Corroded. Dull. Broken.
I remember the day I first saw this watch. The glass was so clean I could see my reflection in it. The metal was the kind of shade that shouldn’t even exist, but does. Too beautiful to be real. So reflective, you can barely even see what color it really is.
It doesn’t even work anymore. They’ve put it in a museum now. “Artifacts of the pre-intellectual capitalist period.”
It smelled like metal, the kind of bittersweet smell that burns your nostrils as you smell it, but makes you long for right afterwards.
Now, locked behind glass, I wonder what it smells like. I can barely even see it through my own reflection, so I switch to looking at that.
I don’t recognize my face. Is this what I looked like when she gave it to me?
Is this what I looked like on the day they all died?
I wander around the museum for the rest of the day. Part of me wants to go back and look at the watch, and the other half of me wants to get as far away from this place as I can. I hurry past the whining children, the sacred headdresses, the works of art, the bored security guards. The tourists with sunglasses. The school-groups of unruly children, and the underpaid teachers. None of them could understand. I wonder if this is really how they think of their past.
And suddenly I realize I am all alone. I’ve found my way into a dark hallway in the back of the museum. I look around. I don’t see any exhibits. I keep looking, but don’t remember how I got here. In this room, there are no exhibits. No artifacts. Nothing from the past. And suddenly, it’s starting.
I hurry out of the room. I can’t take this anymore. A man in a dark suit and sunglasses gives me a strange look, but I don’t care. I need some air. I see a glass door, opening onto a balcony. It has a beautiful view. I can see out over the whole city. Towards the horizon, the sun sets over a dark green forest. It is a mellow tangerine.
I blink slowly. Muffled laughter rings through my ears. I wince. It feels as if someone has been banging my head with an iron sledgehammer for the past hour. I try to open my eyes, then quickly close them again. I take a deep breath, and slowly squint them open. I’m in a dark hallway. I limp towards a door, and peer outward at the sight of several politicians cheerily eating shrimp.
And now I am standing in the hot sun, holding a muddy brick. I look around; I am one of many placing mud bricks on top of each other, to dry in the hot sun. A little over, there is a house already dried. It doesn’t have a door, but a ladder leads up to the roof. I suppose there might be a door up there.
I’m driving a car down a 1950s street. I look to the left, and see a store selling books.
I wake up and look around. I’m on a bus. A school bus. I look down. I’m wearing a blue shirt and jeans. I look at my hands. They’re small. I’m probably in second or third grade. I’m sitting in the window seat. Another child is seated next to me. He has sandy hair, and looks energetic.
Now all the children are getting up and walking out of the bus. I follow them.
It appears that we’re in Washington D.C. The teachers are leading us toward a big building, probably a museum. Upon closer inspection, it looks like the Smithsonian, the Air and Space one.
Once we enter the museum, the teachers let us walk around. Something about one of the rooms draws me in. The ceiling is tall, and suspended from the roof are three large planes. From left to right, I see the Wright Brothers’ flimsy-looking mess of paper, wood, and dreams; a robust metal contraption that they say Amelia Earhart flew in; and a military jet painted with an angry looking, out-of-place tiger.
For some reason, I’m entranced by this display. I don’t quite know why, but there’s something beautiful, something horrifying about this. I look at the tiger. On closer inspection, perhaps he’s not angry. He really just looks confused.
A sharp voice breaks the solitude. “Jason! Hurry up!” It’s one of the teachers. They’re herding the children out of the building, trying to get them back to the bus. Based on what I’m hearing, we’re visiting the White House. One of the teachers is explaining the elegance of our democracy.
And before you know it, we’re back on the bus. Someone from across the aisle is whispering into the ear of the child next to me. It sounds like he said something about bananas. Then the child whispers the same thing into my ear. “The bananas fly planes!” he says enthusiastically. A girl from two rows forward shouts at us,
“Hey, what is it now?”
“No, we’ve gotta wait ‘til it gets to the back of the bus,” whines the sandy-haired boy.
“Just tell me!”
The boy sighs dejectedly. “Fine, it’s ‘The bananas fly planes,’” he says, matter-of-factly.
The girl giggles. “Ours was ‘Cupcakes are yummy.’”
Back before this all started, I belonged somewhere. It was before the leviathan of civilization ever reared its ugly head.
We were not so different from everyone else. We were cavemen, like them, banging rocks together.
They were bad at surviving, so I am the only one left.
I’m back in the dark hallway. I think I’m the same person. I now realize that the politicians must be at some sort of party. I notice that I am wearing a suit. I must be one of the politicians as well. Not knowing what else to do, I walk out and greet the others.
“Ron!” exclaims a man with grey hair in a black suit. “Good to see you.”
I grin awkwardly, not quite sure what to say. “It’s, uh, nice to see you too…”
“The shrimp here is great,” comments a sleepy-eyed man. “By the way, what have you been thinking about that new thing… uh, HB1776 or whichever one it is.”
I wake up on a sandy street. Bright midday sun is shining down on my face. I sit up, and yawn. My face feels tight and dry. There’s not much activity on the street in front of me. I realize I must be some sort of homeless person. I look around. Up on a hill a mile or two away is a huge marble building. Considering the architecture, and figure I must be in Ancient Greece. Suddenly, I see some angry men running towards me and shouting. What would this man want me to do? Would he run?
Well, they’re already here, and there’s no point wondering anymore.
The men drag me down the street. And then I am gone.
I am an old man in a boat, with a damp, salty beard. The water is clear blue, and I can see all the way to the bottom of the ocean. I am holding a rope that leads to the water, so I pull, and up comes a cage full of lobsters. The lobsters look at me and blink.
I am wearing a suit, and drinking champagne. A man sits next to me, talking about a book he is writing. A woman sits next to him and nods. A tear drips into my drink, and plunges through the the pale liquid; why, I know not.
Something feels different this time.
I get up and walk around in a circle. I’m in some sort of jungle. I wonder what I’m doing way out here. Oh.
I appear to be a monkey.
Some sort of ape, at least.
It’s odd, this has never happened before. I wonder if there is something different about this time.
Could it be ending?
Suddenly, some other primates are running towards me and shouting. “Screech!” they angrily declare.
They tackle me, and start pummeling my face. I never realized these creatures could be so violent.
I vaguely remember seeing some sort of nature film which said that certain types of apes sometimes had wars. I wonder if this is one of them. It’s hard to tell.
Then, some humans are running out of the forest, and pulling the other two off of me.
And then, everything is spinning, fading, melting away like a sandcastle in the rain.
I wake up in the middle of the night, sitting on a chair. To my left is a window through which I see a dark black sky. I think I’m some sort of security guard.
I look back out the window. The sky somehow looks sinister, with not even a single star to break the absolute black, a lack of light that could not physically be darker.
For some reason, this time I feel a strange desire to know who this man is, whose life I am borrowing for this little fragment of time. I take out his wallet, and look around in it. I pull around a credit card with the name Roger Baldman. I look at a photo in the wallet. There’s a picture of a man who I assume is me, standing next to a woman and a small child. The child is wearing a red shirt, the same color that a few minutes later, I start to see dripping out of the bullet wound in my chest. At that moment, two men, dressed in clothing that is somehow darker than the sky, run out of a door that I suppose I must have been guarding.
Again, I wonder if this could finally be stopping. And as I feel the bubble of hope that I’ve always suspected at this moment, I feel something new. Something that I have not felt for a very long time.
And then I am falling, falling backwards into a deepness even darker than the clothing of the men whom my blurry vision can just barely make out running into the distance.
My people were smarter, more creative. If souls exist, theirs were more beautiful than the most vibrantly pale flower ever written about in a rough draft of a movie script that was turned in as a college project and accidentally thrown out by the writer’s professor. They cared about each other, and they just simply did whatever they knew was to be done. They knew that if everyone did that, they all would be fine, and they trusted that their friends would do the same good as them.
They were bad at surviving, and their time soon came. This is how I escaped. This is why I am the only one left.
And now, I am back with the politicians.
“–that people need to have guns that bad. I mean, when you look at the number of violent crimes that take place every year in America, you realize that you’ve gotta tighten the restrictions.”
“Well, I’m just saying, people need the right to defend themselves from–”
An angry dog says woof to me. I pet it and say hello. It frowns and walks away.
Fur the color of chocolate.
And there I am, an Ancient Roman soldier, dragging a shouting Jewish man down the street. Should I let him go? What would happen to the soldier? He’s hardly the helpless one, but–
Paris, sipping a wine that tastes so peculiar, it has to cost at least a few thousand dollars per bottle. I think back to a few seconds ago. It seems so surreal, and yet I can’t deny that it happened. I keep staring at the red liquid for a few minutes, and wonder why it’s so expensive. I pick up the glass, and slowly swish it around.
They holler, running down the street with their inverted metal crosses. The rush of sunburnt energy fuels their shouts as the last of the troops enter the Holy City. The crosses whip around through the air like leaves in a hurricane, the soldiers using all the solid adrenaline for the impossible task of barely hanging on. Even as the men around me pierce their armored hearts and blood pumps to the flat and dusty earth, I hear shouts of death to Muslims, and cheers for the disciples who will at long last worship on this land again. I’m horrified and I don’t know where to go.
But as I whirl around in this scarlet kaleidoscope part of me wonders if it would really be so bad to just let go, give up, release all the love and fury and pent-up exhaustion that’s been building and building for as long as I could think and breath and feel, to lift the sword and look into his eyes and let it fall. And suddenly the sword feels heavy, heavier than anything I’ve ever had to lift, and I can’t hold it up any more.
Sometimes, when I’m in between people, I don’t get quite as sleepy.
My vision isn’t quite as dark.
I can almost hear something. In the distance. Not forwards or backwards or anywhere in between. Some other direction that I can’t see or feel or understand, but that I know is there. I hear it. It sounds like music. But all I can hear is one note, and I can’t tell where it was or where it’s going. And I don’t know what it means. But somehow that one note sounds so, so sad.
I’m an artist, sitting in a small studio apartment. I’m staring at a blank canvas. I see a cell phone and check the date. I’m in the post-industrial capitalist age.
I remember the first time I ever ended up here. It lasted so long, I thought it would be forever. I had friends. The woman who gave me the watch…
But before I have time to think about it any more, everything is shifting and twisting and the darkness is writhing in front of my eyes, and that blank canvas seems so blank, and so, so far away.
Sometimes, I wonder if, at some point, I’ll end up visiting everyone.
It’d be awfully funny if there wasn’t anybody else, and the whole world was just a bunch of different me’s.
Rather disappointing, in fact.
Some office cubicle from the 2050s. Doing paperwork. Suddenly, a large, sweaty man bursts in. “Johnson, what do you call this?” he exclaims, waving some shiny looking tablet computer in front of his face, which is probably meant to be interpreted as being in front of mine. “Product launch is scheduled in two months, and you’re still changing the design?”
“Oh-uh, I’m sorry, but…”
I wait awkwardly, expecting to move on any second, leaving Johnson to explain himself. Unfortunately, nothing happens.
“Well, you see… even after product launch, we’ll, uh, still need to keep updating the-it, and, uh, I was just trying to get a head start…”
Harumph, mutters the man. “Huh.”
“So, well, is that okay?”
As I fade away, I hope Johnson turns out alright. He seems like a nice guy.
I’m in a damp, stone room, sitting at a wooden desk covered with yellowed paper. Looking around, I realize that I’m a Christian nun from the Middle Ages. I appear to be copying down some sort of text onto a piece of paper. Translating something. A Bible. I peer down. Well, that’s not right.
Marching straight, directly forward, with a dark clanking sound, my hysterical mind can’t help but feel an absurd thought; I’m wondering why we all march in this direction, and I imagine one single person in this huge crowd simply turning around and walking the other way. I notice a faint pang in my stomach, and I try to touch it with my hand, but my fingers can’t seem to feel anything except for the cold metal encasing them, that I now recognize as armor weighing down my whole body. And though I can’t quite make them out, I seem to see a row of people approaching my crowd from a distance. They look like soldiers too, and I can’t help but know that they’re going to fight us, because that’s all that anyone ever seems to wear armor for.
As I fall into the waves of the dark black sea, hitting their surface and feeling the sudden cold, I realize that I do not want to die, and with the single fact, a frenzy of emotion washes over my body just like the cold, briny splashes that slowly spread goosebumps across every inch of my skin. I realize this means I’m going to have to swim, so I lift my arm forward-
And the blade penetrates his chest. I barely register that I’m back on the batteground from before, and as I look around, I still feel faint prickles of the icy abyss, just beyond the feel of my skin and the reach of my mind and the armor I wear. And yet it somehow feels warm, and stuffy, and I need to do something, to fight, and though I don’t know what will happen if I die here, I can’t find out, and as the next soldiers advance up the line to the fight, and they roar at the top of their lungs, I find myself caught up in the sheer volume, the sound waves lifting up my arm, and I join in the cry, rushing forward with the gargantuan mass of human flesh, ready to die for their cause, and
I’m still shouting, still rushing forward, barely taking an instant to see that I am now on the other side, rushing towards the others
And I’m still shouting, and I lift my sword
higher and higher with every scream that joins in the incomprehensible blurring of sound and passion and energy
And I don’t even know who’s side I’m on anymore, but I just keep shouting, back
and forth, and the two sides blur, it’s all the one continuous scream, and as our lines meet, and our swords finally fall, It doesn’t matter, I don’t need to know where I am, there is no order or formation or confounded clever strategy; now the only thing left that can matter in this world is how I thrust my sword forward with every last piece of ragged put-together strength in this feebly muscular body–
There is no past, and there is no future.
There is only an infinite amount of isolated, unrelated moments.
None of them contain any context. They all must stand for themselves.
I walk into a shop and see an old man sitting behind the counter. I awkwardly walk out of the shop before he looks up, not knowing what else to do. Out of sheer curiosity–what other reason do I ever seem to have?–I look up at the sign above the door.
Simple as that. No name, no brand, no copyright and trademark.
And I don’t even have to wonder. I know it’s the same one.
I hurry back into the shop. “Excuse me, do you know what year it is?”
The old man looks up. “Why, yes, it’s 1999. Can I help you?”
“Um–yes, yes, I think you can.” I say it quietly, almost afraid.
We exchange a few words.
And then, like a whisper, I am gone.
John Lhota, Age 15, Grade 9, Hunter College High School, Gold Key