Woozy from my fourth booster shot this month, I hold myself up against a lamppost. The early-morning sun hurts my eyes, used as they are to the constant glow of computer screens. The liquor stores are open, but the bookstores are closed, boarded with plywood rotted from the ravages of time.
My eyes drift skyward, but there is no God up there waiting for me. Only a drone whirring overhead, electronic eye searching for something. Is it me? What have I done?
Nothing. This time, at least.
A pill bottle is in my hand. I don’t remember being given it at the clinic. The label is as fuzzy as my brain, black letters shifting like fleas slamdancing. I squint until they sit still, shapeshifting into English letters. I remember now: anti-inflammatories. In case some condition completely unrelated to my booster shot causes my heart to swell.
“Like the Grinch,” I laugh to no one. “Two sizes too big!”
Anyway, it’s hard to remember because the nurse who gave me the shot and the pills barely spoke English.
* * *
Off to work. I work from home, of course. Home is a small studio apartment in a bad part of town. That’s a joke, because they’re all bad parts.
I haven’t paid rent in months. My landlord is left holding the bag thanks to the law that says he has to or else, but a residual part of me, a part that doesn’t get much exercise, feels bad for him. It’s so hard to give in to that part because I have so many troubles of my own. Such as: when will I actually be able to pay rent?
The sounds of sirens are less frequent than before, declining as the sounds of gunfire increase. Something about reduced policing due to budget cuts, but even though it’s never stated, everybody knows political even though we don’t dare say such things out loud. We all know, but we don’t do anything about it. I just keep my head down, my hood up, and try to walk like I own these streets. It was hard after my shot, since I kept stumbling like a drunk. I crossed the street when a group of black kids approached, not caring that they called me a racist white cracker and threatened all sorts of nasty things. Didn’t matter. Didn’t matter that they looked hard and mean even though they were likely no older than fourteen or fifteen. Nothing mattered except getting out with my skin in one piece.
I help edit technical manuals for computer programs nobody understands. I don’t either, though I have a computer science degree I’ll never pay back. Someday, I’ll get a real job. Someday I’ll make lots of money. That’s been the dream for all of my life. All of my parents’ lives, too. And my grandparents’. And so on along the chain. That’s why people came to this country: Make money. That’s the American Dream. So I’ve been told.
It’s drudgery, but it keeps me busy and off websites that waste too much time. Or video gaming. It’s a better use of my time to wander these streets and listen to music, or a podcast, than indulge in pornography or gaming. It helps keep me thin, too, since I can’t afford a gym. Or much food. But I’ve been trying to improve myself. Slowly and surely.
* * *
My cell phone rings. It’s Jasmine, from HR. Even though that is the last department I want to speak with, I welcome the distraction.
Is this Derek Cox?
Yes, it is.
Okay. Hello, Mr. Cox. We’ve noticed you had some strange browsing activity on your company laptop. Did you visit website such-and-such?
I had. But I tell her no, my conscience free of guilt.
That’s strange. We have a record here of a log-in to that web address at 2:34 p.m. yesterday.
Oh, right. I was trying to go to another website—here, I mention something that sounds similar—and got to this one by mistake. Horrible stuff. I x’d out as quickly as I could.
That was not true. I had read several articles.
Jasmine tells me as much, including my exact time on the site: twenty-four minutes.
I scramble for cover. Yeah, it’s like trainwreck, right? You just have to keep looking because you can’t believe things are real. I swallow hard. Like, some people think COVID-25 is a hoax.
I hear Jasmine’s smile over the phone. I get it, she tells me. Are you vaccinated, by the way, Mr. Cox?
Stupid question. She knows. My status is automatically put into the central database where my DNA is stored as soon as the shot is injected. This is a test. Everything is a test.
I am. That’s why I was late to work. But I put in a request for time off two days ago. Fully vaccinated status requires five boosters, so . . . one more to go next week.
I hear keys tapping for a few moments. That’s right, you did. That’s what I was calling about, Mr. Cox. Thank you for your service. Your work is very important and we appreciate you. Um, please be careful when you type.
Fat fingers, ha ha. It’s funny, I think to myself, because I’ve lost so much weight lately I’d need to use my whole hand to hit the G and H keys together. I tell Jasmine I’m proud to be a part of the team and to have a great day.
* * *
I am a team player.
An email from our CEO tells me that the new product isn’t working as expected. Nobody can figure out why. But what matters is that we let our users know. The manuals must be updated to reflect the new troubleshooting fixes. If we all pull together, work a few nights and weekends, we can have this done by the end of the quarter. There isn’t enough in the budget for overtime and bonuses—yet—but if we get this done, there just might be. Chin up and excelsior, and all of that.
I wonder how many labor laws Mr. CEO is getting away with violating here. I also notice that his email finishes with “Sent from my iPad.” It is an open secret that he has been in Turks and Caicos on a ”conference” for over two weeks.
I don’t complain. I am a team player.
* * *
On my walk that night, as I skirt the areas with the most gunfire, I am filled with the sudden urge to pray. The funny thing is, as strange as it sounds, I don’t know how. I had to look it up on the Internet. This led me to some podcasts about religion. My family is Christian in name only. Going back as far as I can remember, nobody went to services except for funerals, but we always had Christmas dinner and Easter egg hunts. I was taught to love my neighbor and to do to others as I’d have done to myself.
The funny thing is, I wouldn’t wish my life upon my worst enemy.
So as dusk falls I burn more calories I can’t afford to replace, listening to some guy with a huge beard and a black robe from some monastery in the American southwest talk about the need to unload all of our burdens onto Jesus Christ. His voice is so soothing and so filled with compassion it makes me want to cry, but tears would invite the wrath of the gangbangers and other hard characters I’m likely to encounter on these streets.
There are more pits in the sidewalk than I remember, more vagrants sprawled out on the ground than usual. They don’t even ask for money or food anymore because it’s hard to speak when you’re passed out.
All around me are low, flat-roofed buildings with windows broken or boarded or covered with plastic sheets. A laundromat is still operational, but instead of smelling soap as I pass there is nothing but the scent of burnt hot dogs, feces, and despair. Across the street lay a building that was once a bank, built in what I think is called a neoclassical style with a broad staircase and columns holding up that triangle thing like they have on that building in Greece, but now it’s a methadone-slash-abortion clinic.
There is a long line outside.
* * *
The urge to pray came when money was once again on my mind. Earlier, after work but before I hit the streets, I surfed some of the forums and social media platforms I like to lurk on. Occasionally, I ask a question, seeking advice form men who are more successful than I am, or at least present themselves to be. Their advice is usually good, and small things I’ve implemented have helped me squirrel away a little cash. Why I don’t use it to pay my back rent is twofold: I am not as firm in my convictions and belief that all debts must be repaid as I like to think I am, and that this tiny nest egg represents my escape.
Today, when seeking these men’s advice, their tough love turned into harsh hatred. I learned in short order that I am not successful in a financial sense because I am of weak moral character. That if I were a true man, I’d have been successful years ago. When asked what success means, I was told that it entails being jacked, good with women, and able to live the lifestyle of a digital nomad.
I have heard this before, and it never made sense to me. For the first time, something compelled me to point this out to the gentlemen who like to dispense their worldly wisdom.
A small fire erupted. All of my laments about the sorry state of my city, of my life, of my soul, were belittled in a manner I’d expect from an enemy trying to demoralize me. This is the greatest time to be alive, I’ve been told, and that I should be thankful I’m not dying of disease or facing hordes of invading barbarians.
It made me think of my fourth booster shot this month, with the fifth scheduled for next week. Of the constant influx of people who do not look like me and do not even speak my language into this city. Of the fact that I live in a crumbling box of concrete and have to cover my face and nose everywhere I go, including on these walks, lest a drone see me and report my insubordination to the police.
I type fateful words, words that set me on my course of ruin. There has to be more to life than this.
The reply comes quickly: so what is “this”?
I explain as best I can with my crippled vocabulary and equally crippled life’s experience.
The reply comes even more quickly: It will never get any better, so if you’re sick of it all, there is literally nothing stopping you from buying a piece of land and living like a yeoman farmer, you disgusting faggot.
If things will never get any better, then kill me now.
* * *
As I walked, I tried to recite the Lord’s Prayer, but I had never learned it before. I replayed the part of the podcast where the strange black-robed priest recited it over and over until I had it mostly down. A good chunk of it sounded familiar, but not much. That’s when I realized it was a thing called the Nicene Creed. I actually did know the Lord’s Prayer; I just didn’t know what it was called.
I pass empty churches as I do this, now serving as refuge for the city’s growing homeless population than for its penitents. In one that is still functional, underneath a Jesus fish filled in with the rainbow flag, I see a man shoot something into his veins as another man kneels in front of him, head bobbing back and forth.
I turn away, almost laughing at how perfect the metaphor was for the world I live in.
* * *
I kneel on the floor of my forest cabin, rifle in hand and aimed out the window. THIS IS THE POLICE, comes the voice from outside, amplified by megaphone to a ludicrous degree. COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP.
I laugh bitterly. Literally nothing stopping me . . . the only things stopping me are the tendrils of a beast that won’t let anyone, no matter how insignificant, slip out of its grasp. Maybe it was the taxes I haven’t paid, the mountain of debts that’s accrued since I discovered the liberating joy of hunting and growing my own food and raising animals. Maybe Jasmine from HR finally noticed that drone number Derek Cox had not logged in for weeks. But I know the real reason: they can tell I’ve missed my last few shots. That makes me a danger to everyone in the known world, apparently. Including the bugs and the birds and the deer who are my neighbors.
The sound grows louder. I know the drone is about to strike my cabin at any second. It’s okay. In the intervening months, I’ve learned a lot more about prayer, about what life should be like and could be on the other side. I wanted to go to that other side for so long, but the way to do so was never to turn the guns in my possession around on myself. It was to live as though none of this mattered insofar as I didn’t hurt other people for no reason and believed in all of my heart that belief would grant me rest at the end of my days.
And these are the end of my days. It was totally worth it. I am still praying as the world explodes around me.