Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Imagine Getting Away...

by Joseph Thompson


Esau read the first words of the ad: Imagine getting away. He got that far before the wave of commuters surged forward and jostled his arms. The magazine slipped from his fingers. It fell out of the car he was stepping into, past the platform and down to the rails. Before the doors slid shut he saw the words again. Imagine getting away. There was a lurch and the subway train shot out of the station into Wednesday morning.

The ad haunted Esau all day while he worked. Pages he filed turned into birds trying to loosen themselves from his hands. Each one flew free as he closed the folder around it. On his breaks, the cigarette smoke drifted like wisps of desire around him before spiraling down the street.

His boss noticed Esau's distraction and called him into her office after he returned from lunch.

As her lips moved around words like focus and productivity, Esau studied the photo collage laid out beneath the sheet of glass on her desk. There she was at a beach in one; in another she stood under a building of fantastic proportions; in the third she and some anonymous friends hugged a massive tree. When had she done all this? he wondered. They were the same age, but he had no photos. He didn't need any. Everyday mirrored the day before until this morning when he dropped the magazine he was reading.

The realization shocked Esau. He ignored his boss while he tried to remember yesterday, last Monday, a day two weeks ago. He could only recall a column of numbers, papers to be filed and memos to answer. Home was no different: something simple for dinner each night; the forgettable must-see sitcoms; and then bed. Esau felt sweat moistening his palms and temples.

"We've worked together for fourteen years now," said his boss.

The directness of her voice brought his eyes from the images to her face.

She continued when he nodded. "We even interned here together during college," she said. "Maybe you need to consider getting away for awhile -- a vacation. You know, just go away for a spell."

Esau stared at her, surprised at how close she had come to saying the incantation.

His boss let an amused smile appear on her lips for a moment. "It is what we do here," she said. "Where have you gone, Esau? You work at a travel agency and you've never gone anywhere."

Esau slouched down in his chair. It was true, but that didn't make it any more palatable. Every day he filed, stamped, and reserved for others. He sold newly contracted couples on the glories of an earthrise he had never seen. He advertised the serenity of an orbit from a script. He didn't live vicariously through his clients. A different department handled processing the returns.

"Think about a vacation," repeated his boss. "Two hundred thirty eight thousand miles will give anybody a new perspective on life."

"Fourteen years here and you think I don't know the script?"

"Look. I'm laying it out on the line for you, Esau. You need something. A spacecation, a solar tour, you need to get away from this for a while. Your numbers are growing steadily worse and something needs to change. If a new experience doesn't stimulate you, then we have to discuss our other options."

He didn't ask, "What other options?"

Esau left work at five. Every step sounded out the syllables bouncing around in his mind. I-mag-ine-get-ting-a-way. He took quick, staccato steps. Each repetition of the words carried him past a storefront. I-mag-ine-get-ting-a-way. Two blocks brought him to the cluster of fruit vendors he passed and ignored twice a day. I-mag-ine-get... He stopped walking. A pedestrian bumped into Esau and pushed by without glancing up at the obstruction. Esau stood still listening. He heard the fruit in the stands whispering to each other about the distant locales they came from; lands he'd never seen. There were lemons from Florida, mangoes from India, and pomegranates from --

He didn't know where pomegranates came from. Esau bought one from one vendor. As he held it, bobbing his hand up and down under the weight, he realized he had never tasted a pomegranate. It felt rough and strange unlike anything in his life. He didn't peel the fruit before biting into it and tasting it whole. His teeth sank past the leathery skin and into the bitter pith making him grimace. His mind shorted at the sudden explosions of sweet when the seeds burst in his mouth. Lines of scarlet traced the creases between his cheeks and chin while he chewed. He forced himself to swallow even as his throat tightened. Juice dribbled onto Esau's collar and tie. He ripped his tie off as he started to choke. He gasped when the pulp hit his stomach. His tongue forced out a piece of pith wedged in by his gum. He spit it on the ground. He stained his cuff and smeared the sharp lines streaming from his lips as he wiped his chin on his sleeves.

As his awareness of the street returned, Esau saw the vendor trying not to look at him.

The vendor appeared horrified, disgusted with the carnage wreaked in front of her stall.

Esau stared at the vendor until she made accidental eye contact. "Thank you," he said, his voice hoarse from gasping. "Thank you." Esau took out his wallet and looked at the money inside. The green-grey bills with faces frowning deeply at his actions no longer made sense to him. He didn't know how many pieces of paper to give the vendor in exchange for the experience. He pulled them all out. Flecks of red appeared, dripped from the pomegranate being crushed in his palm while his fingers grasped the money. He thrust the mess towards the vendor.

She stepped back. The bills registered nine grams on the vendor's scale where Esau left them in a crumpled pile.

Then Esau turned the remains of his focus back towards the subway station unsure how to continue.

His feet took over for his reeling mind. They walked Esau to the station. They stopped him at the turnstile until his hands remembered to swipe his commuter card. The tie in his right hand left a blurred trail across the turnstile's steel shell. Juice squeezed from the pomegranate in his other hand trickled through his fingers and dribbled onto the floor. His feet continued walking when the partition opened for him to pass. They moved him aimlessly at first, unable to direct the body meaningfully by their own sentience. Then they carried Esau into the heart of the transiting throng. The current of the crowd swept him around the station. When a school of commuters suddenly pushed their way through the mob Esau's body was sucked into their wake and pulled into the same car they boarded. As the doors closed behind him, the train pulled out from the station with a quick hiccup.

Esau's body staggered though the swaying cars. As he pitched left then right, his hands crashed onto the top of each seat he passed. Esau's eyes stared forward unaware of the other passengers grimacing at the sticky splotches and streaks wherever his hands, pomegranate, and tie landed. His feet stopped in the last car. It was empty. They moved his body out of the aisle. He collapsed into the seat.

Esau's mind and body awoke when the train began to slow. They were pulling up to a platform. The reflection of the surrounding car in the window hid the platform from him. Although he couldn't tell what stop it was, he felt certain it wasn't his. Even in the winter he never got home after dark. I'm not where I should be, he thought. He checked his watch to see what time it was, but a layer of lint glued to the face with fruit juice obscured the numbers. He decided a walk would be nice. If his home was farther than a walk, he'd hail a cab. The train screeched away and disappeared as soon as his feet hit the concrete and his body cleared the door.

It was a desolate platform: three clear acrylic squares divided into smaller windows by cold grey bars formed a minimal shelter around half of the waiting area. The other half was open. A sodium light on a tall pole in the center of the concrete pad illuminated a circle that spread as far as the first rail and all the way to the back edge of the platform. Beyond the light, Esau saw nothing but vague shadows of trees rising up against a starry sky. There was a pay phone bolted to the pole. There was also a trash can adjacent to the phone and chained to the pole.

Esau walked up to the shelter. The light shining over his shoulder turned the acrylic squares into a wall of mirrors. He shuddered at the feral image staring back at him. The vibrant red fruit juice reflected back in streaks of near-grey blending through his stubble and running down his neck. He counted two missing buttons from his collar. Stray chest hairs poked out from around the stained fabric of his undershirt. He found the tie in his mirrored twin's right hand. It hung limp, like a pelt freshly stripped from a carcass. In the twin's left hand, the pomegranate still oozed from the wound he inflicted on it earlier.

He walked over to the trash can and held the pomegranate over it. It defied gravity for a moment, sticking to his down turned palm before falling and landing on a cushion of old newspapers. He took half a step and then turned back to the trash can, throwing in the ruined tie. He looked at his watch again. He spit on it and rubbed his cuff across the face. It smeared the mess without making the timepiece's numbers legible. He rubbed harder and the watchband broke. Esau swore under his breath and then tossed the watch into the trash as well.

It was late. He knew that without the watch. To the south he saw the gamboge glow of urban lights against the horizon. Esau looked back at the shelter. He found a sign half lit by the sodium glare and half shadowed by a lip on the shelter's wall. He walked closer until he could make out the characters. He read it twice and began to laugh. It wasn't a stop he knew. It definitely wasn't on the line he rode home each day. He doubted if he was even in the right state. He laughed harder when he read the sign a third time. The stop didn't have a name: it was a junction, two highways intersecting near the tracks. He was at a remote Park and Ride surrounded by an empty parking lot.

Esau fell to the ground clutching his sides, laughing so hard he thought his ribs would crack. "I've done it," he choked out to no one. "I've gotten away." Tears rolled down his face as he laughed. "Who'd imagine I'd be between here and there? I'm not even someplace." He tried catching his breath. He sat up and pulled his knees to his chest. He inhaled and exhaled in long shaky breaths interrupted by random chortles and sniggers he failed to suppress. He sat there long enough to become aware of the stars moving over his head.

He wasn't startled when he heard the pay phone ring. Its jangling bells cut across the cooling night air. The sound struck him as strange and archaic. It took him a second ring to place the noise. He took another look at his primitive surroundings as the phone rang a third time. "My apologies," he offered the phone. "You belong here. I'm the anachronism."

The phone rang a fourth time in response.

Esau tried standing up. His legs were asleep. He staggered to the pole. It rang a fifth time. He started to laugh again, this time at the ridiculous persistence with which this device shouted out to what should have been an empty concrete pad. The laughter died before reaching his lips when he struck his knee against the pole and fell to the ground.

On the sixth ring Esau reached out his arm and grasped the bottom of the receiver. He lowered the ear piece to his own ear.

He listened.

A dull droning noise like an electric bee preceded a sharp click. A woman's voice filled his ear. Esau began to weep. The recorded woman continued talking. "Imagine getting away," she said. "ACME Orbital Timeshares and Spacecations make it just that easy."

THE END


© 2009 Joseph Thompson

Bio: Joseph Thompson originally focused on freelance business journalism until he decided to stop writing about other people’s money and to write something people wanted to read. He alternates between perspiring and shivering in Portland, Maine with his partner, two cats, and one and a half dogs.

E-mail: Joseph Thompson

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