A holographic movie poster levitated, advertised The Meltdown, made half of New York simmer and boil.  Lyssa Vanmaher observed from an outdoor café, sipping a double double espresso  She flickered through the response statistics on her contact lenses. If she asked Jasper not to get the viral upload? “94% chance he’d still go.”  If she told Jasper she’d marry him? “67% chance he’d still go.” If she knocked him out with a tire iron, stuffed him in her trunk…? “89% chance he’d escape and still go.”  Bastard!

“Who are you mumbling about?”  Jasper leaned into her space, kissed her nose from across the wrought-iron table.  He grinned.

“Inconsiderate jerks.”

He draped his coat over the back of his chair and seated himself with a whuff, which made Lyssa tingle irrationally.  Jasper stretched his hands toward hers, open.  “Marry me?”

Lyssa flicked a tableside button, canceling out sound waves from entering or leaving their table.  She opened her mouth, closed it again.  She said, “What’s the point.”

“We’re in love.”  He held his hands out a beat longer before withdrawing.  “I’m in love.”

“Eventually, I wouldn’t be married to you.  You wouldn’t be you.”

“Can’t step into the same river twice.”

“Drop the clichés.”  Her face relaxed.  “Help me get something out of my trunk.”

“We’ve talked this to death.  If you won’t marry, a date. Before I go.”

Lyssa swept back her hair.

“A kiss?”

NY continued to bubble, bubble, and toil.

“A hug?”  Jasper stood, scraping the chair’s iron legs across the cement.  His fingers arched upon the table like flying buttresses. Lyssa froze as his forearms bulged with the scent of violence.

Jasper shrugged into his coat, drank her in, left.

Alyssa’s lens monitor belatedly informed her: His body language boded not violence but impotence.  It never ceased to amaze her how differently men and women viewed the same events.   She stood, she sat.  New York’s boiling cauldron semi-hypnotized her.  How did one violently cook a thing for weeks?  There had to be a loop.  Nothing goes on forever.  Once she spotted the loop and broke the illusion, she could go.

Night fell.  Waiters rolled up, asked if she would like a refill. They took it out of her credit chip.

The sun arose.  The loop didn’t appear.  Maybe it followed the pattern of entropy.  Everything decays, comes to an end, breaks down.  She’d just wait for that to happen.

This is the second in a series inspired by science, sound, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” and armchair philosophers.

We could not believe the hollow men ascendant over us the aware, yet clearly we had a blind spot to scrub. We sawed drinking straws to different lengths, and I drew, reluctantly, the short one.  We hypnotized me into a deep and dreamless sleep.  They heaved me off the cliff.

I did not wake until sometime after I hit.  Chills crawled through my flesh–like an icy wind that strips heat from your body, yet the air had not stirred.  I tilted my head back enough to spy a bleak beacon on a distant hill casting a pair of black beams across the fire- and drought-scarred countryside.

I dusted myself off and removed shards of clay from my back.  Along with the scattered straw and pilled cotton stuffing, the shadowed ground was covered with the baked crockery, crunching under my every step.  How many of these former men had I trod upon?  Each footfall made my skin feel like the disinclined shifting of continents colliding and tearing apart.

The air was dank and full of mildew digging roots into my clay shell.  Under the grassy spire, shapes flitted amid the darker shadows; tiny claws scratched glass.  An iridescently reflective yet empty pair of eyes stopped to gaze at me, sniffed the air, then moved on.  The beacon’s bone-cold beams swept through me again and passed on.

A dead man–cracked but not broken–stared sightlessly into the abyss of night sky, clutching a scrap of paper torn from a missing notebook.  I fingered my own fissures and winced in sympathy.  I bent, pried loose the scrap and read, “I’m dreaming.  I dare not meet those eyes.”

Was I dreaming?  Were there eyes I dared not meet?  I glanced at the bleak beacon on the horizon, looked longingly at the beckoning grassy spire, but turned in search of eyes.

Note: Although this story stands alone, this is part of the Pandora series.

Pandora had not known then what we today take for granted:  Our houses are watching us:  from the center hole in the ceiling fan, to the constellations of faces and creatures inhabiting spackles in the painted ceiling, to the creatures frolicking among the knots in the wooden paneling.  So it was that Pandora was taken completely off-guard by the house’s incisive observations.

Pandora returned from the gym after a half-hour on the stair-master, which somehow felt like her work at Widget Manufacturing, Inc.  She stripped to her Underoos and struck muscle-man poses in front of her bedroom mirror.  She pinched her gut and slapped her jiggly thighs.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fattest in the mall?”

“Is that a rhetorical question, or do you really want an answer?”

Being self-conscious of her body and her silly underwear, it wasn’t the best of times to hear a strange voice in her bedroom.  “Who said that?”

“Rhetorical, then.  My father always said I couldn’t keep my reflections to myself.”



“What were you saying?”

“Simply that you have a body-image problem.  Just accept yourself.”

Pandora stared into her reflection and nodded at it, slightly.  She wrapped herself in a fluffy pink robe and stepped into the bathroom.  She undressed in the shower, washed, and wrapped her body in a towel before standing in front of the bathroom mirror.  “So,” she asked, “you think I have a body-image problem?”

The mirror snorted.  “That’s one way to put it.  All you do is primp and preen: Is my hair perfect?  How’s this shade of lipstick?  Vanity, vanity.  I’ve never known anyone so damn self-absorbed.”

Shell-shocked, Pandora stared at her steamy reflection.  Then she walked stiffly into the bedroom and laid herself across the bed, face planted in a pillow.  After a good cry, she draped her towel across the bedroom mirror, dressed in her pajamas, and lay with the covers up to her chin.  She tried to read, she tried to sleep, but her eyes kept leaking.

“Excuse me, Pandora.  I couldn’t help noticing your distress.”

“Who said that?”

“Me.  The ceiling fan.  Look, I know I shouldn’t interfere, but those mirrors don’t see you for who you really are.”

“Thank you.”  Pandora smiled up at her ceiling through bleary eyes.  “It’s nice to know I have a fan.”

“Sure.  Your problem is laziness: All you ever do is lie around.”

1. “Yeah, I didn’t think you could get hurt head-butting a shark. Cartilaginous fish, my ass!”

2. “It’s a tattoo. Like it?”

3. “From your mom. Man, she is one wild chick!”

4. “Extreme chess.”

5. “Well, I was asking this guy how he got his black eye, and apparently he’d had it with answering that over and over …”

6. “I was sitting next to this pregnant lady on the bus and I said, ‘So, when are you due?’ Long story short, he wasn’t actually pregnant.”

7. “Oh, this isn’t mine.”

8. “I heard these weird noises late at night from my neighbor’s house, terrible, inhuman ululations. I crept into my back yard and climbed the fence to land on their weedy, overgrown lawn. A pale green light pulsed in the neighbors’ attic window, silhouetting a dark figure that it seemed to be clawing to get out. I moved closer, slipping silently through the grass, my eyes riveted to the window–and that’s when I stepped on the rake.”

9. “The black eye is nothing! It’s the microchip they implanted in my brain that worries me.”

10. “Well, it’s actually kind of a funny story involving you, me, this conversation, and a time machine stuck in a loop, but I’m so sick of telling it, you might as well just go ahead and punch me now.”

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