ersatz – short story (from the ouroboros universe)

They sat silently together on the couch, watching the news. Alex frequently stole short glances over at Nathan who’s sombre default face stared vacantly over at the television screen in front of him. Alex saw the aura of synthetic unreality had come to envelop Nathan as well.

What’s the point? Alex stared back at the TV. The news anchor was saying something about bike lanes or something about rapid transit but Alex was conscious of the sickly film of dream-like imitation that seeped into all the pockets of matter and imbued them with a profound ersatz.

Neither of them talked about the woman in the apartment next door. They didn’t remind one another that they’d pulled her out of the ground. They didn’t talk about the time traveling drug box that had been the catalyst of their existential collapse. They didn’t talk about Seth’s suicide.

Both Nathan and Alex were numb. Death seemed to be constantly present in their awareness and their lives had taken on a subdued, unimportance that left them both lethargic and detached.

Alex had separated himself so much that he no longer believed any of it was actually happening. Everything he experienced exuded an artificial and illusory glow that seemed to emphasize how fabricated and immaterial this version of reality was when pressed against the unknowable other world from which he now believed was the source of his consciousness. It seemed like some unreal inner fantasy that he was watching unfold, emotionlessly, detachedly. The contrast was so emphasized in his mind that it would’ve been comical if it weren’t so wholly and cripplingly terrifying.

He wasn’t eating. He wasn’t really sleeping. He even stopped going to work. They just sat in the apartment, staring at the television.

Well, he was. He could only be sure that he was actually sitting at the television. Alex’s anxious thoughts had made him so discouragingly isolated that almost every moment was spent acutely aware of the division of his body and the impenetrable barrier of the material beyond.

The dishearteningly persistent feeling of déjà vu re-emerged, clasping tightly the once limp and meandering attention for control of Alex’s conscious awareness. Although this time it was paired with a kind of parallel memory that swatted menacingly as it tried to infect his mind; to insert a memory he knew couldn’t have ever truly had. And yet, still, he was sure it had. He remembered he was in a living room.

My living room! In that brief fraction of momentary memory Alex felt unwaveringly confident that it was absurd to even consider the memory as being illegitimate; impossibly absurd. Of course it’s my living room!

Alex’s thought seemed to stutter and flash around jerkily as the awareness that the separate memory was also irrefutably true.

In this other memory that couldn’t have ever happened, yet had, Alex was sitting with Seth. He was aware of that same feeling of utter disconnection from his experience and the reality that was the medium of that experience. He was massaging his wife’s shoulders and . . .

Wife?

      He battled with his equally unwavering confidence that he did not own a home, but instead co-rented an apartment with his roommate Nathan. A roommate who, until that instantly preceding moment, Alex was fully convinced existed only in the impenetrable state of artificial otherness. He’d acknowledge in that moment that there was another Alex; an Alex with a dramatically different life. The other Alex had also come to that same discovery of the otherness. Both were considering if reality was one solid substance through which each separate Alex navigated.

A bright, nauseating flush of déjà vu crashed on top of Alex again and he could feel his throat tightening.

The grating dissonance of the two alternate memories crackled with an ominous potential energy. As the conflicting memories jostled for supremacy, superimposed over a single point in his brain, Alex began feel dizzy. He feared the awareness of the reality collapsing paradox. The growing intensity of the two opposing sides cast off brilliant sparks that burst soundlessly about the room.

Most of him was fearful, though part of him was anxiously anticipating the collapse of reality. Pleading for it.

There was a jolt of a feeling his static filled mind tried to label and quantify.

An acceptance, or a connectedness . . .

Alex was too busy trying to latch on to the rediscovery of feeling to accurately describe what it was. He’d already accepted that those feelings would remain unceasingly absent for the rest of his life. Their unexpected rediscovery caused his body to convulse in another warm spasm of bright, protective, wholeness. The filter of synthetic unreality through which Alex had once viewed himself and his surroundings, began to disintegrate and dissolve away. Every atom in the room seemed somewhat brighter, as if each light were casting off a subtle glow of serenity and purpose.

Nathan was still staring at the television expressionlessly.

Everything looked different. He knew he couldn’t put it all together in that moment, but something bright, something good, something benevolent had revealed to him the knowledge of an unalienable connectedness that exists between everything. A connectedness that while at some times feels illusive is always present and persisting eternally inside every atom.

He found that he was holding his breath and he exhaled loudly and kind of coughed. Nathan didn’t seem to notice.

Alex knew that his newly acquired knowledge was frustratingly fragmented in terms of the larger understanding of the exact mechanism of the connectedness, but something told him that when he needed to know, the universe would enlighten him.

The newscaster threw to a commercial and Nathan hit the mute button.

“I fucking hate commercials,” Nathan was still staring expressionlessly at the sequential flashing of the quickly rotating still images that soundlessly bled together. Alex was conscious of every one of the individual thirty frames in every second that flashed by. Time slowed and Alex became aware of the connectedness of everything that had been captured inside the single, still image. The position of everything inside the individual frame: the placement of the actors, the lights, the colour of the countertop, the font choice for the logo the ad was attempting to coax the viewer into purchasing, it was all one.

When the news came back on, Nathan still had the TV muted but Alex immediately recognized the picture of the woman.

Under the woman’s picture was a police hotline phone number.

Wanted in connection with weekend homicide.

“Turn it up!”

“-lp in finding information into the shooting death of building superintendent Jacob Phillips this past weekend,” the newscaster said as the image cut to an establishing shot of the outside of their building.

“Holy fuck!”

Alex’s eyes began to burn and he realized he had no idea when he’d last blinked. He’d been so disconnected that he didn’t even know about Jake.

Does death follow me? Or do I follow it?

“Police are trying to locate a woman whom sources say shared an apartment with Phillips. During the course of the homicide investigation authorities discovered the building’s basement was being used as a marijuana grow op. Right now it is unclear whether or not the homicide is connected with the basement grow op although, it is alleged that Mr. Phillips has past ties to gang activity stemming as far back as the 1980s.”

“Holy fuck,” Nathan reached over and grabbed the pipe and began filling another bowl.

Alex felt the full immediacy of reality as his awareness of the present moment expand. There was more of reality than he’d ever been aware of before. He was part of something larger. Something important. And he began to feel something that had been ripped from him long ago.

Optimism.

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