SPOTLIGHT: ‘Afterglow’ by Nick Olson

Glow Storms

You can still hear the voices from before, but they’ve been bleached clean and left to dry with that bleach stink, water-eyes, and the way that all strong senses bring you to tears. Your watch is still working, vacuum tubes with their electric hum and the glow of phosphorescent gas in all this dust, like the way your parents taught you to make angels in the ash, but only if you washed up right after, bleached your clothes, hung them out to dry downwind, and your father would read the old papers by the light of a storm, still not upon you so it was safe to be out, and he would sound out the words until they had something like meaning attached to them. You were so small, still set against the primary colors of youth, sectioned off like composite cables you’d find in the trash and puzzle over, and with your mother sick so often, it became a game to bring back something your father could not identify, a game you so rarely won, but you’d keep playing anyway.

With your mother, it was nighttime lucidity, when the storms would pass, and you could bring her something salt and kept to eat, something cool to drink, and she’d come back to herself, share you the stories of her childhood, the ones she could still remember, where she met your father, all the disparate points that somehow came to be a line leading straight to you.

She says this will all make more sense to you when you’ve had some age, but you think you’ve had enough of sense. You’d rather run wild into that old shopping mall, barefoot if you must, the one your father found you in when the storm took you out of the dwelling and across the cracked pavement, rainbow oil-sheen, ancient rubber-marked, to the old shopping mall, where people used to go in the beforetimes, when life wasn’t quite like this but was on its way.

You want to go into that old shopping mall, and you want to find the cure for your mother not being here anymore. For being here, but not being her. You think that if you run those halls, elder glass scattered from far-up skylights where the rain now falls through and the vines snake in, if you go to this place and you check every booth and stall, you might find what she needs. It’s at least a possibility.

The days pass, and your father still teaches himself to read by the glow of the storm, and the wind is like a song you know you’ve heard before. That if you listen to it just a little longer, you might be able to sing along.

Your mother is forgetting you. She is forgetting many things, but the latest is you. On the nights when lucidity won’t come and her eyes hold no recognition, you listen to her sing and babble the way she always said you did when very small, although you have no way of remembering. You take a cool, wet rag to her forehead and adjust your dwelling’s roof so some of the glow can get in, just enough that she can see, because if she can see then maybe she can remember, and if she can remember then maybe you can have your mother back one day.

When lucidity returns, she wants you to be older than this, bigger than you are. She wants a time and a place for you to grow that isn’t here, isn’t now. She wants you to breathe easy, with no glow storms, no broken-down old shopping malls, no hovel to stay in but a place to live, a reason to keep going set against all this time.

Years pass of this, and you grow. Not the way she wanted, but you collect age.

Everything seems so small. The old shopping mall is like a diorama. Your father, stooped out over a crater lake, able to read but with eyes that are starting to fail from the glow. Your mother like a tiny doll in bed, swaddled, and her eyes when she tells you it’s time for you to leave. If not now, then never, and you must live your life. You can tell that this is her, really her. So you leave.

Coming out over the light and the storm and the cracked pavement and this place that used to be a city but is now a graveyard, a place for vines to creep and moss to grow and the glow of the storms to phosphoresce and travel out and into everything it hits.

You will never see your parents again. You will never come back here again. Even if you did, you could never really come back. Never really be where and when you were before.

You let the glow storms guide you out. They flicker over the horizon like an old LCD screen you’d find and salvage when small, tinker over with your father until the color kept and you could take these shapes and make them into something recognizable, something helpful.

Place in the World

We see ourselves in the places we once inhabited, all at once, every era ticking separately like forgotten watches placed in dusty junk drawers we used to scrounge around in for batteries, take a gamble whether a double-A was fresh or years old, half the house cut out like a dollhouse set for display, running wires humming their electrical warmth back when electrical anything was possible, and you can hear the world shuddering now, rattle-breath, mantle-heart thumping, and in some ways you’re happier now than you were back then, whatever era you want to point to, because there is a freeing in forgetting, and once you get past the terror then the end result can be the clean slate you always wanted, at least from your perspective, and we can go along the rusted-out swingset ruins now, gather rust in our gloved hands and introduce it into our paints, our clays, our polymer seals that we are now using, any of the methods at our disposal to put the world in our memories and our dreams into something more tactile, something that won’t all fade away with us, and we gathered in the middle of roads back then, collected our eyes and trained them on skies that would rise and fall like lungs collecting fluid, and we could not understand what we were seeing, even the older ones, and so we watched in that infant way, myopia on a grand scale, and it could’ve been our mothers’ faces set large in the air for all we knew, we didn’t know our place in the world back then, but we knew that not much more of this could go on until the floor would give out, and it would all buckle and break, and until that time we were there to maybe make the transition a little easier, and we found our old friends in that crowd all those years ago, confirmed that what we were seeing was really happening, remembered ice cream man days and melted SpongeBob and gumball eyes and commercials on television and wading out into pond water that left little muck on the undersides of our feet, slimy, and we’d use the grass coming out like a welcome mat before going into the home of our neighborhood, and I’m remembering these things now, all of them, like a siren, cutting through the insect chatter on those hot summer nights, back when we had nights, and we collected in that crowd and told all of our stories together, in unison, until our voices meant nothing but our stories told it all, and there was no time to wait because we were already forgetting ourselves, each other, our mothers, and the ones who started crying were consoled, and the ones who could not speak were consoled, and the ones who could not look were consoled, and the ones who consoled were consoled, and when it was all done and the lights came back on and we could hear radio audio piping out of some neighborhood car, and the voice that gave us the news, we didn’t need to hear what it said before we knew what this meant, we had thought of this end without thinking it, had dreamed our place in the world slipping away in lifetimes long and away before this one, and so we sat there, all of us, on the grass, in the waiting dew and looked out over the great nothing, over everything, until it was time for us all to go back home.

Ancient Sounds

Come down and away from the skylight waterfall, catch your breath and put your toes into the moss a moment, just enough to feel the cool of what earth can be. You have years of this, or maybe days, it isn’t clear, but it is clear that you have this, at least for now. Sing the songs your mother once sang to you when you were so tiny, wrapped up and swaddled in the glowing light of not-night, the songs that there are no reproductions of, or at least none that can be brought back to life.

See in your partner all the ways that you want to move beyond this body, this time, put yourself into something that cannot wither, cannot decay, cannot ever go away like so much before you has gone away. Sing these songs with them. Try to remember them. Pass them on.

Paint your face with the muds and the dyes and the paints that you can find out here, and twirl yourself until you cannot see anything for certain, only their impressions, only their motion blur brush strokes and streaked light and color.

Hear the sounds that the world makes now. Try to forget that your body is dying. That your mind is going. That you have spent the time allotted and now there is just no more to give.

Go under the skylight when it gets too much, let the glow and the rain wrap you up in amniosis, shudder-breath, it’s all so cold, but you need to be in the storm and take what it gives to you, whatever that might be.

Your partner is stretched out on the pallet-bed, still asleep, and the vining tendrils here remind you of stories your mother told you long ago, of a small boy and large plant growth, and you can’t remember much of the story now, never will, but you can remember the way it made you feel, your perspective as you’d climb past cloud-cover, remind yourself not to look down, never to do that, and being at a great height only increases the length of your eventual fall.

You can almost hear the ancient sounds now, can almost see the stone your mother recovered, that litter that had gone unnoticed for long enough that dust obscured its entire shape, but your mother was always a spotter, and though she did not know what the stone was or what it did, some of your fondest memories were there, with her, week after week, trying to dissect the stone and somehow unlock its secrets.

You knew, the two of you did, that removing the back casing of the stone held the key, but the answer beyond that removal was not clear. You saw the smooth cylinders that were at the heart of the stone, gold and shining but crusted at the ends, such marvels of color, and when you removed the cylinders and held one to your tongue, and the speed that your mother took them from you once you started to cry out, and flushing your mouth with basin water, and trying not to cry, trying to be strong, and agreeing to never do something so foolish again, that you only wanted to know the golden cylinders’ secrets.

The stone sat untouched for many years after, on display in your dwelling, until it was time for you to leave, until your mother was gone and there was nothing left for you to cling to in all that dirt, all those corroded memories.

You are like one of these ancient sounds now, coming back in, momentary lucidity before fading back out, and if you listen real close it’s almost as if you can hear the ghosts rather than see them, can hear the voices of those who came before with nowhere left for the sounds to go but out, around, into everyone who still remains. What are we to do with all of this loss? Where does it need to go for us to be able to carry on? What do we need to do with it? Where can we find our answers?

You have not told your partner about the golden cylinders you have found, perfect and shining, with none of the crust of the ones you licked as a child. He knows of the stone and how much it means to you, but this part of the story will have to be yours. Yours and your mother’s as well, if her sounds are out there, somewhere in the din that you hear all of the time.

You remove the stone’s casing and brush clean its inner chamber, this tiny, delicate stone that must have been shaped into being in old, old times, far removed from where you are now, and the cylinders are still cool to the touch. You found them alone, in a dry and cool underground place, and you can remember the exact position that the cylinders were placed in as a child. You replicate the operation, your mother’s voice in your ear reminding you to place the cylinders firmly but gently, to replace the stone’s casing in much the same way, to push until you hear that final click.

Your partner stirs as you turn the stone over, as you press into it and watch its face return to life. He wakes completely as the first of the ancient sounds come out, old and faraway voices speaking to you, now, across great time, across great space.

The Big Empty

The body didn’t matter anymore, so it wasn’t much. Some meat. Loose skin over hard bone. A splaying of nerves, biological wires that were always ever misfiring anymore, sciatica, numbness, pain throughout the day. The body was dying, and he needed a way out of it.

There was a jackport in the city, couple models to choose from, but no power to get it running again since the collapse. All the tech in the world and nothing to see it back to life. June had always liked this city, so thoughts of her kept him company as he walked the empty streets most nights, dodging sinkholes, collapsed bridges, ancient stalled traffic to get into another store, scavenge parts, look for food for this damned body.

They’d been married before the collapse. That was, well that had to be forty-three years ago, give or take a couple. It became harder to keep track of time after the collapse, and he wasn’t exactly diligent. It was more than forty years ago, though, he was sure of it.

June would get him on a bike, an old Schwinn that’d been retrofitted to become an ebike, same as hers. Mostly they just cruised on them, flatland, but the motor helped for the hills, their knees. She’d get him on a bike and they’d fly through this city at night, when it was a ghost town, glide down the center of the street and claim it as their own, and for all they knew they could be flying out in space somewhere, pedaling into the big empty.

The rigging didn’t take much. A couple days’ worth of tinkering. It was harder to get the wiring on the batteries right, but trial and error still existed even when so much else did not. He’d managed to salvage an old battery tester from a mostly-picked-through Ubermart, got it running again. The concept was simple: pedal the bike, charge the batteries. Test the batteries, power up the jackport.

June had been skeptical of the jackports then. When they were first announced, anyway. Just another escape, she’d say. A way to run away that was perhaps a little more sophisticated than all the previous models, but not by much. She wanted none of it. She’d rather have her body run out, play its long song and then just stop. So that’s what it did.

Nights now are saltbeeph from the can, a good ride on his bike, up on stilts in a faded-out storefront, wires beneath it like a mechanical root system, splitting off to each of their batteries, more than twenty in total. He’d put a brick through this window, cleaned out the broken glass and hoped that the wind would come down and through. Give him the illusion of flying down the street, going nowhere and everywhere all at once.

It was months of this, but unless the battery tester was lying, it was working. Night after night those numbers would climb, sometimes by amounts so small they’d depress him, with his pedal power spread as thin as it was, but it would be done.

She was already fading out when the jackport salesman came to the door. He let the salesman in, and June seemed dismissive, at least at first, but she let him talk. There were other options. An entire future of possible advancements in biotech. It didn’t have to just be one of the models on sale now. It could be a real body. Stasis at least kept her options open. You never knew down the line what you might want, is all. He let the salesman carry on as he went into the other room, brewed up a couple cups of coffee.

He salvaged one of the last remaining tool sets at the old Ubermart, brought it down to the jackport. Set it next to the duffel bags of full batteries and tried to see in them anything but endless possibilities. Tried to see catastrophic failure, All The Things That Could Go Wrong. But in a life where all those things had already happened, it didn’t take much to get past that initial fear.

He found an old coffee-stained manual in one of the desks, leafed through till he got to electrical. It’d take some rigging, sure, but nothing more than what he’d already done, what he’d been doing to survive in this city for the last forty years, population one.

The rigging took a full day, so he spent that night feasting on his last remaining cans of saltbeeph. He wouldn’t need them much longer, and the body had already lost so much weight from all that daily pedaling. He went to sleep that night fuller than he’d been in years.

It almost alarmed him just how simple it was, how the procedure could be self-performed. But he pored over the manual and made sure he followed all the steps as best he could. He put one of the models in its chamber, looked over its solid metal body and imagined what it would feel like when he was in there, if it would feel like anything. Whatever it was, though, it would not be this. So he climbed into his chamber and started the process.

Blink. June’s there. Then gone again, not here. Flicker, and he’s out of his body, in the room somewhere, not sure where. Blink, and his body’s slumped. Electrical energy running out. He’s in the model now, screaming. Trying to scream. Alive in there, but the batteries have all cut out before auxiliary systems could boot up. The model has no movement. It’s stuck.

All the lights in the jackport go out. He can’t even move the model’s head, can’t move anything. He can’t speak. Can only think now. Only think of June. And in time, beyond that, he’ll think on what it felt like as he flew down the street, through the night. Into the big empty.


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