Saturday, January 11, 2014

Jelly (A Short Story)


A Short Story By

Connor Alexander

Henry emerged from the Jelly. He wasn't sure how long he'd been in it. It ran from his nose, his mouth, his ears, his anus. He blinked slowly as the pine green substance sloughed off of his corneas. He looked around the vat he was standing in and saw that three other people were still submerged. For a solid minute he just stood there and stared. A large glob of Jelly slid from the end of his penis.

After two rapid blinks and a quick shake of his head, he stepped out of the vat and walked down a long hall. On either side of him were more vats. Some were empty, some were partially full, but most had five people completely submerged in waist deep green Jelly. Above him, the warehouse had a combination of industrial fans mounted into the roof and solar panels which provided the small amount of power necessary for the place.

Henry strode past the other sleepers with idle curiosity. Where were they? What lives were they living? The air was cool and there was a slightly fragrant steam coming off of all of the vats. The only sound was the soft whir of the fans thirty feet above. The sleepers neither moved nor made a sound in their jellied wombs.

At the end of the rows of vats, Henry found the overhead showers. He sprayed himself with warm, clean water and watched the remnants of the Jelly on his body slide away and down the drain. He wondered where it would go. Not far surely. Probably not even out of the building.

He found an ample supply of clean towels next to the showers. Beyond that were the lockers. He found his and easily recalled his combination. Again, he wondered how long he'd been in the Jelly. Inside he found the clothes he'd been wearing when he came in. His wallet was also there. Nothing else.

Stepping outside into the night, he took a second to stretch and crack his neck. Looking to his left and right he saw five other warehouses all lined up next to each other, each with the big, bright blue and yellow Tiāntáng logo. Around the warehouses was a massive fence with barbed wire and cameras on top. He didn't remember that being there when he came in.

Up ahead was the check in station. It was a small concrete building with a small door on each side of the fenced in area. Inside was an elderly white lady reading a book. She looked up at him with a small look of surprise. "Going out?"

"That's not a problem is it?"

She smiled. "Not at all. Your space is reserved for seventy two hours, of course. Just don't see many people leave once they're settled in. You are coming back, aren't you?" He was about to answer but she laughed at herself and said, "Of course you are. What am I saying?"

Henry handed her his drivers license and then held his finger up against a tiny scanner. There was a small flash of light. The old woman stared at the screen. Henry found himself thinking about Cairo and the pyramids. "Sorry that took so long," she said.

"What?" He'd been completely lost in his reverie.

"I said, I'm sorry that took so long. Computers. I keep telling them to upgrade these things. Takes longer and longer to do the same damn thing. Anyway, you have a nice vacation Mr. Oxford." He smiled, took back his license and headed through the electronic turnstile. Outside, he passed four armed guards. Those were new as well.

At the curbside, there was a shuttle waiting. It was like the type you often see going to and from the airport. He got on by himself and an ancient looking Asian man closed the doors and drove off. He was the lone passenger and they rode in silence. During the drive, Henry drifted back to Cairo and thought of Anippe and of her little brothers.The shuttle stopped and as he tried to get off, he was greeted by a dozen people trying to get on. Some of them stared at him.

Henry pushed past them and into what Tiāntáng called The Lobby. It was a massive room and no matter how they tried to make it comfortable and modern, Henry still thought it looked exactly like a department of motor vehicles office. There were lines, vending machines, rows of chairs and lots of impatient looking people. Some were in groups. Most were alone.

Along a wall, he found an automated machine that scanned his face as he approached and spoke to him in a voice that reminded him of James Earl Jones speaking to a very young child. "And how are you today, Mr. Oxford?"

"I need to pull out my money." For some reason, the machine was irritating him.

"Sure. Did you want to dispense some of it or all of it?"

"All of it. I'll redeposit whatever I have left when I come back." Why was he justifying himself to this piece of junk?

"I'm sorry to say that with inflation, your money has lost a little value. You'll only be getting sixty four dollars." The machine almost sounded like it was really sorry.

"Fine. Just give it to me." The machine obliged and Henry longed for the days when machines didn't have verbal interfaces.Back outside again, he took a deep breath of the clean night air. It felt crisp in his lungs. He caught a bus and was glad to see that not much had changed. He took the city bus downtown and walked to a Greyhound station where he bought a ticket to Peekskill. 

With some change, he bought himself a newspaper and some doughnuts from a vending machine.The doughnuts tasted horrible and he had the sudden notion that maybe real food had been ruined forever for him. Well, he only had to endure it for three days. He swallowed the half donut in his mouth and then threw the rest into the trash. The date on the newspaper informed him that he'd been in the Jelly for fourteen months. It was an eternity. It was the blink of an eye.

The Greyhound took him back to Peekskill. On the ride back, he read through the news. Much of the world hadn't changed. But here in the U.S. and in China, Tiāntáng was in all the news. Some were calling the Jelly, 'the Green Death' and trying to shut down Tiāntáng. There had even been bombings. I guess that explained the security guards.

But for the most part, the Jelly was incredibly popular. When he'd gone in, it was edgy to pay for a lifetime spot in a vat. It was all still so new. Most people were paying for a day or a week. They had only started offering lifetime spots a few months prior and they were reasonably inexpensive. Now, in the paper he saw that there were franchises popping up everywhere, there were celebrity-in-Jelly watch lists, there were knock off products and law suits. It had become as big a phenomena as the Internet or music or movies.

An hour later, he was in the Peekskill Metro station. Henry decided to walk to the rest of the way. It was getting late, but not too late and he was only headed a few blocks over to Simpson Place. Peekskill was a quiet town, there was no doubt. But, Henry thought, even on a Tuesday at 9pm there should have been more going on than what he saw. In the three blocks he walked, he saw one other human being. An old man asleep on a bench, an empty bottle of whiskey clutched tightly to his chest.

He rounded the corner onto Simpson Place and headed three doors down. He stepped up the three steps to the big green door with the fading paint and knocked hard, twice. When no one had appeared after a few seconds, he knocked again. Perhaps no one was home. Henry realized that he hadn't thought this through very well. He had almost no money, no where to sleep for the night.

Then the door opened and he was looking at Karen. "Hi, Karen." She had a big fluffy cotton robe on and thick warm looking slippers. Her hair was back in a ponytail and her makeup was heavy, like she was getting ready to go clubbing.Karen put a hand to her mouth.

"Henry. Oh my god." She looked back behind her for a moment, then turned back to him. "Oh my god," she repeated. "I didn't expect, you know..."

"See me ever again?" He smiled at her.

She laughed an awkward laugh. "Yeah, I guess that's it."

"Am I disturbing you? Can I come in?" Henry realized that as soon as he said it that he'd put her on the spot. She was obviously in the middle of something. But he had no where else to go and Karen was the whole reason he'd gotten up, so he let the question stand.

Karen looked over her shoulder again before answering. "Yeah. I guess. Sure. Come on in." Karen's house had seen better days. He recognized all the furniture, the television. But everything had a look of being too well worn and not maintained with any kind of love. Trash and dirty dishes dominated the space. "Let's go in the kitchen," she said, grabbing a pack of smokes from the living room table along the way.Henry glanced up the stairs as he passed through the living room and toward the kitchen. He wondered what or who she had upstairs that she was so embarrassed by. But this wasn't the time to push her on that. He did however do a double take as she sat at the tiny kitchen table and lit up a cigarette.

Karen saw his look and rolled her eyes. "I know, I know. I used to give you shit about smoking too close to the front door. Now here I am smoking at my kitchen. What can I say? Things change." He gave her a grin that let her know that he wasn't bothered. Her face shifted suddenly to one of worry. "Hey, I didn't even think of that. You were close to a pack a day. That must have been rough going cold turkey."

Henry smirked. "Never even noticed." Karen was high. He wasn't sure on what, but he knew her ticks and quirks as well as anyone. Some sort of amphetamine. He didn't let his eyes linger on her vibrating cigarette.

Karen made a sound like she was impressed and then said, "So, are you back? No more Tingtang for you?"

Henry said, "It's Tiāntáng. You're pronunciation is still awful."

She threw her head back and laughed. "It always was! You'd get me all the time, Hank! You never let me slide, even once. Remember the whole gyro argument we had?"

He nodded, smiling. "And the fact that you just pronounced it properly tells me I won that argument."

Karen pressed her lips together and tilted her head as she looked at him. "You always did know what was good for me." Then she took a drag from her cigarette and as she exhaled she said, "So? You done with the Jelly then?"

He shook his head and took the cigarette from her hand, took a long drag and handed it back. He tried to hold the smoke in but he ended up coughing for nearly a solid minute. Finally he said, "Brain remembers, body doesn't. No, I'm not done. Heading back in just a couple of days."

"Oh yeah? Did something go wrong? Are you okay? Why did they take you out?" She had a look of disgust mixed with worry on her face.

"They didn't take me out. I decided to come out. I can take up to a 72 hour break once per year without losing my spot."

The look on her face didn't change but she nodded. "You gonna go see your mom?"

Henry hadn't thought of her since before he'd gone into the Jelly. "No. She and I ended things were they needed to end. Said my goodbyes and she said hers."

"Don't tell me you got out of there just to see me?" There was a twinkle in her eye.

"Actually, yeah. That's exactly why I came out of the Jelly." The look of amusement on Karen's face changed to one of disbelief. "I came out here because I want you to come back with me, Karen. I want you to spend the rest of your life with me. In the Jelly."

Karen was shaking her head before he'd even finished his sentence. "No, Henry. No. I told you. No way. That stuff freaks me out. I can't do it. I can't." She took another rapid drag of her cigarette, stubbed it out and lit another. "I see this stuff on the news all the time. There's people bombing the places. It's just not right."

Henry took her hand and held it in both of his. "Karen, forget all of that stuff for just a minute and let me tell you where I've been for the last year, okay?" He could feel her hand shaking. She didn't answer him and he took that as a yes. "When I first went into the vat and I first fell into what they call the Void, it was like waking up after you've slept twelve hours. You know that feeling? Everything seems new and fresh and glowing. The possibilities seem endless." She nodded but there was fear in her eyes.

"In real life, that feeling fades pretty fast. Life turns into...well, this." He held his hands up and looked around. "But in the Jelly, I thought to myself, 'today, I want to be Luke Skywalker.' And I was! I rescued Princess Leia, I shot down those TIE fighters, I blew up the Death Star! Then I visited Jurassic Park. Then I fought the Nazis to get the Lost Ark. But I wasn't watching those things and I wasn't dreaming them. In the Jelly, you do them. It's reality. Reality that you control."

"You sound like one of the ads. You know they're saying now that that stuff will make you live longer. That it slows down, whaddya call it? Cellular decay? The company is all tangled up in court with the FDA." She sounded skeptical to say the least.

"That doesn't surprise me. But all of that stuff I described, it's not the point. The point is, the Jelly is what you want it to be. It's whatever your heart desires and your mind creates. And unlike whatever it is you're shooting into your arm these days, it's not bad for you. It's actually good for you. It's symbiotic. It's better for you than smoking organic weed. It's the best thing you can put in your body."

Karen looked curious for a moment and then disappointed. "I can't. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't afford more than a weekend. That life time shit is ridiculous. I heard it's into the millions of dollars now." She took a long drag on her cigarette. The kitchen had become hazy.

Henry bit his lip and looked sheepishly at the ground. "What if I told you I could get you a lifetime spot, right next to me."

Karen laughed. "Henry, honey, I know you had a little cash when you and I used to hook up, but you were never a millionaire."

Deadpan, he said, "I bought it when I bought mine. Back when it was new and cheap. I wanted to ask you then. But I couldn't get the courage up. And..."

Karen's heavily made up face was a still image of shock and surprise. "Henry. I know that spot cost you a lot of money. Even back then. How much did you spend on those spots?"

"Hundred thousand. Each. Sold my house. "

Karen's mouth hung slack. She said nothing but a tear formed in the corner of each of her eyes. Her lip trembled. "You...did that? For me?"

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you. You were just so vocal about not wanting to get involved with Tiāntáng. I was afraid you'd say no. Plus, I thought, you know, once I was inside, I could just...recreate you."

Karen sniffled and wiped her nose. "Did you?"

"For awhile." Henry looked embarrassed. "But I stopped. It didn't work. It wasn't you, the real you, and I knew it."

"But Henry, if I came with you, how would things be any different? We still wouldn't be together." She put her hand on his thigh.

"I think it would." Henry leaned into and almost whispered, "See, I began to notice characters in my adventures toward the end. Not long before I got out of the Jelly. I was in Egypt. Cairo. Exploring the pyramids. I met this woman named Anippe. She was Egyptian. She had little brothers. She knew the pyramids like the back of her hand. She gave me an amazing tour. Showed me things I'd never seen."

Karen looked confused. He continued, "Don't you see? I've never been to the pyramids. Sure, I've seen shows and movies. But I've never even heard the name Anippe before."

"You must have. Maybe you just didn't remember, Henry. Maybe it's just stuff getting dug up out of your subconscious, like when you dream."

He smiled and took her hand. "I thought so too. Until I got out of my vat. When I looked down and saw her, I was sure. It was Anippe. She was in the Jelly next to me. When I'd gotten in, my vat was empty. She came later." Karen still looked lost. "Somewhere along the way, I became connected to Anippe. We were able to share our worlds through the Jelly. That's why I want you to come with me. If we're both in the same Jelly together, we never have to be apart again. I love you, Karen. We can make the world ours. Will you come with me?"

Karen looked into his eyes and answered him.

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