I have officially joined the cacophony of sick motherfuckers.
With one last wiping away of my last morsel of empathy, my final shred of caring for anyone or anything, here I am at last, what I was always meant to be, apparently. Fate is the word for having no choice, but I admit I would have chosen this anyway, for never have I been so content, while at the same time so mind-numbingly chaotic and fragile.
My mind has been fighting this battle for some years, apparently.
Some people probably think all of this is funny.
If you could read my mind, you wouldn’t be smiling.
I have never seen battles quite as terrifyingly beautiful as the ones I fight when my mind splinters and races, to swallow me into my own madness, again.
Just look at me now. One night opens words and utters pain. I cannot begin to explain to you this… I am not here. This is not happening. Wait, it is, isn’t it?
I am a ghost. I am not here, not really. You see skin and scars and vulnerability. These are symptoms, you know, of something. An unclear image with unclear thoughts whispering vague things…
If I told you what was really in my head, you’d never let me leave this place. And I have no desire to spend time in hell while I’m still, in theory, alive.
Truly there is nothing more terrifying than not knowing what you might think next, what you might believe tomorrow. It’s both frightening and invigorating, and my fate, and my choosing of embracing it, begs me to step forward into it, fully enveloping myself in the cocoon of what may come.
I’m sliding further down, yet finding my footing. This contradiction is something I can’t explain to you. It’s all in my own head. I guess you had to be there.
These connections that remain, these familial threads exist still and they fascinate me now. I don’t relate to those old feelings that led to the things that the normal people of the world want, a nice place in the suburbs, a wife, children, a healthy bank account and a stock portfolio. They are a curiosity that flutters around the edges of my consciousness now, and it takes up more time than I want to think about what they mean now and what to do with them.
This is a journey; it is a descent I have been quite pleased to make. I’m part of the crowd of maniacs, and there are so many more than you know. It takes time to realize that your mask is no longer necessary. Who knows what is real, anyway? All of this is subjective.
Press the button, start the game.
Who can say which world is realest? Who has the ability to decipher whose reality shimmers and fades more quickly?
My decision has been made, however, and the end will be what it will be, good or not.
I assume you think by now that you would never do this. You tell yourself that I’m sick and you’re well.
We all have demons.
Don’t lie to yourself.
Press the button, start the game.
A gentle breeze is blowing through the leaves in the backyard.
Dan Ryan is sitting there in a wooden lounging chair, legs stretched out in front of him, looking through squinted eyes to the sun setting just to the left end of the lake.
A group of five ducks swims by, the one in the back quacking up a storm, begging not to be left behind by the four advancing out in front of him, or perhaps her.
His neck cranes slightly to the left, cracks, then turns slightly to the right, and cracks again. Ryan sighs deeply, exhaling slowly into the cool night air, where the contrast in temperature condenses in a short puff of water vapor out in front of him.
Another breath draws in, and with a slow release his head leans back against the wooden rest and he closes his eyes, staring into the emptiness and listening to the sounds chirping and creaking around him. A few moments pass, and his mind wanders. It slides through a long hallway. The walls are made of thick blocks of stone, at least two feet across each, with no end in sight in the distance as he trudges forward.
After a seeming eternity, he comes to a T-junction where a spiral staircase starts down. He takes it without hesitation and plunges forward, eyes ahead, but nothing comes other than more steps. On and on he walks, the spiral ever tightening on his way down into the infinite. The tightening is palpable, clear, but there never seems to be a lack of room to take the next step.
Torches line the walls, inset there in little enclaves carved haphazardly by an unseen hand.
Something echoes in the distance and at once seems to surround him. A soft voice calls out, but he walks further on, trying to ignore it as his pace quickens. Time loses its meaning as his steps become a run, but the staircase tightens ever more as he goes.
The voice gets louder now, but distorts through the air as it reaches his ears…
It hits him on one side and violently rushes out the other…
He turns to look back from where he came, and a wall is there. Blocking his retreat, a stone wall much like the walls around him stretches from top to bottom, he turns back again with a start; another wall blocks any further progress and he realizes now that he’s trapped, hopelessly trapped.
The world goes silent, and a voice pierces through, finding sudden clarity in the stillness of the Chicago night.
Cecilia Ryan’s voice rings out softly from somewhere behind him.
His eyes don’t open, but he is suddenly aware of the backyard around him once again. The crickets’ chirping return, the splash of the ducks in the lake, and behind him, again…
“Daddy, did Aunt Lindsay like the present?”
Her voice wraps around the inside of his head, and he considers it for a moment as it bounces back and echoes from one side to the next, and finally stops somewhere in the center.
“Did she like it, daddy?”
His eyes squeezed, and a soft rolling sound like thunder flooded him, then stopped as he opened his eyes and looked out into the night sky. He blinked, and he found his mouth opening, finally.
“I’m told she liked it very much.”
He listens but no other word is spoken. He hears the crunching of rain-starved grass as footsteps retreat in the distance behind him, but nothing more; no sound of an opening or closing door is heard, no response or reaction of any kind, and his eyes focus on the ground in front of him.
He whips his head around quickly. Nothing. No sign of anyone there, nothing but the soft orange glow of the lights on the eaves of the house, the low-flung twinkling of bulbs strung throughout the branches of the trees. He scans the back of the property, left and right, but nothing moves. He turns back, leans his head back and closes his eyes one more time.
He is alone.
Conor, my friend.
I’m sure we haven’t been properly introduced, even though we apparently have shared the same locker room before.
What does this moment mean to you, I wonder?
Does it register properly?
Or at all?
I suppose you see this within the context of a large video screen, watching little pixels dance around in your head as they coalesce around some meaningful center; meaningful for now, but fleeting and ever-changing.
Do you remember me, Conor?
I remember you, which is to say your name isn’t foreign to me. But I find more and more that there are so many people like you whose paths have crossed mine theoretically, and yet whose journey has had no impact on mine whatsoever.
Do you remember?
Whatever you remember, toss it in the garbage can. I wish we could sit down, you and I; I wish we could talk about the old days when we ran in the same circle, when you and your brother were a team, when I was on top of the world. My how things change. Look at us now — you out on your own, me… whatever this is that I’ve become. ICON Champion, yes, obviously, and that’s the only reason you’re here, naturally, to take a shot at winning gold on your own.
If we could have that sit-down, if we could just have a nice little chat, you and me, perhaps we’d talk about our love for video games. You’d tell me about your favorite console, I’d tell you about mine. We’d talk about Japanese imports and bootlegs. Your eyes do light up so when you meet a kindred spirit, don’t they, Conor?
Then I’d lean in, the smile would leave, and I would remind you that alas, we aren’t 8 years old anymore. I don’t begrudge you your own fantasy world, and you seem like a nice kid and all…
But I’m gonna fuckin’ murder you.
Let’s just call it what it is.
I’m a goddamn wrecking ball and you’re a guy who talks a lot about video games.
There’s nothing wrong with that, don’t get me wrong. We all have our little quirks. You like to talk in metaphors, that’s your thing. Have at it, my man. I like to end people. I do it because I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do right now. I do it because I am the motherfucking ICON Champion, FRIEND, and you’re trying to take that away from me.
The irrelevance of the actual game you’re playing is something you need to start squaring yourself up with really soon, because the cheerful banter that dissolves into a sadistic little grin is too formulaic to use against the likes of me. Me, who watches you with dispassionate curiosity and waits until you stop amusing me.
I think about you the way I think of a plaything, interesting until you aren’t, and then smashed to pieces for the sin of being too boring.
All games are fun until a hammer smashes you in the fuckin’ face.
The kitchen has seen better days.
Glasses and mugs are strewn on one side, small plates stacking up in a sink on the other, and clutter, to put it kindly, dots the counter everywhere. He leans over, staring down at a large manila envelope, unopened, thick and he looks through it almost, a scowl figuratively tearing through it like a shredder, and he peers over at his phone resting near the edge.
Reaching out, he uses two fingers to quickly tap out a single word.
Then he brings his arm back and leans forward again, eyes a mix of anger and disgust.
The phone buzzes as it rests on the granite countertop. On the screen, a small mountain range morphs into a series of numbers and it slowly moves like a figurine on an old school electric football game’s metal surface.
A massive hand reaches out, and Dan Ryan raises it to one ear.
At once, the severe expression on his face is replaced by an almost cheerful disposition, then relaxes instantly into something in between.
Yes, it’s Dan. Yes! It’s very nice to talk to you again as well…. I know, I know… it’s been far too long….” A shallow laugh escapes his lips. “Absolutely, as soon as I get a few days, Alaina and I would love to come up and spend some time at the new place…. Yes, yes of course. You know how much I love the mountains……” Another laugh. “Listen, Julia… I have a favor to ask you. You know that little gun safe I asked you to keep in that storage facility for me?…. Right, yes, that’s the one…. Well, I need to get something out of it…. Sure, yes of course… No no… Alaina won’t be able to make it. She’s busy with some sort of legal business, as usual….. Yes, I’ll give her your best…. Ah… you too, hun. Thanks, Julia. Yeah, just let them know I’ll be by….. So long….”
The moment the connection ends, his face drains and he flings the phone back across the counter and over the edge, where it clatters to the wooden floor.
Ryan looks back down at the envelope again and sniffles, and one eye instinctively twitches closed and back open again.
He picks it up, leans his head back, and lets the corners of his mouth deepen into a stark frown.
“Start the game…”