Editor’s Note: This is the first short story of many that CCD hopes to post in the coming months. If you have a short story you would like to submit (please keep it under 5,000 words) please send the submission, a brief bio, and a photo to editor [at] camelcitydispatch [.] com.
By Clay Howard
I was standing in the kitchen of my home, surrounded by my wonderful children when it hit me. I was dead. It was April of 2014, at least to the memories being generated by my train wreck of a dying brain. Oh, it did not know until that moment that it was dying, but it was dying nonetheless.
In reality it was the early summer of 1986 and I was probably lying in a ditch, the result of one too many beers mixed with a set of keys. Drinking and driving was a recreational activity back in those days… These days… whichever.
I had probably been receiving clues that this life was not real the entire span of my dying breaths in that ditch. Sure, I could remember almost 30 years of living, but they were not real. The brain is a powerful thing, you know.
In that early summer of the latter part of Reagan’s reign, I was a recently graduated 18 year old, who seemingly had the world ahead of him, but was in reality just as aimless as most 18 year old boys. The road ahead was clearly defined- 4 years of college baseball, followed by a lifetime of work as I rise through the ranks of some faceless mega-corporation, make money, retire and then die.
I really wanted to be a musician or a writer, but everyone from my friends all the way to grandparents frowned upon those things, and who was I to rock the boat. So I rolled with the flow that summer, hanging out with my friends, until they one by one either disappeared off to school, or to a job, or simply drifted away. I drank a lot that summer with my buddies, and it must have been on one of those nights that I died, but more about that in a while.
After my friends started slipping away, I began my college career at a small Southern college that I will not name here, wouldn’t matter- I’m not really writing this anyway…HA!
That first and only year at that school is still a blur, even in these made up memories; I have fogged those to protect myself, as the fiction must have been close to the real suffering my body was enduring. A brief description of what is recalled would be: beer, girls, beach, girls, beer and then a little more beer. Notice anything missing? Yep- school. I do not remember what a classroom in that place looked like, because I do not think I entered one. That can’t be real can it?
After that failed attempt at school, I returned to my parent’s home. Funny thing, I was not ashamed of my failure; I merely accepted it and tried my best to one up that attempt. I took part-time jobs and made new party friends to continue living the life of a true idiot, all the while living rent free and high on the hog.
These created memories that am I blabbering on and on about here, drop out for a few years at this point. I think it is because I truly slipped away for a few minutes to a place best left unspoken. I can say it is probably really hot there, though.
A funny digression in these dying thoughts- One constant thing I can recall is the music. I mentioned the brain is a powerful thing- check this out: during my fading moments in that ditch, in which my brain created an entire life- it also created an amazing soundtrack. Songs that had not been written were released, went away and became classics 30 years later- all in the span of a few moments in which my brain was purging itself of this life. Bands, genres and sounds were invented and spun into a wonderful tapestry of aural pleasure. If I could share them, believe me-Beethoven would look like a middle school metal band- talentless and boring. (Is there such a thing as metal, or was that a piece of my dying tapestry?) Maybe I should have become a musician? Maybe then I would not have been driving drunk and died way back in 1986…But that might be leaking too much of the plot here, huh….
The unfair thing about realizing that your life was not even real? The pain of loss is still just as real. As time passes, people pop in and out of life and keep a piece of you with them each time. We keep a part of them too, and when they die, that little piece that they kept comes back and eats away at our emotions like a cancer cell spreading throughout your body. Too many real friends passed away in my fake life. All tragically- suicide was a top seller in my brains attempt at creating a veil of life to cover my death. In this fictional life I live, no less than 5 of my friends die in this manner. Early heart attacks, murder and accidents take away a few more. It would seem that since my brain was manufacturing a future for my benefit, it would be FOR my benefit, not as painful as a real life. But what do I know- I’m just a guy lying in a ditch smelling of death, covered in his own blood and vomit, finally glimpsing that a full life will never be mine, and these memories of one are all fabricated.
If this ever makes it to the hands of a living person, and that person finds me in the afterlife- Let me know if the real thing is so painful. I hope it is not, for all of you.
As my “life” progressed into that distant world of the 21st Century, (see- I told you it was all fake- in that time frame I would be in my 40’s….HA-that is so old!) I watched our world change in ways that no one would ever imagine. Some of these changes were probably clues that none of it was real.
Here’s one thing- in high school we had 2 computers. Both were Apple IIE computers with no hard drive and a green screen that displayed pretty much only text. Computer games were text based….(if you are reading this in the real world, this is not weird. If you are reading this in that made up future I am speaking of- kinda funny, huh? Games with no images…) At the time of my realization in my kitchen in April of 2014, I had a computer that I carried around in my pocket. At my disposal was all the knowledge of the modern world- accessible for less than $200 a month!
Here is another. On these computers there are ways to connect with every person you have ever known. In our real world of 1986, if you want to know what your old classmates are up to, you go to class reunions and see them.
In my death-created April of 2014 you simply log into your pocket computer (we call them smart phones, by the way- smart phones!? HA!) and click on their social networking page. That leads me to another thing that my brain fabricated- friendships do not involve real interaction- you can simply click a button to show support- no need for a hug, or a phone call- just click a button and you are good. And friendship is called social networking, that is another thing my dying brain decided was good- to make language bigger and life smaller.
See? I told you my brain had made up a doozy of a life!
Most of my 20s followed the path created by the summer of 1986 and that freshman year of college. That all changed in my late 20’s, when a child was brought into my world, and I decided that drinking was something best left to others- I had simply become too good at it, and others needed a chance-So, I let them have that chance.
Sobriety was pretty good to me, and my series of meaningless jobs became a much smaller thread of jobs that lead to more- culminating in a job in which I actually helped people- another clue that death was near, or had already taken me.
More children followed, and with them came a sense of being needed, a sense of fulfillment. Another funny thing- you would think that a life handed to you in your dying minutes would be easy- no struggle for money, no sleepless nights of worry. Although no time actually passed in this “life,” I vividly remember tossing and turning in worry over household finances.
Some of the first clues as to my existence being fake started appearing after the birth of my fourth child…. and by the way, the thought that those precious children are not real and delighting an actual world with their mortal pieces of miraculous love is the most heartbreaking aspect of my discovery that my life is only the parting images of my dying brain. Believe me real world- you missed out on greatness.
After my youngest was “born,” I found myself engulfed in nostalgia for my school years- an era that I had not dared to think about in over 25 years. Those years seemed so full of promise, much like the children who called me “Dad.”
Events from my childhood would flash into my mind in bright Technicolor blasts. A birthday party at age five, doing cartwheels with my mom at a house we moved from when I was three, being paddled in fourth grade for kicking a kid in the head with my new cowboy boots- all these things would simply pop into my consciousness randomly.
Remember the thing I mentioned called “social media?” I started getting notices from people who lived in that small town I grew up in. I have not lived there since I was ten years old, but I started getting requests to connect with folks that I had no recollection of, and had probably never met. Since my sense of longing for those days had peaked in interest due to the flood of memories, I always accepted these invitation to connect, and occasionally would see comments that did mention people I had known in my youth.
One thing I should mention: since I had kids, I obviously had a wife. We were close, but so busy that I never noticed that we never really shared anything of importance. Since I have realized that this is all some kind of life mirage created by brain trying to cope with the off switch being thrown, I understand why this never really caused any problems- it was not real.
Damn, it felt real though. If it is possible that there is a consciousness after all “this”- I will miss her as much as those wonderful kids.
In addition to the clues created by my increased focus backwards in time, the strange inventions of instant access to knowledge and humanity without actual interaction continued to point towards a world that was not real.
The final clue comes in the form of an overlap of these aspects. One evening as I click through status updates on my social network, I see a photo of me with a caption below that reads, “The last time we saw him. Today is the 28th anniversary. RIP.”
I had seen jokes like this before, but suddenly did not find it very funny. The next photo down in the timeline, as we call it in my brain induced fantasy world of anonymous friends and distance relations, is the house I grew up in, for sale. I glance to see who the owner of this photograph is, and realize it is someone I do not know, or have ever met, even virtually. I decide to put my smart phone back in my pocket and go get a snack ready for the kids who are making noises at the door, like a pack of animals ready to stampede.
There is a moment in the kitchen as the kids come screaming in, when it is all clear to me. This is not real. I can see flashing lights, and feel something wet on my forehead. I know it is blood, and I realize the awful truth- I am dying.
I have a feeling that time is running out, in fact, I know it is, because I am losing sight of what it was that led me here, so I will wrap it up.
I can feel the grass under my cheek now, and I see my little car, or what is left of it laying on it side to my left. A man is trying to strap me to a board to move me and is repeatedly asking questions to see if I am aware of my situation…
“Who is the president?”
“What Year is it?”
I know I am giving answers, and chuckle when I realize that this man has no idea what a Barack Obama is…. And must think I am batshit crazy to be saying it is 2014.
I close my eyes, thinking that it is finally over, and then….
I am back in my kitchen, surrounded by my kids. It is the moment of my realization again. I am now stuck in a place where I have seen both past and future and am aware that I am no longer here, and that this is not real.
I grab my kids and hold them as long as I can, tell them I love them and take them outside to push them on the swing. The joy found in pushing a smiling child on a swing is as close to heaven as I will ever find, I fear and cherish at the same time.
As I rush from one swing to the next to keep them all going, the sun gets brighter and brighter, and I know it is time.
We had a saying in high school, “It’s been real.” What the hell do kids know? Ha ha.
The brain is a powerful thing, and in my case, and maybe everyone’s in that moment of dying, it gave me the one thing I would never really have- more time. A future. A life. It may have only taken a few minutes on the side of a road, but those 30 years of love and the experiences of fatherhood, marriage, happiness, sadness, failure and success were mine.
I push the swings one last time and
it is done.
Clay Howard, is also the author of the successful children’s book, The Energy Thief, published in the Fall of 2012. His first short story collection, 3 Stories, was published in Fall 2010. Another short story collection, Tupelo Stories, was released in December 2011. In Summer of 2012, Clay released another collection of his short fiction, Storyteller, on amazon.
He is the Assistant Director at one of the largest business incubators in North Carolina.
In addition to writing short stories, Clay is a contributing music writer to several local entertainment magazines and online blogs. He is also an accomplished songwriter, having released 11 cds over the last 10 years, most recently with the independent band, stratocruiser.
You can find Clay HERE.