Man wields rusted spear.
His mind is sharper than steel.
He cuts through all foes.
He’d never heard of impostor syndrome.
He sat forward in his office chair. Slowly sipped his coffee and Kahlua cocktail.
Lukewarm coffee. More Kahlua than coffee.
In his sci-fi saturated brain, impostor syndrome was a sentient extraterrestrial virus. Virus xeroxes DNA before leaking from nostrils. Leakage hardens into a cocoon. Cocoon births a pristine copy of Original. Copy swiftly snorts Original up its nostril like cocaine infused Jello. Copy overtakes life– marriage, job, etc. Copy’s superior to Original.
He dumped coffee in trash and clicked send on resignation email before exiting office.
Copy’s already succeeding where he’s failed.
He propped his leg on the chipped windowsill as he emptied what was left of the pill bottle past his lips.
Clouds in the sky. Gray clouds.
Looked like rain.
He hoped it wasn’t rain. The integrity of the roof in that dilapidated building couldn’t take another washout.
Cracks in the ceiling were spreading. The leaks were decaying the walls.
Thank goodness he didn’t keep too many of his important files there.
Time for a new office.
He reached past the powder vial in his breast pocket to draw his stuffed envelope.
A faded picture fell out of his pocket and onto his lap.
He picked up the picture and stared at it a while before placing it in his pocket, closest to his heartbeat, once again.
Rest easy, Sister Nanci.
He stared at the wrinkled envelope.
It’s an envelope he’d been carrying around for weeks. An envelope some street fiend would have gutted him to get their hands on. An envelope he should have used to repair the moldy roof, or a lease on an entirely new office on the North Side of town. An envelope he thought of gifting to someone far more deserving than he was instead of pissing it away on another commercial space.
She can do so better than this dump.
He stuffed it in his pocket before washing down the pills with a mix of two day old cup of rancid coffee, melted ice with a splash of vodka.
His vacation was imminent. It was seven days away and no amount of old joe, case files or expensive street pharmaceuticals were going to keep him in the city past seven days. It wasn’t his reservation to cancel. The vacation was happening whether he wanted it to or not. And, something told him that it would be a trip from which he would never return.
“Your desk is full,” My assistant said from the doorway behind a cart with a single file.
“Sorry.” He turned to face her and nearly kicked a tower of files from his desk. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Into the office?” She asked.
“Into work,” He replied.
“I’ve been here since morning, Malone.”
He was buried so deep in his thoughts, so focused on his works, that a marching band could have set off a fireworks display in his waiting room and he wouldn’t have noticed.
“Have something for me?” He asked.
“Work.” She handed him a file.
“I was hoping for coffee.” He stared into his empty cup.
“You’re out of coffee,” She said.
He placed the empty mug on his desk. “I figured… If you have time.”
He hadn’t left the office in a few days. Maybe weeks. He couldn’t recall the last t..ime he hit the market for food.
“I’ll buy coffee,” His assistant offered.
“That’s kind of you,” He said.
“It’s nothing,” She took his mug.
He hadn’t eaten in days. He’d been so distracted in his mad rush to solve cases before his vacation that he kept forgetting to eat.
He felt normal. He felt no pain. No weakness. His stomach was unusually silent for someone who is starving themselves to death.
“Anything else?” His assistant gestured for the empty pill bottle he was squeezing.
He was gripping the bottle so tight it had left his fingernail dents in the empty white label.
“No thanks.” He pocketed the empty bottle. “Just coffee.”
She cleared old cigarette butts from his desk and ashtray. “There’s a client.”
No time for any new cases.
“Uh huh.” He flipped through the new file. “Where?”
“The waiting room…”
“Will you meet with him?”
He had more important things to do than to take on a new case. Also, it wasn’t like he needed the money. He had more money than he needed to take care of himself and to pay for a new faucet for the bathroom and paint to cover up the green fuzz growing on the walls.
He felt her staring at him. “Yes?”
Her posture was like one of those billboards in Time Central. Blaring, bright and boisterously advertising her innermost thoughts. All she needed was a cigarette and an over the top pose.
“Ask me anything, alright?” He faced her.
She huffed. “Are you leaving again?”
“Yes.” He returned his attention to the file. “Soon.”
“How long this time?” She asked.
Wish I had answers for you.
“Last time it was weeks.” His assistant cleared all the solved case files from his desk. “How long this time?”
“A few days, hopefully,” He answered.
“That’s what you said last time,” She answered.
“Sorry,” He replied.
“Need someone… to water your plants?” She asked.
He shut his file and clasped his eyes. “Yes…. Please. That would be appreciated.”
He loved his plants. His plants were colorful and too beautiful for that world. He would hate to return from his vacations to see his beloved plants dried up.
His assistant perched her lips. “Okay.”
“Slip this into a red folder.” He drew a pen and wrote a few notes in the file before placing the file on top of the pile. “File it under solved.”
“I just handed you that file,” His assistant opened the file.
“I know.” He replied. “It’s connected to the big arson case we just solved.”
He remembered the Arson case being an open and shut one. The Police Chief wanted to give him credit and the keys to the city for that one. He refused. He neither wanted nor needed anymore accolades from the city.
“I’ll have the courier collect it,” She placed the file evenly atop the tower of solved cases in her cart. “And I’ll tell the client in the waiting room you solved his case.”
“Thanks,” He said.
“How much should I charge him?”
“Nothing… Tell him it’s on the house.”
“Will do…” The little lady shuffled quietly out of his office before he could reply to her insistence on seeing the client in the waiting room.
He faced the window again but didn’t bother reclining.
He thought about his cases were getting easier to solve, and how there was no need to leave his office anymore to solve them. Much like he never needed to see a chess board for more than a second to beat the pants off of a park hustler. He learned early in his career that people in that city were walking-talking game pieces– at most, wind up toys. Everybody’s movements. Everybody just played their positions from sunrise to sundown. Wake to sleep. Birth to death. People in the city were like flesh-carved chess pieces, and Rose city was the overcrowded, noisey, polluted game board, tearing at folds in the center and barely being held together with flimsy tape; and all he needed to see was a first move. One move and then he could step away from the table, and call in checkmate from a pay phone from the South Side of town.
He grabbed his scarf, hat and pistol.
He once considered himself lucky for his omniscience. He once considered himself God’s favorite– if a God existed. It took him six vacations to realize the truth.
Truth was, he was cursed. He was being force-fed things his tired mind and deteriorating body could barely handle.
He needed some air.
The one case he couldn’t solve was his own– what’s happening to him. The human brain wasn’t built for what he was being forced to carry. There was no way to stop it. His next vacation was going to kill him.
He needed a cold shower and a hot meal.
He threw on his hat, holstered his pistol in his pocket and wrapped his scarf around his neck before leaving his office.
He waved to his Assistant as he walked past her and some other guy in the waiting room. “Take the rest of the week.”
“Malone…” His assistant chased him into the hallway. “Are you leaving now?”
“Just heading out for some air,” He paused allowing her to catch up.
“And you’re coming back, right?” His assistant questioned. “For your coffee.”
He peeked back into my office and noticed a small, jittery looking man slouched over in our rickety waiting room chair.
“Maybe tomorrow,” He said.
“I won’t make it until then.” She painted a smirk across her face. “The coffee.”
“Thanks.” He pulled the fat envelope from my pocket and handed it to her. “Take the kid out for a steak.”
The contents of the envelope would allow her to buy steak dinners three times a week for the next month. Knowing her, she would use forego the luxury and spend it on something more responsible rent and groceries for the next six (months).
She took the envelope. “He doesn’t eat steak.”
“Pie then,” He said. “Get pie.”
She nodded while examining the envelope.
The envelope he handed her could be severance pay. He hadn’t decided yet. It may not be his decision after all after he goes on his forced vacation.
“Thank you,” She said.
His assistant didn’t even check the envelope. She just held it in her hand like an empty pack of cigarettes.
He called the elevator.
He didn’t deserve her. Not only was his assistant the lifeblood of their agency, she was the most honorable, warm-hearted person he’d ever meet. She was a partner, a friend; the closest thing to a wife and family he’d ever have in his waking life.
“I’ll buy fresh coffee.” She tapped him on the chest with the envelope. “And some new chairs for the waiting room.”
“That would be nice,” He replied.
The elevator arrived.
He stepped into the elevator.
She waved at him as the door closed and the elevator descended.
He stuffed his hands in his pocket instead of waving back.
He was never good at goodbyes.
The elevator rumbled down to the first floor. He saluted the door man before leaving my building for the darkness and the drizzle.
His car was parked out front.
He tightened his top button started his way up the damp street in the opposite direction from his apartment.
The Stockton’s had a monopoly on refueling stations. On all energy in the city. He’d sooner walk in the rain and catch pneumonia than to give those gluttonous bastards another cent of his cash.
“Sir,” A sheepish voice called from his flank.
If he had to guess based on his voice, his stalker was an unimposing man. The nail-biter from the waiting room must have been following him for a good mile.
“Mr. Malone, I was hoping you’d take this case,” nail biter said.
“It’s closed,” He replied. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
He wasn’t even in the mood to humor nail-biter.
“It’s not,” nail biter insisted.
Arson. A hospice ward full of coma patients incinerated by a lone wolf lunatic. It was an open and shut case. One of the easier cases to solve.
“Mr. Malone, you’re the only one who can solve this case.” The stout little guy positioned himself in front of him.
“Nothing left to solved,” He said. “The arsonist is getting the chair in a week.”
Executions were speedy in that city. Trials were quick and efficient. To save space in the overflowing jails. Soulless but practical.
“No…” Waiting room man blocked his path. “You locked up the wrong guy.”
“What’s your name?” He asked.
“Cyrus,” Waiting room man replied.
“Okay Cyrus,” He jabbed his finger into Cyrus’s chest. “I caught the right guy.”
“Not this time,” Cyrus said.
That Cyrus fellow was really trying his patience.
“Get home safely.” He stepped around Cyrus and started walking.
“You’ve got seven days right?” Cyrus said. “Your sleep cycle. Seven days until you go on your vacation.”
He paused. “What did you say?”
“I know what happens when you sleep, Mr. Malone,” He said. “Where you go….”
He drew his pistol grabbed Cyrus with his free hand and slammed the portly man against a store gate.
“I have visions too!” Cyrus pleaded as he gasped for air. “You and I are the same!”
He pressed his pistol against Cyrus’s temple. “Choose your next few words carefully.”
There was only one person in the city who about his vacations and she’d died months ago.
Rest easy, Sister Nanci.
He nearly Cyrus’s front teeth shoving his pistol in his mouth. “Say something useful.”
If the man know about his… then he’d know about how to fix it. If Cyrus didn’t know how to fix him, then he would have to immediately remove Cyrus from the equation.
“The arsons… my visions… your Insomnia…” Cyrus coughed. “Where you disappear to twice a year…Its all connected.”
He removed the pistol from Cyrus’s mouth and took a step back. “Connected how.”
Cyrus hunched over, trying to recapture his breath.
“Connected how?” He asked again. “Answer now.”
Cyrus stood tall and handed him an envelope. “You’re the only one capable enough to find out.”
He opened the envelope.
On the inside was a tape labeled Sister Nanci, and it was dated on the label as recorded seven days ago.
“First, we listen,” Cyrus said. “Then we bring her back from the dead.”
My tenth birthday was a full sixty years before my final birthday.
I somersaulted over the gate and landed in an ankle deep excrement pie. There was no time to clean my boots so I quickly abandoned them on the porch before sprinting into my cabin.
“Morning mother,” I said.
My mother nodded.
I was up long before the sun to feed the chickens early so my mother could not scold me for not taking care of the coups and the stocks before breakfast. So I was free to sit by the big unmarked box in the living room, near the fireplace.
Mother cleaned and brewed Ginger Coffee while grandfather sucked on a pipe.
“Can I open it now?” I asked
“Have a seat?” My mother ordered.
I nodded and took my seat quietly at the kitchen counter.
“You need your srength,” Mother said.
“Grandpa says understanding self is as important as building strength,” I said.
Mother placed a steaming bowl of fish porridge before me and started wiping the counter. “Your grandfather will never be drafted.”
“I can still scrap,” Grandfather coughed.
Mother stared at Grandfather. “If he’s not strong enough to wield the armor…”
“Then he’ll get lighter armor,” Grandfather answered.
My mother slammed her rag on the counter. “And less protection.”
“He won’t grow much bigger than he is.”
“Yes he will, father…”
“Let the boy discover what is best for him,” Grandpa lowered his pipe. “What’s best may not be a heavy suit of armor. ”
“What’s best won’t matter if he’s dead, father.”
“I will check on the chickens,” Mother said before leaving.
I fed them already.
“And some more tobacco, please dear,” Grandpa said.
“You have legs,” Mother shot back.
The poultries and meats were reserved for the Shining Knight brigade. Nothing more important than to support God’s mandate to expand the Potentate’s vast kingdom. We had mud-salmon for protein.
Mother’s seasoning masked the bitter taste of Mud Salmon.
I was happy to support the war effort by tolerating a few more months of mud salmon for breakfast. Anything for our divine potentate. Anything for our Glittering Knights.
“Did you thank the Gods?” Grandfather asked.
I nodded. “And the empire.”
“Then, open your gift,” Grandfather said.
I looked over my shoulder.
I was far from finished with my breakfast and I didn’t want to incur mother’s wrath.
“I’ll deal with your mother,” I said.
“Thank you!” I leaped off my stool.
Grandfather grabbed my shoulder.
“Patience,” Grandfather said.
I slowly approached the box.
The box seemed even bigger than when grandpa brought it into the house a week earlier.
I took a breath. I removed the ribbon. I removed the lid. I reached in. I pulled out what looked like…
“A pan?” I said.
I reached in again. Pan lids strung together with chains and leather.
“Your new armor,” Grandfather said.
I wiped away a tear. “I love it…”
I loved it because it was mine. I didn’t care how it was made. I didn’t care how inexpensive it was. I planned to train in it to make it an extension of me.
“Thank you, grandfather,” I said.
He stood in the hallway, fogging the glass as he peered into his office.
There were thick files waiting for him on his desk. There were mounts of paper about to tip over like dominos into each other.
He thought of his career. He thought of how many trees were destroyed to create those mountains. He thought of skipping lunch so he could escape an hour early. He thought of how much he missed his dog, and how much they both loved to spend their -unemployed-days taking terrible selfies and rescuing spiders from his wife. He thought of how much he missed his wife, and how lucky she was to work from home. And how lucky he was to work.
I miss you buddy…
He shut the door. He slung his backpack over his chair and powered his computer.
He was beginning to think they were right about him doing too much.
He was a writer. A DJ. A filmmaker. A part time sous-chef and a crime fighter dubbed by the social media as The Master Chef. He was also well known liar– to himself and his peers.
He grabbed a stack of paper and loaded it onto the outdated scanner. He pressed the on button.
The scanner was jammed.
He sighed. “Brick by brick…”
He reclined his chair.
Its going to be a long day.
I place the last of his belongings in the alley.
His leash. His stuffed squirrel. His squeak toy. The citronella collar we sometimes used to keep him quiet. And lastly his bed.
He adored his bed.
The truck. Droning closer. At the top of the alley. Crushing discarded memories house by house.
My stomach turned.
The truck will swallow all I have left of him. The truck will cement the empty, circular space where my sweet pup used to reside. The space will become a bottomless well, filled to the brim with tears for my furry son.
I return home.
I stifle my laughter just long enough to draw my Great-sword.
My opponent has a rice pot for a helmet and small frying pan lids for shin, and elbow guards while my armor glitters as it was forged in the sun’s corona using minerals from the far side of the moon– armor I received from my uncle at my recent birthday. My opponent looks more like the town beggar than an actual warrior.
We were yards from the rogue village. I can see into the empty town from the empty road– our battleground. I can almost see their eyes peeking from the cracks in their window shutters.
They will watch me break their champion. Slaughtering their village was unnecessary because defeating their champion will break their spirits. They’ll beg to be folded back into the kingdom. They’ll have the privilege to bow to us once again.
I turn my attention back to the opponent before me.
He was wheezing heavily. My opponent’s mouth is buried beneath his coal and ash peppered beard. He is diminutive and frail and has yet to show he can lift his spear.
I am amused, but also disrespected by the champion the village sent forward to face me. Of all This will be easy.
“Surrender,” I command.
The broken old man lifts his spear.
“Is there nobody else?!” I call towards the village.
The old man grunts.
I lift my sword. “Alright then.”
His crudely made armor will shatter easily, but not on first impact. His armor was made of old pots, but they were metal nonetheless. They’ll require one or two strikes before I’m able to cleave through his bones. His neck was unprotected, so I figure two strikes and I will have his head.
I lower my helmet and and take small steps towards my opponent.
I want to punish the feeble old man for wasting my time and tricking me into donning my new armor.
My opponent backs way from me.
I pause. “You won’t outrun me.”
My opponent raises their spear and pauses.
I’ll easily overwhelm him. I’m stronger. Faster. Younger.
I raise my sword. “Goodbye, sir..”
I rush my opponent and bring my sword down on his head.
My sword strikes dirt.
My opponent’s spear pierces the side of the knee, beneath the hinge. He withdrew just out of my reach before I could counterstrike with a slash of my sword.
I’m bleeding through my armor. My armor is stained in blood red and dirt brown.
I stalk my opponent and follow him off-road and into the dirt.
My opponent circles back towards the road but remains within striking range. His spear is raised but he’s leaving his whole right side open.
I swing at his right side.
He parries and throws his body into my chest, knocking me off balance.
I slash again but fail to connect because my opponent has already retreated to outside of my range.
I am blind for a moment. I’m rattled.
I couldn’t see the hit coming.
I shake it off and start applying more pressure to my opponent.
I’m faster but none of my attacks are connecting. The harder I push the more I’m fumbling over myself.
The old man is moving blindingly swift in his armor made of rusted pots and pans.
I’m moving like cement in my celestial armor.
I attack with all my might. All my speed.
I’m hoping to tire him out but I’m taking brain rattling hits to the head and stabs to the tender spots in my armor.
I’m striking where he’s standing and either meeting resistance or empty air.
It’s not as if he’s moving very fast either. The old man just seems to know where to be like a magician. Like he has precognition.
“Enough,” I say as I fall to my knees from exhaustion and all the blows I took to my helmet. “You win.”
The old man staggers towards me and steps on my sword.
My sword is too heavy to lift, especially from beneath my opponents tattered boots.
“Nice armor.” The old man removes my helmet with the blunt end of his spear. “Is it yours.”
I don’t answer.
“How did I beat you?:” He asked.
“You tired me out,” I say.
“You tired yourself out,” He replies.
My head was pounding and I was starting to feel pain in all of my joints from stab wounds, and from small punctures and incisions from the old man’s spear.
He takes a seat besides me and lights a pipe.
I could smother him where he sat. My armor would be too heavy for him to push me off. I could finish this-
“Relying too much on your advantages was your greatest disadvantage,” He says.
I release my blade. “I don’t understand.”
“If you’re lucky, you’ll live to be a broken old man like me,” He exhaled a smoke ring. “Then what will be without your speed, strength, and youth?”
I recognize the sweet scent of smoke. It was the sweet scent of Jane flower. It was often used by peasants as an opiate to calm the body or suppress pain. His hand trembled as he extended the pipe to me.
I take a quick pull of the old man’s pipe.
The pain quickly disappears and all my regret and disappointment is replaced with a blissful emptiness and clarity.
“Know your weaknesses better than anyone,” The old man stands and returns to the road. “You understand?”
I stand and nod.
Two arrows strike the old man in the back.
I look over my shoulder.
An Imperial archer aiming another arrow at the old man.
I stagger towards the bleeding old man and turn him on his side. “I didn’t order this.”
The old man laughs and gags on his own blood. “I guess my weakness is mercy.”
The old man’s head rolls back and so does his eyes.
An imperial army materializes behind the archer.
I. Had. Nothing.
I changed brush sizes. Stepped to the side to view my unfinished painting from another angle, praying to myself for inspiration.
It had been a millennia since I was motivated to create something. Still not motivated. A millennia since I’d had the confidence to continue my work. Confidence, missing.
I took a breath.
Those seven days of creativity swelled my belly with painful nostalgia. And with regret.
Those seven days were something special.
I’d spent eternities trying to recapture that fire. That confidence to saturate that empty canvas with life. But all I’ve ever received was dry brimstone. Inspiration which presented themselves in the flesh, but crumbled through my fingers like ash in my arms each time I reached to embrace them.
“Day eight,” I whispered to myself. “On the eighth day, I resumed.”
I had intended to complete my work. To fill each part of the cosmic canvas with life and color. From corner to corner, the infinite blank space was to be overflowing with vibrant, abstract, unpredictable existence.
I drew my brush from the easel and stopped short of adding another stroke to the blank canvas. The incomprehensible void.
The first part of the creation took her a whole seven days. The story is after seven days I rested. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real story was more like…. On the seventh day… She got suffered a block On the seventh day she got frustrated and snapped her paintbrush in two.
The four dimensional paint I was to use to expand my universe was drying.
There was a can of oblivion-black can of paint in the corner.
I woke up at dawn, of the new millennia with so many fresh ideas. So many ways to enhance what I had already accomplished in those seven powerful, ambitious, creative, flowing days. What I thought was another bang, an explosion of inspiration, was no more than an aftershock of the original. It was false hope. My mind playing tricks on me.
I took a step back to view my incomplete painting in its infinite totality.
Was it imperfection? Was it truly unfinished, or was I just eternally dissatisfied with my work? Will I ever be satisfied?
I added a brush stroke along the empty corner of the canvas.
I added color to the empty space, but it only expanded the void within me.
“Ugh”, I threw my brush to the ground.
I was a failure. There was nothing to improve. The problem wasn’t the painting. It was me, the creator. The incomplete creation was a result of me, the incomplete creator.
Genesis was a fluke.
I picked up the can of oblivion-black paint, opened the lid, and aimed it at the canvas.
It was time to start over. To stop wasting any more time on that creation. It’s always easier to start over.
I tossed oblivion black paint on the canvas and ended my creation once and for all.
He blinked rapidly trying to rid his irritated left eye of the rapidly expanding red meter.
His therapist didn’t believe him. Nobody ever does. He regretted even making the appointment.
His therapist sat there, tapping her cleft chin with her designer pen.
He wanted to stand up right there and leave the room. The display in his eyes- something akin to a power meter in a role playing game- in the corner of his eyes was blinking fast. The word warning started to appear in bold white letters whilst the room was starting to light up like a Soviet submarine.
“You see things…” His therapist inquired.
“Yes,” He replied.
“You see a meter that reads your stress levels.”
“Something like that.”
She was questioning him like he was crazy. Maybe he was crazy. But he paid her hourly to make him feel better about himself. Like a whole person. Not to judge him with her eyes.
He sat forward from his sofa with the intention to leave.
“You leaving?” She asked.
“No,” He fibbed.
“Please don’t leave.”
“Okay,” He laid back on the sofa.
His stress meter was full to capacity. The blinking lights ceased and steadied. The room was a steady red. His muscles felt like wet sandbags.
“Still see it?” His therapist asked.
He sank in his seat. “That’s correct.”
“And this is a result of a head injury,” His therapist asked.
“A concussion,” He added.
“And how did you get this concussion?”
“I tripped… Trying to fix a light bulb.”
I tried to hang myself and the rope snapped and I hit my head.
His therapist wrote something in her notebook.
“What are you writing?” He asked.
His therapist lifted her head from her notebook. “How do you feel about these, visions?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
His therapist stared at him in silence.
He asked. “You don’t believe me.”
“I believe you,” His therapist replied. “These visions could be a good thing.”
“The ability to see your negative feelings rise. Like, a pressure gauge on a steam pipe.”
Wow… She wasn’t judging him. He was just being paranoid as usual. Relief.
“Never thought of it that way,” He said.
The room faded to normal colors as his red gauge slowly declined. The bold warning letters disappeared and was replaced by a more subtle critical which rested at the bottom corner of his eye.
“This meter can be helpful to you,” His therapist reached over and touched his hand. “Feelings are harder to ignore when they’re visualized right in front of you.”
He smiled. “You’re right.”
His stress meter dropped to zero and within seconds, his one full blood red bar was now half-filled with a neon green.
“Thank you doc,” He said.
“We’re glad to help,” His therapist replied. “Take care.”
He grabbed his coat and opened the door.
A nagging thought prevented him from leaving. Her parting words…
“Yes?” His therapist asked.
“You said we’re glad…” He said. “Who is we?”