Pandemic Journal 1

It’s 10:58, Sunday night. I’m writing this because, earnestly, I don’t know what else to do.

At the present moment I’m filled with a handful of emotions, some conflicting, some not. They’re all coming from different places, but for whatever reason they’ve all coalesced, ganging up on my psyche and eventually beating it down enough so that I’ll do… this.

So here’s what I feel.

For starters, terrified. This, perhaps, is the most understandable emotion right now. I’ve never been so sure that I’m not the only one feeling a specifically horrific tightness in their chest. The world right now is apocalyptic. But not a cinematic apocalypse — more of a slow, uninteresting one. A pandemic threatens to off thousands (hundreds of thousands) of us daily, and things feel so normal.

Yet everytime I have to go outside to walk my dog, I am utterly gripped by how it all feels. It’s surreal. Am I dissisociating? Even asking that question feels like a confirmation. I’ll look up at my neighbors houses, at the flicks of light in the sky, or the moon, or hear noise in the distance, and just think about the humanity behind all of it — either directly, or in a supremey artst-abstract way. The concept of it all. What it all means. It’s an never-ending existentialist crisis that duplicates by the day.

At first, I took comfort in the way people looked at each other in the prologue of tragedy. Walking and seeing how people were reacting. Seeing the pharmacist smile politely, as always, but with a little more earnestness. The genuine care in how people moved about. The fear — so transparent — from people significantly older than me, pride and a duty to remain calm replaced with just honesty.

People seeing people — seeing humanity. It felt refreshing, for all of a day.

But the crushing weight of mortality — of mine and everyone else’s — is just too much. I push it away, but it inevitably creeps back in. My mind is strong, and I know my anxiety at this moment is logical, but I don’t see how I make it through a year of this without requiring some serious therapy. I know I won’t be the only one, but that hardly makes me feel comforted.

I feel nostalgic. It’s the same nostalgia I’ve always simultaneously nursed and ran from, a desire to return to a warmth and comfort of a decade ago or more, sitting in my room and recapturing all the memories that still play through my head. The places and people that meant something to me, some virtual, some not, can never be returned to. Not really. I can sort of fool myself, temporarily, but eventually reality creeps in. This makes me feel pathetic. I have so much in the present, yet it’s the pull of a care-free time that keeps trying to rip me back. I know I can’t have it, and I know it isn’t uncommon or unhealthy to miss memories so strongly.

And yes, within that nostalgia is a deep desire to move on. To find mindfullness and structure in the present. I know — truly know — that the moments I’m living in right now, as I write this, are the sort of thing I will inevitably also want to return to. I don’t want to relive the same things with the same people. I want new experiences, surely.

I know none of this is rare, I know it is a very common experience.

Yet, it feels shameful.

I feel creatively bankrupt.

Not in the sense of seeing myself as without the ability to be creative, or as seeing my creations as garbage or derivative.

More in the sense of just feeling utterly disconnected and unsure of what I’d like to do, or how I’d like to do it. Writing is always there, and I always feel comfortable with that aspect of myself, but my other creative endeavors feel so far from me. Do I even want to have anything to do with them? I don’t know. I’ve struggled to try to connect with music for a long time, but the older I get, the more I entertain the idea that it’s a fleeting novelty for me. That my desire to create (in this space, at least) is also nostalgic — an inability to let go of something from so long ago. I wanted to do it once, so clearly I want to do it now. Something like that.

I feel silly.

All of this feels so angsty, so beyond me. Do 30-year-olds really sit down and write out their feelings like this? Do they really wax poetic about all of their diferent emotions and how they’re feeling them? I’m pushing myself to 15 years ago, and there I am, in front of a CRT tapping away at LiveJournal.

I used to feel just like this, then. Slightly different, but the same general feelings are still there. It’d come to me every so often, and really dig my heart out. In a way, that connection between me now and me then is somehow comforting. I almost have tears in my eyes typing this. It’s a weird, familiar melancholy.

God, I’m so embarassed. I shouldn’t share this.

But the reality is I’m sure a lot of people are going through their thoughts right now, and doing their best to inventory them. There’s no harm in being a little self-indulgent right now.

Story voting!

This past October Natalie started doing these neat musical doodles (you can see an example of one here). They were essentially just little piano riffs — ideas that she could build on later. The process reminded me of when I used to write flash fiction. It was a fun way to really get my creative juices flowing — especially when I didn’t necessarily have a lot of inspiration.

So I decided to do my own little doodles — short story sketches that were either ideas, character introductions, tiny vignettes, or whatever. I thought that, in December, I could show them to friends and have them vote to see which they’d like me to expand.

Well, December got super busy so I didn’t have a chance to do that. But hey, I can totally do that now!

(As a note, I’m including a few stories that I’ve written in the past but have recently refreshed!)

Important bits:

So anyway, you can find the poll here. Here are the stories (and a brief genre note):

Snow — Sci-fi (Five seconds in the future)

Celeynn — Fantasy/Warcraft RP

Meeting — Thriller

dig — Paranormal, modern, Lovecraftian horror

Ash / Flame — Paranormal, fantasy

F82 — Heist/Thriller

fuel — Unsure how to label this!

Savor — Vague erotica, romance

srvr — Sci-fi (Cyberpunk)

Notacat Saga Pt 1. / Pt 2. — High Fantasy/Comedy

Thank you for reading and voting. I appreciate your time and hope that you at least got some entertainment out of one of these!

Snow

“Jesus Christ, can you feel that?”

His fingers cascaded against the wall, nails scratching at paint. Each splinter of eggshell-colored debris fluttered down on his comforter. There’d be a pile of them, had he not been thrashing about, sending them scattering about — his pillow, the floor, wherever.

Nails digging into paint deep enough to meet gypsum — it’d make anyone’s skin crawl.

Provided, that is, that you’re actually paying any attention to reality.

His head rolled against the wall. It was cold in spots, warm in others. You could trace where he was, where he’d been sitting since he escaped. His tongue traced his bottom lip, breath pooling by his chin. Slow breaths. Ones full of heat, full of intent. Every now and again his lower lip would quiver, his arm following its motion, rubbing a mound of rubber near his bicep. Six or seven twitches and the adhesive would start to show, his nostrils flaring. The snarl would inevitably pull his lips apart, re-opening the crack right in the middle. It’d sting, but by that point the adhesive was slapped back on by a hand that’d quickly go numb.

The wind howled and gently bowed the side of the house, snow pounding the window. He felt every flake. They all slammed down, each a threat, another flicker caught in the screen. But he couldn’t focus on them. He could hear her breathing.

“Oh my god,” he said. Only half the words made a sound. The rest were gone, as if half his face was numb. Out came the breath, again.

The rubber wasn’t on his face. It didn’t cradle him. It didn’t hold him. It didn’t grab his shoulders.

“Oh my god,” she said.

It’d been too long.

His hands found her waist, her skin — soft. It always was, but it was something you’d forget, you know, right before you remembered again. Green eyes found his. Emeralds? No. This was better than that. This was beyond that. He didn’t know what they were. She likely didn’t either, to be honest. She never had the patience to get every detail right.

Oh, but fuck if he cared.

She dove down, her hair tickling past his ear, her breath curling around his neck. A moan dragged its way off her tongue, sharp teeth planting just over the top of his shoulder blade, scraping down toward his collar. His hands rolled down, index fingers curling inward as they met, cradling her ass, lifting her closer to him.

His own demanding growl pulled her back. He saw those eyes again — they flashed — and then he took his own taste of her neck. Her hair brushed the side of his cheek.

Lilac, but not quite, not quite there yet. More like vanilla. But it didn’t pull him out. Not yet.

But he could see the snow.

One hand went free, crawling up her spine, index and thumb navigating the topography of every muscle, every bend — but quickly. He should’ve been savoring this, but he had an appetite. His breath grew hotter. He couldn’t wait. His head spun — just enough, just not used to it yet — as he pushed her down on the bed. His teeth went to her ear, his hand tangling itself in her hair. Eventually their lips met, each ravishing the other, looking and feeling, plotting for a ritual they’d both kill for.

His fingers crawled past her belt first. He wanted it more. His arm felt cold again. He slapped it into something. Was it cold? Was it cold? Oh, fuck it. His hand could feel her warmth — it shocked him — always did, with this one. She looked up. Those fucking eyes. Her lips mouthed a taunt. He grinned, finding more heat. Blood surged around his body. He could trace its precise path as he felt the heat scour his veins.

His eyes closed. He missed her so much. It’d been at least six months since she’d gone, since he’d last had her.

He felt nothing for a second, his skin going numb. And then there it was, there she was.

“Mel,” he said, pulling away from her lips.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” She looked up at him, her voice coated in charcoal and scotch. It always sounded just like that.

He grinned.

“I can’t believe this — I can’t –”

He was back on her. Fucking hell, that taste. He could just feel it. This time she was the one to pull away, slipping her head to the side.

“I love you. I love you so much.”

“Mel,” he said — mouth hanging open. He wanted to say something, but words weren’t good enough. They never were, not with this. You couldn’t show it with a word, you just had to dive in, to do it, for your own sake, if nothing else.

His body dropped to hers, lips meeting again. Feel it. Feel it.

“I love you. I love you so much.”

Her lips vibrated past his.

“I love you. I love you so much.”

He pulled back. Mel’s whole body curled up, just like he was on top of her. He could watch her lips curl around his, see her breasts rise — right before they’d crush back down — then her whole body would blink, ripped back just to where he was, three seconds before.

“I love you. I love you so much.”

Her body motioned again, her eyes looking where he would’ve been. Where he was, once.

His arms were cold.

“It’s just this damn thing, I can get it –”

“I love you. I love you so much.”

He blinked. Her body turned to black and white fuzz, skittering along her flesh, her skin replaced with a blanket of static. Her mouth twisted inward, her textures buffering against each other, aliasing pixels ripping between the polygons that built her throat. Then the room. The the bed. Then his left eye.

He slipped off his visor, looking at the antenna hung outside the window, each flake of snow slapping into the aluminum panel. The window was cracked just enough for the wire, but not much more than that. It was enough for a draft, though, one that kept stinging his naked face every time the wind shifted, hissing at him under the sil.

With a grunt he slid the glass open wide enough to get at the antenna, smacking it with his palm, his gaunt hands aching with each small movement. The snow fell off to the sidewalk below, chunks of ice tumbling down against rotted siding. He polished it the best he could with his sleeve before collapsing back into the room.

His breath was heavy, just as it was before.

“Okay, okay, I’m coming back. I know you can hear me. I’m coming back, just wait a minute, god damn it, just wait a second.”

He slapped the rubber sensor back on his arm, his body nuzzling itself back into the corner of the room. “Fuck,” he said. The visor slid back over his eyes, more snow meeting him.

“Fucking work!”

He spat.

His hand slammed into something. He couldn’t feel it, even though he knew he could.

She flickered in. It was rapid, distorted. It happened so fast — he could feel the chemicals churn, a wave of nausea sinking into his cortex. He fell back. Gravity never felt good, never all at once. Green eyes stared back at him.

“I love you. I love you so much.”

“I’m back,” he whispered.

Her eyes twitched. He could see her lips curl up a bit. All the tension in his body left, his eyes closing gently — either in this reality or the other one. Did it matter? He was back here, with her. His Mel. Finally.

A low, clunking noise made his body jump. Red lines etched themselves into his cornea, blocky letters lit by neon tubes that weren’t real: “PLAYBACK FAILED.”

A scream echoed in the room, the headset flung to his feet.

A spit of snow on his arm welcomed him back.

Celeynn

Perhaps everything she did was an act of defiance.

A chilled wind snaked its way through the temple, slithering its way through the halls and chambers. She felt it touch the nape of her neck, her skin responding with a shiver. Her eyes were locked on the page, ignorant of anything else. A thumb pressed against the bottom of the pages, rubbing against the next page. Her fingers toyed with the paper, waiting for her eyes to catch up to their intent.

Flip.

She continued to scan, continued to absorb. Page after page. At some point, the tiny mechanisms of linguistics all start to fall away. Eventually, the process of learning, of absorbing — it becomes so addictive, so absolutely crucial, that it starts to become a challenge to place exactly where you are in the process. The information travels from the page to you, but that pathway — even the temporality of it — becomes impossible to pinpoint.

She’d always been like this. It was a curse, really.

Stick someone like her in this order, place her near this much knowledge… the end result was inevitable. That’s what she told herself, at least. Over and over. It was always so cold in here, and these books were a constant source of heat. Of warmth. They were a flame she could place her hands over and just… absorb it all.

Or maybe she was just a moth.

Did it matter?

It did. But it was like pornography. The words faded into sigils, into tantalizing secrets. Things she never was supposed to know. Things they kept from her. There was good reason for that, mind. She was aware of that. But, truthfully: if someone sets all the knowledge in the world in front of you, and you just happen to pick up the bits that are forbidden… I mean, what did they expect?

Her life was always supposed to be a certain way. She never had much of a choice in it. None of them did, really. It was just that her sisters, well, they all seemed to want to belong — to serve Her. She did too, deep down.

But in pledging service to the moon, does that mean ignoring everything else? Does it mean that there is only one path?

Her eyes closed, slowly drawing in a breath.

“Cel,” a gentle voice called from behind her.

She nearly jumped out of her chair, slapping her palm into the page — an exaggerated, if futile, attempt to censor the information on it — to keep it from prying eyes.

“By Her grace you frightened me,” she said. Her pulse thumped in her ear louder than the voice that startled her.

“You’ve been here for hours. Don’t you think you should rest?”

She let her shoulders drop, slipping the book in front of her closed around her fingers, letting them spill out from between the pages.

“I haven’t been here that long, not really.”

“Not really? You’ve been here for hours today. Days, lately. Weeks, even. You are long sense done your studies — shouldn’t you be moving on to more practical things?”

“Practical things,” she repeated under her breath, the slightest hint of distaste. “Yes, I should be spending more time with the others in ritual, but… I’ve still got a lot to learn here.”

“I saw what you were reading.”

She froze, suddenly very aware of the breeze passing through the halls. Very aware of the book still in her grasp. Very aware of the Druid behind her, and his stupid, prying amber eyes.

“It’s… interesting.”

“If I told the Priestess, would she find it interesting.”

“Please don’t.”

“Why?”

“Please… just — look, just don’t.”

“You know I wouldn’t.”

She’d known him for decades, but that still didn’t calm her nerves. She wouldn’t be able to hide that — so she didn’t. Instead she just glared at him. That’ll do it.

“I’m serious. I just am worried about you.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.”

There wasn’t even a gram of truth in that statement. There was a lot to worry about. If ever possible thread of anxiety existed in front of her right now, she could weave a damned quilt. It wasn’t just what was in those books — it was the very real knowledge that she wasn’t the only one to read them, or to ever have read them.

She was being taught one side of a coin when others had mastered the whole thing. Was she worried that one day that ignorance would haunt her? Yes. Was she also worried that the lack of ignorance would ruin her? Also yes. Funny that — sometimes, the tiniest, most seemingly innocuous scrap of knowledge can build into a curse. Once you become aware of a thing, it’s impossible to ever turn away from it.

Her fingers played against the cover of the book. He’d said nothing more, but she could still feel his glare.

“Look, I’m not about to do something stupid or drastic. I just think it’s best that we are aware of all the forces around us. I don’t think we should be using them, or even shouting about them — these things are hidden for a reason — but I can’t just act like I never heard of the shadow.”

He grimaced, shaking his head.

“You can’t be serious. I thought maybe… I didn’t really think you’d been reading up on that this whole time.”

“Well, not this whole time.”

He grunted.

“I’m going to stay quiet, but you promise me — you promise me right now — this is just another one of your sudden interests, right? Same as alchemy? You’re going to be interested and then… not?”

“Probably,” she said.

“You’ve got to do better than that.”

“Okay, fine, I promise. It’s just curiosity, nothing more.”

His frown faded a bit, though it was hardly gone. “Fine. We’re going to be heading out soon — will you come with us? Maybe breathe less musty air for a change?”

It was a lie and she knew it. This was more than curiosity. Deep down, she knew that was the case. Or, at least, part of her did. The other was confident she’d put this book away, follow her friend out of here, and be distracted by something or something else and that’d be it. She’d never return to this.

But the other part of her — it was defiant. It was stronger.

It already had her hooks in her.

 

 

 

Breaking Down Taste

Very recently I decided to put together a playlist of 100 songs as a sort of representation of my taste in music (you can find it here, if you’re interested). While that seems like a lot, I listen to a ton of music — last.fm tells me I’ve listened to nearly 900 artists, and that’s just based off of Spotify. I’m sure it easily passes 1,000 if you count YouTube, vinyl, etc.

Yet, at the same time I don’t treat listening to music as some sort of gamified collect ’em all thing. I’m a big proponent of the importance of the album, and I tend to sit with some songs for a pretty long time before moving on. Likewise, I have a stable of probably 5 – 10 bands that make up a relatively large percentage of my listening time.

And yet, when someone asks me what I listen to, answer with my favorite bands just doesn’t really seem to paint a full picture.

Here’s the thing: while it might seem a little wanky to have a 100-song playlist ready to go just in case someone asks me that question (or one like it), I’ve been in this predicament at least ten times this past year — and each time I said to myself, “Man, if only I could just share a playlist…”

Well, now I can!

Additionally, I think that this playlist says a lot about who I am — all of these songs mean something to me, and while I’m almost tempted to write something about all of them, I figured for a quick blog post I could break down the major categories that many of the songs fall in (along with a few specific examples).

So yeah. Here we go!

The Markers

A meta-meta category! These are tracks that signal something’s about to shift. Here’s what to look for:

Cabinets of Curiosity – The Chemist & The Engineer: This is the “Cabinets” line. Everything before this is stuff I think “normal” folks would enjoy. After it, things tend to get stranger, heavier, and just less listener-friendly.

Strapping Young Lad – Detox: Starting with Detox, the last ten songs are intense — with Detox being the “softest.” This is sort of my challenge to folks that have listened this far — the last ten songs are punishing, and I expect very few people to actually enjoy them.

Kamelot – Forever: While there are a few “heavy” songs before Forever, this is the first genuine no-arguments metal song on the list. From this point on, the playlist starts to ramp up toward stuff that’s heavier and more progressive.

Muse – Map of the Problematique: This is the reverse Detox — the first ten songs of the playlist are made to be super welcoming. If I wanted to look not like the kinda guy that would basically do a deep dive into his own musical taste, these are ten songs I’d show people to give them an idea of what I’m into.

Formative Tunes

These are tracks that I don’t necessarily listen to a lot these days, but they are so important to who I am that I can’t leave them out. These tracks also tended to be my “gateway drug” into specific genres.

Robert Miles – Children

Goldfrapp – Strict Machine

Massive Attack – Mezzanine

Static X – The Only

Must-Haves

These are the obvious tracks — the ones that likely get the most play, and the ones that my friends would immediately recognize.

Opeth – Ghost of Perdition

Opeth – Blackwater Park

Black Sun Empire – Arrakis

Katatonia – My Twin

Meaningful Tracks

These are tracks that I’m fond of not only because of them, well, sounding good — but also because of what they represent for me, personally. I can’t listen to these without being brought back to a very specific place.

Conjure One – Center of the Sun

VAST – Touched

Porcupine Tree – Blackest Eyes

Machinae Supremacy – Player One

Genre Posts

These tracks might not be my favorite — but they do represent their respective genres thoroughly. While these all get a lot of play, it’s more about what they represent than the individual tracks themselves.

S.P.Y – By Your Side (Liquid Drum & Bass)

Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet – inter-are (Jazz)

Soilwork – Arrival (Melodic Death Metal)

Earth – Engine of Ruin (Drone Metal)

The Extreme

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that knows me that I like a lot of extreme, weird, almost unlistenable music. I’ve stuck most of these at the bottom of the playlist, as it ramps up to “harder” and less listener-friendly tracks.

Blut Aus Nord – Epitome XVIII

Sunn O))) – Big Church

Wolves in the Throne Room – The Old Ones Are With Us

Herod – Silent Truth

Oddities

These are tracks that I included explicitly because I know that they’re unexpected. These are tracks I love that folks might not expect.

Janelle Monae – 57821

Karma Fields – For Me

Big K.R.I.T. – Keep the Devil Off

Popol Vuh – Through Pain to Heaven

… and that’s it!

I could go on and on and on, but yeah. Someone will find this post useful one day. :p

Want to write? Be impatient.

I don’t think I’m an authority on writing by any means, but I feel like after a few degrees, a publication or two, god knows how many articles, and at least one career defined by words… well, I’ve at least got a little bit of advice.

So here’s a bit I’ve been mulling over in my head recently: don’t be patient.

I think patience has its place across many artistic mediums and genres — the thing is, it tends to belong within the creation itself, not in the act of creation. Music, for example, can benefit from a little patience. Film, too. And yes, even literature. An author willing to drag you along, page by page, until the very end — holding out that big reveal, that magical line they thought of ages ago — that’s nothing but patience. But, like I said, that’s all part of the work itself — it’s baked in during its creation.

But when it comes to the creation of art — at least writing, which is the only medium I can really say I have any experience in — I think impatience is a much better virtue.

Now, I’m aware that part of this is down to my writing style. They say that writers generally fall into two categories: those that meticulously choose every word, and those that slash and burn and rip there way through whatever it is they’re doing. Thing is, I lean so heavily to the reckless abandon side of things that I can’t even relate (not even a little!) to someone that treats every sentence like some precious life-long project.

And really, when it comes down to it, I think part of being impatient is developing a cockiness — an arrogance, even. When you’re an impatient writer, you’re trusting your instincts. You’ll think of a verb, and then go with it. Could you have paused for a second and thought of a better one? Sure, you could’ve — but impatience dictates that you trust your gut.

If you’re describing someone trying to get away from something and your brain spits out “running” instead of “sprinting,” what does that tell you? You could take it to mean that your verb choice wasn’t specific enough, and that you need to try harder — or maybe you could see the simple beauty in the world “run.” Sprinting implies a specific variety of an action. Is that really what you are trying to convey? Do you really want to emphasize a sense of speed?

Impatience also dictates that you stand by your words.

Writing is all about vulnerability — and by being impatient, you are simultaneously being more and less vulnerable.

You’re being more vulnerable because you’re letting your true self be seen a bit more. Often, I feel that writers will edit themselves out of their own writing — I used to see this with my students, and now I see it professionally way too often. When someone knows eyes are on them, they’ll cut out the parts that make their writing something identifiable and replace all of those good bits with generic, AP-approved fluff.

That doesn’t mean that everything you pop out will be good. Fuck no. Most of it will be total shit. But here’s the thing: if you never let the “you” be seen in your writing, then you’re going to end up polishing the generic bits into something that’s technically perfect but utterly devoid of, well, you.

When, eventually, you have to be you in your writing — whatever that happens to mean in the moment — you’re going to collapse into existential mush. What do you even sound like? How do you even know what your writing — what you on the page — looks like?

I cannot explain how many times I see this professionally: otherwise exceptionally competent writers falling apart when I need to see their voice in a piece. And really, there’s no other explanation. How does an otherwise fantastic writer just completely forget how words work when you ask them to put more of themselves in an article?

But then there’s that bit about less vulnerability.

Here’s the thing: if you spend hours crafting your sentences and making them perfect, then when you’re inevitably told they’re shit, you’re going to crumble. And why wouldn’t you? You crafted something — and it wasn’t good enough. Your heart and soul and blood and tears and emotions and lived experienced — it all was put in there, and you relived all of it as you tried to pick the absolute perfect syntax to convey whatever it was you desperately wanted to say.

On the other hand, if you are impatient — if you trust your gut — not only are you going to not form a parental attachment to your work (which will let you treat it objectively later), you’re also not going to give a shit when it gets ripped apart.

That doesn’t mean being immune to criticism — far from it. Confidence in writing means knowing that most sentences you write won’t be great — but that’s okay. There are very few writers that pump out novels filled with line after line of beautiful prose. Even the best writers — even the best literature we’ve got — it might be filled with beauty, but there’s also a lot of stuff in the middle that’s just okay. And that’s… fine. Trust me. No one will remember your weak sentences as a writer.

Unless, of course, you have no voice, or no personality. And… well, see above for how that often happens (at least in my experience).

And yes — I know that this nugget of advice can quickly start to sound like “just don’t care.”

So let me make this clear: impatience does not mean a lack of care. It’s precisely the opposite. Impatience is writing what you want to write — what you really want to write. It’s caring less about the critic between you and the page and more about the person putting the words on it. It’s knowing that not everything you put to paper will be good, but that after doing it enough, you’ll learn what good actually is — and what good sounds like when you’re doing it.

So yeah, don’t wait. Don’t stare at the page trying to pick the perfect verb. Don’t agonize over dialog tags.

Just write something and get the fucking idea out of your head.

 

 

 

Meeting

Tired. If you had to describe him in one word, that was it.

London sat at the far end of the conference table, a half-empty tumbler full of lukewarm water sitting in front of him. A neat, leather-bound portfolio sat next to the water, an old heirloom pen tucked up against it. His thumb drummed quietly against its spine, his arm rested in such a way to avoid creasing his suit against the table.

He’d tilt his head this way and that, nodding at the other nameless businessmen in the room with him. For the most part, they ignored him. Why would they pay attention to him? He was nothing. An officer for some other part of the company they didn’t really care about, here to dawdle and act like he gave a shit — like he was really part of the team — when in reality he’d been eyeing his Submariner like a hawk, just waiting for the top of the hour.

Soon as that minute hand swung far enough, he’d fly out of there. He’d shuffle off with the rest of them, acting like he had another meeting to oh-so-urgently march on over to. In reality he’d just head to his car, throw the radio on and dream of Bermuda, or somewhere else he imagined rich white people flocked to.

He let out a deep breath, fidgeting with his watch band. Folks outside of the business world always thought fancy watches were there as a show piece. A shouty, $8,000 “look how fucking special I am” beacon. Nah. It was just because when you hit a certain point in life, all you really want to do is count the seconds until you don’t have to anymore. So why not look at something pretty? And, you know, a little bit of that showpiece stuff. A little of everything is for show. Never forget that.

“… and that’s where we’ll end for today,” an extraordinarily tall man at the opposite side of the room said. He reached over to grab his briefcase, snapping up some documents and piling them all in.

A murmuring buzz of voices all thanked him, with varying degrees of sincerity.

“Yes, yes,” was all London could get out. He was long past his days of shoveling other people’s shit into his mouth. Besides, far back here no one would notice him anyway, just like he’d like it.

He stood up, giving a courtesy nod to a woman that’d been sitting next to him. It was as tepid as his water, truthfully. But it was all he could muster.

London reached his hands over his head, stretching his neck to the side. Fucking office chairs. He had to resist cursing under his breath as he yanked his muscles back into place.

One by one they filtered out of the room, a line of ducks crossing the proverbial lake to nowhere. Or a promotion. He’d paid so little attention to the presentation he wasn’t sure if he should be happy or worried. Eh. He’d skim his email later and figure it out, anyway.

Soon enough, he was one of the last in the room. That was intentional. Their was a unit in the Army that had “First in, last out,” as a motto, and he figured it was as good as any to emblazon on his psyche. It’s amazing how much extra respect you can mine out of people when all you’re really doing is trying to get the best seat in the room — and when you’re trying to use your current meeting as an excuse to be late to your next one (even if the next one is an hour away, and you’re still thinking about that mid-day car nap).

Right as he was about to pass through the threshold of glass and metal at the border of the conference room, a tan, somewhat short man ducked into the room, immediately closing the door behind him. The motion was smooth. Practiced. He stood in front of London with a smile, gesturing to the seat like this exchange was just the most normal thing in the world.

“Please, Mr. Charles is it?”

“Just call me London, thanks.”

“London, then. Please, London. Sit.”

And so he did, without really thinking about it. He had no idea who this man was, but that wasn’t new. Not around here. There was always high turnover, and lord knows he’d been pulled into more than one meeting out of nowhere before. Hell, he even had decent practice at only looking mildly irritated as his time was sucked from his body.

“What is this about,” London said.

The man peered an eye out toward the glass for a second, immediately snapping back to London. “This is about a big choice you are going to have to make, my friend.”

“Huh?”

The man reached into his suit jacket, pulling out a piece of folded paper. He pressed it into the wooden conference table, smoothing it out and pushing it over to London. London slid it a bit further, crooking his neck to look at it.

In front of him was a spreadsheet, and on it, was every password for every officer in the organization, in alphabetical order. Suddenly, he wasn’t so tired anymore. He could feel his throat tighten.

“Do you know what this is?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Good.”

The man’s finger tapped a name, third from the top.

“You’re going to — if you want to, that is — you’re going to log in to this man’s computer,” he paused for a beat, sticking his hand back into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a small tan thumb drive, no larger than a thumbnail. “And you’re going to stick this in it. It’ll do the rest. But you’re going to go up to his office and do that.”

London didn’t know to laugh. Or to scream? Or to do anything? He always thought himself a bit of a coward, but now he was sure of it. He’d like to think at least he’d think of some way to stick up for himself in a situation like this, some brave thing he could say to defuse the situation. But he couldn’t think of anything. He couldn’t even think of what he should be doing with his eyes. Or his hands? He shuffled, looking more like a lost puppy than someone that was being asked to commit, what he imagined, was some sort of crime.

“Why?”

The man blew a puff of air out his nose.

“That’s not for you to know.”

“But… why?”

The man’s brow furrowed, black lines knitting together.

“It is not about what will happen if you don’t, it’s about what will happen if you do.”

“Huh?”

“If you do this, Mr. Charles, you will discover a cache of one-hundred thousand dollars on your porch tomorrow morning in an Amazon box. The cash will be yours, and will be in various sizes of bills, from various banks. Untraceable, truly. You will then be questioned about the why. And then you will not tell them about the money. You will only tell them about this meeting. You will tell them that I told you, very clearly, that if you did not do it, you would be killed.”

“Killed?”

“Yes,” the main said.

“That you would be killed, your parents would be found dead an hour later, and that they would discover an unsettling amount of interesting files on your hard drive.”

The knot in his throat grew. Every bead of sweat down his neck felt like lead.

“To be clear, Mr. Charles, I am not going to kill you. Even if you say no.”

London tried to swallow, but just found more spit in his mouth.

“Why,” he said again, the word more a gurgle than anything else.

“Because I am not in the business of killing people, nor is my employer. But we are in the business of making things right in the world, and if you don’t do this, someone else will. You will not get in trouble, but you will end up richer. You will end up richer and no one will fault you for it.”

London looked down at his hands. For whatever reason, while every other part of his body wanted to escape, they were calm. Just sitting there, framing the spreadsheet.

“So I can refuse?”

“Of course.”

The man’s grin was unsettling. It seemed so earnest — like was greeting an old friend. Yet he was positive he was going to die. He knew, without question, that if his next word wasn’t yes, that he would never make it to his car. And who would believe him? No one would. And so what, if he got a little money out of it? That’s blood money. It’s money for emotional damages.

“Fine.”

The man gave him a nod, tapping his index and middle finger against the paper.

“Stick the drive in the men’s bathroom on the fourth floor, under the paper towels on the sink. Make sure it’s there between 3:10 and 3:15.”

“That’s 20 minutes from now, I won’t ever make –”

“Shh,” the man said. “Go now, then.”

He did as he was told, leaving the conference room. He saw his reflection in the glass, but he didn’t recognize it. Or the building. Or anything.

He still wasn’t sure why he was alive, or if he would be. He just knew that his body was taking itself to the fourth floor.

The door gently shut behind him.

Better hang on tight.