Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Human Café: Chapter 2

2. how we hate the rain
The world was practically caged in gloom. It hung outside like curtains so thick and dreary that it was hard to lift even my own spirits, let alone Lana’s. Caesar, as ever, was himself. It took more than meteorological dysfunctions to change that. Some new video game had captivated his attention so thoroughly that he had not even touched his food.
Outside, the downpour had puddled on the asphalt like little black mirrors reflecting the sky, oceans with their own raging tides. How terrifying it would be, I thought, to be a sailor on that sea, with drops the size of houses hammering down. To ants, perhaps, on a boat made of leaf, this might seem like the end of the world.
But then again, ants had survived enough of these storms that I’m sure they were no longer fazed. They were, after all, the inventors of the storm cellar. I wondered, for a moment, whether theirs flooded or not.
“I hate the rain,” Lana muttered.
The warmth of the café had fogged up the windows. I watched the blinking of the blurry traffic-lights beyond them, and the way they reflected on the beaded moisture before I reached over and drew a smiley face on the glass beside Lana. She hadn’t looked up from her drawing in quite some time, but she gave me a brief glance. The light was casting streak-marks over her face; they looked like tears.
Personally, I didn’t mind the rain so much. It was comfortable—warm and flannel. It made that itch in my mind grow even if it chased off all the pictures in the process. It slowed everything down.
But she had never liked it—at least not in the times that I had known her. It changed her, I thought. It was as though, when the rain began, all the best parts of her retreated. She saved those parts only for the sunshine.
Gradually, I think some of her dislike had rubbed off on us, in the nature of being changed by the people you love. Caesar and I had no reason to be anything but ourselves—but she did. And that, I supposed, is how we came to hate the rain.
I turned my attention back to the black-skinned notebook in front of me; it seemed nearly as dismal as the day itself. I skimmed over the last story I’d written, but felt no lurch of color or excitement in its words as I had when I’d first conjured them.
Atlantis was waiting. I needed to go back. I needed to speak to the stranger and the Queen. But I didn’t. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that I even knew what was supposed to come next. I flipped to the next page and studied the blankness for a moment.
“What are you playing?” I asked Caesar, and this may as well have been a verbal abandon of all hope of productivity. Lana identified it as such.
“It’s a new one,” he said, his eyes glued open and staring. “It just came out yesterday. It’s called Titan’s-Blood: Vengeance.
“Oh,” Lana muttered, looking up fully for the first time, “Let me guess: Fueled by a cliché tragic backstory, an invincible hero must undergo a series of identical trials before finally facing an underdeveloped villain with just enough unanswered questions to sell the next game.” She blinked at him. “Anything like that?”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded, a tight smile flattening his mouth. “They must have sent you the demo packet,” he said.
“No,” she replied gruffly. “I just suffered through listening to your commentary on Titan’s-Blood: Alliance and what was it? Titan’s-Blood: Awakening?”
“Don’t forget Titan’s-Blood: Doomsday,” I added.
“Oh yes,” she chirped, “let’s not forget Doomsday.” 
He chuckled dryly, setting down the game momentarily to scoop a substantial amount of ice-cream sundae into his mouth.
If the rain had any effect on me, it was to make me quieter; if it had any effect on Caesar, it was to increase his already substantial desire for sugar. “Vengeance is totally different,” he said.
“Oh?” Lana challenged. “What’s the difference?”
“The graphics are better,” he said, happily. “And the blood is a lot more realistic.”
“Yay,” she said. The rolling of her eyes seeped into the language of her shoulders. “Realistic blood.”
“Not to mention you can skip the tutorials and all the boring narration,” he added.
Lana mustered all the sarcasm I thought one person could hold. “Oh yes, let’s skip the only part of the whole game that could have any substance.”
“Well you have to admit,” I chimed in, “that way he’s technically spending less time on it.”
“Yeah, obviously,” he said, stuffing his grin with ice cream. “Geez, Lana. Why else would I skip them?”
She scowled at him—and me, by extension—but had no other words to add. So she looked back down and blocked the notebook with her arm. 
My smiley face had mostly melted back into fog so I drew him again. This time I gave him eyebrows but thought they made him look somewhat psychotic immediately afterwards. An angry clown.
“Are you going to go back to Atlantis?” Lana asked, after a few minutes.
“I probably should,” I muttered. My arms felt like the pillars that held up my head, which seemed heavy and empty at the same time. Filled with cement, and hardened by rain.
All of our collective homework sat in the backpacks under our table. But none of us had even looked at them, yet. For a moment, I considered breaking protocol and pulling it out. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. It might just be easier.
Caesar saved me from considering it further. “You should write the werewolf one,” he said.
“Oh my word, Michael,” Lana snapped, facing him. “Are you ever going to give that one a rest?”
“Well yeah, duh,” he replied. “When he writes it!”
Lana reached under the table, pulled out Caesar’s backpack, and slapped the little copy of Henry V down on the table. “Read,” she said.
“But mom,” he whined. She took his ice-cream sundae and stuck it on the windowsill. He scowled and set down his phone to reach for it. She grabbed the phone off the table, and promptly sat on it. “Ew!” he barked. “You’re gonna break it!”
“Read,” she commanded.
His frown was a pouting child’s. It was too dreary to laugh, but I offered my most entertained smile. Lana returned to drawing. I returned to pen-clicking.
I didn’t have to wait long to feel her hand, under the table, passing the phone to me as sneakily as she could. The pencil didn’t stop moving for a moment in her other hand. Not for the first time did I reconsider Caesar’s assertion that she was a classically trained ninja.
I set the phone on the seat beside me.
“What should I write about?” I muttered, looking out the window.
“Write about something different,” Lana said. “Something you haven’t done before.”
Caesar looked up. “You could write about—”
Lana pointed her pencil-tip at him. “If you say one word about werewolves, so help me—”
“I wasn’t going to,” he jabbed back, meeting her eyes. “I was going to say that you could write about a poor little boy who has his only toy stolen by an angry old woman who wants to take away his ice-cream and eat his soul—”
I kicked him under the table and he hid his face behind the book. “Sorry ma’am,” he said. Lana leaned back into her drawing. I could see frustration in her shoulders, the way she hunched over the paper. But she was not really angry; not yet, anyway. Caesar would not push his luck, today—but he couldn’t keep his stiff face for more than a few seconds. He soon uttered a malcontented sigh and waved the book around somewhat disdainfully. “Seriously though, have either of you even read this book?” He asked.
Lana and I looked at one another, and I raised my eyebrows. “Once more unto the breach, my friends, once more—Or close the wall up with our English dead.
There is some soul of goodness in things evil,” quoted Lana, “would men observingly distill it out.”
Caesar scowled. “There’s something wrong with you two.”
“Oh come on,” I chuckled. “Or close the wall up with our English dead? Even you could get into that. It’s like the Shakespearian version of the Three-Hundred Spartans.”
“Thank heaven Shakespeare didn’t write about the Spartans,” Lana teased, “or Caesar would have to reject the whole thing out of principal.”
Caesar pointed at me, suddenly looking curious. “Have you ever wondered if somewhere in the ancient East, people told stories about the One-Million-Persians instead?”
I laughed but shrugged. I drew the smiley face again, leaving off the eyebrows this time, and looked back out at the gray sky. In a few moment’s time, everything had reset. Lana to her notebook, Caesar scowling to his Shakespeare. I was left with the empty page and a swelling dissatisfaction with its blankness.
Each of those little teardrops had a story, I thought; albeit the same story. The same birth, the same growth. They fell the same way, I supposed. They even fell at the same speed (thanks to a man in a leaning tower, a few hundred years ago). Gravity was their version of time, pulling us forward, dragging them down.
But they still had their differences. Some of them fell straight onto the street. Some of them hit rooftops first. Some hit dirt, and the grass swallowed them up. Some fell on cars and got to see the roaring in their bellies up close for a moment or two. Others got struck by lightning before they even had a chance to touch down, vaporized (or polarized).
Some of them collected and built rivers, trickling down the gutters, launching little cigarette-butt canoes and leafy warships. Drowning ants. Or maybe the ants knew how to swim, by now. Maybe they were manning the little boats, shoving off in frigates and men-of-war, breaking tiny little bottles of champagne and cheering, off to discover new lands.
The sky kept firing on them, and the ants, I guess, had no way to return fire. Their only means of defiance was survival.
Dragonflies hummed by. The rain didn’t bother them. They were born underwater.
For some reason, worms crawled onto the street to die. Sacrifices to appease whatever angry worm-gods were sending the destruction. I imagined their slimy pink councils meeting somewhere to discuss which members of society to offer up. Perhaps the old; perhaps the young. Little worm-virgins, for the dragons (or volcanoes) of the sky. They were drinking themselves to death. (And they were getting run over by cars.)
There was no story in my head, though there was one all around me. But there were plenty of words. They were desperate, yearning words, but everything was calm inside of the café and inside me, quiet despite the sort of static in the air.
I didn’t resort to poetry often, because it was always hard to force; but when it came, I didn’t stop it. I set the pen down, and stammered out the few lines that I could:

letters in bottles
Like rain, we all are born the same.
To fall, and land—and there remain.
We pool, and splash; and for a while,
Forget we fell in single file.

Like bottles full of desperate words,
We bob along, until we’re heard.
Like ants upon this earthly skin;
Breathe out. And then breathe in again.

Once more unto this breach, my friends
‘Twixt earth and sky, ‘twixt start and end.
Once more unto the break of day,
Where all shall soon be wash’d away.

(So mount your cigarette canoe.

I’m just an ant. But so are you.)

Enjoy what you've read? Check back soon for Chapter 3! If you are interested in reading the book in its entirety, please consider helping me out by pledging a gift on my Kickstarter page to help me get it printed, and receive a copy as soon as it's ready! 

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