Brief History of Nothing
A short story
It was hard for him to wake up in the morning. But this probably had something to do with the endless margarita refills at the hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant he was at the night before.
And that is really the hardest part of the life that he lived. He loved the parties and the people and the infinite free food and drinks, but it’s waking up the next morning that is the absolute worst.
Along with the not knowing.
He simply never knew.
He never knew anything about what happened the night before.
Darrin had lost track of how many cheap hotel rooms and strange beds and dirty hookers he had awaken to find himself surrounded by. How many fangirls and fuckboys he had left naked and wasted.
All growing up, his parents had told him he was a star.
That he had potential.
That someday, he was going to be something.
It was his voice. At a very young age, his ability to croon like Jamie Cullum or Dean Martin was noticed by his music teachers in school.
One day, he was at home playing Dr. Mario when the phone rang. His mom answered and a few moments later, she came storming into the room and pulled the plug on the television. “We have to meet with your music teacher tomorrow.”
“Why did you do that, mom?!? I was about to beat the highest speed I’ve ever gotten to!”
“Because until we have this conference, you’re grounded! She wouldn’t say what it was that you had done, but she insisted it was a big deal.”
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“I don’t care! You’re grounded!”
Whatever came over him in that moment, as so many other things in his life, he would never remember, but he immediately stood up and ran at his mom, screaming. He would get his game back!
But she was much too quick for that. She slapped him hard across the face and he fell down. She then proceeded to beat him mercilessly with his Nintendo controller. Curled into a fetal position, Darin began to cry. A screaming kind of cry. “Stop, mom! Stop!” But she wasn’t listening. Rage and mimosas had full control and she continued to beat him. Blow after blow broke his skin and his spirit.
And never once did she raise her voice or even seem to break a sweat. Her abuse was cool, calm, and collected, almost as if it had been meticulously planned.
She didn’t stop for what, to Darin, felt like an eternity. Just endless, relentless beating.
And then it was over. She was gone. And Darin was bloody and crying. His controller was in pieces on the floor. Along with what self-respect he may have had as a 12 year old boy playing Nintendo.
Darin stayed lying on the floor for a few minutes, waiting for the beating to resume. But when there was no sound or movement in the house, he eventually stood up.
The house was so quiet. The only sound was the ticking from the large grandfather clock in the corner of the living room. Concerned, he began to explore the house. Room by room. To try to figure out where his mom had gone.
He heard the shower running as he went down the hall. Good, he thought to himself.
He went back to the living room and plugged in the television. One controller was gone, but he still had the other, so he turned his game back on and started playing again.
But an hour later, she still hadn’t gotten out of the shower, and Darin began to feel concerned. So he paused the game and slowly crept down the hallway. The bathroom door was slightly cracked open, so he knocked hesitantly. “Mom?” No answer. He knocked a little harder and said a little louder, “Mom?!”
Still no answer.
He pushed the door open, and never forgot what he saw, although he would later spend the rest of his life trying to.
The shower was running, the water now cold, and his mom was lying in the bathtub, head gashed open and her blood washing down the drain. She wasn’t moving. Clearly hadn’t moved in some time.
Apparently, she had slipped as she stepped into the tub and hit her head on the tap. Probably laid there for a while before she finally passed.
Darin spent the next six years bouncing from foster home to foster home, some worse than others. His music teachers continued to encourage him and the best of his fake parents made an effort to cultivate his talent.
At eighteen, the family he happened to be with kicked him out. He was always a good kid, but since he was too old for the system, the family didn’t want him anymore. They wanted a younger teenager to devote their time to.
So he filled a backpack with a few articles of clothing and started hitchhiking.
Darin slowly sat up in bed and looked around the small motel room. He was alone. And there was no sign that anyone had ever been in here with him at any point. No discarded panties or wasted condoms.
Only one empty bottle on the nightstand.
Standing, Darin slowly staggered to the window. Parting the curtains, he looked out and saw that he was in New York. He could see the spotlights placed at the gaping hole at Ground Zero, where just months before, religious zealots had destroyed a symbol of the Great Satan.
As if trying to forget his mom wasn’t enough, God, in her infinite wisdom, had felt it necessary to add to his misery with something as big as that.
He was barely nineteen, and had just started attending a small community college in Ohio. And she was absolutely breathtaking. Because of his transient lifestyle, he had never really had the chance to meet anyone or date anyone. There had been times, in the dirty restrooms of dive bars in small towns, where he had experienced drunken fucks. But he had never been in love.
Had never met anyone and had an opportunity to get to know them, or they him.
But she was different. And living in the same small apartment complex a couple blocks from campus allowed Darin and Karli the chance to get to know each other and strike up a friendship and then a romance.
In a mere six months, they had moved in together and were discussing the possibility of getting married.
Then Karli’s grandfather died. She had to fly to Boston. It was very sudden, and they didn’t have enough money to both fly out. So Darin stayed home. The funeral was on September 10. And her return flight was on the eleventh.
And Karli was on the plane that crashed into the first tower.
He could remember the last phone call he received. It was a simple one. Karli had called just before take-off to tell him that she would be home in a few hours. “I love you, Darin.”
“I love you, Karli.”
And that was it. Darin sat down on the couch to watch some tv and suddenly his show was interrupted by the news saying something about people flying planes into the World Trade Center.
Stunned, he sat enraptured by the images he was seeing. A news reporter talking and a plane flying directly, deliberately, into the side of one of the tallest buildings in the country. And then the same thing happening a second time. And he couldn’t believe a thing that he was seeing. But it was real. It was definitely happening.
Once the initial shock wore off, he paid a little more attention to the details. That’s when he heard that Karli’s plane was the one that crashed into the first tower.
And along with a skyscraper full of innocent people, his world came crashing to the ground.
Staring out the window of his motel room was more than he could take and he broke down. Stepping back from the window, Darin looked frantically around the room for something. Anything. He needed a drink.
Sitting on the nightstand was an open bottle of Four Roses. Not much was left. Maybe a couple of shots. But he finished the bottle off in one swallow.
He looked around the room and simply couldn’t understand why he had ever agreed to do this show in New York, at this location. His agent had told him it was a benefit show to raise money for the families of those affected by the attacks. But hadn’t he been affected?
“That is why we need you there!” His agent had said. “This is a chance for the families to see that everyone was impacted by the acts of these horrible bastards. Rich and poor, we’re all Americans. You can be that voice!”
What his agent hadn’t told him, until the night of the show, was that he wasn’t going to see a dollar of the ticket sales. He was impacted just as much as others, but apparently he was too privileged to need help.
Now here he was, staring at an empty bottle of single barrel bourbon whiskey and…
This was it. This was his life. Endless bottles of whiskey and underage girls and wanting all of it to end in some tragic and yet glorious way.
For all of his fame and fortune, he was truly nothing. And he knew this. Tight leather pants and a pleasant voice don’t make you worth anything. As he staggered back to the window, he looked out across the city and began to cry. For the first time in months, he cried.
He sat down on the floor and just bawled.
When he next opened his eyes, it was night. Car horns honking and neon lights flashing. A light rain beginning to fall. But not the calm and pretty kind of rain you get in the warm months of spring. Rather, the bitter cold sort that makes you loathe your very existence.
As if he needed another reason to hate himself. Head pounding, Darin got up off the floor and took a shower. He put on fresh clothes and headed out.
He turned in to the first bar he came across.
Brass cages on the windows. Graffiti on the rusted, metal door. Questionable women in fishnet stockings, smoking cheap cigarettes leaning against the wall to the right. Under a shoddy balcony in an attempt to stay dry.
Upon walking in, his olfactory system was bombarded with the all too familiar odor of smoke, booze, and sweat.
Another night just like all the others.
Another night that would ultimately mean nothing.
Shoving his way through the crowd, he made his way to the boniface.
Boniface. Such a strange word. But one he had picked up in a fancy spot he used to frequent when he was on hiatus about a year before. He liked it though. It gave the position an air of respectability.
Sitting on the last empty stool, he ordered a bourbon. Neat. She handed him his glass and he slammed it back and ordered another. This second one, he sipped more slowly. He turned and observed the room. Everyone here had someone. He was the only one, it appeared, who was in the place alone.
Darin turned back to his drink and took another sip. As the spirit touched his lips, he inadvertently made eye contact with the bartender. She smiled flirtily and brushed her short, blue hair behind her ear. He took this as a cue to observe the rest of her. Cropped leather jacket. Open to reveal a black bra covering her small, firm breasts. Following the line of her body, he noticed her ribs. She is much too skinny, he thought to himself. She would be perfect if she would just put on a little weight. But he wasn’t one to judge too harshly. Her eyes were large and seductive and she had him hooked.
Ignoring the other patrons, she moved her way toward him and leaned her elbows on the counter. Her top hung loose as she did so, giving him a perfect line of sight to what was subtly hiding underneath. He burned with lust. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before,” she said. “But you look familiar.”
“You’ve probably seen me on TV. I’m doing that benefit show down at Ground Zero.” He didn’t say this to impress her, but she clearly was. In fact, Darin couldn’t have cared less if people were excited to see him or not. He took another sip of his whiskey. “But it doesn’t matter. Tonight I’m just a guy havin’ a few drinks.”
She patted his free hand and said, “Well, my name’s Karli if you need anything,” and she walked away.
He quickly swallowed the rest of his drink. He slammed the glass down a little harder than he had intended and another bartender refilled it. Karli was in the middle of making a dirty martini for a drunk couple at the other end of the bar.
His palms were beginning to sweat and his heart was pounding. He could feel it in his ears.
He asked for a glass of water. He took a few large swigs and a few deep breaths and regained his composure.
Once she had finished, she made her way back to him and struck up another conversation. Apart from her name, she was nothing like his Karli. But that didn’t matter. He couldn’t deal with the fact that she shared a name with his first true love. But she was into him. She was talking to him, not in the way of a flirty bartender fishing for extra tips. Rather, person to person.
And not once did she bring up the attacks. Despite being the elephant in the room everywhere, she avoided it as if it had never happened. They talked about real things. Shared interests and witty banter.
Slowly, the bar began to clear and next thing they knew, they were nearly alone and it was last call. An old drunk man sat at the end of the bar. And the bouncer went to him first and guided him out the door, as he began to talk about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.
When he came back for Darin, Karli stopped him. “He’s with me. He’s going to walk me home.”
The bouncer looked suspicious, but didn’t say a word and went to collect his belongings.
“I have a couple things to take care of in the back and then we can go,” she said, looking at Darin and smiling.
“That’s fine. Take your time.”
Karli made her way to the back and sat down. The plane was cramped. She was in the next to last row, by the window. She had no carry on and just sat down in her seat, hoping she would luck out this time and not have to sit next to anyone else. On the way to Boston, she had to sit next to someone who wanted the window closed the whole time, so she wasn’t able to watch the ground fall away. She loved that feeling, though, and she had been disappointed.
This time, she lucked out. She made a quick call to Darin to tell him they were taking off and she would be home soon. Then she turned off her Nokia 8310 and settled in for the flight.
Things fell apart for Karli, and about 90 other people, in less than 15 minutes as men with a true hatred for everything that America stands for took over the flight and changed the course of history.
She never got to say goodbye to Darin. But before the sadness could set in, there was nothing.
Darin just stared at the television in stunned silence. When his mom died, he had felt nothing. And at every moment of abuse throughout his years in the foster care system, he had felt nothing. But this time he felt something. But it was brief. Then more nothing. But this had been more than he could handle.
The nothing didn’t last long, and soon he found himself spiraling out of control into the deepest depression imaginable. And as far as he was concerned, it didn’t matter. He went to the kitchen and pulled the bottle of Glenfiddich out of the cupboard. He opened the top and took a long draught. Holding the bottle by the neck, he sat back down on the couch and stared at the TV as again and again the news showed the planes crashing into the buildings. As again and again he watched his first true love die at the hands of men who worshipped the god who had abandoned her creation.
The bar was deathly silent. The music had stopped long ago. The crowd was gone. The thin cloud of cigarette smoke had dissipated, leaving only the odor. Darin stared at his empty glass for a moment and gently pushed it away from himself. His head and stomach were in a state of disarray. But it had nothing to do with the alcohol.
Karli sat at a desk in a cramped office and finished sending a couple of work-related emails. Mainly to distributors to replenish some of the stock of bottled beer and such. Then she shut the computer down and went back out to meet Darin at the bar.
As she came around the corner from the back, he was gone. There was no evidence that he had even been there except his empty glass and the bar stool pushed away at an odd angle. Typical, she thought. The bouncer came out from another part of the building and asked where he friend had gone.
“Same place as all the others, I guess,” she said as she locked arms with him and they walked out together, locking the door behind them.
Darin was back in his motel room before Karli was even done sending her first brief email. He couldn’t do it. As much as he wanted to, he just couldn’t bring himself to spend a night with her. It was just too much. He shoved his clothes into the overnight bag he had brought with him and got out as quickly as he could.
Watching the persistent news coverage eventually got to be too much for him to handle, and he started flipping channels. Every single one was talking about the tragedy. Every single one was showing the footage of the planes hitting the towers and the carnage that shortly followed. They kept showing the video of the man falling from the sky.
That footage embodied perfectly a feeling that he knew all too well. He wanted to jump. To never have to feel again. To be done with it all and sleep forever.
They had moved into a third floor apartment, so he stepped out on the balcony. It wasn’t a long fall, but if he dove right, he could probably crack his head open and break his neck. He swallowed the last of the whiskey and threw the bottle as far as he could. It shattered in the middle of the parking lot.
He staggered slowly backwards a couple of steps and decided to go inside.
The television was still showing the wreckage. He picked the remote up off the couch and threw it hard at the screen. It bounced off and fell on the floor. He walked over and pushed the power button. It was the most welcome silence he had encountered in a long time.
Bag in one hand, Darin hailed a cab with the other and jumped in the back as quickly as he could. “Get me to Newark Liberty.”
As the cab pulled away from the curb, Darin glanced back and saw Karli walking up to the door of the motel.
She walked up to the counter and tapped on the plexiglass window to get the attendant’s attention. Taking his noise-canceling Beats headphones off, he looked up irritably from his comic book. “May I help you?”
“I’m looking for Darin, that singer guy who is doing the show over at Ground Zero. He told me he was staying here,” Karli said, more impatiently than she had intended.
“You just missed him. He checked out about 5 minutes ago.” He put his headphones back on and got back to his reading.
Shit, Karli thought as she walked out the door to go home.
Darin stared out his window in silence for the entire ride to the airport. Maybe it was the booze or the stress or the fame. Whatever it was, he was beginning to figure out what all of this meant. What every moment of his life to this point was intended to point to. What every little coincidence and passing interaction with the nameless and faceless really stood for.
And it had taken Karli to make it clear to him.
He stared at the broken television for what felt like an eternity before he put on his jacket and grabbed his keys and left the apartment. Having a sudden moment of clarity, he took the stairs two at a time and went out a side door.
And he started running. He had no idea where he was going. Just running. He ignored traffic signals and zig-zagged through the cars. On more than one occasion, he barely avoided getting hit. But he kept running.
He stopped at a park on the opposite end of town. He sat down on the nearest bench and just started to laugh. Uncontrollably laugh.
The cab driver looked back at him in the rearview mirror and asked if he was ok. Startled, Darin looked up. “Yeah. I’m fine.” He paused for a moment and felt his stomach begin to turn. The anxiety growing. A tugging sensation in the pit of his being.
His laughter had become tears and he buried his head in his hands. Bawling uncontrollably. Karli was gone and he was never going to see her again. The first time he had felt love in his whole life and it had been stripped away.
He felt an arm around his shoulders. Someone pulling him close. At first, he thought it was Karli. That maybe the whole thing he had just seen on TV was some kinda terrible dream. Then the smell. He looked up from his hands and saw a face that had seen the world and everything bad that it could possibly have thrown at one person.
Eyes expressing deep anger and also sympathy. “Are you okay?”
His breath reeked of alcohol. But Darin didn’t care. “No,” He said. The tears began to flow again. Not knowing whether the vagabond next to him had seen the news or not, he told the whole story. Every detail. He just confessed everything. From what he saw on the news to breaking his TV to drowning in booze to his hasty run to the park, where he sat now.
The old stranger looked at Darin with true compassion. “I’ve seen some shit, man. Shit that will really fuck you up. Shit that really fucked me up. My best friend took a piece of shrapnel from a grenade to the face in ‘Nam. He asked me if he could go home now. He had no fucking face and he croaked out the saddest last words a mother fucker could ever utter. My wife and I were walking home from a play and got jumped. They beat the shit out of me and then raped her seven times. She died at the hospital. I lost my job after that and have lived out here since. I’ve sucked dick in this very park just so I could have a warm place to stay for the night.
“This city is fucked up. This world is fucked up. Everything is fucked up and it always will be. None of this really matters or is worth anything. Unless you make it worth something. You decide how much value your world has. Your girls means the world to you so now you have no world. She is your world. And as long as she remains your world, nothing else is going to matter except for her.
And if she is going to be your world, then you need to get up off this bench and go with her. Go find her. If you’re still here, then there is still a world that exists and it is your world.”
Just like the ravings of a drunk, everything seemed disconnected and as if it made no sense. And Darin had every intention of telling this idiot just that. But when he turned his head, the man was gone. Simply gone.
“Stop the cab!” Darin said it quite a bit more loudly than he had intended. Almost angrily. The driver stopped. Darin tossed a fifty dollar bill through the little sliding window and told him to keep the change and he quickly got out of the car.
He looked back the way they had come from and his heart skipped a beat. Karli was just stepping out of the motel door and onto the sidewalk. It was pouring rain now. “Karli!” His yelling was a waste of breath because the sound of the rain and the car horns drowned out what he said. But he didn’t care. He kept yelling her name as he ran, shoving people out of his way.
The words of the drunken homeless man rang in his ears as if he hadn’t heard them months ago. “If you’re still here, then there is still a world that exists and it is your world.”
Karli was his world.
And here was Karli walking away from him as he attempted to run toward her. Everything had meaning. He was wrong. Had been wrong for years. Everything is connected to everything else. Every coincidence is just as significant as every moment that we deliberately create.
And here was Karli. True, it wasn’t the same Karli. But it was Karli. Another form of Karli.
She was closer now. Close enough to probably hear him yell, so he shouted her name again.
Karli stopped and turned around and saw him fighting his way through the crowd of people who were walking in the opposite direction. “Darin!” She dropped her purse and began to run toward him.
And as if the world revolved around them, everything paused. A dropped coffee cup in a cafe remained suspended in space. A handshake existed unfinished. No one and no thing moved. Except Darin and Karli.
They looked around confusedly and slowly worked their way through the unmoving moment of time. And they stood in front of each other. Looking deeply into each other’s eyes. “Karli…” Darin begin to stutter. He had no words.
Karli took his hands in her’s and gently kissed him. Darin opened his eyes, and standing before him wasn’t the Karli from the bar. It was the other Karli. His Karli.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. “How are you here?” Darin asked.
“As long as you exist, I exist. I am your world. I can’t leave until you leave.”
“No. No. This isn’t how it works. I came back for the bartender. She had the same name. She was you but not you. Because life moves forward. Time moves forward.” Darin began to break down at this point. Nothing made sense. He had to be going crazy.
“Time moves in all directions at once. We simply only see one perspective. We can only see forward.”
“Then how am I seeing any of this?”
“Because when you stopped the cab, you joined me.”
Darin looked back and what he had thought was thunder, wasn’t. As if in slow motion, his cab pulled into an intersection and slammed on its breaks. And a city bus headed back to the depot smashed into the passenger side. His door never opened.
Turning slowly around, he saw his reflection in a nearby window. Mangled. Bloody. Pieces of glass and debris stuck in his skin. As he turned and faced Karli, he saw what he hadn’t seen before. Charred remains standing before him. No bottom jaw.
And then nothing but infinite darkness and silence.