“Where am I?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” the bald man says. His nametag reads: Pete. “No one ever does.”
“Okay, so how did I get here?”
“Simple enough. Tell me about your day.”
Funny, it doesn’t seem like a trick question. Pete just shrugs and keeps on typing.
So I silently consider it. I woke at 6:30 and pretended to read emails until it was too late to exercise, luxuriated in the shower, bid farewell to my family (careful to avoid intimate eye contact), drove away firm in my resolve for an egg white on whole grain but ultimately surrendered to the siren song of the Dunkin’ drive-thru, bounced between meetings before sharing lunch with Natalie from Accounting, both of us pretending we were not desperate for a clumsy office affair, managed a few hands of solitaire during a conference call before an impromptu jaunt in an ambulance.
I glance at Pete, now smirking. He Ferris-wheels his open fist in a keep-going-you’re-almost-there gesture with one hand while typing away with the other.
Before the EMTs, pain erupted somewhere between my left arm and the utter core of my existence. Then there’s a glitch in my mind’s eye that disintegrates into a blank screen. The ambulance comes into focus, as do the strained voices and bleeping equipment, a cloud of garlic breath, someone actually deploying the word “stat,” and then…
“Am I dead?”
“We prefer inert,” Pete says. “More dignified.”
“So this is heaven?”
He barks a short laugh and motions with one arm, still typing like mad with the other. Behind him an entire township of cubicles has emerged, all with guys like him typing and talking.
“Depends on who you ask.”
“What, then?” I say, struggling to recall the Catholic word for eternal holding cell.
“Just have a seat. Camille will be with you shortly.”
“Camille? Is she like a god or something?”
“Again, depends on whom you ask.”
“Fair enough, but what would she say?”
“She’d probably laugh your ass right out of here.”
Finally, he hits Enter with a flourish and a printer rattles to life. Pete collects an enormous sheaf of papers, hands them to me, and says, “Read these; it won’t be long now.”
I nestle in to a couch that has materialized behind me and commence reading. Each story contains a bold-faced title followed by blocky paragraphs, sprinkled with patches of dialog, all coming in at around 1,000 words or less. They’re eerily familiar — surprising, yet somehow inevitable.
I’m cast as the protagonist in most, the villain in a few, and when it’s my turn to narrate I fall way short of reliable.
The catalogue includes romance, awkward vignettes that feature me foisting affection upon the unsuspecting and uninterested. There are fantasies too, one more embarrassing than the next, including a few that took place on other planets that I don’t remember, yet somehow seem familiar. Humor mingles with suspense and a few semi-solved mysteries. True inspiration is virtually nonexistent and some of the stories seem downright surreal. In all, it reads like a one long serialized tale unfurling in installments.
I do find great solace in the rather oblique ending.
I turn to ask Pete what all this means but he’s gone, along with the cubicle farm. They’ve been replaced by what looks to be a panel of tiny avatars projected onto a giant screen behind them. They communicate in text, their names evaporating as quickly as they appear on a giant screen. There’s Paul A. and Michael, Christopher and MP and Joseph. Someone named Jeff gives me a +1 for including foul language, then a -1 for telling (versus showing) a bedroom scene. The comments scroll by at a frenetic pace. Some have to do with my actual biography. But many devolve into discussions of grammar or plausibility or even meta-conversations about proper comment etiquette itself — a veritable cornucopia of criticism, encouragement, banter, and praise. I’m silently marveling as to how they’re able to pull this off when the screen flashes Powered By Disqus, then fades to black.
I’m finally catching my breath when I notice the stars — glimmering yellow suns that seem to suggest a certain merit, but then don’t quite square with the comments that follow.
My mind glitches again. And for one painful second I’m back on the gurney with the distant sound of the sirens and impossible weight of all those words pressing down on my chest.
After that, nothing at all.
I wake again to the sound of Pete not typing. Instead he’s scratching his bald pate with fingernails in bad need of trimming. “So,” I manage, “what did I miss?”
He hoists one silencing finger and tilts toward the screen, his squint so deep it makes my own eyes hurt.
“Well, it seems you’ve been given a great gift.”
I’m tempted to shout, It’s A Wonderful Life, then quickly remember that this is life-and-death stuff, not Trivia Tuesday. Instead, I clear my throat and offer, “Oh yeah?”
“Indeed. It looks like you’ve earned a second chance.”
“So I can go home now?”
“Not exactly.” He blinks, muttering a string of garbled syllables that culminates in, “Resubmission?”
“Says here, you clean up that last draft, log on to Submittable, and turn in a rewrite.”
“Does this mean I don’t get to meet the great and powerful Camille?”
But it’s just me again, along with my laptop and a thousand-word get-out-of-purgatory card glowing on the screen before me. I swat pesky adverbs, tweak faulty plot lines, and nurse anemic verbs back to health, slicing and dicing until at long last my quivering pinky hovers over the orange Enter key. And that’s when I realize my Internet connection has failed.
Not to worry, just a simple log in. I type my email in the designated box. Then with fingers poised, I stare at the blinking cursor and try to recall my password.
It’s starting to feel like an eternity.
Michael Snyder lives in middle TN with his amazing wife and children. His work has appeared in print and online.
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