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Back You are here: Home Stories Words for the People Short Stories Answers
Sunday, 23 September 2012 19:17


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“What’s the meaning of life?” Will asked the attractive woman stepping around the cracks in the sidewalk, staring at her feet so her heels wouldn’t catch on the dripping pigeon shit. The open-toed shoes were a size too big and skittered along the pavement. The hissing sound of her sole dragging along on dappled sidewalk reverberated in Will’s head and he swiveled to catch her eye.

“To find one, I guess.” She moved on while he despaired and put a check mark next to that one in his battered notebook.

He went back to standing motionless atop the pigeon shit she tried so hard to avoid. It looked like dirty grout coating the corners of the sidewalk. He swayed from side to side and his flannel coat billowed in the wind. It flew forward with the breeze and dwarfed his bitter, thin frame. His eyes were runny and stained the color of salmon. At regular intervals, he lifted his arm to swipe crusts of mucus from his hairless upper lip.

Of a man passing by, Will asked, “Is there a God?”

“Depends on what you mean by ‘god.’” He kept moving, too.

Of the next, he asked, “When will the world end?”

“When everyone dies.”

And the next: “What’s the secret to happiness?”

“Not looking so hard for the answer.”

Will looked down at his notebook and raised a shaking hand to check these questions off of his list. He scanned the list with flat, lifeless eyes, trying to find a question without a checkmark. He grabbed the nearest person — a perfectly coiffed mother of two carting a stroller — and fumbled for a question. “Does… what can we… where… what are we to do?” he asked.

“Whatever there is to do, I suppose.” And she moved on.

Will ducked into the abandoned building on the corner – the one with thin teak walls, scraped to the bone by sand-paper before a fire devoured chunks of the exterior and closed down construction. As he stepped inside his old, boyhood home, he imagined himself in the belly of a fire-breathing dragon who inhaled too hard while immolating a prince trying to reach a beautiful captive guarded by the reptile.

His room was cordoned off by fluorescent gold tape pilfered from a home improvement shop down the street. Rusty nails popped from floorboards dotted the area and he used one to pry a carefully camouflaged loose board from its place. Beneath it sat mildewed books. He dug around until he came up with his dogeared copy of Hamlet and the book of essays by Camus that his sister had stolen from the library for him.

Polka-dots of dust danced from the covers to the thin beam of sunlight streaming in from the hole carved near the top of the ceiling. Will drew in a deep breath and heaved it towards the ray of light — but the effort was futile and only sent the dust spinning into a new choreography. He lit a cigarette and sat in the middle of the floor with his back to the irritating scene. He sat on his heels, spine bent forward, and anyone peering into the room might mistake him for a man executed in the traditional fashion of two shots to the back of the head. He reasoned that it wasn’t far from his present state.

The thump of his heavy text opening sent the rats scurrying. He flipped pages as frantically as he had on the street, sending the book spinning at times with his furious page-turning, until he came to the Myth of Sisyphus.

He read it with fierce passion denoted by the erratic pounding of his fist on the splintered floorboards. Will wept with agony as Sisyphus descended again to push the boulder and Camus concluded that one must imagine him to be happy because the futility of life doesn’t necessarily denote suicide. Will’s heart threw itself against his chest, beating furiously at the only exit it could find. He disagreed with Camus. He agreed with his sister, and with her annotations in the margins. “Without meaning, life is pointless.”

Will was shaking. He stabbed the cigarette into the floor and snatched Hamlet from the floor. It fell open to the famed soliloquy automatically. The spine had been broken beneath that page. He murmured the words as he read them, then hurling words at the ceiling in a scream at random: “…what dreams may come! “…no traveler returns!” “…all my sins remembered!”

In fairness, to the outside viewer, it’d have come off as particularly overwrought and trite. This was Will’s fact: he knew he was painfully cliche and felt so ensnared in his misery that the meaning of life had become a Hallmark card.

Life had lost the fevered pitch of excitement without meaning. Finding a question he couldn’t answer would give him meaning. His reason to live would be to find the answer.

The other fact of Will: he lacked the capacity to answer himself.

Digging deeper into his stash, he found a gun and began loading bullets. His hand steadied for the first time that day. He’d play the ultimate game of chance and let fate decide whether life was worth living. His question, were he to survive, would be why he was spared. Why Parker wasn’t spared.

To Will, the question was the purpose. The answers stole things from him, stole the mysterious quality of life that let him feel free and purposeful. Questions were a reason to keep going. Answers were a reason to despair.

The last three bullets, the ones that would complete the chamber, clattered to the floor with a deafening harmony of metal on wood. Three bullets were left. Fate would decide whether the empty space or a bullet was ready first.

He raised the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. A bullet tore from the gun and smashed into his head. Unidentifiable clumps of scarlet sprang from his skull and spattered against the wall. Will fell to his side and laid there.

A shadow detached itself from the wall and gestured to the corner where another figure emerged. Albert Camus and Hamlet met each other in the center of the floor and looked down on Will.

“Dumbass,” said Camus.

“Don’t be so harsh,” said a petulant voice. Ophelia padded into the room and knelt beside Will’s body. “How can you be so sure the poor child didn’t know what would happen?”

“He sure read enough of my whining,” Camus replied. “Serves him right to be stuck.”

“Don’t say that,” Hamlet said sharply.

“Shut up, Hamlet,” Ophelia said. Her austere features melted together in the sunlight. Her sleepy lids languished over her ash-colored eyes and the corners folded down to a point, directing lookers to her thin, flat lips. Her cheekbones stood erect and severe. Hamlet gazed unabashedly at her and she stamped her foot before feeling childish. “Some of us crave excitement. Rushing through the river was the best choice I ever made.”

Camus snorted and stalked out of the room. Hamlet followed.

Ophelia sat over Will’s body and did nothing. His body was eventually discovered by a homeless couple and she moved on. Behind her retreating form, a figure slowly metastasized from Will’s body and shimmered in the sunlight before becoming fully formed. Will stood in the middle of the room agonizing over the futility of his questions and actions before settling into a corner to wait. Ophelia poked her head into the room the next morning and found Will cradling his head on his knees.

“Remember me?” she asked him.

“Yeah, you came to my body last night.”

“Anyone I should call? Someone specific you want to find the body?”

He shook his head and said, “No. No one’s left,” and stared at the floor. At his body. The blood had congealed and he looked at the purplish, mottled bruise it had left on the floor.

Ophelia drifted to his side. She stared at the bruise with him until Camus walked in and shouted, “Boo!” They both jumped and he sniggered.

“There’s something seriously wrong with you,” Ophelia said.

“Doesn’t bother me. How are you feeling, kid?” he asked Will.

“No better.”

“Didn’t fix anything, did you?”

“Damnit, Camus, couldn’t you give him a break?” Ophelia interjected.

“He’s right,” Will said. “She isn’t here. Why isn’t she here?”

“Who, Will?” Ophelia clutched his wrist, urging him to answer. “Is there anyone you need?”

“My sister Parker. She isn’t here.”

“Where is she?”

“I thought she’d be here.”

“Why did you think that?”

“Because she’s dead!”

Camus chuckled beneath his breath and looked at Will. “All this over a girl?”

Will turned to Camus and stared at him. He clenched his hand into a fist and swung, connecting with his chin in one, clean motion. Camus staggered backwards and rubbed his face after regaining his balance. He snorted again.

“Bring her to me,” he screamed. “Bring her to me. You took her from me, now bring her to me.”

Camus rubbed his palm against his eyes. Weary and exhausted, he said, “You’ll see tomorrow why I can’t do that for you.”

Ophelia looked at him. Her words were sharp and she bit them off cleanly at the end. “Don’t taunt him.”

Ophelia and Camus left the room when Will began to tear at the walls in anguish. Dismantling the walls board-by-board, he exhausted himself. He laid on the floor – on his personal bruise – and fell into a heavy sleep.

When he woke, he was standing in the center of a bleak sidewalk. A woman tip-toed by, making sure her heel didn’t slide into the cracks of the sidewalk. He grabbed her. “What’s the meaning of life?”

“To find one, I guess.”

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Last modified on Sunday, 23 September 2012 21:21
Courtney Duff

Courtney Duff currently resides in Indianapolis, Indiana. Follow her on Twitter at @CourtneyEDuff for absurdist ramblings and the rare insight. 

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