This was written as my English Honors fiction thesis during the 2018-2019 school year.
The end of the world began in 2005. Of this, Dover Marlowe is supremely sure. He’s heard other arguments, tracing the modern predicament back to the iPhone, World War 2, or the Fall. These do not convince him. Dover doesn’t believe in God; World War 2 took place on a planet that is so different from our own it is hardly worth considering the two are even related; Steve Jobs can kiss Dover’s ass.
With all due respect to past contributors, only the Internet will be the end of us all, and 2005 was a good year for the Internet. On April 23, the world’s first YouTube video became a reality. Four months earlier Facebook (then still exclusive to people with a .edu email address) had gained its one millionth user, and in January Google released its video hosting service. Digital video streaming had finished its decade long sprint from invention to refinement. The social Internet (a.k.a. the Internet) had begun, and the rug was pulled so suddenly from the world’s feet that it barely acknowledged the transition of cloth to red-hot metal floor. They didn’t understand this thing, its purpose, or its (largely unintended) effects, but they didn’t need to. The orientation of the world shifted, and people, aware of the fact or not, were pulled into a new Universe entirely.
Dover’s parent’s generation had lucked out. They could always approach the Internet as a novelty, external to themselves. Dover’s youngest cousins, however, had existed in the world of algorithms and mass data collection their entire lives. They didn’t know what it was like to have an actor’s name on the tip of your tongue for days, and they couldn’t remember phone numbers or how to be a person because in this world because they had only ever been products. That said, in Dover’s opinion, his generation had gotten the short end of this particular stick. He and his classmates had existed in the world just long enough to know what life had been like before the Internet, but not long enough to have enjoyed it. They could long for a different form of connection, but social media is what they lived with. They were just as helpless as Dover’s cousins, but were aware of their situation.
In all honesty, Dover could barely remember pre-Internet life himself. He had been six years old for exactly eight days when YouTube launched, and he couldn’t drive when social media began its stealthy sprint to world dominance. Those six years without a service that legitimated the shortening of attention spans and the yearning for insubstantial Internet fame were, however, enough to indoctrinate him with a sense of personhood that wasn’t tied to a video stream or algorithmically designed decisions. When Little Dover picked a video from the shelf to view, he made the decision himself, and no one noted what he watched, how long he watched it, or where that viewing experience next lead him. Of course, since everything is eternal on the Internet anyway, 2005 might as well be happening right now. He might be filled with a healthy skepticism, but that doesn’t give Dover a way to avoid being algorithmically controlled or tracked and mined for corporate data supplies. And even if he was magically immune, the rest of humanity isn’t. With the goal of feeding people Content, getting them hooked on the entertaining and immediate, algorithms had been refined and improved until they could churn out “Related Video” and “People You May Know” suggestions like a morphine drip. The battle had already been lost, now Dover was just waiting for the victor to be declared.
All of this as he is being shown a video of Rocket Guts performing on a stage that in reality sits not thirty feet from him. Tyler insisted that he experience their music secondhand before they perform tonight, in approximately fifteen minutes. This baffles Dover, but he watches on, nodding his head and thinking that surely this ability to stream Content to tiny mobile screens will spell the death of everything worthwhile that humanity has ever accomplished. The beer in his hand is warm, as it always is at Third Door, the shittiest bar in town, but the one that most consistently schedules decent bands. It’s this consistency that’s gotten him here even though Dover hasn’t seen Rocket Guts before. He’s been assured they are wonderful (and doesn’t the video prove it?).
“What do you think?”
Dover can barely focus on the screen. There’s so much noise around them that the tinny speakers don’t emit anything more than a soft whine. He nods his head. “Pretty fucking good.”
“Right? I know they’re just a three piece, and just getting big, but god damn if they don’t—“
“Hey, Tyler, where’s Shaun?” Dover can’t wait much longer.
“Steam Punk Guy.”
“Oh, no, it’s Sam, remember? He’s on his way, I think.”
“Shit, Sam? Does he have the acid?”
“I mean, how would I know?”
“Because that was your fucking job.”
“He said he did, and he’d be here.”
“Guess we’ll just see, then.”
“That’s the idea.” Tyler pauses to slug down some more lukewarm beer. He cringes and shakes his head, splattering his phone screen in the process. “Shit.”
As Tyler frantically sets his drink down and attempts to wipe his screen, Dover takes in more of the room around them. The place is packed, yet another example of Third Door’s mixed reputation at work. If it weren’t for Rocket Guts, no one would be here. But then again, maybe they would. Out of something like four hundred fifty-four bars in the roughly eight square blocks of the downtown district, only three of them have shows going on tonight, and one of those is drag. Lackluster as Third Door may be in comparison to the places that everyone here is viewing on their phone screens, its market is locked. Dover squirms in place for a moment before being rescued by a violent vibration in his right pocket. He pulls out his phone and veers away from the welcoming embrace of a dozen applications and into the staunch interior of his messaging app.
Ashley: We’re on our way rn
Ashley: Where are you guys???
Dover scans the crowd again, sees a wisp of brown hair buried beneath a bright purple stocking cap. That’s new. He waves his arms above him, but she isn’t looking. Returning to the phone he writes: Over by the pole thing. Waving arms.
They lock eyes as Ashley and a friend begin to push their way through the crowd. Tyler notices this development and tugs on Dover’s shirtsleeve. “Ashley’s here? Are you guys seeing each other again?”
“We never really… I don’t know. We’re working on it. Be cool.”
“Will do. Sam is here, too.”
Three, two, impact. Ashley pulls Dover into a hug. Releasing him she gestures at her friend. “This is Rebecca.”
“Nice to meet you.” Dover fumbles out a hand, spilling some beer in the process, and Rebecca shakes it, looking a bit amused by the formality.
“You, too. I’m so fucking ready to see these guys.”
“Oh they’re the best, aren’t they?” Tyler is practically giddy in his drunkenness. “I was just showing Dover the video of them at the Bear Claw.”
“Shiiit, that show was so good,” Rebecca says.
“You were there?”
“Fuck yeah. I try to see them whenever they play.”
Tyler grins. “This is my first time.”
“Dude. You’re going to love them.”
Dover’s phone doesn’t vibrate, but he pulls it from his pocket anyway. A quick swipe upwards and he’s staring at a list of potential distractions from the current situation. YouTube is, as always, the obvious choice. His sub feed has filled to an almost unmanageable degree. For two days he’s barely had an opportunity to sit and watch anything, but the amount of channels he follows does nothing to help the situation. A few words jut out from the conversation around him, “Have you seen…” “…I was just telling him…”. None of it snags his attention the way bold faced text erupting from pure white LED (or is this model OLED?) does. His blue light filter is off. That could be the problem. He swipes down to turn it on, but a news headline there catches his attention: DISASTER ON THE WEST COAST —
“…them yet, Dover?”
“Sorry, what?” The bar’s darkness is incomprehensible after the radiation of the digital sun he’s just been staring into. The rough shape of Ashley is tugging his arm, pulling him closer to speak into his ear.
“Rocket Guts. Have you seen them yet?”
“Oh, no, but the video Tyler was just showing me seemed pretty good.”
“I think I’ve seen that one, too. Rebecca plays them all the time, but honestly I don’t pay that much attention. I’m just glad to get out of the house for once.”
“I feel like I never see anyone anymore. There’s just constant work going on, you know? And every time there is a chance to go out, it’s always to some asshole’s drunken house party.”
Dover winces into his screen but tries his best to play it off as a nod. “Yeah, I know what you…” 10 Things You Never Knew About Yourself….12 Tips to Financial Security in Your Twenties….Aren’t you Less Lonely Now?….The Aliens Have Already Come and Gone….The Next Ecological Disaster….’Leslie’ (ft. Lil Cupcake)… Shit. He still hasn’t turned on the blue light filter. Another swipe down.
Ashley gasps beside him, shakes his arm, “Look, here they come!”
Momentary silence erupts through Third Door, followed immediately by roaring and cheers. Rocket Guts barely acknowledges the audience before blasting straight into a searing screamo romp that makes Dover realize why he couldn’t distinguish the noise of the video from the noise of the bar. These guys are just making noise. The vocals are nearly indistinguishable from the monstrosity of drums, guitar, and bass, but what few words Dover can make out feel nostalgic, like home. By the end of the first song, he is convinced that this is The Best Band in the World. Judging by the reactions of the crowd around him, that opinion would find few detractors. Third Door sure does know how to book bands.
Midway through the set, Dover feels a hand on his shoulder and turns to find Tyler grinning like he’s just found the secret to financial security in his twenties. Dover raises his eyebrows, and Tyler jerks his head towards the back door. They shout something unintelligible to the girls before excusing themselves to the back alley. Standing there is Sam, dressed in his customary black boots, leather trench coat, and bright gold goggles. Sam is smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and leaning against a dumpster. He looks so out of place here that Dover wonders for a moment if they’ve stepped into some alternate reality. This is his standard feeling when encountering Sam.
“How you boys doing tonight?” Sam chiefs the rest of the cigarette and throws it into a puddle on the ground. More likely than not, the dumpster is some sort of closed wooden crate in his mind, since the steampunk world has no use for trash receptacles (this had been explained in a thirty minute lecture the last time that Dover and Tyler had approached Sam for drugs).
“Oh, you know, pretty great,” Tyler says. “That band is really amazing.”
“They sound pretty alright to me, yes.”
“Do you have the acid?” Dover is ready to finish this interaction and return to the show.
“Here’s your ordinance.” Sam tosses them a matchbox (custom made). Inside are four tabs. “I can take payment in gold or United States currency.”
Sam is a really nice guy once you get to know him, but if Dover could go back in time, he’d choose to not do that. They’d first met in the dorms, three years ago, and back then Sam had limited his steampunk lifestyle to clothing only, but since he’d left the dorms for a one bedroom loft nine months ago, he’d taken his newfound freedom to an unbearable level. Tyler hands over the money, and the two wave Sam off as he lights another cigarette. There’s never a need to thank him, as he’s just another lost soul doing his business in the world of zeppelins and grand quests. Dover isn’t even sure that he’s stayed enrolled in school.
“I think he’s getting crazier,” Tyler says as they make their way back to the show.
“Hey, do you want to go out with the girls after this?”
“There’s a karaoke bar down the block,” Tyler says.
“Sounds good to me.”
The bar is dim and too hot and smells like beer. Dover loves it because he knows he’ll remember it. Some moments are like that, the fog clears, and the image crystallizes, and everything becomes a memory. It’s less a karaoke bar and more a bar that owns a karaoke machine, but Dover isn’t complaining. Neither are the girls, who go in search of a booth while Tyler and he get drinks.
The bartender takes their orders and three more before turning around to get the drinks. Dover admires the short-term memories of service industry employees. He frequently has to write notes on his hands to remember things like groceries or which book he needs from the library. He wonders how much his phone is responsible for his deteriorating mental capabilities. Or everyone else’s for that matter. His eyes fix for a moment on the bar’s mounted TV, tuned to a 24 hour news station. News coverage these days tends to make Dover nauseous, so instead he looks at Tyler look at girls. The bar is not so crowded that it’s impossible to see, and Tyler is taking advantage of this with the obviousness of someone on his second bar of the night.
Before their drinks come Tyler turns to Dover and says, “Do you think Rebecca would fuck me?”
Dover hesitates. The beers arrive, and he gratefully takes a drink. “I don’t know. She seems nice.”
“Come on, man, be honest.”
“I- I don’t know. What kind of question is that?”
“I think I’m gonna fuck her. What about you? Are you fucking Ashley again?”
At this point Dover would rather face the newscaster. “We should get over there.”
“Sure, sure,” says Tyler, following him deeper into the bar, where the girls have secured a place, “but are you fucking her?”
Even the previous bar’s drinking hadn’t loosened Dover enough for this. He makes a quick dive for the booth, skids into a spot beside Ashley, and hands her a beer. Tyler takes a place next to Rebecca, and Dover can’t help but notice how smoothly he drapes his arm along the back of the booth. Tyler drops his questioning as the girls absorb them into the table discussion.
“So, Dover,” Rebecca says, “what did you guys go score out back?”
He feigns innocence, but Ashley smacks his arm. “We aren’t stupid. Come on, guys.”
“Acid.” Tyler is grinning like it’s the first time he’s sneaking out of his house as a teenager.
“No fucking way,” Rebecca says. Her eyes are wide and fixed on Dover. “You don’t strike me as the type.”
Dover shrugs and mumbles, “I’m curious,” from around the mouth of his bottle. The beer here is better than at Third Door.
Rebecca’s laughing, but Ashley looks concerned. “Is it safe?”
“Oh yeah,” Tyler jumps in, “Sam’s a good guy. I trust his stuff.”
“It’s from fucking Sam?”
“Who’s Sam?” Rebecca asks.
Dover answers, “Some steampunk cosplayer Tyler had a class with last semester.”
“He’s a freak,” Ashley says.
“He just takes the cosplaying seriously.” Dover doesn’t know why he’s defending Sam.
Tyler moves himself in closer to Rebecca as he says, “He’s never out of costume, and he usually speaks in character.”
“What’s he studying?”
“Fuck if I know. We just got to talking about drugs in class one day.”
“The steampunk thing doesn’t get in the way of the drug thing?”
“Apparently not.” Tyler laughs, spewing beer across the table. Dover flinches away, into Ashley, who doesn’t seem to be reassured by Tyler’s faith in Sam.
“That stuff is dangerous, though, right?”
“It’s not that dangerous,” Dover assures her.
“I’ve dropped acid before.” Rebecca sits back, leaning fully into Tyler now, and crosses her arms. Ashley clearly did not expect the revelation. Rebecca chuckles. “What? A friend got some in high school, so we spent an afternoon tripping together.”
“I just can’t believe-”
“It was fun. Fucking weird. I couldn’t really describe what it was like.”
Tyler takes a long pull from his bottle. “Well, you’ve got to try now.”
Rebecca laughs again, waves his question off, but the rest of the table is fixated on her now. She sighs. “Everything was moving, and I felt like I was part of something. Everything, I guess. It was kinda out-of-body, but also very not. Really, I can’t say much. It was once, like two fucking years ago.”
Dover’s phone vibrates. There is no second to think of resistance before it’s in his hand, screen open. The notification screen is abuzz with three new YouTube uploads Dover’s missed tonight. The source of the vibration lies beneath those: Kat! posted a new story. Dover freezes. Did he have her notifications on? Didn’t he block her? Ashley leans over to see what’s got his attention, but Dover mumbles an excuse, clears the notifications, and shoves his phone back into its pocket.
“So, Dover, what are you curious about?”
Rebecca slides her empty bottle to Tyler, who gets up for another round, and leans towards Dover. “You said you’re curious, with the acid.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, just generally what it’s like. I read something about it being used to treat depression and whatnot.”
“Are you depressed?”
“Dover?” Ashley laughs and pats his shoulder. “Does he seem depressed?”
He forces a laugh and explains, “I just want to know what that’s all about.”
“So you’re hoping for a mood boost?”
“Something like that. I just want to feel-”
Tyler slides back into the booth and clatters four new drinks across the table. “Drink up, everyone. The karaoke starts soon.”
“Oh, shit!” Rebecca grabs her drink and sucks down half of it. “What are you all singing?”
“I don’t sing,” Ashley says.
“Bullshit. Wasn’t this place your idea?”
“I just wanted to see the rest of you embarrass yourselves.”
Dover shakes his head. “No way in hell. I’m out.”
As he takes another drink, Dover hopes that acid is nothing like alcohol. The distance between himself and his actions when he drinks is unsettling. There’s nothing clarifying about how he feels now, eight, ten drinks in. Every sip is a continual disconnection. If acid made Rebecca feel like part of everything, it could make Dover feel like Dover.
“Come on,” Tyler slurs. “We’ve gotta hear a duet from the happy couple.”
Ashley stiffens. The two inches between her and Dover become an ocean of distance. His own body repulses from hers. There’s no direction to his avoidance.
“I’ll sing,” Dover hears himself say. His body stands, moves from the booth to the bored DJ sitting beside the karaoke machine. Dover is third in line, and he has no idea what song he’s going to choose. His mind is a chalkless square of sidewalk. He fumbles his phone from his pocket and navigates to Spotify. When it’s his turn, Dover shows the title of his most recently played song to the DJ, who nods and writes the selection on a piece of scratch paper.
Triumphant, Dover returns to the booth. He’s greeted by a modest applause from his friends. Ashley’s halfway through her drink and looking much less tense than when he left. He can breathe more easily in the now shrinking space between them. The first singer takes the stage, but Dover can’t spare attention for their performance. An icicle of stage fright begins spreading down his throat, into his chest, but Dover drowns it with the rest of his warm beer.
“Need another?” Tyler asks, already halfway out of the booth.
“No, sit, I’m good. Up next anyway.”
“Your call.” He sweeps up the empties as he leaves for another drink.
Rebecca swoops back to Dover. “Hey, we should trade numbers. If you’ve got any questions or something comes up tomorrow, you can text me.”
Dover tries not to notice Ashley typing harder on her phone screen, burying herself away, as he exchanges information with Rebecca. His own phone has remained still, but it pains him to think of the silent notifications that are surely piling up on it. He thanks Rebecca while whoever is currently singing cracks their voice on a high note. He cringes and regrets not vetting his own song choice more thoroughly. What had he even been listening to recently? Dover moves to check his phone, but then the song ends, and his name is called.
He hears polite cheers and a whistle from Tyler as he walks up and takes the microphone from a man in his forties, forehead beaded with sweat, shirt wet with spilled beer. The man mutters in an encouraging tone, but Dover can’t hold onto his words. Dover’s eye lock on the blue screen of the karaoke machine. <MUSICAL INTERLUDE> covers the opening drums and guitar. Dover sucks in a breath and waits for his cue.
The words come more easily than he would have guessed. After the first two lines, Dover doesn’t even need the screen. Still, he keeps his eyes trained on it, the blue and the booze suffocating the remains of his nervousness. By the chorus, Dover is enjoying himself. His body feels light, as though his voice were a weight he’d been holding inside himself until this moment. The song is a clumsy love ballad, but it reminds him of being home, still a child, putting together the pieces of a Lego set more complicated and more important than any life struggle could ever be. His phone hasn’t been invented yet, and the suffocating light that seeps out of the world and blinds him daily is dimmed. He is still a work-in-progress, but has lost his awareness of being so. He’s really getting into the song now, belting the lyrics and jumping around the small space available to him. He doesn’t need to the connect with the words because he is filling them with himself. His audience and their expectations melt into the thrust of the lead guitar tearing into another <MUSICAL INTERLUDE> which he occupies with more jumping, more head thrashing. His neck will be stiff in the morning, a small price to pay for transcendence, however fleeting. As the final chorus comes around, Dover remembers sitting in the backseat of his mother’s car as she turned the volume up on this very song, singing each word with the same abandon he feels now. When the song ends the audience does not erupt into applause, but Dover closes his eyes, lets the sound of modest praise wash over him, and remains for just a second longer in the moment he’s created for himself.
Dover waits forty-five minutes before he lets himself worry that he’s been ripped off. At minute forty-six he considers the odds that Sam, of all people, would screw him. One minute later, he swallows the fact that he might have thrown away twenty dollars. His stomach rumbles in complaint of its contents — last night’s beer, this morning’s peanut butter sandwich, coffee, and one-point-five tabs of acid that has been slow-dripping down his throat like a morning cup of chemical pour over for now a full three minutes past its effect’s estimated time of arrival.
Is the ceiling beginning to flicker? The ominous singe and pop of another dead lightbulb tells him otherwise. A full sixty minutes now.
He still has Sam’s address. People don’t give out their address to someone they’re going to rip off, right? Sixty-five minutes. In the meantime, he can at least get another round of coffee started. Pour over and all.
However, standing up, true to form, proves to be an effective means of kicking Substance into a higher gear. As Dover stumbles through the bedroom, his apartment walls wobble and his carpet’s matted yarn twists so intentionally that the kitchen’s cold linoleum comes as a relief. No need to call Sam, then, which is good because his name might have actually been Shaun. The odyssey from kitchen threshold to coffee counter is more elongated than usual. The smell of Sumatra brings Dover back into the world, the room, his body. While water boils, he pulls his phone from his pocket and dials Rebecca.
She answers on the first ring. “What’s up?
“Whoa, I’m surprised you’re awake.” Dover winces as the coffee grinder’s growl feeds back through the phone line. “Sorry.”
“It’s two in the afternoon, and I was just texting you.”
“I think it’s hitting me.”
“Tab and a half.”
Rebecca’s bark of laughter swirls back behind Dover’s eyelids. Steam plows into his face as the coffee begins its descent to the cup. “Dude, why the fuck?”
Deep inhale before: “I thought more acid might help.”
“How do you feel?”
The drops of coffee entering his cup shatter against its ceramic with all the gusto of an exploding bomb. Dover can already feel the burn he’ll inflict upon himself, but somehow he knows that the coffee will be tasteless. Maybe he read on some forum that LSD reduces your sense of taste. Maybe he’s wrong.
“Well,” says Rebecca, “feeling weird is a good start.”
“Was it like this for you?”
“You know I can’t answer that.”
Something, somewhere, clicks into, or out of, place. “How long?”
“For me it was twelve hours or so.”
The oven’s pip-boy green digits leer out at Dover, speechlessly menacing: 2:14. It is 2:14 pm on a Sunday. “Shit fuck.”
“That’s like, all day, dude.”
“Yeah. You know this. Did you have plans?”
Did you. “No, actually. But. Yeah. I just should have thought about this more.” Should have started earlier, really. Should have spent more time with Google.
“You’re fucking telling me. Now, just strap in. I gotta go. Let me know if you need anything. I guess.”
“Bryce is home.”
“Who?” Electric beep, then the line goes dead, and Dover is stranded in the darkened kitchen, coffee now in hand. Turning on the lights or opening the curtains is out of the question, but so is remaining in the midst of manufactured darkness. He retreats to his room, glancing over his shoulder the whole time. The couch, roughly shoved between the wall and bed, welcomes Dover with open arms, each of which had been leaking stuffing since he’d gotten the monster. Stretching out on the couch and staring at the rest of his space, Dover notices that his room is easily 80% furniture, from the desk (yard sale), to the bookcase (dumpster), to the couch (curb), to the bed (Sam’s Club, courtesy of Dover’s grandmother, who happens to be the Patron Saint of Love on Earth). It all covers the floor so effectively that he, and everyone else, has to maneuver the room via narrow strips of carpet, themselves often littered with books and clothes, and all of this organizational chaos is certainly just an outward manifestation of Dover’s inward fixation with making the path to intimacy difficult, which Ashley could, and would, provide a first-hand account of, likely rendering it in prose worthy of a Pulitzer. Basically, he was tripping, badly.
Dover fixes his eyes to the ceiling, seeking relief from the swirl of furniturific horror, but the pulsing stained-eggshell of his ceiling does nothing to help him. He closes his eyes and decides to focus on breathing (another forum pickup, probably. He would have read it this morning, in a different world and a different life.).
From the darkness: “Knock, knock.”
Without opening his eyes, Dover replies, “Bryce?”
“What? No, that was freshman year, remember? It’s Tyler. How’re you feeling, my guy?”
Freshman year. Things had started to slip around then, hadn’t they? It seems like the world has been narrowing from that year in the dorms, thinner and thinner, until it reaches this point, now. Dover is a needle, the exact thumbtack keeping his calendar in the wall.
“No, like, really different.”
“Like, good different?”
Dover opens his eyes and the world, blessedly still, flicks back into existence. “Let there be light.”
“What?” Tyler dips his head back into Dover’s room.
“I said, ‘Let there be light’.”
“Does that mean it’s good?”
Dover smiles, but finds that he’s already been smiling. “Yeah, I think it’s getting good. For a while there, I didn’t like it.”
“How long have you been tripping?”
In absence of the oven, Dover looks to the Annihilator, which reads: 2:17. 2:18.
“I think like four minutes.”
“Whoa.” Tyler returns to the kitchen but calls back, “That shit lasts like twelve hours.”
“You’re fucking telling me, man.”
Dover decides to stand. As always, this initiates a new wave of illicit fun. This time every object blooms into rainbow, and somewhere he can feel his ghost, standing in an abandoned theatre, surrounded by other spirits, even older than himself, long tied to that place. He shakes this off as best he can, sips at his oddly tasteless coffee, and follows Tyler into the kitchen. The fascinating show of kitchenware and foodstuffs proves to be no less confusing and altogether otherwordly than the objects in his bedroom. The plate cabinet is open, and that feels bad, but Dover likes the fridge, the oven, and the countertop. Tyler is a comforting sight, but Dover feels as though they are standing in separate rooms, or somehow on opposite sides of soundproofed glass. For a moment Dover’s attention alights on the bloody footprint decals on the kitchen floor.
“Yes,” Tyler says, as the stove clicks to life.
“So can I ask you a question?” Tyler says.
“What’s it feel like?”
Then shit gets weird.
April. It’s a budding flowers, brilliant colors, straight outta the movies kind of year, and that’s still not enough.
The come-up feels like Adderall or Ritalin. Tingling, excitement, that burst of energy like anything is possible.
His grandmother’s funeral hasn’t happened yet but when the Patron Saint of Love on Earth dies the emotion reverberates backwards, punches Dover in the gut while he stands in his kitchen five feet away from his best friend in the world.
Effects typically include altered thoughts, feelings, and an awareness of one’s surroundings.
He is not holding onto the Earth. He is not holding onto the very things that brought him here, and if that’s the case how is he supposed to get out of this thing that he wanted?
Many users see or hear things that do not exist.
He couldn’t read his phone if he tried.
Dilated pupils, increased blood pressure, and increased body temperature are typical. Effects begin within half an hour and can last up to 12 hours.
Dover shakes his head violently. “No, I don’t think I can do questions now.” No reply.
The kitchen light is on, but Tyler is gone, no dishes in the sink. Oven, please? 5:56.
He’d gone somewhere in that time, but Dover can’t remember where in his thoughts he’d traveled. Now that he’s returned, he needs a sandwich. Sense of taste or none, his stomach is speaking. October awaits him outside, where the city-lit, star-framed neighborhood leads him downtown. It occurs to Dover that in one way or another, he is dying along with the rest of everyone. A momentary blackout flares briefly beneath his fluttering eyelids; his pulse goes erratic, futilely attempting to escape the panic.
A blink later and he’s vanished, reappeared in a dimly lit restaurant where he is caught halfway through paying for a sandwich he can’t remember ordering. The blackout came on strong, then. He fumbles over his money, mutters “keepthechange”, and snags a newspaper as he sits to wait. Acid, it turns out, even in the later hours, manages to do that jumbly thing with words (Ambien is another known offender), so the newspaper proves to be unreadable. The few words that do make their way from the page to his brain (words like impending, or escalation, or unprecedented) Dover prefers to ignore. Instead he admires the scenery of the newspaper. Even devoid of content its purpose stands clear. The syntax speaks volumes of its own.
A waitress steps out of the kitchen and hands Dover a brown bag which smells good, but not in any identifiable sort of way. The waitress, surely someone he knows from a class, and he have the following interaction:
“Here is your order.”
And Dover leaves the sandwich shop.
Call it morning. Call it Monday. Dover barely knows what to call it at this point. He remembers the sandwich shop, and he remembers the barrage of feelings that he experienced yesterday, but the concrete details of everything have been washed away by sleep and drugs. Trip does seem like an appropriate term, and it’s not one he thinks he’d like to ever take again. Not that he would rule it out completely.
Dover didn’t expect a hangover, but it rings crueler than a facetiously-named alarm clock. He wakes to a stab of pain behind his right eye and the sudden urge to vomit as the Annihilator screams into the void of existence. He swallows, blinks, holds his breath. The nausea passes, and he flails out his hand to silence the alarm clock.
Light is invading the darkness of his room, pouring in from the kitchen through his open bedroom door. The Annihilator reads 7:01. Without unburying himself from his mess of blankets, Dover reaches out and plucks his phone from his makeshift nightstand (it is, in reality, a set of plastic drawers). The notifications are deep, and for the most part Dover swipes them left. He doesn’t care about the weather (shit), the news (shittier), or his to-do list (unthinkable distress). He’s digging down towards YouTube, but a slab of missed calls impedes his path. His thumb is poised above MISSED CALL: OLDIES, MISSED CALL: OLDIES, MISSED CALL: OLDIES, and MISSED CALL: OLDIES. Apparently, his parents had really wanted to get in touch with him yesterday. He can’t remember looking at his phone after the call with Kat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he hadn’t consciously ignored a phone call or two. Plus, the Oldies do tend to call him on Sundays. If they didn’t, Dover could go weeks without calling them of his own free will. One tap now, and he’d be flying through space to his parents living room. He can hear the sandpaper of his father’s voice and disappointment already. He swipes left, and YouTube emerges from the torment of other digital signifiers.
The spiral begins simply enough. His to-be-watched list has shot up to 70 videos. He starts by watching the first on the list: 10 Life Hacks That Will Save You Time in the Kitchen. This is almost entirely irrelevant to him, as Dover hasn’t used his kitchen for anything more than reheating leftovers since he and Tyler moved in together, but still, it would be better to know the life hacks than to not know them, and he appreciates the delivery style of the videos on this particular channel. What he really does after clicking play, though, is scroll through the related videos. Life hacks, top tens, movie clips, and upcoming trailers all emerge from the sidebar. About thirty seconds into the kitchen video, Dover, more or less at random, clicks on one of these. He tries to pay attention to this, a video about corporate surveillance tactics, but then a Drunk History video becomes much more tempting, so not even a minute in, he’s off to the next post. Neither of these two most recent videos were on his to-be-watched list. Dover can feel time wasting away around him. He can think of at least ten different tasks that he could be doing which would be much more valuable to him than sitting here watching YouTube. Instead he moves to another video, this time a TED Talk about why people procrastinate, and how to avoid using time so inefficiently. During this one he hears Tyler moving around in the house, getting ready for the day, likely preparing to actually use the time that the Universe has granted him. The videos all begin to blur together. The Annihilator now reads 7:58, and Dover has silenced all of his alarms. Class will wait. On his desk there’s a stack of books he could <should> be reading. A text pops into existence on his screen, Ashley: Hey, how are you doing? What was acid like???, but he swipes it left and pursues another video. He’s returned to his list and makes it most of the way through the next one down: Are You Less Lonely Now?. It’s slam poetry, which Dover doesn’t have much patience for, and it does nothing to make him feel less lonely in the slightest. A string of music videos fills his list, but these he skips over. Just as he’s about to click on something claiming to be the funniest elephant video in Internet history, his screen blacks out for a second and re-lights with a picture of his mother and father along with the text INCOMING CALL: OLDIES. Dover sighs in both exasperation and relief. He swings his feet out of the bed and onto the floor, the transition sending bolts of pain into his head. He still feels the pull of the Internet tugging on his attention as he swipes the call right and brings his phone to his ear.
“Dover, are you there?”
“Yeah, hi Dad, it’s me.”
“Your mom is here, too.”
“Hi, honey!” his mother screams into the phone.
“Mom, Jesus, not so loud.”
“What did you say!”
Their speakerphone feeds back into the line, and the resulting screech explodes behind Dover’s temples. At least now his day has begun.
“How are you guys doing?”
“Your mom and I were just wondering how you’re doing.”
“Oh, um, I’m good. How are you guys doing?”
“Tell us about your classes,” his mother says, sounding like she’s standing ten feet from the phone and using this as an opportunity to practice her stage voice.
“We’ve been good here,” and as always his father’s voice indicates that he might have called by accident. “Your mom’s rehearsals are going well.”
“We open in three weeks!”
“That’s great, mom, I —“
“So what about you, Dover? Are things on track?”
“What does that —“
“Are you going to graduate?”
Dover pulls the phone from his ear, and the screen alights. He minimizes the call app to pull up his actual call history. There, sure enough, he’s able to confirm for himself that the last time he and his parents talked was eight days ago.
“I’m still working on that.”
“You’re working really hard, Dover!”
“You’re going to get it figured out soon, right? You’re a senior, Dover.”
“Yes, dad. I know.”
“Great. Well, let us know if anything new is going on with you. We’ll give you a call soon.”
“Goodbye, honey, love you!”
“I love you guys, too.”
The phone line clicks once, then goes completely silent. Dover’s screen light turns on and all but fries his eyes before he launches it halfway across the room. More than likely the screen just cracked, but at least something’s finally happened today.
As Dover attempts to escape the confines of his bed, the nausea returns, and he knows there’s no chance he’ll make it to the comforts of his bathroom. He manages a leap to his open door towards edge of the kitchen and saves his carpet from the spill. There isn’t much else to do at that point, so Dover exhales and rests his head in the pool, defaulting to a shower in favor of some possible relief for his throbbing skull. The floor offers little.
“Whoa, you okay?” Apparently Tyler had been coming to get himself a bowl of cereal when Dover’s stomach erupted across the kitchen floor. Dover can’t decide if this is lucky or embarrassing, but he lets Tyler pull him from the pile of puke to lean against the wall.
“My head is just. Just. Yeah.”
“Ever had anything like this before?”
“No, and acid isn’t supposed to—“
Tyler claps him on the back which lights up bits behind Dover’s skull that he didn’t know existed. “You’ve got a migraine,” his tone like Dover has accomplished something great for himself, “I get those all the time.”
“Awesome. What do?”
“Nothing really. Dark. Water. Pain meds. Sleep.”
“Fuck.” Dover pants as he slides down the wall, now sitting in the vomit. “Would you grab me the Tylenol?”
“Of course. And I’ll start the shower for you. You smell like shit.”
“Like puke,” Dover says, but his voice is barely audible, and Tyler has vanished around the corner. He looks into the darkness of his room, wishing he could reach, or at least see, his phone. In something like eight hours he’s supposed to be on a date. He should let her know, maybe not the full extent of his situation, but at least that he’s incapacitated for the day. He stretches his hand into the black, willing telepathy to erupt into existence. No such luck as Tyler walks back into the room with pain meds, a glass of water, and three rolls of paper towels.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to reach my phone.”
“And do you think that’s going to work?” he asks in a tone that implies he thinks Dover’s lost to a fever dream. He steps past Dover, heads into the bedroom, and reemerges with phone in hand. “Here, but take this first.”
“Thank you.” Tyler nods and continues into the bedroom. When he gets his phone, Dover is relieved to find the screen uncracked. Sometimes fortune does find its way to him. Inside, his phone is cluttered from the morning’s browsing. He closes all windows and continues to his messaging app. As Ashley’s name appears on the screen ,Tyler walks back into the kitchen, now properly dressed and with a backpack slung across his shoulders.
“Well, I’ve got a class. Shower’s running. Are you good, man?”
Dover looks up from his place in the pile of vomit and shows his teeth. “I’m great.”
“Going to class today?”
“What does it look like?”
“Hey, fair.” And Tyler is gone.
The smell is starting to get to him. Dover wobbles his way to his feet and tosses his phone back into the darkness. He drips his way to the bathroom, all the while imagining the horror of the coming clean up. He can do it. The shower, the cleaning, the dark, the Internet, and dinner with Ashley in the evening. He can do it all.
“So what about you, Dover? Have you gotten situated yet?”
“What does that —“
“Have you declared yet?”
His parents often use the Double Ask technique when approaching a topic they know will upset him. This particular Double Ask has been a daily occurrence throughout his long sophomore year. Dover tries to tell himself that their concern comes from love, but the continual interrogation more often than not leaves him feeling guilty and angry. Guilty because, in spite of himself, Dover believes the implication that he should have declared a major by this point in his college career. Angry because he has no idea what he wants to do with his life, and they know this, yet they insist on asking as though that will somehow aid his decision making process.
“I’m still figuring it out, actually.”
“Well, you’ve only got a few months left in the year, right? It’s about time to make a decision.”
Sometimes his parents blur into a single unit of slogan-spewing mentorship. Via text his mother and father are indistinguishable from one another, and even here in person, if Dover focuses on the menu, the waitstaff, the customers, their voices conjoin. If they were to finally fuse into one being, Dover would be fifty percent more able to dodge having conversations like these.
“I’m talking to my advisor about all my options.”
This is a lie. In reality, Dover is avoiding conversations with his academic advisor as easily as he’d like to avoid their parental counterparts. There’s no shame in being undeclared. He’s internalized the reassurance, along with the silent, underlying, “But at some point you’ve got to do something.” He’s finished his general education requirements, along with half his electives, without finding so much as a minor he can commit to for more than a semester.
As the waiter comes to take their order, Dover’s phone vibrates, and he snatches the opportunity to escape the scene. He says his order into the screen while moving through apps to reach the minimally-designed interior of his messaging app. A single notification blinks blue.
Kat!: Hey! Hope you’re surviving lunch.
He writes back: Oh, it’s going as expected. Thanks! How are you?
“Dover, are you even listening to us?”
That voice belongs to his mom. Dover slides the phone back into his pocket. It pulses as a reply comes, but Dover resists the temptation. Judging by the look on his mom’s face, she is three-quarters of the way to pissed off.
“Yeah, sorry, I’m here.”
“You need to understand how important this is.”
A free meal was not worth enduring this. “I do-”
“This is about your entire future, Dover.”
What future, he wants to ask. Every day a new story reveals how close the entire world is to collapse. Countries are edging towards authoritarianism and war. Chemicals are pouring into the air. The polar ice caps are melting, and by mid-century massive ecological disaster will reshape the world. He’ll experience the unfolding chaos while paying student debt by working a job he hates, or, if he’s lucky, by finding a way to monetize some precious part of himself. From Dover’s vantage point, he doesn’t have much to look forward to.
Instead of doomsday prophecies, Dover tells his parents, “I know it’s important, okay? I know. I just, I don’t have something like you guys did. Mom, I don’t have a passion for the arts. Dad, I’m not going to be an engineer. I’m figuring it out.”
“We’re just worried about you, Dover. What have you been doing these past two years if not figuring it out?”
Drinking and class, neither of which are as helpful as advertised. Dover’s phone pulses again. The food should quiet them down, and right on cue it’s arriving. He risks another look at the phone.
Kat!: I'm good. Tired. SO DONE with classes, you know?
Kat!: Oooohh, I hope it's not too rough for you. HANG. IN. THERE. <3
At moments like this Dover thinks he loves Kat so much that he hates her. She, of all people, would be able to steer him in the right direction, but she’s eight hundred miles away. Like the rest of Dover’s friends, she’d fled the city the second their graduation ceremony had ended. The benefits of high school effort only became apparent to Dover after he’d wasted three and a half years ignoring everything a teacher said to him.
Dover: Saaaame. The usual, but food's here, thank god.
He returns the phone to his pocket and tries not to notice when Kat replies. He’s pleasantly surprised to remember that he ordered a burger. He begins the process of inhaling his food, doing his part to rush the meal to its conclusion. His parents are doing their part as well. On his better days, Dover knows that they mean well. His better days come less often than they used to.
Dover grabs his jacket as he swallows his last bite. His parents are each halfway through their meals, but his plate is clean. He clears his throat to pull their attention from the food.
“Thank you guys so much for lunch, but I’ve gotta go. I promised Tyler I’d help him go over an assignment this afternoon.”
“Oh, why didn’t you mention that earlier?”
“Slipped my mind. Really,” now he rises from his seat and crosses the table to hug them goodbye, and fumbles his words into the fabric of their clothes, “I’m going to get it figured out. I’ll be declared soon. Don’t worry.”
He doesn’t wait for their response before leaving the restaurant. Midway through that exchange his phone went off electric toothbrush style. He can barely wait to get out the door before ripping it from his pocket and diving in. The most recent messages are from Tyler.
Tyler: Heyo, won't be home till 9
Tyler: MONSTER day, man, fuck
Tyler: You wanna go to a party later? Got an invite Tyler: Fill you in later
All of these Dover classifies as not needing a response. The prospect of going out and escaping his own skin for a night does intrigue him. Only one message remained.
Kat!: Nap now, msg me later, okay? Dover: Barely made it out. Catch up soon.
Dover never feels more at home than he does when shut into his bedroom in the apartment he shares with Tyler. Despite its ratty interior, lack of central air, and shitty location relative to campus, Dover had fallen in love with the place as soon as he’d crossed the threshold of the front door. It’s a simply laid-out two bedroom place, with a dining and living room space barely large enough for a couch and TV, but Dover feels that here he can have some control over his world. His bedroom is cramped and dominated by the few pieces of furniture his parents had gotten him when he left for school. The lack of space quiets Dover’s thoughts, brings him close clear-headedness.
Now he sprawls across his couch, legs dangling over an armrest, his phone held six inches above his face. A quick message to Kat, Home now, text whenever, and he’s opening his browser, finding his way to Google’s homepage. Any curiosity he has can be satisfied with a few taps of his screen. Dover searches maintaining a long distance relationship and finds nothing but clickbait lists and quick-tip guides. Dover searches maintaining a relationship and gets much of the same. Dover searches long distance and finds a forum thread that seems promising. Is my relationship working??? has 102 replies and activity within the last twenty-four hours. He begins to read through, skimming post after post, but nothing captures his attention. Dover searches best emerging careers and experiences Google remorse so intense that he shifts from browser to video game and tap-jumps his way around rocks for twenty minutes. Mid-jump his game is eclipsed by an overlay from his messaging application.
Kat!: Thought you might like this… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_h1ooyyzkF0
When Dover clicks the link, his phone gives him a prompt. Always open with YouTube? He selects yes without a thought and watches a comedian’s set about the end of the world arriving via mountains of plastic animated by the radiation from cell towers. Because he’s alone, Dover doesn’t laugh, but he snorts through his nose once or twice.
Dover: LOL! That was great. How was nap? Kat!: Nap was AMAZING. You survived parents? Dover: Yes haha still concerned I'm lacking a major Kat!: What did you say? Dover: Same as always, I'm working on it.
Sounds from the kitchen let Dover know Tyler has made it home. He pockets the phone and steps into the dim kitchen space. They really need to deep clean this place, though part of Dover wonders if the grime is legally a permanent fixture by now. No point messing with it in that case.
“How’s it going?” Dover asks.
Tyler doesn’t look away from the sandwich he’s making as he says, “Shit fucking day, man. Shit day. You?”
Dover ponders. “Yeah, shit.”
Tyler spins around and chomps away about half of his sandwich. He’s grinning around the gnashing mouthful of turkey and Swiss. Without pause Tyler opens the fridge and pulls out two beers. He smacks them on the table and gestures for Dover to open them as he finishes the sandwich. Once Tyler’s ended his speed meal with a swig of beer he’s free to speak again.
“So, this party. Frat thing. We might actually be able to get you laid. It’s way up on the West end. You in?”
Tyler has refused to see Dover’s lack of sex as anything but a problem. Dover hasn’t done much to dissuade his open, though, because Tyler’s quest for Dover’s sexual conquest keeps him in a steady supply of alcohol and large parties in which he can lose himself. Dover’s phone pulses, and he checks the message before responding.
Kat!: Are you?
“Yeah, I’m in,” Dover says. “We’d better get started here.”
The best and worst of parties all begin with exactly the same thing: Hawkeye Vodka. Dover got a taste for it his freshman year, when he realized that for twenty dollars he could bribe an upperclassman and buy him enough alcohol to black out for a good two weeks straight. There’s no reason that a liquid form of one’s self-hatred should cost more than twenty dollars, in Dover’s opinion. Tonight he is a blacked out mess before he manages to introduce himself to the host of the party. Unfortunately none of his surrounding peers have much of an interest in reigning him in or preventing him from doing something that he will ultimately regret.
When Dover arrives at the party, he’s more than a little tipsy. He and Tyler had been sipping whiskey from a flask for the entirety of their eight block walk from the dorms to the frat house. As they walk through the door, Dover does not plan on blacking out, but he has done very little to prepare himself for any other outcome. Once through the door a cup is placed into his hand by a sandy blond-haired young man in cut off jean shorts and a cowboy hat. Dover downs the drink in four seconds flat.
Not long ago, these situations made him incredibly nervous. Dover had never imagined himself as a partier. When surrounded by a mass of other human beings his anxiety quickly became unmanageable. To deal with that, he spent his first handful of college parties drinking and drinking in a corner alone until he inevitably puked all over himself and the floor, and was more or less carried back to the dorm by Tyler, who had a much better handle on his own alcohol tolerance. Eventually, Dover figured out how to manage himself, and with that new skill came the realization that enough alcohol would abolish all of his anxieties with the added effect of wiping out most of his functioning rationality. Now, he relishes these parties as the few occasions in which he can experience a way of moving freely about the world. Usually the embarrassment he feels at learning his actions in the mornings does not outweigh the joy of being out of his own mind for a handful of hours.
Tonight, Dover would likely be better off in a corner alone. Instead, he subjects everyone around him to his drunken presence, shouting, dancing, and spilling about half of every drink that the frat boys put into his hands. They love him. The cowboy hat character (Bryce?) buddies up with Dover for the majority of the night, offering him drinks every few minutes and encouraging his every drunken whim. Through his blackout, Dover will manage to snag a few memories, but the rest he fills in from stories. At one point he clambers onto a table, rips his shirt off, and dances while swinging it around his head. Once removed from the table, he is clothed in a Cowboys football jersey (provided by Bryce) and shoved towards a girl that he’s told finds him attractive. He wouldn’t normally have the courage to so much as talk to her, but alcohol and the boys get him there quickly enough. Within thirty minutes he and Ashley Monihan (whose name Dover doesn’t discover until the morning) are making out on the stairs of Alpha Beta Phi Whatever. Dover wanders off in search of more booze, and trusty Bryce arrives to inform him that he can definitely Get Lucky tonight. Dover is dubious, and remembers nothing more of the party.
The next thing he knows Ashley is more or less sitting on top of his dorm room desk. Her pants are missing, and Dover is naked, erect, and moving in a way that feels unfamiliar for that instant in which he’s conscious. She moans, pulls him closer while whispering, “Yes, baby, please.” He’s never been called “baby” by anyone, and he’s never fucked a stranger. For a moment he feels like he’s going to puke, but then he blacks out again and the night continues without him.
He wakes with a splitting headache, the Annihilator blaring in his ears, and a naked girl in his bed. He silences the Annihilator (7:02), but when the girl wakes up, Dover doesn’t know how to tell her that he has no clue who she is. She smiles and kisses him, and his stomach does that thing that happens when you drive down a hill too quickly. His breath tastes to him like a rotted corpse, but she doesn’t mention it. Eventually he’s able to get her out of the room, collecting her phone number and promising a call in the process. This doesn’t feel right to him, but he’s not quite sure what to do about it. He figures he can figure it out another time. When Tyler congratulates him for scoring he smiles and returns the high five. When his phone displays a message from Kat, How are you? What happened to you last night??? he can’t think clearly enough to form a response, much less an explanation or apology. He doesn’t tell anyone about his undefined, uncomfortable feelings about the night, and even when he and Ashley start dating, months later, he keeps his lack of memory to himself. He’s not sure what it means, or if it means anything, and after a while he gives up trying to make sense of the situation at all. Good or bad, he figures, the story only continues.
Dover barely recognizes the man in the mirror. Is man the right word? The apartment is clean, and he’s dressed, freshly shaved, and smelling like a person who spent a peaceful night in bed and an organized day in class. His phone lies on the bathroom counter, and its vibrations are deafening in the closet-space of the bathroom.
Ashley: On my way! Dover: Same!
He looks in the mirror one last time. His hair forms a black curtain between the world and him whenever he forgets to push it out of his eyes. It’s been well over six months since his last haircut and at least three since the last time he scheduled an appointment and slept through it. Hair is low on Dover’s list of priorities, but in moments like this he is painfully aware of how his lack of care presents itself to others. What will Ashley think? What has she been thinking? He tries not to picture the way Kat used to laugh as she wrapped his hair in pigtails, tries not to imagine the photograph still sitting on a Facebook page somewhere. Eternal seems like such a good adjective before a relationship’s end date. Was it two nights ago he’d seen her name pop up on his phone screen?
As Dover pockets his phone and leaves his apartment he is lost in the swirl, memories colliding like bumper cars, the noise enough to distract anyone, and he’s left his headphones on his desk. Dover cringes and maneuvers his way around slow walkers and cars stopped in the middle of crosswalks. This city had seemed to glisten when he’d first walked its streets. He’d told Kat as much.
The people here are so COOL. Like, everyone is doing their own thing, and everyone’s pursuing something.
You should see the trees here! We don’t have trees like this back home, I swear.
The river here! Remember our spot by the riverbank? Well —
Enough of that. He’s thought of her less and less these past two years. He’d been the one who’d blocked her accounts on every platform available. Social media is persistent by nature, and the steady stream of images showing a life moving forward had tormented him for months after they’d broken up. Every update, good or bad, induced a pulse of guilt in his gut, as though he were personally responsible for everything that came her way afterwards. He didn’t want to be the guy who cheated. He didn’t want to be the guy who fucked some girl he couldn’t remember. Trying to be neither really just proved he was both, but the world seemed much more comfortable with that fact than Dover could comprehend.
Ashley has gotten a booth in the back, the same one they’d sat at for their first date, something like a week after the hookup. She’d been surprised when he got in touch with her, even more so because he’d called instead of texted (after Kat, Dover couldn’t sit comfortably in the confines of his messenger app for months). Tyler had been against the date. Dover had finally made some progress into becoming a real person, not always tied to someone else. He’d hooked up, ditched Kat, and was now contemplating throwing it all away by going back to his pattern of attachment. Dover didn’t tell Tyler he couldn’t remember making the decision to sleep with Ashley in the first place, and though he bought the argument that diving into another relationship might not be the best thing for him, he resisted the idea that another relationship was what he was pursuing. It’d just been dinner.
“How are you?” Dover says as he slides into the booth.
“Stressed. Can you believe we graduate in less than two months?”
We. “Yeah,” Dover chuckles, “I need to see if I’m going to pass this semester first.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Dover tries to picture his instructors’s faces as he orders a beer. He can vaguely remember signing up for classes last semester; he can vaguely recall why he’d chosen this major, this university. Ashley is upset. Dover can tell, he can always tell and it always goes this way, but he can’t do anything about it. It’s like the acid’s dropped again, and there’s an invisible wall between him and the world, despite all his hopes that it was going to do the opposite.
“Hey, tell me how it was.”
“The acid?” He must have worn it on his face.
“Yeah. I mean, you took it yesterday, right?”
“I did, yeah.” Dover scratches the back of his head and shrugs, sips his beer. “It was different. I’m not sure I can really describe it.”
“Well, was it what you hoped for?”
“No.” The thud of his glass on the table finalizes the verdict. His phone vibrates and without thinking Dover pulls it from his pocket and swipes up.
Tyler: Hang later?
Dover: For sure
“Did you hear me?”
Dover’s phone slips back into his pocket. “What?”
“I said I’m sorry. I know you were excited about that.”
“It’s okay. You never know what something’s going to be like, I guess.”
“I suppose. Did Tyler like it?”
“He didn’t take his, actually. I think he said something about a date. Honestly, I can’t remember much of the morning yesterday.”
Ashley snorts. “Of course he had a date. Did you see the way he was all over Rebecca on Saturday?”
“He doesn’t have a girlfriend. It’s just a casual thing, I think.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?” he asks.
The server comes back over. Dover orders another beer, and Ashley gets a tea. When asked about food, she says they’re fine with only the drinks. Something in Dover drops. His phone vibrates again, but he leans in, focuses on his drink and the here and now. Ashley won’t meet his eyes.
“Just, Tyler’s always like that, right? He wants what he wants, and he’s not worried about getting it.”
“That’s not fair,” Dover says. “Rebecca was into him, too.”
“Like he gave her much choice. And my point is that he’s always like that, Dover. Always.”
“He’s forward, sure, but he doesn’t mean anything bad by it. Tyler’s a good guy.”
“Even good guys can be shitty.”
“He’s my best friend.”
“You don’t see it because you’re a guy, Dover. And, anyway, if he treats some people like that, he’d treat anyone like that given the right circumstances.”
“Why are we arguing about Tyler?”
When they had started texting regularly, Dover appreciated the return of a steady thrum coming through his phone. Their communication was less insistent than Kat’s and his had been, in part because they could see each other more often, and in part because Dover reflexively kept his foot on the breaks. Ashley and he had never coalesced into anything more than two people who dated when it suited them. Their relationship heated when assignments were sparse, but Dover’s phone remained silent throughout winter and summer breaks. A gnawing in Dover’s brain kept him aware of this disparity between his current and previous relationship, but he lacked the will to do anything about it. In two years he hadn’t met any of Ashley’s family, and he knew her friends only in the context of drunken gatherings. To be fair, he knew most of his own friends in the same context, but there was always an unnameable strain between himself and her friends that alcohol, eliminated in his interactions with his own.
Dover stares at his useless menu lying on the table as the check arrives, and Ashley reaches for it. He’d really expected this to be a dinner. Already his mind is drifting to the meager food supplies in his kitchen. Did Ashley say something? He shakes his head and finishes his beer. Empties glasses and the black checkbook with Ashley’s card protruding from it lie between them. An ocean of banality, but it’s enough.
“Because you’re getting to be just like him, Dover. Only you’re pushing people away much more openly.”
The server runs her card. Ashley hasn’t taken a single drink of her tea. Dover can’t find feelings, much less words, for a response.
“We both knew this wasn’t going to last, Dover. I’m graduating and moving away, and you’re… I just think it’s best if we stop pretending now.”
Once it’s apparent that Dover isn’t going to say anything in response, Ashley leaves. He pulls his phone from his pocket and opens the screen. He swipes and taps, moving from app to app, screen to screen, latching onto nothing at all, and when that gets to be too tiring he stands up and makes his way back home.
The Internet comes crashing down around Dover Marlowe. This evening’s spiral calls for two screens. Lying on his floor, Dover is tapping violently on his phone while his laptop blares video after video. He installs a dating app. He installs a weekly planner. He installs a financial planner. Alongside these he watches Why We’re Unhappy and Ends of the World and Are the tech giants controlling our brains???, which depresses him because if this is the best distraction Google’s algorithms can dream up, his faith in the company has been misplaced. Tonight is the perfect example of why Tyler and he pay for the Outrageously Priced Plan from their ISP despite Dover’s firm belief that it is nothing short of robbery. He downloads, then uninstalls, three mobile games. He streams the first fifteen minutes of The Matrix before his patience wears thin, and he’s back to YouTube. You Aren’t a Loser, Yet — TED, Dreams Are Electricity — TEDx, DO IT FOR THE VINES (PRANK EDITION). He doesn’t know what to put in the “About Me” section of his new dating profile, so he googles it. He takes a personality test, then another when he disagrees with the results. WebMD informs him that the stress he is currently feeling is either the result of modern existence or a symptom of terminal cancer. The contents of his mind don’t seem like they could fill a tweet, but Dover registers for Twitter anyway. He posts a single period, and that feels good until he realizes his lack of followers negates any chance for a like. He reads, without comprehending, three articles on Medium before hitting a paywall. He watches Best Nineties Movies, Ranked and Twelve Steps to a Healthier Life. He fills out his dating profile, then uninstalls the app. The blue light of his screens burns his eyes, now dry like a morning without sleep. The physical symptoms of screen overuse can surely be cured by a blue light filter, which Dover installs and promptly deactivates on both of his devices. He searches travel destinations, examines his bank account, closes all tabs. He searches for the estimated starting salaries of people with his major and is disappointed with the results compared to the debt he’s amassed in his time here. He watches Do we really need higher education?. There’s nowhere he’d rather be than here, he tells himself. Here which is nowhere, which is everywhere if only he looks a little harder, searches a little more. He’s attained one Twitter follower. It’s a bot. The ad blocker on his computer notifies him that 127 advertisements have been restrained, but countless more stream through on his phone, and Dover feels the urge, primal as the need to eat and drink, to purchase away his woes. Dover reads that the first message transmitted on the Internet was “lo”, and he smiles.
The sound of Tyler entering the apartment comes as both a disruption and a relief. The kitchen light burns Dover’s eyes. Tyler’s eyes are gleaming, a huge grin stretches across his face. In his hands is a bottle of Jack, from which he pulls deeply before offering Dover a drink.
“My man, we are getting drunk tonight.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“Cheers.” The whiskey burns Dover’s throat. Tyler is one person Dover feels he can connect to without drinking away his anxieties first, but that only ever makes him more willing to go along with whatever Tyler has planned, which is usually drinking anyway.
Tyler snatches back the bottle, marches into the living room, and drops to the couch. Dover follows, and the upholstery greets him with a faint scent of mildew. Tyler and he had lugged the thing from the side of a dumpster all the way up to their dorm room in freshman year. It had followed them to the apartment and had remained there since. Tyler leans back and sighs. His eyes are closed.
“How was the date?”
“Oh. She dumped me.”
Tyler sits up now. “Shit, man. Are you okay?”
Dover thinks about the slush leftover in his phone and on his laptop. Showing Tyler that would be so much easier than explaining, but he couldn’t make sense of it the way Dover could. Dover struggles to pull words from the images in his head.
“Yeah, I’m okay. It sucks, but we weren’t that serious anyway.”
“Did she say why?”
“She said she’s graduating and moving on or whatever.”
“Fucking Monday.” Tyler takes a drink from the bottle and passes it over to Dover, who sips gratefully. The burn has become a warmth inside his entire body. It wouldn’t be bad to feel like this all the time, but eventually the thrill would wear off, too. Already Dover notices that more and more he’s going through the motions. He wonders if he’s missed a notification on his phone.
“You know,” Dover says, going through the motion of taking another drink from the bottle, “I was reading something earlier that said the entire planet is going to be unlivable by the end of the century. It might have been YouTube, actually, but, whatever, it said that in the next twenty years we can expect to see environmental disasters, floods, mass drought, that sort of thing. And nobody’s fucking doing anything about it. I guess I’m not really all that upset about Ashley because, fuck, man, we’re probably the last group of people who are going to live normal lives on the entire planet. So who gives a shit?”
Silence extends from Dover’s outburst. He wonders if he’s said too much, or if anything he said is even true. He’s drunk now; he can feel the warmth bloom in his cheeks and forehead. He wishes he could just transfer the emotions to Tyler’s brain. Without saying anything, Tyler reaches for the bottle and takes one, two, three drinks. As he brings the bottle away from his lips his throat bulges with the swallow, and he cringes. Seconds later he’s laughing, and Dover joins him, not really knowing why but enjoying it all the same.
“Who gives a shit.” Tyler claps him on the back and passes the bottle. He’s up and pacing now, his words coming quicker, slurring from the whiskey. “We’ve gotta do our own thing while we can, right? We can’t let anything chain us down because it’s the end of the world! I fucking love it, man.”
Hearing it from Tyler gives Dover serious doubts. This isn’t the feeling he’d wanted to transfer. He hadn’t expected anything like a celebration. Dover drowns his concern with another dose of liquor. Things are really spinning now. Tyler’s words are gone. Barely his tone remains, replaced by a thrum in Dover’s ears. His knees go cold, and Dover knows the trouble has gotten serious. He stands and stumbles past Tyler into the bathroom. The toilet’s maw greets him like an old friend, and Dover vomits for the second time in a day.
Tyler is behind him, watching over like an older brother. “Hanging in there?”
Dover can’t speak, but he manages to raise a shaking thumb.
“Solid. I’m gonna get you some water.”
As Tyler leaves, Dover gives it all up again. He hasn’t eaten anything since the sandwich on acid, and that might as well have been years ago. His body is covered in sweat, and the only sound louder than his pulse is his own gasping breath. Tyler returns with water, and Dover, knowing the worst has passed, flushes the toilet and slumps himself into a position from which he can take a drink. Tyler is sitting on the floor in front of him. He looks like someone who wishes they could do so much more, so Dover tries to offer him a reassuring smile before taking another tentative sip.
“Fucking Mondays, right?” Dover’s voice is husky. His words come out like sludge forced through a hose.
“You’ve had a hell of one.”
“I drank too much.”
Tyler shrugs. “It happens.”
Over and over again. “It sucks.”
“You’ll feel better. And we’ll be more careful next time.”
They both laugh, and Dover shakes his head. He can feel the ground beneath him again. His skull isn’t doing that free floating maneuver. He can almost hear over the sound of his own body’s labors. There’s still a rumbling in his gut, a bloodshot burn in his eyes, and a killer headache, but Tyler’s right. He’ll feel better.
“I think that’s it for me tonight, though,” Dover says.
“That’s fair, come on.”
Tyler stands and offers Dover a hand. Once pulled to his feet, Dover can feel the spins again, but he closes his eyes and leans into Tyler while they make their way to the bedroom. Dover collapses onto his bed with utter relief. If it wasn’t for the pain in his head, he’d already be asleep.
“Need anything else?” Tyler says.
“No, I’m good. Thanks.”
“Of course! Hey, about what I was saying, though. Are you down for Friday?”
“What’s that?” Words are almost too much for Dover at this point. He can feel the hangover that will rack his body tomorrow. Class will be hell.
“My hometown’s got this festival thing. There’ll be girls.”
“I’m in,” Dover manages, and then the exhaustion takes him.
They are somewhere in Iowa. Dover has been staring at cornfield after empty cornfield for hours. Luckily the passenger seat of Tyler’s car is comfortable enough for the three hundred mile ride-along. Long nights have been keeping Dover’s brain encased in cotton balls. He’s been Internet binge-ing like never before. Blue light has become an internal feature of his eyes. Dover scans from cornfields to screen, void of notifications, back to cornfields. The sight of them turns Dover’s stomach.
“This is so fucking great,” Tyler says. He is beaming from the driver’s seat. The music is blaring, the windows are down, and Dover can’t deny that, despite the surroundings there is something good about today.
“It’s not bad,” he says. They descend into the chorus of another song. Dover leans back in his seat and closes his eyes, letting the wind rush over him as Tyler changes lanes to take an exit. It really isn’t so bad, in the moment.
Dover didn’t know towns like Tyler’s existed outside of movies. There can’t be more than twelve squares blocks here. The main road is laid with cobblestone and lined by shops, restaurants, and one locally owned gas station. The sidewalks are filled with people who, right in front of Dover’s eyes, stop along the street to have conversations with one another. On Dover’s side of the street, the shops give way to a riverbank which is already crowded with people. Just down the river and outside of town, Dover can see where a small carnival has taken shape, emitting strange lights and smells. On Tyler’s side the town ascends a hill and becomes residential. Most of the houses are somewhere between run down and gently used, but as Tyler turns off the main road they enter a pocket of homes that are clearly newer and more expensive than their neighbors.
After turning down another of these streets, they park in front of squat two story house, blue-gray, with a two car garage and an impressive array of lawn chairs out front. There’s Tyler’s mom, his sisters, his stepfather, maybe grandparents. Dover’s met some of them before, and he likes them all, but he feels that familiar tension around large groups of people, and already he’s wondering when he can get a drink. As they get out of the car, Dover’s phone goes manic with the vibrations. He pulls it from his pocket, and his heart sinks as INCOMING CALL: OLDIES fills the screen. He grabs Tyler’s shoulder and says, “Hey, I’ve got to take this,” before stepping to the street side of the car, where at least he can talk to his parents without an audience.
“Hey, Dover, you there?”
“Yeah, guys, it’s me.” The pain in Dover’s head could be the beginnings of a stress headache or just a result of his call volume being on max while his parents take turns shouting at the phone.
“We just wanted to call and see how you’re doing.”
“I’m good. Actually with Tyler in his hometown—“
“When are you coming home next?”
“Oh, actually, I’m not sure. There’s just so much going on this semester—“
Tyler, always right on cue, dips his head around the car and hands Dover a beer. He flashes a thumbs up and goes back to the lawn while Dover chugs the drink in one go while his parents ask if they’ve lost the connection.
“No, nope, I’m still here. Working on it.”
“We’re so proud of you! Keep it up.”
His phone beeps, and Dover jolts into the car. When he pulls it from his face the screen lights up — 5% battery. Shit. He’d forgotten to plug it in before they left. There’s no way it will survive. He’d be surprised if it lived through the end of the phone call.
“Hey, guys, my phone is actually dying right now.”
Dover can’t tell if they’re hearing him. He doesn’t remember the last time he had a conversation with his parents where he felt they were. He pulls his phone back to eye level, static chatter emitting from the speakers, and stares at the name OLDIES on his screen. That hadn’t been their name in his last phone. It had died years ago, before college even. His screen flashes a violent blue, and the battery is dead. The phone might as well be a paperweight now. Dover shoves it in his pocket.
When he gets to the lawn he’s instantly surrounded. He apologizes for stepping away, but his apologies are waved off. Tyler’s mom greets Dover with a hug. His stepfather shakes his hand. The sisters, all younger, just kids really, are excited to see him, and the youngest starts karate-chopping his leg. Through the mass Tyler somehow hands Dover another beer, which he drinks without judgement as he greets family members that are like his own but without the irritating details.
After a while, somewhere midway through drink four, Tyler pulls Dover away from the eye of the family storm. “Hey, I’m going to go get us a spot on the bank for the fireworks while my mom gets the girls. Come with?”
Dover hadn’t even noticed it is getting dark, but now he can see that the sky is purpling. He nods and follows Tyler back to the cooler where they each grab a drink for the road. Just as they pass the car, Dover remembers the phone in his pocket.
“Hey, my phone’s dead. Do you have a charger inside?”
Tyler just shrugs. “Leave it in the car.”
It seems hardly imaginable, but when Tyler opens the car door, Dover tosses his device in anyway. Disconnected now, he follows Tyler down the road back to the riverbank. Everywhere he looks people are walking, talking, greeting one another. Kids are playing in the streets. More and more this place really seems like a movie. Dover wants to ask Tyler if it’s real, if it’s always like this, but he keeps the drunken thoughts to himself.
They arrive on the main street, which Dover can only imagine is calledd Main Street, in a matter of minutes. He could have grown up here. He could have known everyone and every place. This festival could have been a regularity in his life. He would have marked his years by it.
Tyler leads them down an alley, if it can even be called that, until they’re spit out where town gives way to a small patch of nature running along the river. All up and down the bank people sit, stand, play games. There’s hardly a free patch of space anywhere Dover can see. Tyler gestures to their right, and Dover follows. They end up almost where the line of Main Street’s shops ends. A patch of grass opens up around a tree, and they slide into place with their backs to the trunk. Tyler clunks his beer can against Dover’s.
“Hey, thanks for coming.
“Thanks for inviting me. I actually really love this place.”
“Me, too. Growing up here was great. I don’t know that I’ll ever come back, but I really loved it here.”
“Why don’t you think you’ll come back.”
Tyler shrugs. He finishes his beer and crushes his can against the tree. “I don’t really know. I guess, it just seems like you can’t go back, you know?”
Dover’s throat quivers, and he can feel a certain warmth rise beneath his eyes. He glugs down the last of his beer and finds that by the bottom of the can his feeling has passed. He tilts his head up at the darkening sky. Stars are just beginning to emerge. Dover hears someone walking and turns to see a boy about his age leading his girlfriend over to the tree. Tyler pushes himself to his feet and starts to walk in their direction.
“Hey, guys, sorry. We’ve got this spot.”
The guy laughs. “What, making out over here?”
“No.” Dover can hear that Tyler is getting angry. He gets up and walks over. The boy is skinny, shorter than either he or Tyler. His girlfriend is taller, blonde, and she stands back from the rest of them, looking uneasy.
“My family is coming,” Tyler is saying, “we’ve got this spot for them.”
“I think there’s room for two more.”
“I think you can fuck off.” Dover doesn’t know where they came from, but the words leave his mouth, and he watches as his hand jerks out and shoves the boy. He stumbles backward but doesn’t fall and looks afraid, if only for a moment.
He and the girl walk away as Tyler and Dover, laughing, return to their spot against the tree. Dover stares at the sky again, thankful to be finally looking at a different kind of black screen. Tyler keeps peeking over his shoulder and looking down the bank, searching for the oncoming train of his family. Dover closes his eyes and listens to the sounds of people, the wind, and the river. It smells earthy and wet here, but also human. He hears Tyler say he’s going to check for the others but says nothing in response. The sounds envelope him, hold him tight and close. He hears a sizzle, distant, but too loud, and opens his eyes to see the first explosion. Brilliant white light and fire, but it’s not disaster, it’s a show. A thunderclap, then silence. Dover watches a thin line of red rise into the air before bursting into green. Three pops shatter through the night. He hears a shriek and turns to see Tyler and his sisters running down the bank, the rest of the family not far behind them. The girls are squealing in delight as they watch the fireworks. Down the bank he can see the flash of people’s cameras, and he’s thankful to not have his phone, almost as thankful as he is just to be here, in the space, with these people. The sky is fully alight now. Burst after burst of fire is filling the air. With each explosion Dover feels a surge in himself. A minute in, he’s standing. Soon he’s laughing and cheering along with the rest of Tyler’s family. The fireworks get more intricate. Smiley faces and rocket shapes illuminate the night sky. Dover falls into them. He forgets about the boy, his parents, Ashley, Kat. In the second each explosive sound wave hits he ears he forgets about himself. He turns his eyes and drinks in the reflected light show in the river itself. There the fireworks morph and shift into shapes and colors no gun powder could ever create. He is entranced. And then there’s a lull. Dover feels a hush go over the crowd. He watches the girls bunch up in excitement. Everyone knows what’s coming next. The finale looms, an invisible giant, and no one can look away from the place they know it will strike. Dover sees four razor-wire lines zigzag up into the darkness. He holds in his breath as they vanish at the peak of their climb. The void of sky seems to swallow the world while he waits. Rising above a line of trees across the river, just beneath where the show will soon close, Dover sees a paper lantern, a small, orange glow bobbing towards the moon before the night is eclipsed by light.