A Standard Variety Apocalypse
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Ants"
Originally featured on 04-17-2008
As part of our series "Marching On"

The beginning? A vulgar illusion. In accordance with the axiom that it is necessary to start somewhere, one could say it began down at the lake during the second term of Lancastle’s presidency when the so-dubbed War On Illusion was at its apex and the front page story in the Saturn County Tribune was the seventh grade teacher who converted his car’s engine to a "Scream Machine". As Promise Wrambol came to understand in the downslope of her junior year at Frozen Valley College, there is—was, will be, tense need not apply—no such thing as story. There are only particles and currents.

Promise could not close her eyes unless she was immersed in water. If her feet could touch any solid object, her eyelids became instantly rock hard. She could not even pry them closed with her fingers. She had slept on a water bed every night of her life since the third grade. There were reasons.

The world was eaten by insects. That was the way it always was, and the rest is so much interpretation and groping. Beginnings, endings, three-act structures, four-act structures, foreshadowed events, character arcs, masturbation, all of it. Whatever hip new word scholars used to address that insidious human invention, it was just another avenue to blowing one’s wad in a neatly contained package and calling it something. What the hell did they think they were hiding from?

Promise knew better. In June of the year that the three Internet Main Brains were scrambled by virtual terrorists, she walked out of a lecture on the tenets of early Greek civilization, leaving her textbook, her silver binder and her pack of FlavFoEternity Grean Tea chewing gum at her chair in the back of the auditorium. She paused before exiting to give John Gunther a kiss on the cheek. John Gunther was none the wiser.

She walked across McGalworth Field to her dormitory without hurry and without gaiety, stopped at home just long enough to empty her bowels and fill a suitcase and then drove down to the lake. The trees in McGalworth Field swayed a little bit. She restrained herself from looking up. A fly scaled her earlobe. She let it. If it wanted to regurgitate its digestive juices onto whatever morsels it found on the skin of her ear, that wouldn’t be particularly different from attending lectures. She was going to the lake now.

The sudden seizure of all digital media—for which republicans were to quick to blame President Lancaster and the democrats were quick to blame republicans—was innexorably synonamous with its year of occurance, which had already been given the innocent title of Pumpkin Year after agricultural anomalies that would instantaneously be forgotten (after 2115, it was decreed at the World Deity Congress that years would no longer be referred to by a number, but by a title, much like the chapter of a book). If they wanted to quantize history into vignettes with catchy titles, let them. If they wanted to document it in the tone of a heroic journey, fuck them.

A "Scream Machine"—as best it had been explained by Promise’s peers—was a battery that stored electronegative charge generated from human vocal output. The apparatus consisted of a rubber mask that formed a perfect seal with the volunteer’s mouth, connected to a polyurethane pipe that tapered into a quarter mile length of micro tubule stock wound in a tight coil—like intestines—that ultimately fed into a soundproofed chamber with a thinly stretched membrane of some special elastic material that was coated in carbon and vibrated at a precise frequency the calculation of which was the result of fifteen years' worth of government funded research. The volunteer would literally scream into the mask for as long as their lungs would allow, and the membrane would collect the scream and store it as electric charge. Middle school students would line up at the teacher’s "Scream Station" after school and yell into the machine until their voices were hoarse. As incentive, they were awarded extra credit points or something. The school’s administration had mixed feelings about the Scream Machine’s protocol. The article in the Tribune made note of this.

People were always saying, start from the beginning. That was like throwing darts at the ocean. It began when she flushed the toilet. It began when she spat out her gum. It began when she grew breasts. It began when she earned her wilderness survival credentials. It began when she announced to her father over Dim Sum that she did not want to go to law school. It began when desktop displays across the globe melted into that infamously familiar parody of a Twentieth Century screen-saver, pixels all crawling over each other like a glass reflections of a midnight traffic jam, gradually sizzling down to black, several minutes of pure black and then that flashing text, the same phrase written in every language scrolling in a loop. The English translation was "UNDERSTAND THINGS MUST CHANGE WILL CHANGE STAY POSTED AND DISMISS NOT". The impressive part was the graphics of the choreographed mutiny that was a calm, sadistic laughter in and of its own aesthetic. Promise was watching a movie with John in his dormroom when it happened.

Everybody saw the broadcast and everybody panicked. This wasn’t a visus. This wasn’t an analog highjacking. This wasn’t a violent attack. This was something people had never seen before. John immediately got on the phone with his mother. Promise gave him the hand signal that meant bathroom, be right back and went for a walk outside. The campus folliage was inviting, so she kept walking. When she did come back, the hallways rumbled with drunken bellows and flickering lights. She found John huddled in a corner staring at his feet. Stupid man, she thought. Like this was anything new.

It began when Promise met Schuy Mantlebaum. She had been living in seclusion at the lake for nineteen days and Schuy had purportedly occupied his cabin for a month preceding her taking residence in the abandoned lean-to that suited her needs. He watched her bathe in the lake every day. He watched her fish. He concealed his presence until he no longer felt like doing so.

It began when Promise was three years old and, climbing on the couch, she caught a glimpse of something black and moving through that narrow slit of visibility between the wall and the couch’s back. She huddled in a corner staring at her feet for two days and did not speak. It was over the course of those two days that her eyes first refused to close. The black moving thing she had seen was the floor, and it was not so much moving as flowing, like it was water but it was also the floor. She still believed in Santa Claus and fairies, and on that day solid matter ceased to exist. The floor melted for no reason, and whatever it was doing would soon spread to the couch, and she had to keep looking at her feet because it was entirely possible that her own body would dissolve just like that spot of movement on the floor. There was no way to explain this discovery to her mother who tried every means possible to placate her. There was no way to explain it to the child psychologists with puffy blue couches and chocolates wrapped in neat gold ruffles.

Her cheeks were pale, every muscle in her little face telling itself to hide from the horror under the couch by remaining slack. Her legs were huddled so as to minimize her body’s surface area.

Ascertaining that the source of Promise’s trauma was something spied behind the couch, her mother moved the couch, lifted Promise up and showed her in full daylight what that black spot really was: a colony of ants. Promise’s own fault, for eating cookies at bedtime and dropping crumbs. A parable in motion. Promise clung to her mother’s shoulder throughout the entire extermination process that involved a pot of boiling water. Promise knew what she had seen, and would not be fooled. Thereafter she avoided tall slides, roller coasters and ladders unless her mother forced her. Cracks in the sidewalk made her cry, even as a teenager.

The world was melting into controlled static, or something to that effect. Frozen Valley College could have their vigils and pat themselves on the back.

She climbed onto the bearded man’s dock, straining her back to scoop air into her lungs, having just swam clear across the lake. Schuy was slightly taller than John Gunther, looking to be in his late thirties, and wore a concrete colored earring. He was angular, his frame giving the impression that it would take little more than a gust of wind to knock him off balance.

Her first words were "Do you see things in your breakfast cereal?" Promise liked to skip hello and get right to the point.

First he looked her in the eye attempting to examine how the question was intended. Facetiously? Existentially? Drunkenly? He didn’t know. Then he looked at nowhere and actually thought about it. And then he shook his head and said, "I’m Schuy. I live alone."

She said "I like you, Schuy. Won’t you be my worst enemy? I’m quite lonely." He must have thought that she was making exacting eye contact with him, but that perception would be false; she was, in actuality, watching the reflection of the lake in his pupils. She was scanning the water’s surface to discern the most opportune fishing spots. Conversing with Schuy was pleasing to her, but her priority for the afternoon was the acquisition of dinner. It would have been impolite to look away from him this early in the conversation.

"Why do you need enemies?"

"Clearly we don’t need anybody. I just thought I’d offer."

He considered. "What’s your sign?"

"Gemini."

"I’m Pisces. Yeah, I think this might work."

She pulled out of his eyes like jerking magnets apart. It was then that she thought of John Gunther for the last time. Before taking an exam, John displayed a neurotic tic in which he would uncork his ball-point pen and hold it between three fingers—no thumb or pinky, but the middle three, with his middle finger on the bottom and the other two pressing down like a door hinge. He’d hold it tightly for half a minute—enough time for the blood to leave his hand—and the pen would arch a little bit. He would then engage the top of the pen with his thumb, freeing his second finger, and use his thumb to fling the pen against the muscle of his second finger so that it produced a rattling thwack sound. It would take on a rhythm and gradually get faster. It was never long before somebody would tap him on the shoulder and politely ask him to stop. Promise could never be completely certain, but she would bet almost anything that the cadence of his pen flicks was an exact transposition of his heartbeat. His nervous habit made it easy for Promise to imagine lying in John Gunther’s arms in a bed with non-fluid springy texture.

John got frustrated because she kept her eyes open when they kissed. She didn’t want to talk about it.

"What’s your worst phobia?" Schuy asked in the canoe. They drifted. His reasoning was that fish were drifting, and if they traveled with purposeful motion, how could they then be fishing?

"Probability."

"No, really."

"Really. The world depends on averages. You run a business, you assume you'll sell a certain amount of this and a certain amount of that, and you stock your merchandise based on the assumption. What if for one month everybody in the world ate at McDonalds and not a single person visited Burger King? It would throw off the whole economy. Improbable, you could say, but without guarantees, anything is probable. What if next year every human child born is female? Then you get into physics and you see that atoms, electrons, every cell in your body, every particle in the whole world, the whole pie is held together by averages and expectations. But how do you know? One day computers can broadcast a foreign invasion threat straight to our collective nightmare, the next day a mountain could become a crater, and then what?"

Schuy gently swatted a mosquito off her shoulder.

"Why did you do that?"

"I don’t think you want to be my enemy."

“Friends do shitty things. Enemies you can count on.”

“Have dinner with me tonight.”

Promise lurched her body from side to side, dove over the edge of the canoe and yanked it hard. After some thrashing, they were both shivering and dog paddling underneath the inverted canoe in the tiny cabin of breathing room that was filled with the fist Schuy’s hand would never make.

"Why did you do that?" he yelled.

"Why? Why? I don’t know, I just, I got tired of sitting on a wooden plank. And then you tried to court me."

"You could have warned me."

“Are you regrets?"

In his pupils there was nothing to be seen save for a dark mass that might have been moving a little bit. Promise closed her eyes and tasted the lake water on his tongue.

She showered and dried off in his cabin. “You became a hermit because you resigned from teaching? That’s funny, I came here because I resigned from learning.”

“Not sure it’s so funny.”

“You're that guy, aren’t you?”

He followed her eyes to the twin tanks of the Scream Machine in the corner and shrugged. “If you ask me, a seventh grade classroom full of kids with laryngitis is a beautiful thing.”

Promise laughed up in her nose. It was the only way she laughed—like turning off a faucet.

“Yeah, y'know, you try and impart an ethic of ecological responsibility to a demographic that’s just discovered puberty, and then you find yourself a minority in a faculty of Lancastle supporters, imagine that.”

She disliked laughing. Humor, if it deserved a laugh, deserved feedback more specific and informative than involuntary vocal excrement, yet laughter was lauded as a yardstick of empathy and social comfort. Delivers nutrients to the brain, whatever. If people get rewarded for being funny, why not just call it what it is. If you really want to deliver nutrients to my brain, she’d once told John, you'll have to start between my legs. They’d both laughed hysterically. Whores, everyone. Promise wondered sometimes what kind of lawyer she might have made.

“I can imagine that.” She spread out by the fireplace and tried to make her eyebrows move to a rhythm. Like they were holding a pen and this was some kind of test. Like everything could be compared to everything else and there was a reason for convergences of time and place and a sequence of experiences that led to no other conclusion than this cabin, the distant echo of a loon, the crackle of fire, hanging above the fireplace a surreal painting of an idyllic waterful where the cascade gradually morphed into rusty car parts, Schuy’s hands mining her hair, like people made journeys and learned lessons within a framework of rising action. Fuck that.

Schuy slid one hand across her shoulder unapologetically. “If you really want to be enemies, I’m more than eager to start talking politics. This so-called war on illusion…”

Promise stopped listening to his rant after illusion. She had heard it all before and probably agreed with it. She rested her head in his lap. The ceiling looked red and fuzzy. Or perhaps that was her raw skin upclose.

If any sexual advances were made, they would be rejected. This she decided. She also decided that she would be more than happy to strap on a rubber mask and scream for him.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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