I wrote the short story “Survive” many, many moons ago (2004, I think) for a Writer’s Digest contest featuring “short-shorts,” which, in this instance, meant 1500 words or less. It ended up taking fourth place and getting published in an anthology. To me, fresh out of high school, with only one other published story (and that one was published in a rag of a magazine–I mean, it was literally stapled-together printer paper), this was a huge deal.
To this day, I still like this story. I also think it was an interesting omen into what type of genre I would ultimate have great success in.
I hope you enjoy this little glimpse into my past…
Society wasn’t supposed to end this way.
I walk into what remains of a grocery store and the lone, bedraggled clerk knows what I want before the sliding doors can completely open.
“Dairy section,” she says and points to her right, to the far corner of the store.
She looks flustered and uncomfortable. She’s obviously new to this. But she’s trying to make the best of it, and if anyone is going to survive this, it’s going to be the people that can find the good in all this bad.
Traci—that’s her name—is still not used to being exposed before everyone. She hopes that by speaking to them, telling them where they can find what they’re looking for, she can distract them from knowing every detail about her. But you can’t stop it. By the time I pass the line of unmanned registers, I know more about her than her own mother, who, by the way, died of pancreatic cancer in 1997. I know she died holding Traci’s hand and talking nonsense about butterflies all over the ceiling. I know that Traci was mad at her mother for dying.
And she knows that I know all this. She has that look on her face that shows she’s not yet used to this strange epidemic of being naked in front of the world.
The flow of knowledge from Traci doesn’t stop until I reach the dairy section and grab a gallon of milk. I feel sick and worn out. Depressed. Today alone I have lived the thoughts and memories of over thirty people, just by passing them on the street. And I live in Charlotte, North Carolina—not that densely populated. I cannot imagine what it must be like for those in a bigger, more condensed city like New York or Chicago or LA.
What I know is that people can’t live with everyone knowing their secrets. And they can’t live knowing everyone else’s either. I hear that suicide rates are up sixty-eight percent from the record breaking high last month. That was before the epidemic started spreading like wildfire. Now, on a national average, one out of every four people you meet is going to commit suicide this week.
The news channels actually said that.
The saddest part is, everyone knows at least four people.
And everyone hopes that they’re not that one.
I hear Traci call out, “Aisle five,” to a new customer.
Society wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Massive earthquakes. Melting polar ice-caps. Falling asteroids.
That’s how civilization was supposed to be wiped out.
Nuclear holocaust. Alien invasions. Plagues of locusts.
That’s what we had contingency plans for.
Traci says, “Aisle three.”
But this? We always thought that mind-reading would be a wonderful thing, an advancement for the human race. But it’s bedlam. The epidemic is killing us off. Actually we’re killing ourselves off, but what else is new?
I think the worst part about all this is seeing yourself through other people’s eyes. Knowing what they think of you. Seeing how they feel uncomfortable around you, how they think you’re boring, or whatever. How they know every secret about you. Aside from suicides, this is what is pulling society apart. We weren’t meant for honesty. We can’t survive when we can’t lie, when we can’t deceive, when we can’t hide behind our own faces.
I hear a fight break out on another aisle because someone had bad thoughts about someone else. I hear someone go crashing through shelving units full of canned goods and I barely blink an eye. It’s so common now that you don’t even care. You don’t try to intervene anymore. You just let them tear away at each other. You just let them tear away at society.
You have to ignore the chaos around you. You have to look at the ransacked grocery store, eggs on the floor and food scattered everywhere and molding because the janitor either quit or got fired or killed himself. You have to look at the mess of the world around you and think, At least the price of milk hasn’t risen.
You have to look for the good in all this bad, as hard as it is to find.
Like Traci. I respect her for trying to make the best of it, and she knows that I do. As I put my gallon of milk down on the conveyor belt, she gives me a tired smile and I know that she is just trying to survive.
We all are.
You cope with it. You have to. You get used to everyone knowing everything about you. You get used to it, or you are that one person out of four who is going to kill themselves. If you get red in the face every time someone passes you and knows every intimate detail about you, down to your embarrassing medical history, you won’t last long. The human being is a secretive creature. But it is also adaptable.
I hope that I’m adaptable enough.
I drive home in congested traffic, everyone jammed together, feeling everyone else’s thoughts and frustrations. Mass hysteria is always a heartbeat away. Road rage is rampant because you can’t disguise the fact that you hate the guy who just cut you off, so people start striking out preemptively.
So you drive facing forward. You don’t look at the cars around you. You try hard not to think badly of the old jalopies or the truck drivers because you know that they can hear what you’re thinking and you don’t want to push anyone over the edge. You just want to get home safely.
I want to get home with my gallon of milk, my little piece of mundane normalcy that makes me feel better about the swirling turmoil in the world around me.
I park near my apartment. I see my wife’s car there and I worry. You would too if, statistically, one out of every four people was going to kill themselves this week. And then maybe next week it will be one out of three. And then maybe we’ll all have killed ourselves.
I pass a neighbor who thinks that I’m a negative schmuck for thinking that. I know that he can still hear my thoughts, but I can’t help but wonder if he’s going to kill himself too.
He thinks of a slew of formidable curses.
I open my apartment and I see my wife and she’s alive and well as can be. She smiles and I see everything she did that day, all the thoughts she had. I see things that she would never have told me if she had the choice. Things that she thinks about me, and sometimes they hurt. But I also sense how relieved she is to see me walk through the door. And she senses how relieved I am to see her.
It’s an extraordinary feeling when you know that someone loves you. Not just that they say they do and you trust them. But when you know, when you feel what they feel, when you see how much they love you…it makes me think that maybe this isn’t so bad.
And silently, she agrees with me.
Like I said, the only people that will survive are the ones that can find the good in all this bad.
Do you appreciate what I’m doing with the blog? If so, give me some love and subscribe! It’ll make me feel warm and fuzzy.