temperature is dropping by the minute and I’ve graduated from shivering to shaking.  I can no longer keep my teeth from chattering.  I hold myself tightly and rub my arms up and down to no avail.  My ankle also appears to be worse off than I thought.  It’s hard to put my full weight on the leg, and it’s making my escape slow and irritating.  I wish I had a watch.

After what feels like an hour of walking it’s pitch black outside.  I found a deer trail just before it got completely dark, and the light from the moon is keeping me from total despair.  I keep tripping over gnarled roots on the path no matter how careful I am and every time I catch myself and reestablish my balance I feel like my poor ankle is about to snap.  I want to sit down and cry, but I know if I stop now I’m doomed.  Just when my self-pity is at an all-time high, I see a flickering light through the trees.

I hurry my pace down the deer trail and come out into a clearing.  There’s a large log cabin sitting in the middle of it.  I can’t hold back the tears anymore and I’m sobbing from pure relief.  I couldn’t admit futility to myself when I was in survival mode, but now I’m able to see how close I came to oblivion and I’m just thankful to have found this hulking wooden oasis.  Oddly the lights inside the cabin are very dim.  I notice the flickering light is coming from a neon sign in the window.  I squint through the darkness and can just make out hand-painted text above the door.  It simply reads: “BAR.”

I don’t care that it’s weird for a bar to be situated in the middle of a forest.  I don’t even care that it’s simply called “BAR,” and not like, “Black Forest Lounge,” or something clever that a normal bar might actually be called.  It strikes me as odd that the flickering neon sign in the window just reads “BEER,” and not “PABST BLUE RIBBON” or “BUDWEISER,” but I don’t care about that either.  I just want to get inside.

The door creaks open and I step inside.  It’s warm and cozy in here, and my shivering stops as if someone turned it off with a light switch.  Speaking of light switches, there isn’t any electricity to speak of other than the window sign.  Every light in the place is either a candle or an old oil lamp.  It looks like the interior of a tavern from the 1800s.  It looked much larger from the outside, but I suppose that’s probably because whoever owns the place lives here too and probably keeps much of the house private.  I can’t imagine they get much business here.  Or any.

There’s a large wooden bar against the far wall with bar stools all the way around.  There are a few round tables here and there, each with four wooden chairs.  Every seat in the place is unattended.  The walls are covered in antlers, bear heads, mounted fish and rifles.  The shelves behind the bar house more liquor bottles than I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  It takes me a few minutes to realize I’m not entirely alone in here.

A bartender is in the shadows at the back corner of the bar.  He’s wiping down a glass with a towel.  I can’t make out his face and he hasn’t so much as acknowledged my existence.  I timidly walk over to the bar and have a seat.

“Do you mind if I use your restroom?” I ask softly.

It’s the first time I’ve spoken aloud.  My voice sounds raspy and strained.  It’s a little bit deeper than I imagined.  I think I sound tired and weak.

The tender doesn’t say a word, but points a lazy finger at booze mountain.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say, having clearly forgotten my manners.  “I was lost out there and I was just so happy to find this place.  I don’t know where my wallet is.”

He continues to clean his glass diligently.  I keep squinting to try to make out his features in the shadows, but I can’t see a thing.

“Do you have a phone I could use?” I try.  “I really just need to find a way home.”

Silence.  After another minute or so he puts the glass back on the shelf and begins to wipe down another.

I rub my temples and will myself not to start crying again.  I thought I was saved, but now I somehow feel even more hopeless than before.  I take a deep breath and gather myself.  When I look up from my hands I notice there’s a man sitting on the very last bar stool against the the back wall.  I didn’t notice him when I walked in.

The hairs on my neck stand at attention.

The man is wearing a filthy corduroy jacket.  His undershirt may have been white at one point, but now it’s the color of dishwater.  He has dark scabs all over his hands and face.  His scruffy black hair grows into his brier patch of a beard.  His eyes are completely white, open wide, and staring at me.  His mouth is curled into a smile so broad it looks painful.  His yellow-brown teeth gleam in the dim light like a dying jack-o-lantern.  I keep waiting for him to break his awkward stare as I challenge him with my own.  This seems to amuse him.  He’s snickering in a raspy whisper, his sickly frame moving up and down laboriously as he laughs.

“Just wait until my stepdad gets here,” he says finally.

My heart starts pounding.  I look back to the bartender but he isn’t there.

“What?” I ask meekly.

His laughing grows louder.  He sounds like he could keel over at any moment.  But he just gets louder.  Like a car engine revving up into the red.  Like a rusty chainsaw trying to carve through a sequoia.

“Just wait,” he says.  “Just wait until my stepdad gets here.”

I stand up from the bar and start to back away.  He doesn’t avert his gaze.  He’s laughing so hard now that big crocodile tears are pouring down his diseased cheeks.  Strands of spittle are forming crisscrossing spider webs between his dry lips.  His lungs sound like they’re full of wet gravel.

I walk as fast as I can to the bathroom.  I don’t know what to do or how I’m going to get out of here, I just have to get away from this man.  I slam the door behind me and lock it.  The bathroom is unnecessarily large.  The walls and floor are tile, and a hideous shade of pink.  My heavy breathing echoes through the space deafeningly.  I walk to the furthest stall and open the door with a trembling hand.

I shuffle into the stall and sit on the toilet lid with a thud.

I look up to see the man’s face about the stall door.

His milky eyes have turned to solid black.

I start to scream.

I scream so loud that my throat and lungs tear like tissue paper.  So loud that the world begins to split apart.

His jaw unhinges like a snake and he screams in return.

280 x 42

Back in January I got inspired by an entertainment writer on Twitter who came up with a writing challenge for himself.  Each day in February, he would listen to one album start-to-finish that he’d never heard before, and then write his impressions in a tweet.  The greatest challenge obviously is fitting enough information in 280 characters to convey what you just heard.  I decided to give it a try too.

I started to pick out some albums I had missed and a few I stumbled upon by chance, when I got an idea to make the whole thing even more interesting: to make sure I got a big sample of different genres and styles, I decided to ask my friends on social media to give me recommendations.  I got some good feedback from Instagram, and then an avalanche of ideas from Facebook.  I decided to listen to as many of them as possible rather than stick to one per day, so the last week of the month was a bit of a marathon.

The archive of my challenge is below.  All impressions fit 280 characters, but I did cheat slightly for this blog in order to include the names of people who helped me out and the years the albums were released (because the wide span of years of the albums I listened to was also super interesting).  The range enveloped almost fifty years, from 1972 – 2020.

If you sent me a recommendation thanks for contributing to one of the most fun writing exercises I’ve ever done.

 

MWE 2020.JPG

 

Day 1: “Devo Live” – Devo (1980)

Starting off with a softball. Lee got me this record for Xmas and I’m finally getting to enjoy it. Devo kicks ass and they sound pretty damn incredible live. The raucous crowd reactions between songs is fun too. Tight group with killer songs.

 

Day 2: “House of Sugar” – Sandy (Alex G) (2019)

This is the 1st of Alex G’s albums I’ve listened to start to finish. It’s great. Lots of varied sounds & influences. It almost sounds too scattered at first, but as you listen it becomes this cohesive organism that’s really lovely.

 

Day 3: “Hunter” – Anna Calvi (2018)

This was recommended to me and I went in totally blind. Serious PJ Harvey vibes. Incredible vocal range. Her guitar work is intimidating. Really just enjoyed the overall feel of the songs as a whole. Very slithery and foreboding.

 

Day 4: “Stratosphere” – Duster (1998)

Really like Duster, but never listened to full debut album. Signature spacey shoegaze. Sucks you in, makes you feel like you’re hurtling through the cosmos. The space-themed track names are a nice touch. Reminds me of Hum, Slowdive, Beach House

 

Day 5: “Be the Cowboy” – Mitski (2018)

I know a little of Mitski, but missed listening to this whole album. It deserves all the accolades it got. The songs are well written, personal and just plain good. She’s a virtuoso w/ her instruments and her voice. Gonna listen to this plenty now

 

Day 6: “Landscape” – Future Generations (2018) [recommended by Ian Solo.]

I’m enjoying this immensely. It’s poppy, bouncy and upbeat. Fun synths and 8-bit sounds throughout, and I’m a sucker for synth. The vocals and melodies remind me of a lot of things, maybe most notably alt-J and The War On Drugs.

 

Day 7: “Whack World” – Tierra Whack (2018) [recommended by Hannah HD]

This one clocks 15 songs in less than 15 minutes, v cool concept. The little vignettes are all fantastic. Interesting to get in the groove of a song just before it changes. Favorite part is how many vocal changes she can achieve, v impressive

 

Day 8: “Eternal Daughter” – KANGA (2019) [recommended by Asa A.]

Instantly all about this album. 80s New Wave vibes with pop vocals. Reminded of New Order and Depeche Mode. Something a little 90s/early-00s electronica about it as well. Feels futuristic and has a great dance vibe but with some dark influences

 

Day 9: “History Speaks” – Deep Sea Diver (2012) [recommended by Kendra B. of North by North]

Falling somewhere between indie and garage rock, and it’s splendid. Guitar reminiscent of Jack White, vocals a little like Karen O, maybe a little Feist. Feel some Shins vibes even. It’s a really nice sound altogether, great album

 

Day 10: “Shrines” – Purity Ring (2012) [recommended by Alli S.]

Dreamy, technical, groovy, poppy. Synths and heavy electronic influence. Inspired beats. Vocals are in the high range and really nice. Reminders of Metric, Phantogram, CHVRCHES. Simultaneously dark, heady, and upbeat

 

Day 11: “Violent Things” – The Brobecks (2009) [recommended by Corben W. of The Midnight Horrors]

Immediately this sound takes me back to the 2000s. Unmistakable power pop. Reminiscent of Hot Hot Heat. Lots of nostalgia listening to this. Clever lyrics and good instrumentation.

 

Day 12: “A Different Shade of Blue” – Knocked Loose (2019) [recommended by Jared N.]

I asked for outside of my wheelhouse and I got it. Hardcore screaming vocals and angry guitars. I can only imagine the brutal pit that would open up at one of their shows. Not my thing typically, but they’re obviously talented

 

Day 13: “Everything is Right” – Velvet Monkeys (1982) [recommended by Lee H. of The Sogs]

Right up my alley. Mix of psych-rock, lo-fi garage rock and punk/post-punk. Influences are too vast to list here. Modern equivalent would be something like Parquet Courts. Really enjoying this, might have to track it down on vinyl

 

Day 14: “The Slow Rush” – Tame Impala (2020)

Brand new album, and it mostly picks up where he left off. Parker found his footing with 2015’s “Currents” and this one is another fantastic release. Heavy funk, psych rock and dance inspirations among 1000 other things. Very glad he’s back

 

Day 15: “Mondo” – Electric Guest (2012) [recommended by Alli S.]

Pop/R&B/Soul vibes. Really enjoying the mix of old and new styles. Almost sounds like something Danger Mouse would conjure up. Love the way it’s upbeat, but still very heady. This is another new favorite.

 

Day 16: “Almost Free” – FIDLAR (2019) [recommended by Ian Solo.]

Love FIDLAR, this new(ish) album is great. Straddles hard rock and punk, and they’re experimenting with more harmonies and complex musicianship. Fugazi meets Beasties. Dashes of CTE and Kasabian

 

Day 17: “Odd Blood” – Yeasayer (2010) [recommended by Alli S.]

Pop hooks and vocals over experimental rhythms and industrial sounds. Noise rock influences. Definitely reminiscent of Depeche Mode, or TVOTR for a modern link. You can’t help but give it your full attention because there’s so much going on

 

Day 18: “March 16-20, 1992” – Uncle Tupelo (1992) [recommended by Lee H.]

Love Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, but haven’t listened to this one in full. Some of the best folk-country/Americana you’re going to hear. Perfect soundtrack for summer porch drinking.

 

Day 19: “Fighting” – Thin Lizzy (1975) [recommended by Guy M.]

Energetic 70s hard rock. Lizzy has always been woefully underrated, and this album is killer. Kickass power chords mixed with actual storytelling that puts their contemporaries’ lyricism to shame

 

Day 20: “Iridescent” – Hundredth (2019) [recommended by Asa A.]

This album already made my day, it’s a dash of shoegaze mixed with indie that reminds me of My Bloody Valentine. Walls of sound with spacey echo vocals and crunchy, reverberating guitar licks. I’m inspired to listen to their whole discography now

 

Day 21: “thank u, next” – Ariana Grande (2019) [recommended by Jessica J.]

I don’t listen to much mainstream pop so this one is fun. Lovely, effortless vocals. Can’t say enough about her voice actually. Catchy beats and hooks. Can def see the allure. Really like the soothing orchestral moments the most

 

Day 22: “Supervision” – La Roux (2020)

Effervescent bouncy pop. Such a fun album. Catchy, easy to listen to, easy to get sucked into. Vocals and musical elements hearken to 80s pop a bit, but also sounds like wholly its own thing.

 

Day 23: “Opposites” – Biffy Clyro (2013) [recommended by Corben W.]

“Anthemic” pops into my head. Music that’s made for singing to the rafters. The quieter moments remind of Snow Patrol and Frightened Rabbit, but louder moments of crunchy riffs and power chords sound influenced by 2000s pop punk and emo

 

Day 24: “Miss Anthropocene (Deluxe)” – Grimes (2020) [recommended by Mallory D.]

Insanely catchy. Dance pop with some rad experimental elements. Electronica moments that take me back to late 90s/early 00s. Might be a cop-out to compare her to Björk, but I can’t help but think of her as an influence

 

Day 24 (pt2): “Mit Peck” – Vulfpeck (2011) [recommended by Jenna H.]

Funky funky funky. Can’t help but tap your foot and bounce your head. These guys are incredible musicians. Tight sound, and entertaining as hell with virtually no vocals, which is pretty tough to pull off these days

 

Day 24 (pt3): “Venice” – Anderson .Paak (2014) [recommended by Ryan R.]

Heavy soul and R&B influences. Love his voice and flow. Upbeat, chilled out feel, but .Paak is very politically savvy and this album has a lot of deep meanings throughout. Straddles a number of genres and does them all exceptionally

 

Day 25: “Some Other Sucker’s Parade” – Del Amitri (1997) [recommended by Kim D.]

90s buzz meets 60s Beatles/Beach Boys harmonies with some Americana/country twang at times. Reminded of everything from Matthew Sweet to Replacements to Wallflowers and more. Good stuff.

 

Day 25 (pt2): “Songs From The Big Chair” – Tears For Fears (1985) [recommended by Andrea S.]

This one is cheating a little since I know 90% of these songs outside of the full album. Dark, industrial, jazzy, and danceable all folded into one. TFF are gods of the 80s, and in general, nothing here not to like

 

Day 26: “I Will Not Let My Love Go To Waste” – Yoshi Flower (2019) [recommended by Michael L. of Gunpowder Empire]

Mix of pop, hip hop and electronic. Some reggae influence at times. The beats and overall atmosphere are nice. Vocals and lyrics very pop oriented

 

Day 26 (pt2): “The Party’s Over” – Talk Talk (1982) [recommended by Mallory D.]

Admittedly only knew their singles, but this album is great. Quintessential 80s sound with soaring synths and dance beats. The vocal range and harmonies are hypnotizing, and go between effortless whispering to belting out

 

Day 27: “Kiwanuka” – Michael Kiwanuka (2019) [recommended by Brady N.]

This album is right in my wheelhouse, lighter rock with a heavy R&B influence and inspired songwriting. I missed listening to this one in full last year, and I’m happy to circle back around. Really fantastic album.

 

Day 27 (pt2): “The Demonstration” – Drab Majesty (2017) [recommended by Mallory D.]

If you blindfolded me I would think this was a band straight out of the 80s. I love this. New wave, with elements of more modern shoegaze and dream pop. This album is gonna get a lot of play in my daily lineup from now on.

 

Day 27 (pt3): “Greetings from L.A.” – Tim Buckley (1972) [recommended by Terah K.]

So many styles, everything from psych-rock to blues to honky-tonk. Love the instrumentation; saxes, strings, keys, etc. appear and make the songs pop. Vocals are awesome too, the range is impressive. Really enjoying this

 

Day 27 (pt4): “Now You See Inside” – SR-71 (2000) [recommended by Keith R.]

This one’s fun, sound takes me back to high school. Upbeat pop punk. I wasn’t the biggest fan of that genre but I’m enjoying this quite a bit. I remember this “Right Now” song and didn’t even realize who it was back in the day

 

Day 28: “Bleed American” – Jimmy Eat World (2001) [recommended by Tanner S.]

This one’s another time machine. Never got into these guys a ton, but I feel nostalgic for this sound. “Sweetness” is an excellent song. These guys are underrated as musicians; songs are eager and full of heart.

 

Day 28 (pt2): “color theory” – Soccer Mommy (2020)

New release. One of my modern faves. She just gets better and better, songs are introspective and beautiful and heartbreaking. Call it dream pop, bedroom pop, whatever you wanna label it, it’s fantastic.

 

Day 28 (pt3): “Vices and Virtues” – Panic! At The Disco (2011) [recommended by Capra Mori]

First time listening to a Panic album. Vocals are most prominent takeaway, very operatic and theatrical. Almost sounds like listening to the soundtrack from a musical.

 

Day 28 (pt4): “Money Shot” – Puscifer (2015) [recommended by Brady N.]

Honestly not a fan of Maynard’s work, but I’m surprised to find I enjoy some of this. Has a desert-rock feel to it that I like. Some of the songs are pretty silly, but all instrumentation is impressive, obviously.

 

Day 28 (pt5): “Crash” – Dave Matthews Band (1996) [recommended by Lee H.]

Not my style, but I can appreciate the instrumentation. Elements are all tight and well performed. The jazz elements are probably my favorite piece.

 

Day 29: “The Carnival” – Wyclef Jean (1997) [recommended by Tanner S.]

Wide array of different styles weaving throughout this album. Too many to list but hip hop, reggae, soul are just a few. All personnel are v talented. Whole album is tight and flows seamlessly from one song to the next.

 

Day 29 (pt2): “Razia’s Shadow” – Forgive Durden (2008) [recommended by Nicole W.]

Without doing research I’m not sure if this is an actual musical soundtrack, but it sure sounds that way. Recognize a few of the operatic singers, like Panic’s Brendon Urie. Impressive vocals throughout.

 

Day 29 (pt3): “Jinx” – Crumb (2019)

Dream pop, trip hop, shoegaze. Hypnotizing vocals and ever changing soundscapes. Short and sweet, never outstaying its welcome. An easy, satisfying listen.