Difficult But Not Impossible

I should have told you this months ago, but I have a mild neck injury. You might want to get yourself checked.

One morning in December 2012, I woke up with a stabbing stiffness on the left side of my neck. Whenever I moved my head backward or to the left, it got worse, so I ended up holding my neck in a weird hunched position. As it happens, I am an obsessive hypochondriac, and circumstances convinced me that I was suffering from spinal meningitis.

I went to the emergency room, where the doctor told me I had a mild muscle strain in my shoulder. I left with an accurate diagnosis and a bill. After a few days, the muscle strain went away on its own. It showed up again in February 2013, so I saw my regular doctor, who told me I had wry neck and prescribed muscle relaxants. I took the pills three times a day and recovered quickly. In the meantime, it has showed up on and off, but I always took a few more muscle relaxants and it would go away.

About two months ago, my neck started hurting persistently, so I decided to see a chiropractor. He told me I had a virus and some small parasites and suggested that I avoid eating corn. After that, I decided to see a real doctor, specifically an orthopedic specialist in Lawrence. He took X-rays that showed my incredibly straight neck, told me that my shoulder muscles are just strained, and prescribed 12 sessions of physical therapy over the next six weeks.

I saw the physical therapist for the first time on Friday. His office consists of several small consultation rooms and a gymnasium full of elderly people and athletes learning to use the new arms their doctors built for them out of titanium and ass flesh. The physical therapist said that my shoulder strain is the lamest affliction he’s ever seen. He didn’t say it out loud but he was clearly thinking it. Once he located the problem area, he used an ultrasound transducer (yeah) on it and prescribed a few simple exercises I have to do twice a day beef up my lame shoulder muscles. I also had to buy a new pillow at Bed, Bath, and Beyond that was neck-friendlier.

Anyway, it seemed to be doing better on Saturday, and things will presumably continue to improve as I continue the physical therapy. My neck mostly just hurts when I think about it, which includes right now as I’m writing this.

Aside from the dull throb of my trapezius muscle or something near it, I’m doing okay. I am growing steadily more frustrated with the lack of progress in all my endeavors, especially since I currently have more undertakings than a Tarantino movie (yeah). I can’t finish a story, sell a book, or even get my air conditioner fixed. The say that patience is a virtue, but the difference between patience and complacency (or complacence, I can never remember) is not easy to figure out. Am I waiting or just wasting time? More importantly, is everyone tired of hearing me bitch about it?

I’m still looking at all my different pursuits, but none of them seem viable right now. Hunter S. Thompson said that if you have eight purposeless paths to choose from, you have to find a ninth path. In keeping with that risky advice, I have decided to pursue an idea so a ambitious, stupid, and failure-prone that I refuse to mention it until it’s too late to change my mind.

Why do I always choose to do such difficult things? Not only that, why do I complain when I fail at something difficult when I could just do something easy? One reason is that I’m an exceptional complainer; the other is that there truly is value in failure. Successful people always talk about the importance of failure without ever addressing its shittiness. Failure in retrospect is kind of quaint, but failure in progress is heartbreaking. Honestly, I’m not afraid of failure unless it keeps going indefinitely. Fail me once, shame on me, but fail me a few dozen times and the shame gets kind of unbearable.

One way to address failure is by moving the goal posts, or as I like to say, “adjusting” them (yeah). Denial is a great approach, too. To quote the boss said in the Dilbert TV series, “We’re calling it a success because that’s just what we do.” In the end, no matter where I put the goalposts, the odds are thoroughly surmountable. If I didn’t believe persistence were key, I would strongly consider moving on, but I have a lot more bad ideas and plenty of failure left in me.

Space Doctor

(I wrote this 500-word short story as an exercise. It had to be about a space doctor delivering news (good or bad) to a patient.)

The space doctor emerged from the backroom laboratory and entered the brightly lit examination room with a gloomy expression on his face.

“Well, give me the bad news, space doctor,” I said.

“I’m not a space doctor,” he answered. “I’m a janitor.”

I laughed. “If you’re not a space doctor, then what are you doing with that medical apparatus?”

He glanced at the instrument in his hand. “The mop? I was cleaning the floor in the women’s restroom.”

“I see. So if that’s the women’s restroom, then where is the medical laboratory?”

He seemed confused. “We don’t have any laboratories here.”

“Are you trying to tell me we’re not in an intergalactic hospital?”

“No. This is a grocery store.”

I looked around and realized the space doctor was right. In fact, we appeared to be in the freezer section of my local Value For Less, a grocery outlet that offered tremendous savings on a wide variety of everyday merchandise. Concerned about this distressing development, I turned back to the doctor.

“Listen, doc, I desperately need to be treated for a serious case of space syphilis. You’re the only one who can help me.”

He deposited his so-called mop in a large yellow canister nearby. “Look, if you have syphilis, you should see a real doctor at a real hospital.”

“It’s not syphilis, though; it’s space syphilis. I contracted it during sexual intercourse in space.”

“I seriously doubt you’ve ever been to space.”

I was about to laugh at his incredulity, but I paused for a moment. Had I been to space? Once I thought about it, I couldn’t remember ever having left the planet Earth.

“So maybe I’ve never been to space, but I still need to be treated for my syphilis.”

“There’s really nothing I can do for you,” the space doctor replied. “If you’re sick, see a doctor.”

“I don’t feel sick, though. Syphilis has no symptoms.”

“Yeah, it does.” He gave me a funny look. “So there’s nothing wrong with you, but you’re still convinced you have a sexually transmitted disease?”

“Actually, if I’ve never been to space, I’ve probably never had sex.”

“You’ve never had sex?”

“Not with another person, no.”

“If you’ve never had sex and you don’t feel sick, I don’t think you can possibly have any kind of syphilis. Honestly, you look fine.”

I sighed with relief. “So you think I’ll be okay?”

“Absolutely. Anyway, I need to get back to mopping the bathroom or my supervisor will write me up.”

“Thank you so much, doc.” I shook his hand.

The space doctor collected his cleaning equipment and returned to the women’s restroom.

I retrieved my shopping cart from the nearest aisle and continued shopping for frozen goods. As I picked out a selection of ice cream treats to celebrate my clean bill of health, I muttered aloud to myself, “Space can be a strange and confusing place.”

The Chatters

(I wrote this story at ConQuesT 45 in Kansas City. I had to write it in less than one hour and include a velvet painting, a trapped ghost, an alien planet, hiding from an unseen danger, and the first line, “He could feel the water rushing into his lungs.” It won best sci-fi story in the pro division!)

He could feel the water rushing into his lungs. Dr. Gladwell had told him the planet was completely devoid of water, so either something had filled the craters with it or Dr. Gladwell had been wrong yet again.

“The surface of the planet is like a velvet painting,” she had said. “There is a fine layer of hairlike follicles on the surface, but it appears to be perfectly smooth. Over the centuries, meteors have left vast craters in the ground, but the follicles eventually covered their floors.”

He asked if the planet was like a giant hairball.

“Of course not. These follicles, despite their ever-changing nature, couldn’t possibly be the byproduct of a living organism,” she replied.

As it turned out, his theory had been more accurate than the doctor’s. The fuzz, as he liked to call it, was most definitely alive. It was the sole source of sustenance for the Chatters, an alien race whose existence Gladwell had also failed to anticipate.

The Chatters took no interest in his landing pod or his meaty flesh, but they did crave one thing: idle conversation.

The planet lacked anything remotely akin to weather, but the Chatters discussed it anyway. They had no family structures, but they still complained about relatives. They knew no hunger or thirst thanks to the fuzz and their underground water supply, but they still talked about planning meals and their worries about “the harvest.”

There was no harvest.

He started to lose his temper after three days of hearing about the nonexistent sports the Chatters never played. He tried plugging his ears, but the Chatters were telepathic.

The rescue craft was not due for another six months, but after a week, he finally lost it. He tried to run and hide during a lull in the dull conversation about traffic jams. (The Chatters had no vehicles).

He rushed to the underground river, which was accessible through a tunnel in one of the craters. He was able to hide and survive on fuzz and river water.

After a week, he felt the Chatters’ psychic energy probing the tunnel, looking for his brain waves. They wanted to tell him about their stressful jobs, even though none of them worked. He had no choice but to swim downriver.

The current swept him away too quickly, and he ended up in the largest domed crater on the planet with almost no air left. He struck a patch of fuzz on the crater floor then tried to swim away. He couldn’t. The fuzz was less like a velvet painting and more like a sheet of hairy fly paper. Movement was impossible. He cursed Gladwell’s name as the water filled his lungs and he drowned.

His ghost floated to the surface and up to the dome, where it stopped moving. The dome was composed of transparent dolomite, an incorporeally impermeable mineral. He had nowhere to go; his ghostly form wouldn’t let him sink and the dome wouldn’t let him rise.

The Chatters rushed into the lake, and then they climbed out of the water and onto the rocky shore. Their telepathic voices began speaking in unison, directly into his soul’s thoughts.

The Chatters wanted to talk about politics. They had no government, but they definitely had a lot to say.

A Deluge of Nothing

When I still lived at home, I naturally spent most of my time in the basement, far away from human eyes. In order to give the place a personal touch, I put a plethora of video game posters on the walls. For the benefit of my occasional guests, I also installed a crappy, $5 analog clock on the wally by the window. I never checked it because I always wore a digital watch.

The clock tended to be fast by at least 5 minutes (or maybe 15), even a few days after setting it. After a while, the battery started to die, so it got further and further off, until one day, it stopped keeping time altogether. The second hand had started twitching instead of making a complete rotation. It would move from the 43 second mark to the 44 second mark and immediately drop back down, over and over again. I thought it was far more interesting than a regular clock, so I just let it tick endlessly. I called it The Futility Clock.

Right now, I’m having a hard time telling whether or not I’m making progress or just twitching in place. I have a million different potential opportunities, but whenever I take a tentative step in a given direction, nothing changes. When I decided to write the novel, it was because I needed to focus my effort on one thing. Now I have to focus a little on everything to find out what works out and what fails. I’m trying sci-fi conventions, opinion letters, political essays, blog posts, short stories, children’s stories, poems, twitter and facebook updates, reddit discussions, and of course, dozens of emails.

I used to send emails to people all the time. Amazingly enough, they’d reply! My brother and I played correspondence chess via email. I even won a game once. Now, email has become the incarcerated uncle of the internet. It came from a different time and has a lot of flaws, but it’s still part of the family and everyone has to visit it once in a while. I’ve given out a lot of business cards, but I never get any phone calls. I was convinced that I had to be missing some important phone calls, so I exchanged my 4-year-old flip phone for a brand-new flip phone to be sure. It made no difference.

When you start out as a writer, your biggest concern is whether or not you’re good enough. It’s a meaningless concern, because those who lack confidence will always have some doubt, and those who are overconfident will never have any doubt. Ideally, writers should strike a balance: confident enough to sell themselves but modest enough to accept and utilize criticism. I’m always trying to find the balance, and whenever I receive a critical response, I try to make the best of it. I’m always prepared for responses, but at this point, my concerns are less about insecurity and more about ontology. Am I real enough to warrant a response? Do I even exist? Time will tell.

My goal as a writer is to communicate ideas, so nothing is more discouraging than shouting into a silent void. All I get back is a deluge of nothing. How long can my voice hold up? How many different things can I shout? I rarely quote Jesus, but here I go: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and answers the door, I will come in.”

One day, I looked up and saw that The Futility Clock was running normally again. The time was still way off, so I knew no one had changed the battery, but the second hand was going all the way around.

Downfall

(I entered this short story in a competition for DemiCon 25 and it won second place! The other entries are available here.)

Greg was buffing the lobby floor when the new volunteer showed up, 20 minutes early. The volunteer was a small, slight man wearing a 3-piece suit and matching overcoat. He walked with an air of confidence that betrayed his unimposing appearance.

Greg turned off the floor buffer and went to greet him.

“Hello there! My name is Greg; I’m the lead Patient Care Assistant in the long-term care wing.”

“An orderly?”

“Something like that. You must be Mr. Maclaren.”

“Dr. Maclaren. You can call me Paul.”

“Oh, you’re a doctor. What kind?”

“Internal medicine.”

“I see. Well, this is a purely non-medical position, Paul. You’ll just be interacting with the patients on a personal level, one-on-one. The director mentioned that you’re interested in dealing with one resident in particular?”

“Yes, the anonymous patient.”

Greg perked up. “Oh? That’s excellent. He never gets any visitors.” He looked around to see if anyone was watching, even though the lobby was completely empty. “But we’ll have to talk about it first. Let’s go to my office.”

“Lead the way.”

Paul followed Greg into a cramped side office that doubled as a utility closet. Greg shut the door behind them and sat down on the metal folding chair next to the card table that functioned as a desk. Paul sat stiffly on one of the two metal chairs on the opposite side.

Greg cleared his throat and spoke. “The patient you want to work with isn’t actually anonymous. In fact, we know exactly who he is.” He looked around again. When he was satisfied that no one was hiding between the mop and a rack of industrial chemicals, he continued. “It’s Magna Man.”

“The superhero?”

“Yeah. He ended up here after a traumatic brain injury.”

Paul raised an eyebrow. “I thought Magna Man was supposed to be invincible.”

“So did he, until he hit the pavement going Mach 10. Headfirst. After that, his thoughts got a little jumbled.”

“I see.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of a long story. It all started with that accident. He landed in the middle of Times Square during a routine battle with some fusion-powered robotic weapon crafted by Professor Whatshisface. You know, the bad guy.”

“Dr. Megalo.”

“Right. Despite his head injury, Magna Man managed to destroy the weapon and fly away.”

“They said on the news that he had finally decided to leave the planet for good.”

“That was a cover-up. A couple of hours after he flew off, some teenagers found him at a nature park in Albany. He was stumbling around and knocking over trees, so they called the police. The army dispatched a helicopter and flew him out to Fort Drum.”

“Did they find out what was wrong with him?”

“No, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The doctors didn’t have any way to take tissue samples and none of the medical scans could penetrate his skull. X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasound were all totally useless. No one had any idea what was going on inside his head. The doctors didn’t know what oral medications would work, if any, so they just tried to keep him comfortable and well-fed. Once his condition deteriorated even more, they announced that he had left the planet. Then, after a few more days, he stabilized and began to recover. I guess they don’t call him superhuman for nothing.”

“I take it there were repercussions from the injury?”

“Big time. When he woke up, he was extremely confused and couldn’t even speak. He had lost a lot of his motor coordination and didn’t seem to understand people when they talked to him. No one was sure what to do, and things had gotten dangerous.”

“Because of his super strength?”

“Right. They didn’t have to worry about it when he was unconscious, but once he could move around, he started breaking things and hurting people.”

Greg backtracked when he saw the look on Paul’s face. “I mean, it wasn’t intentional, and none of the injuries were too serious.” He sighed. “Well, one of the nurses became paraplegic, and one of the doctors lost his right arm past the elbow.” He shrugged. “The army knew they needed help, so they tried to calm him down and brought him here in a heavily armored van. We’re used to dealing with traumatic brain injuries, so we made some progress with him. After a few rough weeks, he started to relax and get along. He’s been here for about six months now.”

“How bad is he? Will he ever get back to fighting crime?”

“I doubt it. He’s functioning at a very basic level, but we haven’t seen much evidence of higher brain activity. He still can’t speak. The good news is, he’s fairly docile, and he gets along with the staff and other residents. He also seems to be more aware of his strength, so there haven’t been as many accidents lately.”

“I see. Is he mostly self-sufficient? Can he take care of himself?”

“For the most part. He feeds himself and he’s toilet trained.”

“That’s good to know. I was afraid he might be wearing a diaper or something.”

Greg looked sheepish. “He does wear special undergarments, just in case.” He cleared his throat. “It’s not usually a problem, though.”

“Right. So what does he do with his time?”

“The staff conducts several activities with the residents: arts and crafts, stories, group meals, and special events. He watches a lot of TV.”

“I can imagine.”

“Anyway, I’m really glad you’re here. All the other patients have friends and families who visit, but obviously, Joe doesn’t. We only call him ‘Joe’ because it’s one syllable and he responds to it. We’re not sure who he really was. After all, his identity was a secret, and nobody ever came looking for him.”

“That doesn’t give you many options for eventually releasing him.”

“Yeah. As far as we know, we’re taking care of him indefinitely. The army decided to pay him a monthly stipend for services rendered, and we put that towards his expenses. We write off the rest as a charitable donation.” Greg stood up. “I guess that’s everything you need to know. Are you still willing to work with him?”

Paul got up and nodded. “I think it will be an eye-opening experience.”

“Good! I’ll introduce you. You can take this chance to get to know one another, and if you’re willing to keep working with him, we can arrange for regular visits.”

Greg led the way out of the office closet and walked down to an open door at the end of the hall. He knocked on the door frame and went in. Paul followed him inside.

Joe’s room was spacious but spartan. He had a small bed, a coffee table, two easy chairs, and a wide-screen plasma television. The other walls were adorned with a few poorly colored drawing pages and several large holes in the drywall.

Joe was sitting in one of the chairs. The media always said Magna Man was 6’5” and weighed more than 300 pounds, but in person, he seemed even bigger. Despite his size, he wasn’t at all intimidating, in part due to his vacant smile and the plaid flannel pajamas he wore.

Greg turned off the TV and said, “Good afternoon, Joe,” speaking slowly and distinctly.

Joe looked at him and smiled.

“This is Paul,” Greg continued. “He’s going to be coming by once in a while to hang out with you.” He turned to Paul. “I don’t want him to get too overwhelmed, so I’m going to leave you two alone for a bit. Are you comfortable with that?”

“I’ll be fine,” Paul said.

As Greg walked out, he said, “I promise that you’ll be perfectly safe, but I’ll be waiting in the lobby if you need me.”

Paul made sure he was gone, then sat on the easy chair across from Joe.

“Hey there, Max,” he said. “I suppose I should call you Joe, since that’s what they’re doing. You probably don’t remember me, but my name is Dr. Megalo.” He looked around. “I’ve known you were in here for a couple of months now.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think when I found out. When I first heard you had left the planet, I considered it a victory. Humans would be free to act however we liked without you pushing your morality on us.” He sighed. “The problem was, it didn’t fit the profile. You’d never abandoned anything before, especially not after such a minor scuffle. I had to be sure, so I looked into it. Once I realized the military was involved, I started searching their records. Oddly enough, it was a so-called ‘accounting error’ that led me to this facility. And here you are.”

Joe had stopped trying to listen and started staring off toward the door.

Paul stood up and looked back to make sure no one was there, then took a flashlight out of his coat. “You know, I never understood how you wore a costume without any pockets,” he said. “Now, let’s have a look at you.”

He walked over and shined the light into each of Joe’s eyes. “Irregular pupillary response,” he said. “Unequal pupil size.” He snapped his fingers on either side of Joe’s head. “Left ear less responsive. Could be tinnitus.” He held up his index finger. “Can you touch my finger?” Joe reached for his finger and missed, then tried again and touched it. “Good. Can you touch your nose?” Joe managed to touch his nose on the third try. “Good. I certainly don’t want to test your strength or reflexes, but your muscle tone looks good.”

Paul sat back down. “Well, a human with your symptoms would likely have suffered from severe cerebral hypoxia or a cerebral hemorrhage, probably both.” He shook his head. “Even though you look completely human, your physiology still baffles me.”

Joe nodded politely, but clearly didn’t understand.

“You might be surprised to find out that I collected samples of all your bodily fluids last year. Saliva, mucus, tears, urine, feces, earwax. Even semen.” He chuckled. “That was an interesting mission.”

Joe smiled at the laughter.

“I thought those tissue samples would help me understand you, but they were useless. Your DNA is completely alien. I had nothing to compare it with. I could have asked for help, but it would have taken a team of scientists years to figure it all out, and I had to work alone, for obvious reasons. Everyone thought you were invincible, but it turns out an indestructible brain can be damaged by bouncing around in an indestructible skull. I wish I could take credit, but it was a complete accident.”

Paul stood up and took a few more items out of his pockets, including an oxygen mask, a plastic hose, and a small gas canister. Joe watched, transfixed.

“No, my plan was a bit more sophisticated,” Paul said. “It hit me after I thought about all the times I saw you catching your breath after one of my machines struck you. You might have been impossible to hurt, but you gasped for air just like any human would. I was still trying to figure out the details when you had your little accident.”

Paul attached the plastic hose to the mask and the gas canister.

“This is argon gas, Joe. It’s completely odorless and tasteless, but it’s heavier than air, so it will sink into whatever your body uses for breathing and displace all the oxygen. You won’t notice anything; you’ll just fall unconscious and asphyxiate. You probably would have objected to this in the old days, but now I doubt you’ll have anything to say. Besides, it’ll put you out of your misery.”

He finished securing the hose and took a second oxygen mask out of his coat.

“If you’re nervous about the mask, I brought an extra one for me. It won’t have any argon, but at least you won’t be alone.”

He put on his own mask first, then Joe’s. Joe smiled at the game they seemed to be playing. Paul reached for the canister of argon, but before he could pick it up, Joe took a tiny silver robot out of his shirt pocket and handed it over. Paul looked at the toy and froze.

“This is the Violator Mark II.” He looked at Joe, who was still smiling beneath the mask. “They make toys based on my machines?”

He sat back down and took his mask off. Joe mirrored his actions, taking off his own mask.

“They think it’s just a game,” Paul said. “They must think I’m some kind of cartoon character.” He held up the robot. “This machine took nine months to construct. The original version took six months.” He shook his head. “You destroyed it in 25 seconds.” He sighed. “This one was just supposed to subdue you. I only decided to kill you after you threw a school bus at it. There were kids in that bus, Max.”

Paul dropped the toy on the ground. Joe frowned.

“I suppose if the toy companies knew what I looked like, they’d make a little version of me, wearing a cape, rubbing my hands, and twirling a handlebar mustache.” Paul stood up and started putting the equipment back in his coat pockets. “I don’t need to kill you, Joe. I already put you in here.”

He started to walk out, but Joe picked up the toy and stumbled across the room after him. Paul turned back. Joe handed him the toy with a concerned look on his face. Paul sighed and put the toy in his coat pocket. Joe smiled broadly and grabbed him in a bear hug, managing not to use too much of his superhuman strength. After he let go, he walked over to the TV, turned it on, and sat down. He waved goodbye as Paul left.

Paul tried to get out of the lobby as quickly as possible, but Greg noticed him anyway. He stopped buffing the floors and walked over.

“What did you think?” Greg said. “Are you going to come back?”

Paul looked at him. “I think so,” he said, “but I’m not ready just yet.”

“I understand. Call us again if you change your mind.”

Paul nodded and walked out. Greg turned on the floor buffer yet again and whistled Magna Man’s theme song as he worked.

Fatherhood

(I entered this poem in a competition at WillyCon 2014 and it won second place! The other entries are listed here.)

 

Fatherhood

At approximately 7:20 PM

January 7, 2014,

my wife’s uterus unleashed

a monstrous abomination.

 

The creature made a sound

like a caged orangutan

and refused to stop,

even when I severed its lifeline.

 

It had become self-sufficient,

but still couldn’t position

its absurdly large head

without assistance.

 

Against my better judgement,

I allowed it into my home,

where it continues to plague

my entire existence.

 

At erratic intervals it craves

an alarming viscous fluid

that secretes from my wife’s breasts

throughout the day.

 

Its feces accumulate

in a bag around its waist

and must be discarded

or it never stops wailing.

 

Unless I manage to find

an appropriate means of escape,

I may be in real danger.

It keeps getting bigger.

Sisyphus and Tantalus

(I wrote these short stories as an assignment for a Classical Mythology course. We were supposed to write our own versions of two Greek myths.)

Sisyphus

I know. You want to ask the obvious question. “Why does that huge rock have to be at the top of the hill?” I understand it. It’s a significant question. I’m a bit tired of thinking about it. It doesn’t really matter. I want it up there. I don’t think about whys and wherefores.

It starts in my gut. Almost like a hook, pulling me forward. I have a primal desire to push it. I want the rock at the top of the hill more than anything else. You could offer me anything and I’d turn it down so I could push the rock. As a matter of experiment, I did try once to fight that urge. It goes from the stomach to the heart and the head. It even becomes sexual in a way. All of my being wants to work, to push the rock. There is nothing else in all of existence. I don’t look around anyway. Just at the rock. And the god damned hill.

So I start pushing. It should feel good, fulfilling that desire. The primal need to push. I always think it might just feel good. Just a bit. It never does. It starts to hurt almost immediately. Right in the gut, just like that urge. Strain. Stress. Difficulty. Push, push, push. It does start moving up the hill. Breaking the inertia is the most important step. Of course, it doesn’t get any easier, just more kinetic.

Once I’m on a roll, I can really get started. I can satisfy my fundamental need to work hard. I have to take pride in something, after all. I sweat the whole time, dripping. All over my arms, torso, legs, the ground. Everywhere. Push, push, push. I think the hill is set up just to keep me from gaining any momentum. I get it going, but I can never let up. If I do, it might end up at the bottom of the hill. Far from where I want it to be. I need it at the top.

It goes and goes, up the hill. I work and work, up the hill. I don’t really know how far it is. It takes a while, though. A long time. I keep pushing.

I do get close to the top. I mean, I work at it. I take it seriously. It gets close. Really close. I don’t know why it can’t go any farther. I mean, there’s some reason, I’m sure. Just like me being here. There’s a reason. I don’t really think about it, though.

I was a king once. I still have a crown. On my head, I mean. I had everything. Wealth, a beautiful wife, banquets, children. Occasionally I had famous, wealthy, powerful guests. I killed them. It was never out in the open. I made it look like an accident. I was very clever. The cleverest. Now I don’t think much. Just in bursts. It’s a push. Just like everything. Like the rock. The rock. The rock.

I’m getting close now. Pushing. It’s so close I can smell it. Imagine. A rock on top of a great hill. A pillar of strength. A testament to hard work. A rock. On a hill. It’s so close.

I remember killing my father. It was just a push, really. Off of a tall tower. Mine. I had many high places in my palace. This was the highest. He was very old. Useless, really. I talked him in to going up there. It was supposed to be a serious talk. A heart-to-heart. I didn’t say much before I killed him. I sat him down. Said whatever he needed to hear. Got close. Pushed. He went right over.

The rock starts to slip. My strength is failing. It always does at this point. Right at the top, I mean. Close. Not close enough. I fall over. Collapse on the hill, panting and gasping for air. The rock starts to roll. I know better than to try and stop it. It moves too fast. I can see it rolling. I’m crushed. My goal, gone. My satisfaction, gone. I never get it there. I want to so badly.

It hurts just like the first time. I see it rolling, rolling. I don’t get any rest, though. I try to relax, but I have to watch. I can’t look away. As soon as it gets to the bottom, it stops. On a dime. I look for just a second. Then I’m there. With the rock. I try to take a deep breath, if I can. I usually can’t. Then I feel something in my gut. And I look at the rock. And I start pushing.

Tantalus

I never really liked root beer. Now I think about it all the time. The glass mug in front of me is a perfect example of the root beer ideal. It has never stopped bubbling in all the years I have seen it. It has a perfect head of foam and looks perfectly chilled. The glass has white frost all over it.

Like I said, I really don’t care for root beer that much. I mean, I drank it from time to time, but I never made a big deal out of it. I don’t know who chose root beer for me. It sits on a table at eye level. I really don’t look at the table very often, though.

I’m tied up, of course. Chains. They’re pretty strong, but I don’t notice them most of the time. A small blessing. It’s just to keep me from moving. I gave up on that a long time ago, anyway. See, if the chains don’t loosen and the chair doesn’t even scrape along the ground, why should I even try except for my own amusement?

Root beer, mug, table, chains, a chair, and me. Everything else is just white. I mean, there’s nothing to look at. My head is pointed right at the mug and there’s really no moving it. Closing my eyes does nothing; I still see exactly the same thing. Just root beer. Still bubbling.

If anyone ever tells you there’s a limit to how thirsty you can get, he’s lying. I thought for years that I would plateau, that my need for some kind of food or drink would just taper off. How long can you go without, anyway?

My throat just gets worse and worse. I cough up blood every now and then, but it doesn’t really affect me much after I get it out. Between pain, thirst, hunger, and no sleep, I can see why they call this torment.

Of course, the best food I ever ate was from the king’s banquet. I only dined there a few times, but it was wonderful. I think. I really can’t remember anymore. I wanted to take something for my daughter. I knew she never got to eat anything special. I know it was a chocolate treat of some kind…I can’t remember what it looked like. I really can’t remember any of it.

But I wasn’t supposed to do that. The king was very upset with me. He knew exactly what to do, I suppose. He’s done a lot of things like this before. A lot. I can’t even remember if Sasha got the treat I stole for her. I really hope so. Otherwise, why am I here? Why did it matter so much? Who cares so much about food and drink? I don’t care at all about them anymore.

But I would love to drink some root beer.