Eye in the Wall
town was in shambles, everywhere I looked. A messy crowd of stone,
twisted iron girders and sheet metal made the few walls left standing
seem out of place.
Mangled corpses were strewn about, permeating the air with the stench of death. I searched their expressions, hoping to gauge what emotions they might have felt as they were being attacked, but each face was just as blank as the next. There was no fear, no sadness, no pain—only indifference.
I ventured forward, hoping to find out what had happened here.
"Hey, man. You all right?”
The sound of a man's voice snapped me out of my daydream and back into reality. Reality at that moment was next to a pump at a gas station, where a customer had just pulled up.
“Uh, yeah. I'm fine,” I said.
“Fill me up for twenty, could ya? Regular unleaded,” said the customer. He handed me his credit card, and I pumped the gas into his tank.
“Thanks, man,” he said. “By the way, I think I might have run over something as I drove up. You should check that out.”
“All right, thanks. Have a nice day.”
He drove away, and I looked down at the asphalt. There was a lump there—it kind of looked like a stuffed burlap sack, but that didn't seem quite right. I blinked and looked again.
It was my coworker, Dan. “Dan?” I said, walking a little closer. “Dan, what are you lying there for? You could get--”
I stopped. Hurt, I had been about to say, but there was no need; he already was, and badly. His body been crushed beneath the tires of that man's car. I knelt down and lifted his hand by the wrist, hoping to find a pulse, but there wasn't one. Dan was dead.
My other coworker, Lenny, came around from the opposite side of the pump. “Hey Mike, have you seen—oh, for fuck's sake. Is that Dan?”
“Is he dead?”
I nodded again.
Lenny shook his head, clearly annoyed. “Don't tell me you were daydreaming again,” he said. I didn't say anything. “You were, weren't you?” He grabbed me and shook me. “You piece of shit! This is all your fault!”
“How?” I asked.
“You know that Dan had narcolepsy! If you had just been watching him, he wouldn't have fallen asleep there!”
I didn't say anything.
“I'm going to have to tell on you, Mike,” he said.
“Tell on me?”
“To the boss.”
“Of course. The boss.”
“I'll be back. Just make sure nobody runs over him again, okay?”
I nodded, not quite sure how else to respond. Lenny went inside and I leaned back against the pump, feeling dizzy.
“Tell me what happened, Mike,” said my boss.
"Dan is dead," I said.
"I know that,” he said. "I'm afraid I'll have to fire you, of course." He paused, then added, "Were you daydreaming?"
"Yeah. About the war, I think.” I added that last bit because I couldn't quite place my vision at the pump among any of my experiences from the war, but I never daydreamed about anything else. It could have been something my mind had shoved away until now.
He sighed. “Someday I hope you'll get that nonsense out of your head. War is nothing more than a theoretical concept."
"I was there,” I argued.
"Tell you what, Mike; here's a history textbook. If you read it and can find anything written about any wars, you can come and laugh in my face."
He handed me a small square of paper which I thought was a napkin at first. Then I saw these words scribbled across the top:
York R. Winston
A Complete History of the World
It wasn't a napkin. It was the textbook.
"And listen, Mike," he said. "I know you didn't mean for this to happen. Dan was a good friend of yours, wasn't he?”
"I barely knew him," I said.
"Really? I thought you two got along so well.”
I didn't want to admit it, but he was right. I did get along with Dan. He reminded me of my brother who died during the war, and that scared me. It scared me because while the reactions of Lenny and my boss were disconcerting enough, what was worse was the fact that I couldn't bring myself to feel anything.
I reached into my pocket and felt the smooth, metal edge of my brother's favorite ring. It always calmed me down to touch it.
“Is anyone here?” I called out. After waiting and receiving no response, I started across the broken terrain. A gust of wind whipped up a cloud of dust and ash, and I ducked inside a house that was still intact. It was one room, with a counter separating the kitchen from the sleeping area. There was a man's corpse leaned against the bed; he didn't stink as much as the others, so I took that to mean he'd been dead longer.
“Mind if I sit here?” I joked, sitting down beside him. Up close, I could see that his face had been beaten past the point of recognition. That made him different from the corpses outside; more relatable, somehow. At least with him, I couldn't tell what he'd been thinking when he died. Even ambiguity was better than stone-cold indifference.
The dust storm passed, and I took leave from my refuge. Before doing so, however, I shook the man's hand and thanked him. I don't really know why.
There was a church at the end of the street to my left, seemingly unaffected by the war that had ravaged the rest of the town. From where I stood, I could see there was something on the door. Curious, I went that way.
It was the pastor, bolted up by a nail through his neck. His mouth was twisted in a grin—clearly, he knew something the townsfolk didn't. To the left of him was a carving in the woodwork. It was the number eight turned on its side, the symbol for infinity. Beneath it was a carving of an eye. Always open, always watching, I thought. I wonder if it wishes it could close?
I proceeded up some stairs and extended my arm to the door, preparing to push it open—and that was when the sound of a siren snapped me out of my daydream and back into reality. Reality at that moment was behind the wheel of a car, where I had just rear-ended a police officer.
The officer climbed out through the driver's side door and walked back. I rolled down the window and immediately recognized him.
"Hello Officer Lipstein," I said.
"Ledford? Is that you?” he said. Lipstein had a habit of calling me by my last name.
"Who else would it be?"
"Why is it you're involved every time there's trouble around here? Never mind that, just--Jesus Christ, look at what you did to the trunk of my car!"
"There's a dent," I commented.
"No shit there's a dent! Do you know--"
He was cut off by a gunshot. On the sidewalk behind him, a man crashed to the cement. The shooter started running. "Gods!" cried Lipstein. "Why is it always me?"
He chased after the killer, screaming variations of the word "stop" which had no effect.
I watched for a moment, then backed up my car and drove away.
Later, at my apartment, I took a look at the history textbook. There were only a few short sentences after the title:
"In the beginning, the universe was created. There are many debates as to how this happened, and only one of them is right. And the rest, as they say, is history."
That was certainly an odd thing to conclude with, I thought. If the rest was history, why wasn't it written in the book? I threw it away and sat down to watch some television.
“Today, two more people were killed by a man whom the police say is still at large,” a female broadcaster was saying on the news.
“Wonder if they'll catch him or not,” said her partner.
“I don't know, Oscar,” she said. “It doesn't say anything about that on the teleprompter.”
I turned it off and went to bed.
At the funeral, I was the last to look into Dan's casket before they lowered him into the ground. I couldn't really think of anything to say or do. "I'm sorry," was all I could manage.
"It's okay," Dan said.
"Huh?" I must have been hearing things. I turned away, and then: "Just help me up, buddy." There was no mistake. I turned back to find Dan's outstretched arm, waiting to meet the clasp of my hand. He smiled, a smile that told me everything was forgiven. I started to reach for his hand.
A funeral worker slammed the casket shut. "All set!" he shouted. The casket was carried to the hole and dropped in.
"Wait!" I shouted. "Wait, he's still alive! Wait, God damn you! Are you listening to me? I told you he's still alive! Stop!"
Nobody heard me. Or if they did, they just didn't care.
It was dark, and I was alone. It was cold. I could hear voices, incoherent and jumbled. Where was I, and how had I gotten there? I wanted to leave, but there was no light to tell me where to go. I was lost.
I emerged from the daydream to find myself holding onto my car keys. I had been about to get into my car and leave.
“What was that?” I asked myself, for the second time in as many weeks. Like the town full of corpses, it didn't match with any of my memories from the war. This one, though, seemed more familiar. It had felt like something from a very long time ago, a memory older than any other—but of what?
That night somebody was staring at me through a hole in the wall by my bed, which was odd. I was certain the apartment next door to mine was empty, but someone was in there nonetheless.
I turned over so I was facing away from him. A minute later when I turned back, he was still there. I lay and looked into the iris of his eye for about five minutes, expecting that he would eventually leave. He didn't.
"What do you want?" I finally asked. He didn't say anything.
I closed my eyes. Several minutes passed and I opened them again. “It's been half a year now since I came back from the war,” I said. “You might not believe me when I say it actually happened. After all, nobody does. Nobody remembers, but I don't understand why. And there's this other thing that's just as weird—nobody can feel emotions anymore. Well--I say 'anymore', but the truth is, I don't remember anything from before the war. For all I know, it could have always been like that. But if that were the case...don't you think there wouldn't have been a war to begin with?”
He still didn't say anything.
“Maybe that's all a bit too philosophical. The reason I've been thinking about it, though, is...well, this coworker of mine died the other day. Someone dies, that's a big deal, right? You'd think so, but nobody gave a shit. It was just an inconvenience to them. Even I...didn't care as much as I should have. That's why I never noticed before, the apathy and the lack of emotion in the people around me—it's because I'm the same way. This was a wake-up call for me. And then today, they...they buried Dan alive in his casket. Even in the war I never saw anything so fucked up. It's like they did it because they were told to bury him, simple as that. Because their orders didn't tell them to take into consideration whether he was actually dead.”
Silence. I looked to see if he was still there, and he hadn't moved. “Don't talk much, do you?” I said. “Thanks for listening, though. Considering the way things are, I doubt there's anyone else who would so much as lend an ear.”
I rolled over and went to sleep.
It was dark, and I was alone. It was cold. I could hear voices, incoherent and jumbled.
At first I thought this was the same dream I'd had after Dan's funeral, but there were a few things different; it didn't feel quite as distant, for one. And there was light. It was just a little sliver near my feet, but it was there. I must have been confined in a small room, the light slipping in through a crack beneath the door. I tried the handle, but it was locked. “Isn't it nice to enjoy a night by ourselves?” said one of the voices outside. It was a man's voice.
“Hey!” I shouted, hoping to catch their attention. When that didn't work, I started pounding on the door. I must have done that for a full minute without any response. I stopped and listened again.
“He sure is making a lot of noise,” said another voice, a woman's this time.
“Just ignore him. We'll let him out in the morning, before we go on our trip.”
I started pounding on the door again, this time screaming “Let me out!” repeatedly. The sound was very loud inside the tight space, and continued to echo even after I rested my fists away from the door.
I jolted awake, because the knocking was coming from outside. Who the Hell is knocking so late at night?I wondered. The clock said it was 12:02. I went to the door and peered through the knothole. It was Officer Lipstein.
I opened the door until it was choked by the chain. “Officer Lipstein,” I said, trying to make my annoyance with his visit sound apparent.
“Good evening, Ledford,” he said.
“It's just past midnight,” I said. “That's called morning.”
“Morning, evening, it makes no difference. I'm here to write you a ticket for damaging my car and fleeing the scene of the crime.”
“It looked like you got caught up in something more important. I didn't want to be in the way.”
“That man's crimes do not excuse you from your own, Ledford.”
“Fine by me. Did you catch him?”
“I did not.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“I don't understand what you're trying to say, Ledford. If you have a complaint you would like to make, you can take it up with--”
“It's not a complaint. I only want to hear your opinion about the fact that a man who committed murder got away with it.”
Lipstein lowered his head, contemplating. “I haven't really thought about that,” he said.
“If you're so indifferent, then why did you go after him in the first place?” I asked.
“Because it's my job, Ledford. We have a duty to our jobs.”
“I think I understand, Lipstein. You can write me that ticket now.”
It was warm outside, despite being around one in the morning. After leaving my apartment, I headed straight for the graveyard where they'd buried Dan. I was going to dig him up. What Lipstein had said was exactly what I'd suspected about the funeral workers; they'd buried Dan alive because that was the job they'd been given. He was dead now, but I intended to rebury him, properly this time.
I passed the spot where the man had been shot the day before. He was still there. “I'm sorry,” I said to him. “You deserve better than this.”
Using the shovel, I began to dig a hole in the grass. It took a while, but I finally managed to make one large enough for him to fit. I placed him inside and covered him up. “Rest in peace,” I said.
At the graveyard, I found a couple having sex behind Dan's grave. The man looked up at me as I approached. He looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place him. Then I remembered: he was the man who'd run over Dan at the gas station.
“Hey, I remember you,” he said.
“Uh...hey,” I said.
“You're the guy from the gas station.”
“Babe,” said his girlfriend.
“Hey Laura, check it out. This guy works at a gas station. Isn't that cool?”
“Babe,” she repeated.
“He fills your car up with gas so you can go places. He helps you get to the places you need to go.”
“Babe, we don't need to go anywhere,” she said. “We're having sex.”
“Okay. Sorry,” he said.
“I need to do something here,” I said.
“Sure. We won't get in your way,” he said. I ignored them and started digging.
As I worked, I was reminded of another time I dug a grave, except that time I had been burying someone: my brother. I remembered back to that day.
I stood in a field of gravel and dirt. It was the same for miles in any direction—an entire world for just my brother and me. An empty, desolate world, and fitting it should be that way with him no longer in it.
I threw the last bit of dirt over his body, and planted the shovel beside him. It was the only thing I had to serve as a marker.
“What were you planting just now?”
I turned around and saw that an old man had approached me. “Petunias,” I said.
“There was a time when this whole place was lit up with the colors of a hundred different flowers,” he said. “But not anymore.”
“Nothing lasts forever,” I said.
He shook his head sadly. “That's right, isn't it? Things just stop and then start again.” Then I blinked, and he was gone. Now, however, I could see smoke in the distance. It was rising up from what appeared to be a town.
In that memory there had always been my brother, the old man, and me. This town had never appeared there, but I knew I had seen it before; not back then, perhaps, but lately I'd become a frequent visitor. I started towards it.
I came out of my daydream to find myself exactly where I had been, standing in front of Dan's grave. I didn't know how long I'd been away, but the couple was gone. I resumed digging.
It took me until the crack of dawn to finish. I felt like my arms might breathe a sigh of relief when the head of the shovel finally struck the hard wooden surface of the coffin. Brushing off the last bit of excess dirt, I leaned down into the hole and pulled the lid open.
The coffin was empty.
I returned to find that the police had cordoned off my apartment building. Lipstein was there, so I asked him what was going on.
“There's been a suicide,” said Lipstein. “Or there's going to be a suicide. We're not really sure.”
“How can you not be sure?”
“The call wasn't very specific.”
“So why are you all standing out here, making sure no one enters the building?”
“Because the call wasn't very specific, Ledford.”
“That's not...whatever,” I said.
I had to get inside. The police were only out front, so I went around to the back. Luckily I had left my window open, but it was on the second floor; I'd need to use the downspout and whatever holds I could find to make my way up.
As I climbed, I was reminded of another time I had done something similar. I was with my brother on a military obstacle course, when we were still training as recruits. I remembered back to that day.
The two of us were side by side as we scaled a rope climbing net. My arms and lungs were exhausted, but there was still a ways to go. “Screw this training,” I said. “I can't believe we were drafted to fight in this damn war.”
“It's a shit hand to be sure, but we gotta work with what we've been dealt,” said my brother.
“We don't even know who's fighting who. Or why,” I said.
“Does it matter? It's all just to find out who's the biggest and the strongest. And regardless of whoever comes out on top, us folk at the bottom are always gonna be called upon to fight. Our role in this isn't to ask questions. We're here to do as we're told and if we're lucky, we'll make it through alive.”
“It just seems so pointless,” I said.
“What isn't pointless? Look, Mike, you're thinking too much. You and I will make it through this mess together, like we always do.”
“We'll be among the lucky ones, then?”
“Of course we will.”
“I'm just wondering how lucky that really makes us.”
Then I remembered a similar scene, this one from much later on. Dan I were sitting together in the employee break room at the gas station.
“Let's play a card game,” he said.
“Sure. Which one?”
“How about War?”
My mind immediately went to images of bodies on the ground, of bullets tearing through flesh and landmines sending people into the air like ragdolls. “Er,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach.
“It's modeled after the concept of—well, war,” said Dan. “There's not much to it. Each of us plays a card, and whoever's card is higher takes them both. The game is over when one of us runs out of cards.”
“Sounds like the most pointless game ever,” I said.
“It's a way to pass the time,” he said.
“I guess so.”
We started playing. Dan won three rounds, then I won two. On the sixth round he played an Ace.
“This one's not looking good for you,” he said. “There's only one card in the deck that can beat the Ace, and and there's fewer of that card than any other.”
I played my card. It was a Joker.
“Shit,” said Dan. “That's the one. I must have jinxed it just now.”
“The Joker is the strongest card?”
“Yeah. Never could figure out why.”
“I think I get it,” I said.
“You'll need to explain it to me, then.”
“All these other players—these other cards—they're taking the game seriously. But the Joker, he understands that it's just a game. All just one big joke without a punchline. That's why he comes out on top, every time.”
“I don't know,” said Dan. “That's a little deep for me.”
“Yeah. It's probably just bullshit.”
I came out of the daydream to find myself in my apartment. My climb had apparently been successful.
“Dan?” I said. “I know that's you on the other side of that wall. I went to dig up your grave, but you weren't there.”
There was no answer. I went to the side of my bed and saw that he was no longer watching through the hole, but that didn't mean he had left. I would just have to go to the neighboring apartment and find out.
The hallway was cold, and smelled of wet socks. I faced the door to room 208, and was struck with déjà vu. I had a strange sense that past this door lay something beyond human understanding; and once, at a different door, I had sensed something all too similar.
I returned to the town where everyone had died. I'd just ducked in to shelter myself from the dust storm and discovered the body of the dead man. But surely my mind was playing a prank: he was not badly disfigured; the features of his face were as plainly seen as the fact that I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was the body of Dan.
I ignored the inconsistency, surely a product of my overactive imagination, and sat down beside him. But again, there was something different: he was wearing a ring on his hand. My brother's ring.
Feeling shaken, I left the house and went to the church.
I looked again at the symbol of infinity to the left of the door, before I reached out to push it open.
I snapped out of my daydream and back to reality. Reality was still in front of my neighbor's door, where I had been preparing to knock. So I knocked.
Nobody answered. I tried the doorknob. The door was unlocked, and swung inward. Light from the hallway flooded the dark room.
There was a body hanging in the middle of the room, swaying back and forth in the dark.
I fell to my knees and screamed.
I entered the church. Behind me, the doors slammed shut. I was trapped, in pitch black. And it was cold.
I heard voices, jumbled at first but slowly gaining clarity. One of them belonged to Officer Lipstein.
“I'm still trying to understand what you meant, Ledford, when you asked me how I felt about that murder. It's true that I did feel something, something I hadn't even realized was there. I feel it now, too. Now more than ever, because...because I'm confused. I can't figure out why you'd do this to yourself, with all the reasons you had to live...”
“Don't feel sorry for him,” said another voice. Lenny. “He just killed himself to shove it in our faces for firing him, that's all.”
“It needed to be done,” said my boss. “Those daydreams of his were interfering too much with his work. Maybe it was one of those that did him in; maybe he thought he was swinging on a rope in some jungle somewhere, and ended up hanging himself by accident.”
“He always did have the craziest daydreams,” said Lipstein. “Once, I was called to apprehend him when he was caught breaking into someone's house. He said he thought he was on some kind of infiltration mission.”
“Don't know why you'd care so much about his death, what with the way he was inconveniencing you all the time,” said Lenny.
I said, I don't know why it is. He just...he got me asking myself
questions I'd never bothered to ask before.”
“Guy was dead weight,” said Lenny. “That's all there is to it.”
“He helped me once,” said a fourth voice that I couldn't quite place. “Filled my car with gas. Helped me get where I needed to go.”
It was the man who'd run over Dan.
“That was his job,” said Lenny.
“Maybe so, but he still helped me,” the man said. “I wonder where he's going now.”
There was light ahead. It was just a speck at first, but it swelled and grew brighter as I walked toward it, until it engulfed me. A hand reached out, and I took it. With a single pull, my brother lifted me out of the darkness and into a grassy field. I remembered this moment; it was one of my final memories from the war. I had been captured by enemy soldiers and taken to their compound, but my brother had rescued me.
“I was so scared,” I said. “They were going to do such horrible things to me.”
“I know,” said my brother. “I know. I'm so sorry I let you get captured like that. I'll never let it happen again. We'll stick together from now on, Mike. Forever.”
Forever. The word clung to the inside of my head and never let go. When my head became cold and hollow in the wake of my brother's death, still the word tumbled through the icy depths of my mind, echoing endlessly off the fragments of shattered dreams residing there.
Forever. Forever. Forever.
Someone said my name. The memory dissolved, and I found myself standing in front of the counter at a gas station.
“Mike,” my new boss repeated.
“I'm here,” I said.
“Don't space out on me like that,” he said. “If that keeps happening, you're not gonna keep this job long.”
“I'm sorry,” I said. “It won't happen again.”