It’s the scariest word. The most empty, demanding, wasting word – because of its potential.
I almost made it. Almost had meaning. I was almost.
Because almost is never enough. Not for anybody. Never.
For a 16 year-old boy in an isolated reality, it’s worse than nothing. For me, I would rather crash and burn than almost fly.
I would rather forget existence than almost have a beginning. A reality.
But a reality itself is in fact quite scary. And perhaps the scariest thing about it is waking up.
The city rolled past the window, as if on wheels. Or was it me who was moving? Maybe that was it. Little lights looked like glow sticks, as acceleration stretched them out to make them appear as something they weren’t. They were bright, but cold. Red, like burning, they glowed.
Windows displayed the inside of buildings, which were easy to view because they were much brighter than the darkness of outdoors.
Cars: they raced down two lines, in both directions, and were gone in a flash. They were alive, with their wheels spinning madly in circles; with their mighty, silent engines, their headlights blaring, their tires glinting with any bits of light they caught. What do you know, I asked myself, of the beings in those cars? Nothing. What were they once? What are they now? It doesn’t matter, because you’ll never know. You’ll never see these cars again.
(The cars. The cars themselves were the only ones whom I would never truly know. The cars with minds, ideas of their own, with the free controls, and the lifeless creatures inside of them, limp. . .)
The darkness rolled by. Car lights, headlights, windows. I was lonely.
About waking up.
Of course, at first you wouldn’t realise it’s a dream. Nobody ever does. To us, this beautifully scarred world which we dwell in is too real to simply be a dream. There is seemingly nothing to differentiate reality from dream.
Take, for example, a crystal: a gem; a diamond. It’s there, shining in all its glory and majesty, as a diamond does. But if someone told you it were a mere pebble, what would you think?
That’s the problem with the world. This world. You only see a diamond because you want to. You want it to be a diamond. Even if you now saw it as a pebble, you would still see the diamond, or say you saw it, because that’s what your mind now wants to see. Simply, it’s called pride.
See how it works? Everything is a lie. And people, they love lies. They’ll live inside lies for decades without even realising it.
Then, of course, as you feel reality come creeping in around you, seeping into your skin and into every breath you take, you realise suddenly for a fact that it is indeed only a dream.
But you’re allowed to lie to yourself, and tell yourself that it is a dream. It is a diamond. See, lies are what keep people feeling stable and safe in this world.
And because of this lie, nobody ever does really wake up. As long as they tell themself to keep dreaming, they do. The mind wants what it wants, the mind gets what it wants.
The bus drew to a halt in front of a deserted stop station. The doors slid open, slowly, releasing that loud hissing noise, which went up into the air and disintegrated like smoke. It was replaced with a disquieting silence, as I shuffled heavily down the aisle, past rows of empty seats. Before descending the few steps to leave the bus, I bitterly regarded the empty seat at the very front of the bus, where a driver had perhaps sat once. Artificial systems and functions which had replaced a once human operator. Artificial intelligence, which had replaced ours. Or, better yet, outdone ours. It was still difficult to get used to.
The bus let out another hiss, calmly, as if warning me to get off already. Like a snake, threatening its prey. Because the snake knows that it has power over the smaller creature.
(But Technology wasn’t supposed to know that much.)
I moved down the steps hastily, and the doors abruptly slid shut behind me. The empty bus moved leisurely off into the darkness, at its same constant pace. I watched as the shadows swallowed it into their eternal vortex, as loneliness settled in and clawed at me, suffering. Gone.
When had this madness started? A week, a year, a decade . . . an infinity?
It had only been rumours at first. Like a little itch, a whisper in someone else’s ear. Then, it was surfacing progressively. Television, magazines, the media. Newspaper articles. Questions. “Has a New Technological Era Begun?” or “Is Technology Taking Over?”
And it was. A Fallout had begun.
Everything made sense, after a time. Look at it this way: people, by nature, don’t like to be told what to do. They’re stubborn. If you forced someone to do something unwillingly, wouldn’t they naturally resist? Just so, what if that lamp you turned off didn’t want to be shut off? What if that computer, set up with a million different systems, functions and equations, didn’t want to be programmed just so? What if it wanted to formulate itself? It all goes back to pride.
Consider how far we’ve come technologically in the recent decades. So quickly, so suddenly; unnaturally so. An advance like that should have taken hundreds of years, at most. And it’s all taken place in a mere few decades. Terrifying. Technology was rising up on it’s own, like a vine, blindly finding and binding its prey. Terrifying, that something which man created was now re-creating man, reshaping humanity to its will. It was making Them.
I asked myself, had it suddenly gotten colder, or had I been simply unaware of it before?
My finger cast lingering shadows onto the asphalt behind me. Lamp posts gave off a dim glow which I wished would vanish. Something about the miniscule light was unsettling. I was still angry, angry about something which had seemed important. What was it?
Hands deep in pockets to protect them from the biting cold, head hung, I could imagine I was the main character of my own movie. The main character who was in a state of detriment, searching for some sort of lost purpose.
Self-pity? No, it wasn’t that, I told myself. I couldn’t, wouldn’t feel bad for myself. Even when there was no one and nothing else left to feel bad for. Self-pity was the first step towards demise.
But so was everything. Everything, everything else in this world because nothing could be trusted anymore. A hard truth. Words, passions, people, sounds, the walls of your bedroom, and even your own mind, if you weren’t careful.
Paranoia: it was real. And it was hungry, only waiting to consume.
Things which once brought pleasure were now labeled as threats. New developments and innovations were burning out quickly, or being replaced. Technology surged forward.
Everything was corrupt. Our world had become populated by droids. Technology was taking over, literally. Entirely. It had etched its way into the minds of people, it had taken over them, it was using them. Nothing seemed humane anymore.
The mind is a fragile thing. Fragile enough to somehow be completely broken down, figured out and then put back together in one piece. And just so, Technology has found ways to access the mind. It’s hooked onto all the right notches, all the right soft spots. It’s discovered vulnerability. Music, for example. It was injected with thousands of subliminal messages, words which triggered the mind, words which brainwashed and dominated and corrupted. People who listened to it – they were gone. Their entire souls were replaced as Technology seeped into them, took over them, reprogrammed them. Gone.
I couldn’t let myself disappear. Not like Them.
I liked to walk these streets late at night; it was an activity that distracted my mind from thoughts. (Thoughts, I could really hate them. I was always thinking things I didn’t want to be. Thoughts could do terrible, terrible things to your mind . . .) Recently, it had become almost a habit of mine, to stalk silently down the pavement late at night when my lonely shadow was the only thing occupying this sleeping (dead) neighbourhood.
I had seen these streets so many times before. I knew their every detail by heart. This city was my entire soul, my breath knew the city air. Everything should have been familiar. But it wasn’t. Angry. What was I angry about?
Recently, I lacked all sense of direction. I didn’t recognise any of it. I felt lost, out of place: a feeling I had always been afraid of.
I now gazed down at the small iPod in my hand. I had subconsciously pulled it out of my pocket, where I kept it at all times. I had never used it, not once since the Fallout. It used to be a daily necessity in my life. And it had never done anything automatically, like much Technology now did. But I liked to keep it, to look at it from time to time. It was a temptation, watching the ‘play’ button glower dangerously at me. A temptation, because of my growing itch to press it. Temptation, because I liked to tempt myself, and resist. It made me feel powerful. Like I controlled the master.
The sky was red. The sun was rising.
I left the door unlocked as I stumbled into a room consumed by darkness, creeping darkness. The contrast of this warmth to the bitter outdoors was stifling.
It was the definition of pitch black. Darkness dwelling within darkness. And that creeping sensation, lurking. Fumbling through a blank room, searching for a lightswitch, I tripped over a chair, and cursed silently.
Fumbling, desperately. A lightswitch, and Them. A lightswitch, and darkness. Them. Something . . . was watching me. Them, and an unlocked door in the dark. I could feel it in the room with me. Panic, as my heart pounded. My fear echoed through me, into the room.
When my hand made contact with the switch, and I threw it on, it was was nothing but a room. The curtains were drawn shut, the door was still unlocked but firmly closed. Nobody. Breath out.
The uncertainty still lingered.
I hurried out of the room, leaving the light on, and shutting the door firmly. The crawling sensation hadn’t left.
Now I stood in the crooked hallway. Battered walls, a low ceiling, unstable doors, and splintered wood which was the floors. A murky smell floated on the air, like wet sandalwood. Was this home? Home shouldn’t be a place that you cowered away from in fear. I was intimidated by the very walls surrounding me. This was no home.
Terror had seized me: finally caught me. It was a strange emotion. I had learned to become immune to fear, to heartbreak, to pity. I was strong, but I had somehow broken. I felt . . . gone. Dissipated. I was fading.
I let it happen.
The world seemed to hurtle rapidly towards me as I awoke. The darkness swarmed in my eyes as I sat up, pressing my fingers to my temples in attempt to relieve the pain in my head. Nothing. The remembrance of dreams was still fresh in my memory.
I glanced around the room, my eyes first falling upon the bedside table. The untouched bottle of medications stared back at me – “to suppress side effects,” They had said. For the first time I suddenly found myself debating whether or not to take them.
I finally pushed myself out of bed with great effort and stood, bare feet against icy floor, staring at the dim light from the alarm clock which blared 5 minutes to 6. PM. I had slept through the day.
I turned away and stumbled to the bathroom.
Now staring head-on into a mirror, I was face-to-face with someone who I wouldn’t have remotely recognized 2 years ago. Long, unruly hair. Large, vulnerable eyes which portrayed a lack of sleep. Chapped lips and red, broken-out skin. Red, like blood. Like bleeding skies in the morning time, skies which were free and bounding and uncontrolled. Like the lights, lining the streets at nightfall. Red – petals of a rose, a beating heart.
Life, leaking through fingers like a sieve. Would that be red too?
My Mom was downstairs, at the dining room table. As if waiting . . . for me. She sat motionless, reading a newspaper. Rather, looking at. I often wondered whether She was reading at all, or simply absorbing time. The automated television played softly behind her, as if far in the distance. While much technology had ceased to work or respond since the Fallout, certain ones still worked, but played only on their own. They were otherwise unresponsive to any manual command. Pride.
She looked up at me with eyes which, though hollow, read into me and my every fear. I was terrified of Her, someone who I once thought I knew. Someone who was now gone.
“Hello.” She tilted her head gently. Hollow eyes. I gazed back at them. Terrified. Wordless.
Her fingers twitched. “Where have you been?”
I hesitated before responding. “Sleeping. I was up late last night.”
She looked back down at her paper. Why was She still awake? Was She waiting for me? The crawling sensation had come back. It was reflecting from Her. Shudder. Could She read me?
“I’m going out,” I spoke.
She didn’t argue, but continued gazing down at her paper. I felt a chill as I realised her eyes weren’t moving across the page like they should have been. They were still.
I wanted to cry out. She had become nothing more than an artificial mind, a robot. Although I had fallen used to it, every time I rediscovered the emotion which accompanied such a violent truth, it hurt more. It blistered, like a burn which never healed completely but only died down from time to time.
(Technology had done this. She was Technology. The person I had once known didn’t exist anymore. She never would. She was gone.)
As if on cue, the television suddenly turned itself up audibly. My eyes, with unknown tears brimming on their edges, widened, and then shut. I was grasped by panic. I didn’t know what was playing, only that I couldn’t listen to the words; to whatever was coming from the television, because it was purely corruption and nothing more. What could happen if I heard? My hands flew to my ears, and with them covered, I threw myself out of the front door and ran.
Skin collided with concrete. The whole world was spinning. My body had given away under me. I was certain at first that I was losing consciousness, but as the thoughts intensified, and my body began to quake, I knew it wasn’t that. I had reached my breaking point. I was shattering.
My hands were sweating, despite the harsh cold, yet my whole body had gone numb. In the midst of my world’s collision with actuality, I just lay there, unaware of my surroundings, knowing only one thing. This was it.
The overwhelming alone feeling which had entirely captured me caused me to lose control. With palms pressed against the freezing concrete, I began to writhe and scream against myself, and the loneliness surrounding me. With both arms wrapped mercilessly around my body in a strangle, my fingernails digging into my skin until I bled, I lost sanity.
Pushing up off the ground, stumbling over my own tired limbs, I raced down the street, only half-knowing where I was going. The moon was rising, resting low in the sky, and seemed to taunt me with its bright, joyful light. The moon was like death to me. Something that made me feel so impossibly small and unimportant. Everybody on earth saw and shared its light. And maybe it meant something different to other people, but to me it was reminiscent of fear. It reminded me of everything else out there in the world, of all the people. Of all the prior potential. The same moon shone down on all of their lives – everybody had once lived a different life with different emotions and passions. Different problems, fears, hopes. Now, that had all been dissolved. Individuality had lost definition. There were no longer people, or personalities. Everybody was a droid – controlled, but without control. Technology was too wise. A picture-perfect reflection of a damaged world. That terrified me.
The moon. In its flaming glory, it was sinking. The moon. Did it want to sink?
The moon. Would it last? Nothing is supposed to last.
The sky was red. My world was about to end, and the sky was red. This was now life, slipping through fingers like a sieve, as I had imagined. And it was red.
I felt a passing ripple of a memory – something I hadn’t remembered for a long time. A boy; a boy with the wind of courage in his soul. Brown eyes, sandy hair. The remembrance was startling. Garrett.
He had been special. Different. Like me. He had been the only person to keep me sane after the Fallout. But he was gone now. Gone, but I didn’t remember. Where was he?
That’s right. He had died. He had killed himself. He said couldn’t take it anymore, and then he was gone. How did I forget him? Had he even existed? Why did he leave? Shudder.
Selfishness. That’s why. He had been so selfish. But I couldn’t blame him.
I thought of my Mom. Garrett. Them.
They had all given up, in one way or another. Whether out of cowardly selfishness, or mindlessness, or gullibility. How would I be any different now?
The iPod in my hand grew warmer by the moment. Warm – red.
It had never bothered me that I was different. I always felt wise. It was as if I had something They didn’t, and I liked that. It made me feel powerful. But now, it wasn’t power. It was pride. It was isolation and loneliness. It was hell.
I needed more. Music, noise: it was addictive, like a drug. But I needed something more than more. I needed new.
I had an itch, and I wanted to scratch it. To ease the pain. I could have this.
The playlist of “My Favourite Songs” now displayed on the small, bright screen. An itch, an urge, a burst of something. Red.
My finger hovered over the play button. Hadn’t I wanted this? I could let myself be completely devoured by the music, not caring. Because I didn’t care anymore.
Red, music, life, play, Garrett. Everything was a blur. I didn’t care.
And I pressed play.
Jael Sell is a freshman at Corbin High School.