There once was a man. He led a good life, and had a wife. He was happy. But then, during a moment of solitude, in washed the darkness. A girl stepped out of it and beckoned to him. By the time he started to struggle, he realized that she’d already wound around him a web of flesh. He was tangled in it, and though he fought to reach back to the doorway he’d entered from, with every second he was dragged further away from it—further into the abyss. There was no escaping from the girl who wanted him for her own. When he turned and looked at her, he saw that she now had the face of a spider. Piece by piece, she began to eat him up, but he felt no pain. He felt nothing anymore . . . No, too edgy.
Without hesitance, Adam Keir deleted everything from his video. He had spent all day throwing together the visuals, but had only just sat down to think about the concept. It wasn’t surreal enough, it was just dark for the sake of being dark. Defeated, he laid his head down on the desk, in front of his art tablet. He didn’t want to admit it, but he’d run dry on ideas. He was in the midst of a major artist’s block that had been plaguing him since his last video two months prior. His viewers were getting concerned, because he usually uploaded once a month. But here he was, hardly able to brainstorm a single good idea, much less make an entire video based around one. His hands wanted to work, but his brain didn’t want to cooperate. It didn’t help that he was tired.
With a yawn, he lifted his head. He laid his head on his hand, elbow resting on the arm of his rolling black chair, and covered his eyes with his palm and fingers. He wasn’t sure what time it was, because he hadn’t checked, but he assumed that it was around 7:30 in the morning. It wouldn’t have been so bad a time had it not meant that he’d now been awake for twenty-four hours.
The office door opened behind him, allowing light into the room that had otherwise been illuminated only by the glow of the computer monitor. “Adam?” It was Larisa, his wife of four years. “Are you still awake?”
“Mm-hmm,” he grumbled back at her without moving.
“Didn’t you get any sleep?”
She approached with a low sigh. This wasn’t unexpected of her husband, but she worried for him regardless. Trying to be supportive, she held his shoulder and asked, “How much did you get done?”
“Sorry to hear that.” She left him alone after that, knowing that he needed his solitude, and that she needed to go to work.
Twenty minutes after Larisa left for work, Adam forced himself to get up. In a daze, he drifted downstairs and entered the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee and heated up a bagel, and then sat down at the kitchen table. After taking a bite of his bagel, he zoned out. With vacant eyes he stared at the dark surface of the hot coffee in his mug. He imagined the coffee to be a huge lake filled with pollution. On it, in a little canoe, was a man with no skin. He wore overalls and a fishing hat, but his fishing rod looked more like a long scythe. He reached his tool down into the murky brown water and fished out a limbless infant who cooed at him. Onto his lap the poor, forsaken creature went, and he started to feed it tiny, squirming . . . octopus tentacles?
What does that even mean? Adam wondered, bewildered by his own idea. He couldn’t use that concept either, since even though it had started out somewhat metaphorical, it had quickly derailed into something merely disturbing. With a big sip of his coffee, he swallowed away the thought and shook his head clear, bringing his full focus back onto reality and off of his surreal imagination.
* * *
It was sunny outside. His walk to work, up South Union Avenue and down 95th Street, was uneventful, but when he pulled open the door to Waller’s Pawn Shop, that changed. The first thing he heard was “I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight” by Cutting Crew. The store was inhabited only by his best friend, Jesse Waller, who was the owner of the establishment. Jesse had perched up on the stool behind the counter, with his foot on said surface. He rocked out to the old tune blaring out of the speakers attached to his computer, and he pantomimed holding a microphone in front of his face as he sang along to the end of the first chorus. He was a terrible singer, but also one to enjoy life and do as he pleased.
For a moment Adam considered turning around and leaving the shop, but instead he stood petrified, staring at Jesse as he rocked out to the instrumental. Then it was too late for him to flee, as his friend pointed at him with a pseudo-emotional look on his face.
“Is there any just cause for feeling like this?” he “sung”. “On the surface I’m a name on a list!” As his friend began shaking his head in an amused sort of disapproval, he cried, “I try to be discreet,” then whispered dramatically, “but then blow it again.” He swung himself back and did air guitar until the lyrics continued a second later.
“Jesus Christ,” mumbled Adam, trying not to laugh. “Do you always have to be so enthusiastic about doing this every day? What if a customer walks in and sees this?”
Jesse’s only answer was to continue singing.
“I’m going to go change my shirt in the bathroom. When I come out, you’d better be done.” With that, Adam walked across the shop and entered the staff-only bathroom. He’d brought with him a bag containing his work t-shirt, which was black and had the shop’s logo emblazoned upon its chest. Both casual and brisk, he took off the gray t-shirt that he was currently wearing and slipped on the black one in his bag. Then, he looked at his reflection.
His round-shaped face was softened by a short beard as dark as his brown hair. As usual, his short bangs were styled upwards and ever-so-slightly forward in a messy style that Jesse liked to refer to as “the limp paintbrush haircut”. The rest of the world, including Adam, called it a “quiff”, but there was no arguing with Jesse Waller once he’d decided on something. After dampening his hand with water from the sink, Adam slicked back his bangs to appear more professional. Whenever the odd person did enter their shop, they tended to avoid Jesse and his zany personality. Most visitors preferred Adam’s calm, serious demeanor. After all, he wasn’t the one shrieking the lyrics to an 80s song or trying to force them to sing along. But most of the time, Adam and Jesse just sat together behind the counter and talked.
On a good day, they would get maybe six or seven visitors. The lack of profit didn’t worry them too much, though—not Adam, because he wasn’t invested in the trade business and was only working the job for money and to please Jesse, and not Jesse, because while he technically owned the shop, his and Adam’s wages were both paid for by his father, who had retired from the trade business to pass it down to his son. Of course, Adam assumed that Jesse’s father was furious with their incompetence, though he’d never been given any indication of that being the case. For all he knew, Mr. Waller understood the lack of customers.
Adam was about to leave the bathroom when his phone dinged in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at his notification wall; he had a new follower on Twitter. He didn’t look into it any further, and instead decided to put his phone on silent. A split second before he turned off the screen, he saw another notification flash by to inform him of a new Instagram follower. Then he put the phone back in his pocket.
Guess I have a new fan, he thought to himself nonchalantly. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get the occasional fan following him on every social media channel he was on. So it was easy for him to forget about the notifications. Taking his bag with him, he left the bathroom. Jesse was now calmer than before, sitting idly at the computer and checking his Facebook.
“How’s the new video coming along?” he inquired as he scrolled down his feed.
Adam approached the counter and sat his bag down behind it before taking a seat on the stool to the left of Jesse. “Not good,” he answered. “I haven’t got any ideas to work with.”
Jesse flashed him a look of both concern and disbelief. “You? No ideas? Preposterous.”
The shorter man shrugged. “I don’t know what to say. It’s like the creativity’s just . . . been sapped away or something. I’m running on empty.”
“I mean you still enjoy it, right?”
“Of course. But my imagination’s either getting tamer or less sane, I can’t tell.”
“Well,” assured Jesse with a big dorky smile, “people love insane!”
Adam frowned. “I like my videos to have meaning to them, Jess.”
“What was the meaning of your last video?”
“I don’t remember my last video.”
“You know, ‘I’m so excited’? With that fucked up man-child thing dancing alone in some fire-destroyed house to a distorted version of ‘I’m So Excited’ by the Pointer Sisters?”
“Oh. Its meaning was ambiguous, but my opinion is that it represents the childlike happiness that some people keep despite hell and high water. Even as we grow older, most of us keep a remnant of our childhood selves within us, if only for comfort. We get excited by new concepts even when our worlds are falling apart around us.” Then, after a long pause, Adam mumbled, “Or something like that.”
Jesse stared at Adam in silence for a few seconds, and then said, “Yeah. Just . . . do something like that again. It got a lot of likes somehow.”
“Because of the song, I guess.”
Jesse was five feet ten inches tall with long legs and skinny limbs. His skin was white, but had a slight tan from frequent exposure to sunlight. His short black hair was shaped into a regular professional haircut and he had no facial hair, since he always did close shaves. Two years prior he had tried to grow a light beard like Adam’s, but it didn’t suit him and his heart-shaped face one bit, so he’d returned to his regular shaving routine.
In contrast to his friend, Adam was only five feet eight inches tall and was slightly above his expected weight. He was quite pale, with a pasty complexion in some lighting, because he preferred staying inside. He always wore t-shirts and tight jeans; something about long-sleeved shirts made him uncomfortable, and if he wasn’t wearing his jeans, then he was asleep in nothing but his briefs.
The two of them had been best friends since elementary school. Jesse was the class clown even at a young age, and Adam was the shy kid who never said a word. They met because they were in the same class in the third grade and because Adam had snickered when Jesse insulted their teacher. Of course they had both been sent to the principal’s office for it. But on the walk back to their class after a stern lecture about respecting their elders, Jesse introduced himself. And for the first time, Adam spoke to one of his peers by returning the gesture. From that moment forward, they had known that they shared some special connection. By all accounts, though, they should’ve hated each other’s guts; Jesse was a reckless idealist who took nothing seriously, and Adam was a very serious and aloof realist.
A testament to Jesse’s eccentric nature was how he’d never settled down with anyone. He’d never even had a girlfriend for more than a week. Adam still wondered about his friend’s love life, but he never asked questions about it anymore, because the previous times he had, his questions had been answered only with quips, some sexist and some completely unrelated to the topic. In the back of his mind he secretly harbored the idea that Jesse was a closeted homosexual in love with a man who didn’t love him back, and maybe that man was him, but he of course never told anyone this idea or allowed himself to feed it by taking Jesse’s jokes and remarks toward him out of context.
“So, how’s the Missus?” asked Jesse.
“How’s her job treating her?”
“I haven’t heard any complaints.”
Jesse grunted in understanding, then laughed wryly. “It’s just as well that she went into accounting. Could’ve settled for being someone’s secretary. Good for her, expressing her knack for mathematics. I can hardly remember my times tables, let alone work as an accountant.”
Adam didn’t say anything in response. He watched as Jesse scrolled further down his Facebook feed and liked a selfie of Larisa that he hadn’t seen before.
“Your wife’s a babe, too,” he said as he changed his like to a “Love” reaction. In a teasing tone, he added, “I’m jealous.”
“Envious,” corrected Adam. “You’re envious, not jealous.”
“Why not both?”
Adam didn’t have an answer, whether the counter-remark was a joke or not. Could someone be both envious and jealous? He couldn’t see why not.
The phone sitting beside Jesse rang, and he answered it after two rings. “Waller’s Pawn Shop; this is Jesse, how may I help you?” He stood up and walked past Adam, over to the section near the back of the store where they kept pawned instruments. “Let me see . . . Hmm, no, we don’t have any Rickenbacker 360s, but we do have a single Rickenbacker 330. Mm-hmm. I see. Well, the 330 has one less pickup. A 330/12? Let me check for you.”
As Jesse went into the storage room to see if they had what the potential customer wanted, Adam failed to suppress a yawn. He was worn out from not sleeping. So he laid his head down onto his arms on the counter and zoned out, trying to lose himself in his imagination.
He saw a woman on a subway train. She sat alone in one of the compartments, holding her purse on her lap. She looked nervous. With a timid duck of her head, she peered into her purse. Then she sat up rigidly when a man entered the compartment. He swung his limbs as he walked, and then he took a seat right beside her. She began to sweat.
“Nice weather, huh?” he asked her out of the blue.
She was quiet for a moment, but then said, “No.”
The man did not reply. There was a long beat of stillness. The only sound came from the rumbling of the train on its tracks. It was dark inside the compartment, but little flashes of light would pierce through the windows for a split second at a time.
When she could bear the silence no longer, she asked—
“Adam? You sleepin’ on the job again, buddy?”
Adam jolted back up into an upright sitting position at the sound of Jesse’s voice. “No,” he assured, somewhat groggily. “I’m awake. Just thinking.”
Jesse moved past him and placed the phone back into its charger. “We’ve got someone coming in half an hour to pick up our Rickenbacker 330/12.”
“Okay,” Adam said. Then, realizing that Jesse was staring at him, he tried to sound more enthusiastic: “Great.”
“This is an expensive guitar we’re selling!”
“Okay,” Adam repeated.
“Do you know how awesome the Rickenbacker 330/12 is?”
Adam’s only response was to furrow his brows, although it was more of an unconscious reaction than an actual reply.
Exasperated by his friend’s guitar-ignorance, Jesse made a noise that Adam would forever be unable to describe with real words (it was something like a “feh” combined with a phlegm-y noise of utter distaste). Then he walked off and disappeared back into the storage room.