Dawn looked like a dull light shining into my eyes, trying for acceptance. It wanted me to blink but I had already blinked too much. This was a time for not blinking. I sit with legs numb from so much sitting. Veronica is asleep in the backseat, the backseat all hers. Rios doesn’t look any different. Not tired from driving through the night. The road starts to narrow.
It’s almost time for Meurks to start posting.
I want to type.
Then I don’t really understand what that means, but the itch, the thought to do so, to type, runs through me. The phone pocketed is a phone with battery drained. Lost it an hour back. The phone doesn’t last long.
It isn’t new except for once.
Yawn, and I imagine something ahead of us.
It is a house that is more a castle, a castle that is more a house.
Finally I blink, and then we are there.
Rios is the first to speak, much like he was the last to have spoken.
“You’ll dig my sister,” he tells me.
I think of Veronica, who is still asleep in the backseat.
“She’s just your type, bud.”
He catches me looking over my shoulder.
Makes a noise, “You don’t fit in.”
He says it again, “You don’t fit in.”
The second time is louder than the first. Like he really meant it.
I have nowhere to look but down at where the phone should be.
He slaps me on the shoulder, “You don’t fit in, so you have nothing to worry about.”
When that actually makes any sense, Veronica is awake and we are already inside the place, which is Rios’s sisters, her name, Nikki, and all the details blur to the point where there are only two considerations:
Nikki is different.
What exactly is any different?
Nikki tours us around the place like a person can’t figure it out ourselves. Then, I begin to see the differences and it’s greatly the opposite of my apartment. Or any apartment for that matter. Nikki doesn’t leave my side.
She asks me about things.
I tell her what she wants to know.
Whether or not it is true doesn’t seem like a problem until later.
Veronica stays behind with my phone and hers, letting them charge; she needs to catchup too. Meurks is too far behind and this information makes concentrating on aspects of the tour quite difficult.
Nikki’s voice carries, and she spends more time explaining the dollar value of each item than the actual sell. She would not make for a good Elite Aesthetics employee.
Rios disappeared when we arrived.
When I attempt to figure out where he went, I come up empty.
I don’t ask Nikki.
I don’t ask Nikki anything.
I only answer her questions.
And then she starts telling me about herself and it sounds like she said this all before, many times.
Says that she likes to enjoy life.
Says that she’s tired of how most people live.
Says that people are too judgmental.
Says society is toxic.
Says that society is absurd.
Says that people try to find too much value in society.
Says that doing that makes it difficult to hide from society.
Says that society will destroy a person.
Says that society is tragic.
Says that if you let society do all the talking, you’ll find that everything is a cage and nobody is free.
Then Nikki goes on to talk more about herself.
Her studies, her exhibitionism, her many suitors.
We turn the corner and she pushes me into an alcove.
She kisses me lightly, I don’t kiss back.
“‘Nikki’ isn’t my real name…”
Then we keep walking.
When I look at Nikki, she has a great big grin. When I’m not looking but looking from the side, pretending not to look but I’m really looking, Nikki has the greatest frown. There isn’t anything genuine here.
She’s just giving me a tour.
When we finish we end up back in the bigger room near the front where Veronica stayed. Rios is there too. They’re talking.
The way they talk confuses me.
He sits real close to her, and she isn’t pulling back.
When we arrive, Rios greets me but completely ignores Nikki.
I guess it’s because they are brother and sister.
My guess is as good as any.
Maybe not. There are a lot of maybes traded as everyone in the room, 4 people, exchange considerations for what happens next.
What happens next?
They don’t ask me.
And I don’t say anything. I keep to the phone. Meurks is so behind.
Nikki and Rios take us to the shoreline. There is a rocky pasture where the seawater splashes up and I sit there with my phone for most of the time. Veronica goes with Nikki and Rios. They walk the edge, where their feet sink into the cool sands.
I can hear only Nikki’s voice, like Veronica and Rios are holding theirs close. Nikki shows them around.
Nikki does nothing but show.
Like she is the show.
When is a person acting and when is a person genuine?
I delete it though, since the lack of activity has decreased Meurks’s reach.
Nikki takes center stage.
Where’s the stage and what makes the stage any different?
I get confused and watch videos others have posted about various topics. I laugh when I think I’m supposed to laugh and I am disgusted when I think I am supposed to be disgusted. Then I remember that nobody is watching so I go to where I’m most comfortable. I go into a public chatroom where I originally made Meurks who Meurks became.
I chat with different names. All of them fade.
The talking isn’t what’s important; it’s the typing.
We type to get everything out.
And before I can finish typing, my thoughts and feelings are pushed up, the chatroom a wildfire of bursts and other bombardments.
Everyone is typing.
They are typing to get out.
And almost do. We wait for that one thing that does.
When they return, Nikki has no clothes on. Neither Rios nor Veronica seems to notice. I notice. It keeps my gaze immediately on my phone.
I have trouble speaking.
So I type.
Feel like there’s this atmosphere of a charade. Like everything is a surprise waiting to unfold and I’m the only one not included.
Maybe I don’t want to be included. I want to be surprised.
I want to surprise them, everyone; and that’s what people really want right? Someone that isn’t like everyone else, someone that will make them feel more like themselves. Everyone is different, or so a lot of people say… and the differences are important and valued.
What does any of this really mean?
The blog post gets a lot of comments but I have trouble focusing on them because they all force me up from the rocks
and tell me about things I shouldn’t know. About how there’s going to be a big celebration tonight.
How the celebration will bring together their friends.
And Rios slaps me on the shoulder, “And enemies.”
That’s a joke.
I think it’s a joke.
Neither Nikki nor Veronica laughs.
I ask, “What’s the purpose of the celebration?”
Nikki reaches up to the sky, “To celebrate!”
Veronica looks troubled.
I have seen that look before.
I have seen it in the mirror, when I look.
People start arriving when it gets dark. I am in one of the upstairs rooms using a laptop that might be Nikki’s but it has never been used. I am the first to use it. I maintain a level of activity despite it being the time of day where many only participate in passing.
I type more about what I should be feeling.
I type more about things that have nothing to do with me.
The most important part of this is that I am freely typing and I can feel my body relaxing. I am able to breathe without paying close attention to breathing. I am able to blink naturally.
I don’t even notice that I’m blinking.
I am blinking right now.
Veronica isn’t here.
I don’t know where she is.
Yet I keep thinking about where she might be. And why — that becomes something else that I type to get out.
Friends and followers offer their condolences.
I don’t understand why.
Friends and followers offer their advice.
Again, an omission.
They speak of dead relationships, and dead feelings.
I hadn’t thought of Veronica in such terms.
Why would you say that it’s over?
I see the words “denial” and “grief.”
I close the tab.
I reopen the tab.
I delete some comments.
Then I forget why I’m deleting them.
I continue reading what shows up.
They say that they understand.
And I read one comment that says, We offer so much but we don’t have a place of offering.
I hear a knock on the door and everything looks like my apartment.
Everything goes back to that place.
It’s just what I imagine.
I tell them.
They say that it’s a “delusion.”
I begin to sweat and I start rubbing my eyes. My eyes burn.
When the tears start dripping down my face, I feel a weight push down on me. I remember the party. I remember where I
really am. I remember Veronica, and then I remember that I missed work again.
I remember the routine.
The knock on the door pushes it all back.
She has the key to every door. And walks in like it’s her room.
She winks, “You too?”
I look down at the computer screen.
“I’m addicted to this stuff. I think my record is ‘60 likes.’”
She asks me how many likes I’ve received.
The number registers over anything else.
She seems impressed, “Oh wow, that’s crazy. You got it all figured out, huh?” From the door to the edge of the bed, she sits and looks over at me hunched over in a chair off to the side, occupying a neglected corner of the room. “How do you know my brother?”
Answering requires little effort.
Answering adds pressure.
I watch as my fingers continue typing.
But I don’t know what I’m typing. I don’t look.
My eyes are on the keyboard.
I think I tell her because she keeps talking.
Then she walks over to me.
It happens in reverse. I ask and she tells.
I ask and she does.
The laptop is taken from me. I close my eyes.
The next thing Nikki says is “Hope you have enough left for the party.”
She had been accommodating up until this point but in a single blink it all changed. “I expect a performance,” she says.
I feel dizzy from the pressure.
Nothing gives and everything bottles up inside.
Once again, I become conscious of my breath.
But she leaves the room without a bother.
As if to say that I am barely a bother at all.
My interpretations come from odd angles. They are tinged in maybes.
I reopen the laptop to find that I had written nine pages.
When I try to read the text, my eyes cross.
I feel nauseous.
It gets into the keyboard.
I feel my pulse quickening with the activity around me. I worry more about the laptop, and what I did to it, rather than where she is.
I take a second to figure out who “she” is.
I feel the room begin to spin when I realize that I am referring not to Nikki. The differences between her and I outnumber any other two people. It’s the only excuse that works. Rios is incorrect:
We are not similar.
Veronica and I are similar.
Nikki. I can hear her from across the room.
There are currently 22 people in the room, with at least another dozen populating the other rooms on the first floor of this building.
I let Meurks rebuild his activity.
Meurks needs to respond to every comment of the previous blog post; otherwise, it would go against his brand.
It means the party consists of people that search for that one true person.
The typing helps tune out the activity around me.
Then I start walking.
From one room to the next, I never stop for any longer than a second. I make sure to always be typing.
There’s always a comment waiting to be considered.
When I look up she is there, Nikki.
I see her laughing.
I see her getting along with everyone.
It wouldn’t feel right if she wasn’t the loudest.
People want to be the life of the party.
Someone hands me something. A drink, and it’s Veronica.
She kisses me on the cheek, “Having fun?”
I think I say something because she nods and says, “I’m meeting so many new people! I’m having a lot of fun.”
I tell her, “Yes” but I’m typing:
That bothers me. I feel some way, like I don’t want her to have as much fun as me. I don’t want her to meet anyone that I haven’t already met. I want to meet people. She isn’t as good of an employee as I am. She’s only here because I let her come here. She wouldn’t be here if I didn’t tell Rios to bring her along. And she’s the one that walks with Nikki and Rios. She’s the one that talks to Rios like they’re real close. Rios is my friend, not yours!
I don’t save it to drafts.
I can’t save it to drafts.
I had been typing it in the wrong App.
Veronica disappears again, becoming the 81st person the 81-person crowd. I recognize, for one brief moment, on the
verge of tears, that I never include myself in that number.
But the idea settles, and I am almost pleased.
Like I have the upper hand.
Back to the phone. Meurks is doing just fine.
People just like to be around other people. We’re social creatures.
Look up and Nikki is skipping over to another side of the room.
If we aren’t surprised, we’re old. It’s a sign that you’re getting older.
I don’t meet anyone that I don’t think I have already met.
Someone refills my drink.
Someone else says hello.
Cannot tell whether or not I am bothering to look, whether or not I return the greeting. I feel the effects of the alcohol. I feel the pressure of the party. I seek some sort of genuine feeling, something or someone that isn’t a maybe, but rather just there to be, as many of my friends and followers have specified, there to be around others. Not alone.
It is loneliest around such a large number.
That one gets a lot of likes and one comment. The comment is a question mark. A follower but not a friend.
I return to the comment thread.
I read the next comment three times, having trouble focusing.
I don’t care what people think so most of the time it’s about the booze.
Nikki walks over to me.
She hugs me and I hug her back.
I don’t get today’s trends.
Gulp from the plastic cup. Things merge and I am the merger. I have trouble speaking but the words still come out.
They come out with ease. I feel like I’m letting go of something while I fumble with the phone.
Nikki keeps pulling me aside, bringing me to other people.
Things are said. I drink some more.
People just want to be hip. Element of surprise: being hip to the cause.
Nikki. A kiss.
Somewhere someone wants to hang out with someone like you.
I see Nikki pouring more into my plastic cup.
I’m not saying no.
I think I asked for more.
We’re all just fucked up anyway.
In a room with only… I don’t know. Number.
Not much people.
But Nikki is there. Same way, same thing that happened in the room. But I don’t vomit this time. The distance closes, and she says, “Coming!”
Someone walks into the room.
Nikki says, “He’s ready. He’s there!”
Stranger in a strange land.
Maybe it occurs to me. Maybe I noticed, I can’t tell.
Maybe but Nikki, always Nikki.
She’s there at every glance.
Like she’s standing in place of Rios.
Like they take turns.
This is me.
I don’t know what that means.
Outside where a lot of cars are parked. It is dark. Someone is filming. Rios slaps me on the shoulder, “Right on, right on.”
There are people. A number.
I am talking, not typing.
They are all listening.
There was a noise, maybe not. What I don’t see isn’t there. Maybe they are talking about me; they are most definitely looking in my direction.
And more maybes.
Maybes don’t get you anywhere.
Rios and a few people at my side. People all around us.
I try to count but the number is just that, a number.
Rios shouts at one person. The person that looks around like he’s frightened. Someone pushes him at us. The person trips and falls. He was wearing glasses. I hadn’t noticed until he fell and they slid in our direction.
Noises, people reacting.
It seems to be entertaining.
I don’t know what part of it is, but it seems like I’m being entertained too. The person tries to get back up but Rios pins him down.
He steps on the person’s back.
The person screams.
They all look at me.
I look at them.
Rios nods at me.
We all look down at the person.
Soon it’s all I see.
The person’s face, red, eyes wide, blind.
Rios tells me what needs to happen next.
It all feels like it’s just everything falling into place, the straight line extending past this night towards a future night, a night that will feel the same as this. But different. Maybe.
I am handed the gun.
It’s a gun you know. Don’t know if I thought that or heard that, but I say it anyway. I say it because it seems to fit in. I fit in.
The body on the ground was a person. So quickly people become something else. All it takes is a trigger. A single flick or pull, and the pressure mounts. It releases and you can barely tell the difference.
But the person is gone.
Maybe that person is really who they want to be but you can’t recognize them. You can’t recognize them because you only know what you’ve already seen, what you’ve already assumed.
The person looks strange.
But I don’t.
Maybe I just wanted her to be seen. Maybe I just wanted it to be stranger. Maybe I just wanted things to be different.
Rios. Maybe I just wanted him to be pleased.
He looks pleased.
And because he does, I am too.
I feel like I am genuinely pleased.
The body and the gun are just things.
They are all looking at me.
Rios slaps my shoulder.
I hear him say, “Right on, right on.”
And then I hear her voice.
“Great, now you can pay me.”
Nikki. But I don’t look. The whole time my gaze is to the ground. Not hearing the gun, not feeling the recoil.
The line extends, the only thing to be said is what Rios already said:
But then Rios is paying attention to someone else, and the attention paid to me quickly turns heads towards someone else.
The attention filters back into the house.
Her voice I hear over everyone else. Her. There was only her.
“What the hell is wrong with you?!”
It just took that long for it to be heard.
Rios slaps me on the shoulder, “Why the hell did you do that?”
Something is said.
And then another voice, muffled.
I look down at the ground.
I grip onto both objects in my hands.
Rios says, “Did you get it?”
“Got it all on film.”
Rios sounds pleased, “Right on right on.”
In my left hand I have the phone, in my right hand, I have a gun.
The smell, it smells familiar. It makes me think back to when Rios showed up at my front door. When he first told me
When he drove me to his place.
When everyone got high. But did I?
The smell takes me back to the bar.
To when he sat down in the same booth.
It takes me back to the shadow cast over me that night, after work, when I couldn’t get myself to leave the break room. Like something in me wanted to stay there, where there would be no need for numbers.
But now, numbers are all I see.
I feel a rush of lucidity, and I count how many people are here.
4. Make that 3.
I see the body. I don’t know what to feel.
I drop my phone. I drop the gun.
There was a noise.
It was the sound of the screen cracking in three places.
Excerpted from The Strangest by Michael Seidlinger, used with permission of OR Books. Copyright © Michael Seidlinger, 2015. All rights reserved.