by Maxwell James
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I used to have a dream when I was a kid,” he said, still looking at that same place on the floor.
I knew immediately I was seeing something new and let him go on.
“It usually happened after my father let me have it. He’d lose it sometimes. He was a real working-class zombie with a chip on his shoulder. It was always in the basement of our house, so that’s where the dream would be. He’d hit me a few times, and then he would hit me on the head. I’d fall down, and feel that same sense that it was going to end this time, that I wouldn’t be able to take it anymore.
“But then I’d feel this throbbing inside my head, this pounding coming from the inside. I would hear his voice, telling me how worthless I was, and the pounding inside my head would get worse and worse, until the pain was unbearable, until I could feel my skull stretching. Then, suddenly, it would crack open. I’d hear it, and so would my father.
“And the crack would open up — I’d feel my skull bending open — and this fist would come out, this enormous, monstrous fist. It would reach out and grab my father. He would scream like a child. He would try to fight back, slapping at the fist. I would lay there on the ground and relish the sound of it. The fist would hold on, and from out of my head would come a monster.
“I could never see what it looked like because it was me — this other me climbing out of my head. All I could see were its arms. They were dark, hairy and massive. I saw my head cracked open on the floor, surrounded by a pool of blood. I would pick my father up in one hand as he screamed and I would beat him into the ground, screaming louder than he could. I’d realize my voice had become ragged, like an animal’s. I would beat him until there was almost nothing left of him.
“When I finished, I wasn’t in the basement anymore. I was underneath a gazebo in the center of the town I grew up in, being watched by everyone, the lights and smokestacks of the factory behind them. I would drop his body to the ground, and look out at their frightened faces. Then I’d scream even louder, and it would make the entire world shake. I could only see a blur of faces and clothing. I would just scream and scream, until I woke up.”
Schwartz was still staring at the floor. I realized he was shaking, but tightening his whole body to minimize it.
“I always thought about the monster. The only thing that could never get taken away. It was how I got through. How I got through my childhood, through high school, and into college back East on scholarship. I knew there was a force inside, and that I had to harness it so that I’d never be at anyone’s mercy again. Because if I got cornered, the monster would come out and destroy everything around it, including me. I’d end up that cracked skull on the ground.
“But I could use it, too, if I channeled it right. I had to create a buffer zone — a comfortable place in between the monster and the world. Where I was in control. That’s all you can hope for. And the people that would give that up, they just don’t know themselves yet.”
He poured himself another shot. His head was turning red just at the temples. He breathed in and out deeply as he drank.
“So, yeah, I did mean that the other day. I thought I did. But things have changed.”
“I’m not sure,” he said.
“You heard me.” He sounded scared.
He picked up the alternative history. “You’ve read this, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“What always goes wrong?”
For some reason I knew exactly what he meant. “Something else always hits back,” I said.
“Yeah,” Schwartz said, “always. People are on the brink, but then something dark and frightening reasserts itself. Does something shocking and brutal. What happens then?”
“People get scared,” I said.
“Is that it?” Schwartz asked. “Is that really what you think? Do they get scared, or do they simply accept it? Simply accept it as the way of the world? As being somehow a part of human nature? Maybe resembling something they have inside?”
Schwartz looked at me, and I looked away.
My earliest memories were a fear of something I couldn’t see. There were tiny flickers of it when I was alone, vanishing just as I turned corners.
Some monster that hated me and was desperate to push through me and to what I had inside.
So I’d crawled around the sides of the world my whole life, waiting for the face to tell me when it looked through my eyes and saw safety. But it always told me, “No.” So I’d inched ever farther away until I inched my way to that broken-down house, that dead-end job, those drinks with Schwartz and those cold, aching mornings with cracked paint, the smell of my own sweat and the knowledge I couldn’t do any better.
“You know it, don’t you?” Schwartz asked.
I looked back at him. “Yeah,” I said, “I think so.”
“But you’ve never seen it.”
“No,” I said.
Schwartz looked straight at me. “That’s what I thought,” Schwartz said. “I wondered what your deal was. I always waited for you to punch back at me. I kept waiting for you to show me your monster. When it never came, I thought it was my job to show it to you, so you could see reality as it was. I thought you were stubborn. But it never happened.”
Talking about this felt dangerous. The air in this room, stinking of cigarette smoke, of wet pipes and melted rubber, pressed at me.
“Are you alright?” Schwartz asked.
A tingle rippled through me before I answered.
“Y-yes,” I said, “fine.”
“You want a drink?” he asked, gesturing with the bottle.
“I hate whiskey,” I said.
“Oh... okay,” Schwartz said. He poured a drink for himself. “Why do you always drink it then?”
“I don’t know. When in Rome.”
“I think that’s your problem,” Schwartz said.
“You don’t know my problem, Schwartz,” I said.
“True enough,” he answered, throwing back the shot. “I think I was just mentioning that.”
“Why are you so uncomfortable, then?”
“Well, you’re obviously playing games with me, and I guess that makes me a little uncomfortable. You called me, and asked me to come over. Now you’re messing around. How about you come clean, and stop wasting my time?”
Schwartz laughed. His small half-laugh, just above a chuckle, the wrinkles around his eyes thickening in the fluorescent shadows.
“Why don’t you talk like that more often?” he asked. “I like you better.”
“Because I don’t want to live in a world where I have to. Unlike you, I don’t care about power.”
“Changing the world would take quite a bit of power.”
“I want to help the world evolve. There’s a difference, Schwartz.”
“Double-talk,” said Schwartz, “nothing but double talk. You want to mold the world according to your wishes to the point where your wishes become the world’s wishes. All I want is to control my own reality, and have everyone else to control theirs and not come crying to me. A world where everyone leaves everyone else alone.”
“Of course you do. You’ve got something to hide. I don’t.”
“I don’t know... You seem to be hiding something.”
“Well, I’ve got to protect myself.”
“A world full of people like you.”
“So you admit it?”
“That there are more people like me than like you?”
His answer surprised me.
“You’re right,” Schwartz said. “I do have a lot in common with the people running the world these days. Except they’re cowards. They don’t have the courage to cut themselves off from the herd. They want everyone’s monsters to mix together and make one big monster they can control, so they’re sure there’s not a worse one out there. How do you think it got that way?”
“I don’t know. Wish I did.”
Schwartz looked away again. “I think I did it,” he said.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Maxwell James