Sunday, June 16, 2013

If Only... by Miriam Ruff

Nathan logs into an online chat room to talk to his unusual friend Jeffrey about life with a facial disfigurement; by Miriam Ruff.

Darkness poured through the still-open curtains, but Nathan barely noticed. The bright light of technology's wonders - computers, recorders, editing boards, and more - bathed him and the room in a warm glow, staving off the darkness, and he basked in its comfort. He barely looked around the small apartment. He knew what all the walls held without having to look - a bizarre mix of strange and serene images - picture-perfect models, a large cardboard Rambo, a dozen or so science fiction aliens, Dirty Harry, Travis Bickle. To Nathan, they had been there for such a long time that they were simply part of his world. He ignored them to smile instead at the numerous gleaming gadgets before him.

His workstation was clean, as if it were prized above all his other possessions; the rest of the room was a disaster. Clothes, disks, and empty food wrappers lay everywhere in disarray, the shelves bent under the strain of the books heaped on them, and numerous bottles of pills covered the counter top. Under piles of clothes in another corner of the room stood a television and a radio, both blaring loudly, but tuned to nothing in particular; they were simply a source of white noise to fill the room. Yet oddly enough, there were no mirrors, as if the apartment hid a man who did not want to be seen in the light, even by himself. Of average height and build, with brown hair and wearing a T-shirt and jeans, he seemed in many ways the most unremarkable object in the entire space.

His computer, though, sported numerous remarkable enhancements, including digital and Web-based cameras, specialized software, a voice synthesizer box which was now silent, and a video transmitter. With a movement that looked like a fluid cross between a rock star and a talk show host, Nathan leaped in front of the computer, turned it on, and grabbed a laser pen from the desk. Pretending it was a microphone, he spoke into it, his hands gesticulating wildly and expressively, his voice resonating - a strong, captivating, well-modulated sound.

"And here we are, live once again, with our fabulous host Nathan Drake. Handsome, suave, debonair; men envy him, women love him. He's every kid's dream come true, and he'll take you on an unforgettable journey into realms no one's ever explored. Ladies and gentlemen, here with his Pentium dream machine, is Nathan Drake!" He paused a minute, then added, "And the crowd goes wild!" raising his hands in "acknowledgment" of their support and imitating the cheering of the millions who must be located somewhere out in cyberspace.

He paused briefly as he stepped up to the keyboard so that a relative "hush" came over the room, sucked cleanly into the white noise. He was the maestro, the mover-and-shaker, and the show was about to begin. He reveled in the feeling, choosing his moment, then with a delicate touch, he tapped the keyboard and logged on. "Come on, baby, let's touch the world."

He spent a moment heading into a "chat session," talking himself through the steps as he went, as if he had a captive audience hanging on his every word.

"And here we go," he continued, after the site came up. "Ahh, pure bliss."

He started to type a few words, then - "Oh, almost forgot."

He reached over and flipped the buttons on the voice and image synthesizers. A moment later, a face appeared on the screen - computer-generated, with light brown hair, white skin, and no remarkable features. A voice came from the synthesizer - male, a soft, pleasing baritone that spoke in time with the figure's lips on the screen.

"Hi, Jeffrey. Missed chatting with you, buddy," Nathan told the image.

"Since I see your new avatar, I guess you got the e-mail I sent you."

Nathan was ecstatic. "The program downloaded fine, but I can't believe some of this software. Where'd you get it?"

"Oh, it's just some stuff I've been tinkering around with. Nothing special," Jeffrey replied.

"Nothing special?" Nathan scoffed. "There's no program or imaging device I can think of that even comes close to what you've got. You could make a killing with it."

"But I don't want to kill anyone."

"Money, you idiot. You'd have money."

"But what would I do with it?"

"Buy stuff; have a life," Nathan retorted. "What's the matter with you?"

"I could give it to you and Casey, if you ever find the nerve to ask her out."

Nathan's sudden silence was so oppressive it almost drowned out the background noise. Jeffrey, though, didn't miss a beat. "You've talked about her enough, so why don't you give her a call?"

"We were talking about software." Nathan sounded surly.

"We were. Now we're not."

"Please, man, don't do this. I don't want to go through this again, not with you or with anyone else."

But Jeffrey continued as if Nathan hadn't said a word. "I don't understand your hesitation. I'm not doing anything aside from pointing out that you're intelligent, keen..."

"Keen? What planet do you come from?"

Jeffrey sounded puzzled. "Isn't that the right word?"

"Yeah, it's the right word, but trust me, Jeffrey, I'm not keen, and I'm definitely not what women want."

"You always sound so sure of yourself when we speak. What makes you say no one would want you?"

"A lot of experience," he responded bitterly.

"If you don't want my advice, why do you always ask for it?" Jeffrey queried.

"I need other people to validate my existence." He spoke flippantly, but his tone indicated there was a kernel of truth hiding somewhere just out of reach.

"Really?" Jeffrey sounded both curious and concerned.

"Hello! That was a joke."

"Oh, I apologize; I didn't get it."

"Now you're apologizing for having no sense of humor? You've got to be the slowest person I know."

"Slow..." Jeffrey started then stopped abruptly. Somehow he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. "So what do they want?" he asked instead.

"Huh? Who?" Nathan seemed confused switching back and forth between topics.

"Women. What do they want?" Jeffrey repeated.

"Women?" Nathan scoffed. "You watch TV, don't you?"

"Yes."

There was a long pause; Nathan expected Jeffrey to see the obvious, but when he didn't respond and the silence stretched awkwardly, he groaned audibly. "Do I have to spell it out all the time? The ads, man, they want the guy in the Diet Pepsi commercials, or the one in Taster's Choice, or even the Marlboro Man. Big pecs, nice butt, great smile. Brawn, not brains."

Jeffrey's tone was even. "But those are fantasies, Nathan. Surely you know that."

"They're more real than either one of us."

"Reality is what you make of it."

"Man, you really are out of it. Reality's nothing but what other people tell you it is."

"You can't believe that." Jeffrey was shocked.

"Yeah, I can. There's a reason advertising's a multibillion dollar a year business. Image is everything. People want something, but they need to be told what it is or they mill about like confused ants trying to find it."

"Other people might, but I can't believe someone of your intelligence would buy into that."

Nathan snickered at the unintentional pun, but once again he avoided a direct answer. "For most people it colors their entire lives, everything they do, everything they say, who they decide to be with - it's all up to the ads. Man, I'd kill to get what they offer."

"I see, although that seems a bit extreme," Jeffrey responded, as if he were just now beginning to put the pieces together but still wasn't sure they were all in the right place. "So Casey..."

"Yeah, right, Casey. My heart could split open in front of her, but she wouldn't give me a second look. Or then again, maybe she would, and that would be another problem."

"You're confusing me," Jeffrey told him. "I thought... well, isn't that what you want, to have Casey notice you?"

Nathan shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Yes... no..." He sighed. "Oh what the hell, you might as well know. I had an accident when I was a little kid, and my face is kind of messed up."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that all the burn scars make me look like a monster. They grafted skin from all over my body, but that wasn't enough to make it look normal."

"Why haven't you ever mentioned it?"

"It's not something I like to talk about."

"What about Casey?"

"What about her?"

"You think it would... turn her off?"

"Where the hell have you been? Of course it would turn her off. Like a fuckin' TV. It's not my fault, but no one wants to be seen with the likes of me, like being with me will make them monsters, too."

He could still hear the taunts of the other children during recess at school. "Hey, freak," they'd say, pushing him back into the wall or "accidentally" tripping him in the mud. "Where d'ya think you're going, freak?" All he wanted to do was to be left alone, but his protests fell on uncaring ears. "Why should we let you go, freak? We're the ones who gotta look at you, and anyone as ugly as you shouldn't have to be looked at." They would spit at him or throw rocks that hit him more often than not, but those were the least of the pains he carried with him.

"Is that why you wanted to use the digital faces, even when they were less sophisticated?"

He hadn't realized he had spoken any of this out loud until Jeffrey asked. "Yeah."

"But those events were a long time ago, Nathan."

"That's easy for you to say, but I've had to live with it every day since I was six years old. 'Monster Nathan' crawls back in his hole..."

"You're being a little ridiculous."

"No more than anyone else."

"So why didn't you do something about it?" Jeffrey asked him.

"Like what, try to beat 'em all up? One against a mob?"

"I meant the scars."

"This is the best they can do, or so they say. And anyway, why should I have to? Jeffrey, if someone really cares about you... you know..."

"But it still bothers you."

Nathan just sat in his chair, his eyes fixed in a faraway position.

Finally Jeffrey broke in. "It's not too late; you could do something about it now."

"Wouldn't make a difference."

"It's what you say you want. Why not? It would give you a fresh start."

After a long pause, during which Nathan examined his thoughts in great detail, he said, "You know, I don't think I'd recognize myself, as if the face didn't belong to me after all this time. Now isn't that funny?" There was no humor in his voice.

Before Jeffrey could answer, Nathan was off again with the memories of his childhood scars. "Anyhow, that's when I started watching a lot of science fiction. Some of those creatures looked a hell of a lot worse than I did." He gave a rather bitter laugh but continued almost dreamily, curving his lips into a mockery of a smile because of the scars.

"I imagined all these great adventures," he went on. "We'd discover some hideous creatures on an alien planet bent on Earth domination, or something like that. I'd be the only one who knew what to do, of course, and I'd save everyone from what would have otherwise been a most horrific fate."

"They say, 'Be careful what you wish for.'"

"That's an odd thing to say."

"Perhaps," Jeffrey conceded, "but things might not turn out the way you expect."

"They never do."

He had a sudden flashback to another humiliating experience, this one in high school. That's where he first saw Cynthia, a "cheerleader" type with a winning smile and a trail of desperate boys running after her. She had a locker just five doors down from his, so he could always get a good look at her. To this day, he couldn't understand what prompted him to act out of the blue, but he suddenly found himself standing awkwardly beside her. He was so nervous, he could barely stammer out the words.

Pointing to the colorful, handmade posters plastering the walls, announcing the seniors' dance that Saturday night, he croaked, "I was wondering, Cynthia, if... if you didn't have anybody else to go with, or anything, that maybe, maybe you'd want to go with me."

He looked up at her, heartbreakingly earnest, like a puppy hoping for a pat on its head, and that's apparently just what she saw. Her smile became rigid, and pity filled her eyes - how he hated pity, but he was so nervous he couldn't move or complain.

"Oh," she said, sounding like she was regarding an unusual bug on the floor. "It's really sweet of you to ask, um, Nathan, is it?"

He nodded, his mouth too dry to speak.

"Well, Nathan, really, I couldn't."

Suddenly finding his voice, he heard the words come out of his mouth like someone else was speaking them, and he had no control over what they said. "But I thought you and Derek..."

"Are really none of your business," she finished coldly.

Nathan might have been physically scarred, but he was no dummy. "Never mind, I get it," he said, trying for the same careless tone she had just used on him.

Not completely devoid of compassion, she added, "Look, Nathan, I'm sure you're really nice and all, but it just wouldn't look right, you and me, if you know what I mean."

Nathan was hurt, but letting it show would only make it worse. "Sure, I know."

"Don't be mad or anything, okay?"

As if she really cared. An "in" clique of girls came up behind her, and even before he could answer, she turned to face them, smiling with false camaraderie, and left him standing where she had been.

"Then you should have forgotten about her and gone after someone else." Jeffrey broke his reverie. "You can't spend your whole life stuck in that apartment and worrying about what other people think."

"You think you've got all the answers, don't you?"

"I wish I did," Jeffrey told him. "Then maybe I could help. You've got a lot to offer, Nathan, you've shown me that, but you can't do it if you're hiding."

Before he could respond, a phone rang in the kitchen. Nathan walked over and looked at the caller ID, groaned, then raised his voice. "You've got to hear this; you're not going to believe it." He let the call go to the old-fashioned answering machine, another object that lent its voice to the background noise, and turned the volume up so Jeffrey could hear the message too.

"Hi, this is Nathan. I'm here in spirit, if not in body. So leave me a message - I'll be sure to get back to you when I can."

A woman's voice, youngish, a little giddy and a little seductive, said, "Hi, Nathan. My name's Angela. Casey told me you had the sexiest voice, and I just had to call up and find out for myself. Honey, she wasn't lying. Love to meet the body when it gets back. Bye."

Nathan flushed beet red. "You hear that? That's the third one this week."

"I thought you wanted attention, especially the female kind," Jeffrey observed.

"Not like that, just a voice left on a machine. I'm nobody to them, and I never will be," Nathan said bitterly. "It's all bullshit, just a lie."

"It's a start..."

Nathan stopped him before he could finish. "With a totally predictable end. No, thanks." He paused a moment then said a little more graciously, "You're right, I shouldn't get so upset. After all, they're just Pavlov's dogs, slobbering at the bell."

Jeffrey was puzzled again. "Bell?"

"We talked about it not ten minutes ago, buddy. Advertising. Image. Package anything right, and people will do or feel whatever they're told."

"That's a little extreme."

"Come on, Jeffrey, it should be obvious, even to you. I've got a good voice, but what you and all those women I don't even know who call me don't get is that it's the only good part of me. You hear the voice, and you fill in the rest based on some idea of who you think I should be. The real deal just won't cut it."

"You need to have more faith in people."

"Right," Nathan snorted. "Look, Jeffrey, the truth is the truth, unless it's a perfectly packaged lie, and you can't package me well enough to make the lie believable."

"So you'll live as a hermit the rest of your life because of other people's faults." It was more a statement than a question.

"You do the same thing."

"You're mistaken, " Jeffrey protested.

"Of course you do. Packaging. Manipulation. What do you think your wonderful software does? It creates an image. It creates a voice. We see and hear only what the other one wants us to."

Jeffrey was earnest. "I trust what you tell me is true."

"Do you?" Nathan demanded. "Why?"

"You've always been talkative, friendly, interesting. You've helped me when I've felt down. You've given me no logical reason to doubt you are whom you appear to be."

"Logic? Sounds to me like you're just gullible. Know what I also think? I think you're hiding something, too. You want to fit in, but you can't, just like me. Why else would you create this software? I mean, you haven't exactly volunteered much information about yourself over the last two years."

"No, I haven't, but I know there's more to life than fitting in."

Nathan wouldn't hear of it. "If you don't fit in, you're nothing. No, you're less than nothing."

Less than nothing would be the best way to describe how he got his current job. When he applied for the IT position at Dynatech and went in for the interview, he was concerned about how his appearance would go over, but he was nevertheless impressed with what he saw. The offices were well-lit and airy, comfortably spacious, and functionally decorated, and they sported a magnificent view of the fountained lobby below. Plus, the work was right in his field; he was good at what he did, and he'd have access to all the latest technology.

Well-groomed and dressed in a business suit and tie, Nathan sat on one side of a large desk, his briefcase right beside his chair. The man on the other side of the table scrutinized him for a moment then got up and extended his hand. "Then welcome to Dynatech, Mr. Drake; we're glad to have someone of your capabilities on board."

Nathan, realizing he had actually gotten a job despite himself, jumped to his feet, extended his hand, and smiled, his features turning into a grotesque mask. "I'm glad to be a part of the team, sir."

The man looked at him again. The smile remained, but his voice took on a slight tone of discomfort. "Oh, there's just one other thing I need to mention - a small condition."

Nathan felt as if his heart had just sunk into his stomach. He knew what was coming. This was just like on the playground at school, only now the children had all grown up.

"Because of limited space and the budget tightening we're going through in all areas," the man said, trying his best to defuse the uncomfortable situation, "I think it would be best, for everybody concerned, if you were to work from home. Just think of it - your own place, no commute, just log in every morning, and log out each night. We'll even toss in a bonus to meet any expenses you might have for equipment and such. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Nathan looked around the room, choosing his words very carefully. "With all due respect, sir, I can't believe that space and budget are really the issues here."

The man's face flushed briefly, but like Nathan had been with Jeffrey, he was more concerned with being caught in a lie than for telling the lie itself.

"No, not really," the man continued, realizing this was not going quite the way he had planned. "It's just... well, there's a certain corporate image we have to maintain. You understand."

Nathan was silent, too angry to speak.

"Can we count on your... cooperation?"

"Do I have a choice?" Nathan tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

"Not if you want the job."

He needed the money, and the situation would be the same wherever he went, maybe even worse. "Then I guess we've got a deal." They shook hands on it.

Nathan's eyes focused on the screen again as he came back to the present. "It's ironic; they were desperate to hire someone so they could better manipulate their image with the public, and they ended up hiring someone they couldn't let the public see. So here I am, the best paid nobody in the state."

"That's discrimination; you should have fought them on it."

"Like it would've done any good anyway."

"You don't know that." When that didn't provoke a response, Jeffrey ventured, "Nathan, you have to deal with problems, not avoid them."

"It's other people who can't deal."

"Maybe."

"Damn it, Jeffrey, it's not my fault!"

"I never said it was."

"But that's what you meant... you, just like everyone else. Well, I'm not like you or them or anyone else - I'm a freak and a reject, and that's all I'll ever be." Years of bitterness and anger erupted volcanically - he hurled a case of disks against the wall, where it shattered on impact. A moment later, he grabbed his head in pain, uttering a piercing "Ow!"

"What's wrong?" Jeffrey asked him quickly. The picture on the screen had changed, the face now creased across the forehead and frowning at the mouth.

"My... head." He groped for the pills on the counter, but he couldn't seem to connect with any of the bottles. His hands flew back to his head, trying to squeeze the pain out of existence.

"Nathan, please tell me, what's wrong?"

"Pain... It only happens when I get upset."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

Nathan doubled over, moaning. "Ooh, make it stop. Make it stop!"

Jeffrey called louder, "Nathan, are you there? Nathan? Nathan, what's happening?"

Nathan couldn't utter another word. He staggered to the couch, but he didn't make it, collapsing instead in a heap on the floor with Jeffrey's voice echoing in the background.

Then there was only blackness.



Nathan woke to a slightly out-of-focus image of his apartment from floor level. The television and radio were off, making every other sound seem louder than normal.

"How are you doing?" Jeffrey asked.

Jeffrey's voice was fuzzy, but it seemed closer and clearer than the voice from the synthesizer box.

All Nathan could do was hold his head, eyes screwed shut. "Oohh, my head. What happened?"

"Those headaches were worse than you let on; you almost didn't make it."

"Where are you? I can't see you."

"Well, I can see you, and that's what matters. Don't try to get up," he admonished, as Nathan made a move. "Just take it easy for a bit."

Something strange, if only he could think of it. Oh, yes, now he knew. "How'd you get here? I never gave you my address."

"You were still logged on, and I traced you through the Net. Good thing you were easy to find and relatively close."

"I... sorry... I guess things got a little out of hand. I didn't mean for you... but why did you come?"

"I'm your friend, and I thought I could help." Jeffrey's voice was so calming, Nathan could feel it make the pain recede. "It turns out I was right. The headaches shouldn't come back so badly again."

"What do you mean, you cured me or something?" Nathan asked, without conviction.

"Or something."

Nathan tried to sit up again. "Where the hell are you? Ohh... everything's still fuzzy."

"You'll see clearly in a moment," he assured him, helping his friend to a sitting position. "Look, I need to tell you something. It's a little awkward."

"You cured me, but I've got six months to live," Nathan joked sarcastically.

"You do?"

"You've really got no sense of humor, Jeffrey. What is it?"

"You wanted to know more about me."

"Yes," said Nathan, getting more annoyed with each new uncertainty.

"You were right. I was hiding something from you. The software was actually a great way for me to accomplish that. I'm sorry, but I thought it was necessary at the time."

"Yeesss?" Nathan was fast losing patience.

"My accident was one of genetics," he explained.

"I don't get it."

Jeffrey took a deep breath. "I'm the wrong color; my mother was purple, but my father was green. I'm a beautiful, but unfortunate, shade of blue."

Nathan grimaced. "Now that's funny."

"I didn't mean it to be."

"Uh, huh. So you're the extraterrestrial I've been looking for. I hope you're everything I imagined."

His vision was clearing around the edges, but he still couldn't make out the figure in front of him - no details, just a blur of blue.

"Look, Jeffrey, I'm grateful and all for what you did, but..."

He stopped short as his head cleared, and the figure finally came into focus. It was squat, vivid blue and had multiple pseudopod‑like appendages. If it weren't for the almost comically incongruous T-shirt and jeans, it would have looked like something that could have oozed right out of "The Outer Limits." Two eyestalks peered hesitantly at him from the being's upper region.

"Holy shit!" was all Nathan could say, sitting bolt upright then grabbing his head in pain at the sudden movement. Jeffrey rocked back, unsure how to interpret the reaction.

"I'd never lie," he explained to Nathan. "Certainly not about something as important as this."

Nathan backed up, his scarred face twisted in a grimace of fear. "What the hell are you?"

"I'm a Kiscadian. My name's J'effan, but I thought Jeffrey was a nice equivalent for this planet."

Nathan started to prattle. "No, it's a headache hallucination or something. No, it can't be. Oh, god, stay away!"

With an ooze and a roll, unpredictably graceful for his bizarre appearance, Jeffrey came closer. Nathan scrambled up the back of the couch, squeaking in protest. "Stay away! Whoever... whatever you are, just stay away!"

"You know I won't hurt you," Jeffrey assured him.

"The hell I do!"

"What about all our conversations about the wonders of science fiction? From what you said, I thought you of all people would understand. I look at you and all I see is a friend. Why can't you do the same?"

Nathan used the couch as a shield. His face twisted even more beneath the scars, hatred burning in his eyes. His voice changed, too. It was deeper now, rougher, the words less precise. He picked up a baseball bat hiding under a pile of clothes and brandished it menacingly.

"Understand?" he fairly shrieked. "You're a goddamn... freak!"

"Then that makes two of us," Jeffrey answered lightly. "Besides, you don't look so bad to me." Indicating the bat, he said calmly, "You don't need that."

"Stay away!" Nathan screamed at him.

"You know I came here to help," Jeffrey told him, although he did back up out of the bat's reach.

"Bullshit. You're a liar. You lied to me!"

"No more than you did to me. And anyway, would you have believed me if I had told you?" he asked matter-of-factly.

"That's not the point! What are you doing here? What do you want? I won't help you, you know," Nathan protested. "There's nothing you can do to make me sell out."

"Sell out? I think you've been watching too much of those science fiction movies you like; it's nothing that dramatic. We found your radio and television broadcasts moving through the cosmos. We got curious."

"We? How many of you are there?"

"I'm the only one here, if that's what you're worried about."

"How do I know that?"

"You don't. I guess you'll just have to trust me, like you used to."

Nathan suddenly noticed the silence. His eyes darted fearfully, frantically, around the room. "What the hell'd you do? What happened to the TV and the radio?"

"I turned them off. I thought the quiet would be better..."

"You did what?" There was sheer horror in Nathan's voice.

"You needed rest..."

"You had no right!"

He swung the bat hard, shattering bookshelves, the couch arm. He came within an inch of making contact with Jeffrey, who jumped back in alarm, appendages appearing and disappearing rapidly in the amoeba‑like gel of his body. There was nothing graceful about his movements now.

"I'm sorry, I had no idea they were so important to you."

"Damn straight they are! This is MY life. I choose what happens here. I choose, you understand?"

Jeffrey tried to move closer, two appendages extended placatingly. "I'm sorry, Nathan, I never meant to hurt..."

"The hell you didn't! Stay back!" He brandished the bat again, and Jeffrey stopped where he was, deflating slightly.

"All right, I won't come any closer. Will you please put the bat down?"

"Not a chance," Nathan responded, hefting the wood again.

"You know," said Jeffrey, "you remind me so much of myself, how I used to be."

"We're nothing alike."

"Of course we are. My whole life, I never looked right, never fit in. I don't know why, but I thought there had to be someone else in the universe, Kiscadian or not, who felt the same way, experienced life like I did."

"Yeah, so?" Nathan refused to back down.

"When I found you, I thought I had."

"Like I care."

"I think you do, but you're afraid. What are you so afraid of?"

"I'm not afraid of anything," he retorted, though he knew that wasn't true.

"I remember..."

Jeffrey's voice trailed off as he gazed inward. Now he was the one on a playground, this one with all kinds of equipment designed for creatures with flexible appendages. Once again, children circled around their victim, taunting, jeering, but here the Jeffrey-like creatures were all green. Amid the high-pitched, staccato-inflected calls, they rolled their bodies toward a blue shadow on the ground, jeering and kicking and poking their victim, who had pulled in all its pseudopods to minimize the damage its tormentors could inflict.

"We might be from different worlds," Jeffrey commented, "but I know what you've been through."

Nathan refused to give in. "I'm not afraid of nothin', and I don't give a damn about your problems, so why don't you climb back in your little spaceship and go back to wherever it is you came from. Leave me the hell alone!"

"You can't let the pain destroy you."

Nathan brandished the bat again. "I'm not the one who's got to worry."

Just like in Jeffrey's playground memory, his pseudopods retreated, and he quickly became little more than a spherical blob.

"What's the matter, freak," Nathan taunted him, "you scared? Well, you should be, 'cause I can't have you bringing out any other deep, dark secrets. Even us freaks have an image to maintain."

"Nathan, you're behaving just like those kids on the playground; where's the justice, as you put it, in that? I just want to help."

"Help? Help? Where were you all those years when I needed the help? When I wanted it? Too late now."

Nathan maneuvered around the couch. Jeffrey didn't budge, though buds appeared where hands and feet would "normally" go. Nathan continued, "It's a shame you didn't learn as much from television as I did. It's the one thing that makes us all equal. All of us can be sucked in and live the same old beautiful lie. Even something like you."

"I don't want it."

"Of course you do. You said it yourself, it's what brought you here."

"Then I guess we are alike in that way, too," Jeffrey conceded. "We both let everyone see a person different from the monster we keep hidden deep inside. It's natural to be upset..."

Nathan cut him off. "I'm not upset, freak. Seeing you here, in all your glory, I realized somethin'. I'm a mirror. I reflect everyone else's bad traits; they don't show me mine."

"Everyone has a dark side, and that's nothing to be ashamed of; you can change."

"Why should I?" Nathan demanded. "I mean, knowin' I'm a monster gives me lots of freedom."

"To do what?"

"Do what you said I should, fight back, any way I want or can."

"It won't change what's happened," Jeffrey said gently.

"Ah, but justice'll be served."

"Whose justice?"

"The only one that matters - mine."

"Please, Nathan, I can help you, if you'll let me."

Nathan snorted in disgust. "Give me one good reason why I should."

"I care about you. As far as I'm concerned, we're still friends. Please?"

Tentatively at first, then more deliberately, he created two appendages, holding them out to Nathan. Nathan paused a moment, as if considering.

"You know, you're right. Okay, let's shake on it - it's something we humans do to close a deal."

He extended his hand. Jeffrey came forward, the appendages growing fingers until they looked almost like human hands. Nathan smiled wickedly, grabbed Jeffrey's "arm" before he could yank it back, and pulled him forward, close. His used his other hand, fingers still firmly gripping the bat, to swung it in a wide arc. It made contact with the alien, and Jeffrey turned into a tightly rolled blob, buzzing in oddly inflected gasps of pain while Nathan stood over him.

"Dumb, Jeffrey, very dumb. You really haven't learned much about us, have you?" The buzzing got worse, but Nathan continued, as cruel and relentless as his own tormentors. "Ah, but me, on the other hand, I'm surrounded by 24 hours a day of ad‑packed radio, TV, the Net. I've learned all about people, what they want, what they need, how to manipulate them. Trouble was, I never knew what to do with all that stuff, at least not until you showed me, right here, right now."

"Please," Jeffrey buzzed, "let me go."

"Oh, I don't think so - no, you're too valuable right where you are."

Nathan's gaze turned inward again. In his mind he visualized a huge television screen that dominated an otherwise average, middle-class living room. A talk show blared from the set. Sight, sound, motion; it gave life to its surroundings, and he was drawn to it.

On the screen, between the boy-next-door host with the big, false smile, and the lanky model adorning the guest couch, sat Nathan Drake. Despite his scarred face, he looked almost reputable and professional, sporting a suit and tie with his hair combed neatly back. He sat back comfortably, his voice once again clear and well‑modulated, basking in his 15 minutes of fame.

On the screen, Nathan chatted with the host. "You know, Art, there wasn't any question in my mind of what I had to do; I was simply defending myself - hell, not only myself, my country, this planet - from what was clearly an alien invasion."

Inside the apartment, Nathan raised the bat again and brought it down swiftly, over and over. It made a sickening, squishy sound each time it connected with the Kiscadian, who screamed in pain, which led to whimpers and finally to silence. Nathan stood over him triumphantly, covered in the greenish-black blood pouring from the wounds.

On the TV, the host flashed his plastic smile at Nathan. "So how does it feel being America's new media darling? Did you ever think it would happen to you? Especially..."

"Well, Art," Nathan continued conversationally, ignoring the unspoken reference, "it's certainly helped with what to do on Saturday nights, if you know what I mean." The model touched his arm playfully and giggled. The audience laughed appreciatively. Nathan beamed back at them as beatifically as he could, but the wicked smile and the contemptuous sneer lurked at the corners of his mouth, the monster inside of him struggling to be free.

"But seriously, Art," Nathan continued, "I have to tell you it feels like one of those rags-to-riches stories, the ones you only dream about - the ones you only see on the screen."

As the voice on the television continued in his mind, singing his praises and acknowledging his work, Nathan laughed at the very real body before him. "So tell me, freak," he said with utter disdain, "who's the scariest monster now?" There was only a deathly silence in response.

4 comments:

  1. I thought it was pretty darn good. Couldn't let it go until the end.

    Sam

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  2. Excellent short, Miriam. Great use of narrative, the dialogue seemed very natural, and the descriptions towards the last scene (of Jeffrey's appearance and his encounter with Nathan) were clear yet expertly measured.

    More, please! :)

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