Fiction

A 2016 Carol

By: Austin J. Dalton

“Frankly, it’s quite possible I could get used to you, because one day I will grow old enough or come to some point down the road and there won’t be anyone there but you.”

The author committed these words to his LibreOffice Writer document but did not find any particular use for the piece as a whole. This piece, had he submitted it to a local college magazine as he had originally intended, would have had both a confessional aspect and would have vaguely played like a piece of spooky fiction. Entitled “…As Must All Things, Of Course”, the author had constructed the story to address a nameless, faceless entity that seemed to follow him throughout his entire life.

Of course, even he was never truly sure if this ghostly being was something he genuinely believed had been following him since childhood, or this was just something he was convincing himself of for the purpose of the story.

The spring of 2015 found the author in a more uneasy state of mind than usual. The climate of his Pacific Northwest home was becoming hotter and not only because of the forest fires that struck the eastern part of the state around this time. On any given day, the author noticed more and more jackbooted skinheads perusing the downtown Olympia area in search of someone to intimidate, and he began to hear panicked whispers among his peers about the massive earthquake that was due to assault the region very soon – even before July, when this hype was further galvanized by Kathryn Schulz’s article in The New Yorker.

On even the most unremarkable days, the author could feel something in the air, something shaking through the soul of Cascadia right down to his bones that something was in the air, the faint scent of annihilation and the dizzying feeling of total war on the horizon.

This, for him, was more or less the genesis of “…As Must All Things, Of Course”. When he began putting his fingers to the keys he had no idea what the final product was going to be. He began his piece with an anecdote about a local Radio Shack that had – like most such shops – gone out of business, and then tied this in to his past, some memories that had been bothering him lately. He wrote about a friend from his teenage years who had disappeared, memories of his grandfather’s pre-dementia days, and linked these things to a mysterious man who had occasionally appeared in his life but was only noticeable in retrospect — a shadowy figure of a person who was always far away enough to never have any distinguishable features, and yet was somehow distinctive enough to stick out in his memory more than any of the other hundreds of strangers that one encounters on a daily basis. The more that the author thought about it, the more he realized that this person had always appeared uninvited in his memory like a stranger lingering in the back of one’s personal photographs. A sexless humanoid who he could remember appearing here and there throughout his years — fittingly, this person seemed to be a harbinger of decay and/or death. He’d seen it in a Radio Shack that he used to visit with his grandfather back in Texas, he saw it once as a teenager while hanging out with his best friend the week before said friend received a terrifying diagnosis and later ran away from home.

Only over the course of that weekend in the winter-spring transition of 2015 into 2016 did the author actually bother to sit down and think about that goddamn shadow and all the places he’d ever seen it. He wrote a piece about his memories of this being, but ultimately dismissed it; no matter what he wrote, the final product felt too much like a pathetic attempt at some Slender Man fan-fiction. He never bothered seeking publication for the piece.

If the year 2016 had been an ill-tempered child, the author would have been its tattered plaything. The first occurrence took place one early January evening at his apartment around five in the morning. It was something straight from the first few paragraphs of a Creepypasta, the chilly air on the author’s face as he tried to sleep and thudding noises coming from the living room that left him too unnerved to sleep. These, he did not realize, were the good times.

The following week, the ghosts began talking to him in his sleep. He would wake up in a cold sweat, look around and see nobody but still feel the chill of their presence floating around his bed, the weight of invisible bodies pressing down on the floorboards, the shuffling and thudding of objects around the place that have no business moving on their own accord.

Soon after the first scattered set of isolated incidents, this activity became the irritating norm. Everywhere the author went became instantly haunted – the transit station, the movie theater, all the streets downtown. Ever since the most recent New Year’s transition, pesky ghosts kept bothering him more and more with every passing day, and they had a disturbingly one-track mind.

The ghosts all stridently wanted the author to think about the year 2006. It didn’t matter at all to them that it was 2016; when the author woke up in the morning, he would wander into the living room and see that those damn ghosts had scratched the numbers 2-0-0-6 on the wall. It took only two such incidents for the author to realize that these ghosts were either an entire decade out of tune, or they just really wanted him to think about the year 2006.

The damn ghosts didn’t stop at the walls. They became fond of using his laptop as their person ouija board. Often, the author would open the computer to find an abundance of blank LibreOffice or Word documents littering the desktop with titles like “200620062006”, or variations thereof. If he opened Spotify, the first thing he’d see would be a collection of tracks that he never actually consciously saved: a metric shit-ton of Shakira or the entire soundtrack to Dreamgirls.

That was really it, though. Those damn ghosts didn’t try any more of that mundane Paranormal Activity shit with the banging doors and the breathing down the author’s neck as he tried to sleep. They just really, really wanted him to think about the year 2006. He wondered if he had done something particularly evil in that year that he was supposed to atone for, or if something happened to him that year the memory of which he had since repressed. The author asked the ghosts such very direction questions, and they would always respond in their raspy ghost voices — that, annoyingly, resembled his own — without actually answering the question, “Two. . .thousand. . .six. . .two. . .thousand. . .six.”

Between these sounds, he could make out the faint ticking of a clock even though he only owned digital timekeeping devices.

Looking for answers, the author went to the local campus library and found an isolated room to sit and think with a pen and a notepad. The damn ghosts didn’t seem to follow him out into public that day, so he savored the opportunity for some alone time without the interruption of echoing phantoms wailing about the year 2006.

Without any distraction, the author focused on listing off everything that might be relevant about that year. For the first and most glaringly obvious thing was that it was a decade past; did a decade matter? What genuine significance did this number of years have besides the greater cultural fetish for the psychologically-satisfying number ten? What made it matter more than eleven years or six or three-years-and-a-couple-months?

What else could have been important? In 2006, the author had received his first cell phone as a birthday present. That autumn, he and his best friend Justin “Vulture” Shapiro had bought tickets to see some inane but very PG-13 Dane Cook comedy only to sneak into the auditorium that was playing The Departed, which went on to win Best Picture; they made a similar arrangement with Happy Feet and Borat. That was the summer when Kobe Lieberman left class on Friday as a happy-go-lucky lad and returned Monday a little quieter, a little more despondent – maybe he was under the weather, or maybe one of those hilarious older kids had e-mailed him a link to a video that was supposed to be some Warcraft thing but was actually a short piece of footage concerning the fate of a man named Daniel Pearl. That was the summer when the author had first developed a brief, mild infatuation with Lalo Chavez’s older sister. Were any of these things important? All of them? None of them?

No matter how he pressured himself to recount every tidbit of information about the year 2006, none of it helped to make any sense of the ghosts’ riddles. The author left his little room, notepad under his arm, to find that the campus library was completely devoid of any life. Other patrons, gone. Librarians and other staff, gone. In the sudden solitude, his ribcage trembled as it often did whenever the ghosts were near.

“You can’t place what it is, but doesn’t it just sting?”, an amiable voice whispered to the author. When he turned around, he saw who else but a floating specter of the inimitable James Byron Dean, dressed exactly as every reference to the young actor in pop culture had ever rendered him; his rebel haircut, his jeans, his jacket unzipped to three-quarters of the way down his torso. Here was the first ghost to take any physical form in the author’s presence, and what a charismatic one of them it should be.

“Please, come along,” Dean urged the author to follow him to the back room of the deserted library. The author played along, and what he found in that staff’s area of the library was a low-key little party in effect. Think of those stereotypically drab office parties where every dead-inside suit walks around with a colorful cone hat and a paper plate with a bunch of finger food on it, imagining a time when they remember knowing how fun actually works. There must have been a dozen people in there; Gerard Way mingled by the watercooler with Bob Hope, and Sylvia Plath chatted it up with Gary Brolsma at one of the tables. The late Saddam Hussein showed Genghis Khan how to do the Argentine tango in the corner of the room, much to the amusement of the guys from Fall Out Boy.

The author asked Dean, “Where are we? What are all of these people doing here?”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Dean asked him. “What you’ve come down with, young dude, is more than just a case of nostalgia for the decade of your youth. Did you know I was about the same age as you?”

There was an explosion of noise interrupting the non-excitement as a mouth-frothing Dick Cheney kicked a door open, wielding an enormous hunting rifle and accidentally firing at everybody. Dean grabbed the author by the hand and led him to safety, at which point the author realized that they no longer stood in the library and everyone had disappeared.

The author blinked and found himself sitting in a stool at the kitchen counter of the house he grew up in. The author didn’t let the shift in scenery throw off his place in the conversation. “Same age as me when what, Mr. Dean? Do you mean when you died?”

“Yes, almost,” Dean’s disembodied voice responded from somewhere in this familiar environment of the family Great Dane jumping up on the counter in search of forgotten scraps, the author’s mother reading the Dallas Morning News in the living room, a twelve-year old incarnation of the author running around in the street outside with a few of his key friends – Vulture was there, of course – and equipped with a VHS-C camcorder, pretending to be a filmmaker. Right now, these kids were filming a sort of aimless situation comedy centered around who can hurl the most vulgar insult at who, which will make for a hilarious film that their parents must never see.

Dean appeared from the laundry room and stood by the author’s side as he looked out the front kitchen window. “The acquaintances you had when you were twelve, man, what happened to them?”

The author looked at each and every one of these specters of the past, including the one of himself, and did his best to form a coherent answer in the midst of all this confusion. “I suppose that I don’t really know. I never did find out what happened to Justin. Nobody did. He started having abdominal pains in 2009 and was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. He ran away from home one night, and nobody’s seen him since.”

“It’s probably better in that particular case, the not knowing,” Dean said.

“Well, what does that mean?”

Dean pointed at one of the boys playing in the street. “Lalo Chavez, what about him?”

“It’s been maybe seven years since I last talked to him.”

“Social media, or in person?”

“Eight years since I spoke to him face to face. Maybe a little north of eight years.”

“Remember when you used to play soccer with him all the time?”

“I do.”

“Remember that little thing you had for his older sister, at around this point in history?”

“I do! Whatever happened to her? Can you tell me that?”

“She graduated high school in 2010. She studied to become a nurse, and then suffered some rather serious burns and equally serious spinal injuries in a car accident. To this day, she has made some progress, but unfortunately her mobility is very limited.”

The author looked at Dean, then glanced back out into the street. This time, he focused his gaze on the boy standing in front of the young author’s camera, pretending to be a news anchor. “Hey, Clay Miller. What about him?”

“Embolism in his sleep. Age twenty. Have you spoken to him in the last decade?”

“Once or twice. I didn’t know.”

“That’s okay, of course you didn’t. It’s hard to keep track of the lives of the friends you have during this chapter of your life. Typically, it’s the high school and college friends that stick with you into adulthood. Justin ‘Vulture’ Shapiro was nearly an anomaly.”

The author rubbed his eyes and sighed. “You know, for the one and only James Dean, the way you talk and carry yourself. . .it’s just not very James Dean-y.”

Dean tucked his hands behind his jacket and cocked an eyebrow at the author. “And what does that adjective entail, pray tell?”

“Not saying shit like ‘pray tell’, for one thing. It’s been a long time since I caught Rebel Without a Cause on TCM, but is James Dean supposed to talk like some over-educated mystic, asking what adjectives entail and saying ‘pray tell’ and talking about anomalies?”

“But I’m not James Dean,” James Dean said. “I’m the image of James Dean. I am a piece of history. You’re not talking directly to the man, silly person. He’s dead. I am just the most superficial possible representation of the man, the embodiment of his status as a social icon.”

The author gestured out the window. “So those kids out there, the young version of myself, all that. . .?”

Dean scoff-laughed. “Of course it’s not really you, or them! It’s just their likeness as rendered by the filter of history.”

“This isn’t history, Mr. Dean. It’s just 2006. That’s only a decade ago, hardly what I think of when I think of history, quote-unquote. I mean, your time and place is more — ”

“More what you think of when you hear the word history. Yes, yes, yes. Of course you were going to say that. The 1940s and the 1950s, such an exotic haven of historical intrigue. You know, everyone thought about their epoch in just that way asitwashappening, too. One day, Kazan and I were taking a drive around north Los Angeles while Eden was in pre-production, and we would just marvel about how interesting it was to be alive in the early-to-mid 1950s. ‘What a time to walk the Earth’, we’d say! ‘The politically conservative climate that we live in sure will be interesting to contrast with the social change to come! Oh, will you look at that! Evidence of the long-term effects of the Second Great War, all around us, from the economic growth to the first rumblings of a Cold War!’ We were completely aware of our place in history, do you see what I’m saying?”

The author let a moment go by, fearing a trick question. “No. . .?”

Dean threw his arms up and laughed heartily. “Of course we didn’t say any of that shit! We asked what was for dinner. We focused on what errands needed to be taken care of next week. People, by and large, don’t think the way that I just described. ‘Now’ is not a marker in history when you look at on a day-to-day basis, it’s just ‘now’.”

The author looked out the window again to see that the kids, the young version of himself included, had disappeared. Dean led the discombobulated author outside, past the kids mucking around. He took the author a little farther east down the suburban drive. The author asked Dean where they were headed, and Dean pointed to a familiar one-story on the north side of the street, the entire front yard of which was covered in a canopy of pecans.

“Gilbert’s house?” the author turned to Dean, who simply lit up a cigarette which he had produced from who the hell knows where. “I recognize it. What are we doing at Gilbert’s house? What happened to Gilbert?”

As the author awaited a responded, he kept his eyes on the house before him and half-expected to see Gilbert himself come wandering out. Gilbert, that heavily gothed-out Samoan teenager who absolutely no parent of any pre-teen (or teen or any age) in this neighborhood wanted their kid hanging out with. Gilbert, walking trouble. Gilbert, an Olympic talent of the five-finger fillet and who would be glad to demonstrate with a willing partner. Gilbert, who probably sold your honor student his first porno bootleg before the Internet changed the market.

Dean cleared his throat. “Gilbert, unlike some present company, heard the calling of history. The pattern was visible to him. It was a quick-time event and he knew which buttons to mash, if video games analogies are your forte.”

“What’d he do?”

“In late 2006, he became a vlogger. It took him very little time to notice that YouTube was a force to be reckoned with. His foul mouth and charisma brought him the audience that he’d always wanted. When the time was right, he got himself a YouTube partnership. Ten years and a huge number of subscribers later, that young man has become an inexorable piece of his generational zeitgeist. He is someone who most are familiar with, unlike you. He is someone who knew how to take initiative at the right time, unlike you.”

“Why are you torturing me with this information?”

Dean no longer resembled Dean. The jacket, the hair, all the hallmark features had faded, along indeed with any features. What remained was simply a sexless, vaguely humanoid shape floating in the abyss of the author’s vision.

“So, you begin to understand the gravity of your situation, huh?” the specter formerly manifesting as James Dean asked. “That zeitgeist of your youth is already being canonized. It’s history. Time is progressing, it’s catching up, it’s getting ahead of you all. Your generation doesn’t even realize that it, too, stares down the barrel of obsolescence. So, tell me: what the fuck have you done lately?”

The author jolted awake in that isolated little room in the library. When he walked out, he found that the same patrons that were out there when he arrived were still browsing and reading, and all the staff people were still at their stations. The author returned home to find the place quiet, untainted by any poltergeist activity.

He opened his laptop and found that the manic ‘200620062006’ documents had vanished with nary a trace. Instead, what awaited him when he logged in to his computer was a blank document, eagerly awaiting him to type something of value or importance. Unable or unwilling to commit any other thoughts to paper or digital document, he waited in front of the laptop screen while, somewhere, a very loud clock audibly continued its dance.

There was a knock at the door of the library’s little isolated room, and he turned to see one of the library’s clerks. She opened the door and asked if he was well, because she thought she had heard some kind of disturbance.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he said, and she nodded.

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” she said. “Just so you know, the library will be closing in forty-five minutes.”

“Hey, you ever, uh. . .” How to put it? The librarian appeared to be about his age, so she’d probably be sympathetic to his concerns. She was probably living her young and pivotal days in 2006, as well, so why not go there? “Lately, you ever think about how 2006 was ten years ago? I mean, ten freakin’ years ago, can you believe that? Can you believe how fast time moves sometimes? It just startles me right to my core sometimes the way time gets away from me. Maybe from all of us? I dunno.”

He chuckled, and she chuckled nervously in response, an eyebrow slightly cocked. “Yeah, but. . .it wasn’t ten years ago.”

“I know, it doesn’t seem possible, right?”

She forced another chuckle. “No, I mean, it actually wasn’t ten years ago. Excuse me, sir, but what year do you think it is?”

“It’s. . .it’s 2016.”

“New Year’s was a few days ago. It’s 2019, sir.”

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Categories: Fiction

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