“The world is not quite the world,” she said, in a lilting, playful tone that seemed to imply he was being let in on a long-kept inside joke.
He blinked rapidly for a few seconds and scratched his head. He had no idea where or what or who she was replying to. She’d just plopped herself down on the bench next to him; he honestly didn’t think that he’d done anything to attract her attention. But there wasn’t anyone else nearby, so she had to be talking to him...right? He cleared his throat, hoping quietly that the woman—she looks and smells vaguely homeless—would leave him alone so he could pretend to keep staring at the big granite guy in chains on the raised pedestal.
“You don’t listen very well, do you?”
He inwardly cursed his luck, and met the gaze—whoa, what color eyes are those? grey? green? silver? variations on a theme: hazel—of said disheveled hobo. Her brow was crooked, her hands hung loosely off the edge of her seat, and she was smirking at him under faint wisps of mustache hairs. She was regarding him with the gentle apathy and casual ridicule that heralds a close friend. Yet he didn’t think he’d ever seen her before. Maybe she’d been stalking him through the park.
“Sorry?” he said, praying again for the lady to take a hint and learn the definition of personal space. Her clothes—more like rags, if rags had the consistency of wet sponges, Jesus—were ratty, tattered, and saturated with grime. There was a long, half-unraveled scarf around her neck that might once have been called blue. That is, before being caked in layers upon layers of thick, claying dirt. Her nails were long and faintly yellowed, he could pick out one or two grey hairs amidst the rest of the dark, wiry tangle, and there was a mole adorning the bottom of her chin. She grinned, and he could see through her mud-stained teeth that she was chewing some kind of thin green leaf. Once you got past the whole getup, she was actually kind of pretty. He found himself idly wondering whether there were curves somewhere under all the mess.
“I’m sorry,” he began, “I don’t think I heard you—“
“Oh, you hear fine,” she continued, chuckling to herself. “You just don’t listen. There’s a difference. We can fix that, though.”
Now he wasn’t sure whether to be cautious or confused. “We?” he said, glancing quickly over his shoulder—nobody there, so maybe I won’t get mugged in a group but nobody’ll be here to help me if I do—to scan the grass. She clucked her tongue off of the roof of her mouth and rolled her eyes again.
“Not really the relevant question right now, is it?” she said, shaking her head as if to give him the response. “A better line of inquiry would be, ‘What exactly are you talking about?’ or ‘What world are you referring to?’ or ‘Are you a recovering alcoholic?’ and ‘If not, can I buy you a drink?’ or ‘Do you consider yourself mentally unstable?’ or ‘Are you considered by others to be mentally unstable?’ or ‘Where is the treasure buried?’ or ‘How many elephants does it take to change a lightbulb?’ or even ‘Who are you, some kind of crazy hobo?’ I would have accepted any of those answers.”
“Don’t you mean questions?”
She shrugged. “Same difference, really.” She seemed to be waiting for a response.
He supposed he might as well oblige. “Alright, then, who are you?”
“Name’s Hare. Don’t worry, I won’t ask to shake hands. Pleased to meetcha. I mean, I know aBOUT you of course, or OF you I guess, but I’ve never actually MET you. This is the first chance I’m really getting to pick your brain, find out what makes you tick. I wish it were under better circumstances, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. See what I did there? Reminds me of the time that—“
“Do you mean Hare like the rabbit?” he interrupted, more baffled than ever.
“Nope!” she replied, cheerfully. Her eyebrows waggled when she smiled.
He kneaded his forehead between his hands and sighed, wondering how much spare change it was going to take to make her go away. Maybe he could just buy her a bar of soap—lemon-scented antibacterial, for all the good it’ll do her—and some flea powder. Or some lice repellent. Or both.
“Okay, so…what exactly are you talking about?”
She let out a long-suffering hiss of exasperated air. “Hey, not like that, come on now! Spoon-feeding, spoon-feeding. You need to be more specific. Use your meat slab, call on the power of human critical thinking, write me a dissertation if you have to. String some basic thoughts together at least. Come on, show me how much mileage you can get out of that college education!”
He ground his teeth together. “Fine. Are you saying that the world we know isn’t really the world that we exist in? Is it almost the same, but with a few minor differences and unknowns? Or is the world not what it used to be? Something about time marching on, progress eroding tradition, oh the times they are a-changing? Maybe you think that there’s some kind of underground layer to the world, and that only conspiracy nuts like you have a clue about it? Or is it the statue’s world you’re talking about, that his world is separate from our own because he’s going to be in chains forever? Unless you’re saying that he perceives time differently? That for him there is no world because for him, time is always frozen? Do you mean that every person experiences the world differently, and that none of those individual experiences can ever be reconciled with each other? And does that imply that there are billions of different parallel worlds, all existing at the same time and in the same moment? Or are you just high as a hot-air balloon and feel a pressing urge to spout your little half-baked, cobbled-together philosophies?”
She stared. “Like I said. You don’t listen very well.” He was astonished, and slightly mortified—why should I care, she’s a side-of-the-street straggler, a stranger, not like I’m going to see her again—to see a profound sadness reflected back at him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—“
“You ever read that one Charles Dickens book? It’s a big-type traditional thing over here. The one about the grouchy old guy, loses all his friends and lives a lonely life, dragging his feet on death’s doorstep, then three spirits come to visit him and he learns the true meaning of Christmas?”
He swallowed and looked away. “Um...I’ve seen the movie?”
“Well, this is going to be a lot like that. Minus the Christmas part.”
When he turned back to ask what she meant, she was gone.
There was a Ziploc bag full of bread in the space she’d left behind. He supposed she’d brought it to the park—as if she couldn’t have been any more of a caricature, what kind of a name is Hare anyway—to feed the birds. He realized that he didn’t really have anybody around to talk to, or anything to do, or anywhere else to be, so he reached his hand into the bag and threw out a handful of dry crusts. A solitary pigeon alighted onto the paved path, silently inspecting the offerings before fixating its gaze upon him.
“Go for it, little guy,” he said, with a tone that he hoped was encouraging. “Eat on up. You probably don’t get fed a lot, do you? Not that you’d be able to tell from looking, am I right?” He allowed himself a genial smile.
“Fuck off,” said the pigeon.
Silence. Then, “Excuse me?”
“You really are a dumb motherfucker,” said the pigeon.
He nearly fell off the bench. this is impossible this is all a dream right this has to be a dream I don’t understand what the hell is going on what the fuck? what the fuck! what the FUCK FUCK FUCK
“I’ll take steak if you have it,” said the pigeon. “Pittsburgh rare is best, but honestly I’m not too picky.”
Somewhere deep down, in a place that felt like it hadn’t been used in a while, he discovered his voice. “You’re…you’re a talking pigeon. A bird. I’m talking to a bird.”
“You wouldn’t even be giving a shit if I was a parrot,” said the pigeon. “Must be nice being a constant and colossal fuckup, huh?”
“Stop swearing!” he yelled, digging his fingers into his palms as if the pain could will away the vision before him. “This is a contact high. That’s all it is. That lady was on some seriously messed up shit, and some of it rubbed off on me. You’re not real, and she was a wackjob, and—”
“Listen,” said the pigeon, “you talk about her in a disrespectful manner again and I will eat your eyeballs. I wouldn’t even be here if not for Krishna. She and I go way back. I’m doing this little gig as a favor to her.”
“Her real name is Krishna?” he said, baffled. “Isn’t that from Hinduism? You cannot expect me to believe that she was Indian, she didn’t even look—”
The pigeon perched on the seat next to him—is that blood on its feet? what the hell kind of fever dream is this—and the rest of the sentence crawled away to die in his mouth. It didn’t seem overly concerned with him, however, choosing instead to preen out a few flecks of filth from its feathers.
“Got a light?” asked the pigeon.
He shook his head. The pigeon click-clacked its beak irritably and pecked at the railing a few times, sending jolting vibrations up and down the bench. After a while it cocked its head sideways, regarding him with what he assumed to be quiet disdain.
“Right, then,” said the pigeon. “I am here to tell you that blah-blah the end is fast approaching blah, blah-blah-blah stop being such a massive asshole, change your ways and mend your soul and blah-de-blah-de-blah-de-blah-de-blah. Basically you need to get your shit together because you, my friend, are on your way out. Am I making any sense?”
He gaped for a moment or two. “I’m an asshole?”
“Don’t take it personally,” said the pigeon. “Practically everybody is.”
All he could do was stare at the ground, the only sound the pigeon’s occasional shift from one foot to the other. A light mist had begun to descend over the park. Finally he found—implying I’ve ever had it in the first place—his courage. “Are you going to take me back through the past now and show me all the mistakes I’ve made?”
“What do I look like, your fucking spirit guide?” said the pigeon. “Figure ‘em out for yourself.” It shook its plumage, gave a lazy flap of its wings, and took off. In seconds it had vanished into the distance.
A sudden panic struck him, and he began to sweep his gaze across the fields and trees—they couldn’t have given me any kind of warning?—for the glimpse of a watching figure, the hint of an approaching noise, any sign of a person or a ghost or a talking cricket or whatever. He just needed some way to prepare himself, fortify himself against the insanity that was taking over his life. If he could just have a moment to collect his thoughts, gather his wits about him, nothing would be able to surprise him.
When he looked back to the path, just for a moment, he lost his mind.
There was a massive shadowy something undulating in the mist before him. It was like a gaping void in the air, darker than dark, shapeless and formless and roiling in on itself like the eye of a hurricane. He realized that every second it was growing larger, manifesting from nothing and creating itself and replacing the very molecules and sucking away the light and wrapping itself over the park bench and coiling inside him and through him and around him and part of him until there was nothing but the gloom, nothing but the indistinct and the murky and the lack of possibility, and he knew that this—this is it, this is the end, this is how I die
When it spoke, the world trembled.
WHEN THE SECOND SON RETURNED TO HIS FATHER’S HOUSE HE WAS DESTITUTE. HE HAD SQUANDERED HIS FORTUNE IN A DISTANT LAND. HE HAD BEGGED WITH PIGS IN THE FIELDS. HE HAD SLEPT IN THE STABLES FOR MONTHS ON END. HE HAD THRICE GONE MAD WITH HUNGER. HE SOUGHT ONLY TO SURVIVE. TO FEED HIMSELF. AND SO IT WAS THAT HE TOLD HIS FATHER OF HIS SINS. HE WAS SELFISH. HE WAS DISHONEST. HE WAS SLOTHFUL. HE WAS WEAK. HE WAS BROKEN.
please this isn’t real none of it is real please
YET THE FATHER TOOK PITY ON HIS WAYWARD CHILD. HE BATHED HIM. HE CLOTHED HIM. HE OFFERED HIM HIS RING. HE BUTCHERED THE FATTEST CALF. HIS HOUSEHOLD CELEBRATED TO SEE THE BOY’S RETURN. AND ALL THE WHILE THE SECOND SON WAS BLIND. HE THOUGHT ONLY OF HIS GOOD FORTUNE. HE HAD LEARNED NOTHING.
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m
NOW THE FIRST SON RETURNED TO THE HOUSE. AND HE ASKED HIS FATHER WHETHER HIS BROTHER DESERVED SUCH TREATMENT. THE FATHER REPLIED THAT HIS SECOND SON DESERVED MERCY. NO MORE THAN THAT. NOT ENLIGHTENMENT. NOT TRIUMPH. NOT BIRTHRIGHT. NOT HONOR OR LOVE OR HOPE OR FREEDOM.
The thing was gone, then, but the void left in its absence still ached. And he could feel the cold shame of sin—a thousand thousand tiny sins, all the little lies and fuckups and second guesses and do-overs—oozing tarlike out of every pore in his body. He wanted to throw up, but was terrified of what might come out of his mouth. He didn’t want to feel anymore, he wanted not to be, to fade away, to find some escape from the nightmarish morass he was living in—
Someone tapped him on the shoulder.
“Mind if I sit?”
He nodded wordlessly, mouth dry, and the figure took a spot evenly spaced away on the bench. He stared, desperate and unflinching, into his own face.
There was a dense fog now, hanging over the rest of the park. He couldn’t remember if the sun had been there to begin with.
“This is a little awkward.”
“I don’t understand. You’re me?”
“How is any of this possible? How can this even be real?”
“Well, strictly speaking it’s not. This is all in your head.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“Your body’s gone, it’s just waiting for the rest of your mind to catch up.”
“I mean. Yeah.”
“No chance of revival, or just being in a coma, or…”
“None. I’m sorry.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“With the logic of it, kinda. It’s all still a little hazy. No pun intended.”
“How did it happen?”
“It wouldn’t make you feel better to know. Trust me. Trust yourself, I guess.”
“So then what is this place?”
“It’s where you’re waiting. I don’t know why it looks like a park.”
“Shouldn’t you know, though? Being me?”
“Don’t make this any more confusing than it already is, please.”
“And you’re here…”
“To help you, yes. Move on. Cliché, I know. Because it’s time.”
“Because it’s over. Because other people need this place. Because we’re ready.”
“What was it all for, then? What was the point?”
“You mean of life?”
“Yeah. Life in general, I guess.”
“How should we know? It happened and we’re here and that’s that.”
“All we can do now is—“
“—try to make the best of it?”
“There you go.”
“I think I get it now.”
“All of it?”
“I don’t know. Are we going to have time to figure it out?”
“I don’t know.”
“I get the statue though.”
“Ha. Small mercies.”
“I’m scared. I’m so so scared. And I’m sorry.”
“I am too.”
“Does that matter, in the end?”
“…I’d like to think so.”
“When does it…?”
“We have until we stand up.”
He waited there, for a long while—how will I know when I’m ready? how does anyone know?—listening to the silence.