There once was a boy named Jon Dough. His name was funny (it was what you called an unidentified corpse) but no one laughed at it. During his freshman year of high school, he realized it was only technically funny. In reality, it was sad and ironic.
It could have been funny if life was vivacious and full of adventure, but that wasn’t the case. He grew up in San Francisco, which was supposed to be exciting and cutting-edge, but the city held little to no interest for him. He didn’t get why people lined up for overpriced food, or tried to legitimize their ignorance with played-out catchphrases.
Jon studied for all his tests, dutifully performed his extracurriculars, and volunteered at kitchens and shelters. In tenth grade, a great sickness swept the Earth, exposing cracks and weaknesses in The Hallowed System. People bickered and fought and argued, afraid they would die or lose their jobs.
He wasn’t sure what to make of this, so he enrolled in college and ground away. Society indoctrinated him through part-time jobs and unpaid internships. Luckily for him, his parents paid for college. Once he graduated, he had no debt.
Finally—he’d arrived at the ocean of Young Adulthood.
Occasionally, he was jostled by peripheral discomfort (disease in the family, minor car accidents), but by and large, he enjoyed fair weather and easy currents. He landed a steady job at a solid company, partied a little (not too much), and eventually denounced it as a relic of his 20s. Before he entered The Responsible Lands (his early thirties), he met a beautiful girl named Addison Stone and—after an appropriate amount of meet-cute coincidences—asked her out.
They did everything expected of a young, adventurous couple. After a sufficient number of trips and dates and cheery Instagram stories, they went on a getaway to Northern California. In the middle of a gorgeous, candle-lit dinner, Jon took a knee and proposed to Addie.
Addie burst into tears. The Responsible Patrons saw this and grinned, signaling their approval for one more couple who would join their ranks. Jon rose to his feet and (remembering his training from countless romcoms) drew Addie in and kissed her deeply. Everyone watching broke into applause. Some cheered and whooped loudly, because who doesn’t love a Responsible Couple?
Addie and Jon began planning their wedding. They fretted over catering and seating, and where the venue was going to take place. Both their parents took out second mortgages, indebting themselves for tens of thousands of dollars so their treasured kids could celebrate their love.
Addie’s friends cooed at her dress, and even though some of them were discontented by the gigantic inconvenience (which was quite understandable—wedding expenses don’t just impact the bride and the groom), they stepped up and performed their obligatory functions. None of them wanted to be branded Irresponsible.
The wedding went off without a hitch. Rejoice! For a man and a woman have become Responsible!
Some of Jon’s peers weren’t as lucky. One of them, Aiden Pazitsky, had graduated summa cum laude. He went on to build an overwhelmingly impressive LinkedIn profile, and secured a job earning 300k a year. A shining example of a Corporate Go-getter! Alas, trouble was brewing beneath the surface. For nearly a decade, Aiden fueled himself with cocaine and alcohol (later on, he switched to oxys and fentanyl), habits he’d picked up during his second year of college. Eventually, he was fired for being drunk on the job—cast out of the Responsible Lands.
He got another job, but it didn’t last long, he got fired again. He moved in with his parents, drinking copiously throughout the day. After two and years they kicked him out, leaving him to wander the San Francisco streets. He might have been their beloved son, but he had been tainted by the stink of Irresponsibility.
Jon began to wonder: could what happened to Aiden happen to him? He came to the conclusion it most certainly could. He had to increase his commitment to Responsibility. Accordingly, he and Addie decided to have kids.
Over the next few years, Jon and Addie made their transition into busy parents. Life was marked by vacations, birthdays, and good-natured grumbling. So-and-so’s kid was acting out. Those stupid school administrators were doing things the hard way. Honey, where are we going—Disney Land or Six Flags? I’m not sure, Sweetie; we should check the budget and see what’s affordable. Go online and get some coupons. Maybe Disney Land if we find the right discount.
Jon chugged dutifully along, easing into the roles of Swell Husband, Terrific Dad, and All-Around Good Guy. By his forty fifth birthday, he was firmly ensconced in the suburban dream. Addie grew increasingly distant, spending more and more time with her housewife friends. She had built her own life, a life that was separate from Jon and the kids. Jon was bothered by this, but never enough to actually say anything. Everything was calm, copacetic—why should he care if Addie didn’t talk to him as much as she used to?
After the lights were out and Addie was sleeping, he would lie sleepless in bed, staring blankly at the darkened wall. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t say what. Something deep and fundamental.
(There are other worlds than these.)
Jon began drinking. He spent long hours researching snifters and shooters, ochoko and flute glasses. Addie grew worried, but Jon put her at ease by delving into cigars and steaks, masking his love for alcohol with eloquent observations about the notes in his wine or the sear on his cut. She eventually decided he was making the transition into Lovable Old Man. (This came as a huge relief—Lovable Old Man is a respected position in the Responsible Lands.)
Deep down he wanted to ask for help, but the steaks and chops allowed him to conceal that unsettled part of him, the part that rattled its gilded cage. That deep-down part was small and stunted, but it still had a voice.
(There are other worlds than these)
The alcohol kept it locked away—sealed in a cozy little compartment made of hems and haws, bound by the insidious spell known as At Least (At Least I’m better than he is, At Least I’m not [fill in the blank] ).
The Spell of At Least kept Jon in line—whenever he caught himself yearning for more, one of the At Leasts emerged from his mind and firmly reminded him he was doing great. He could have easily ended up like Aiden Pazitsky, a casualty of the monster known as the Bad Luck Bogeyman.
Sometimes, it didn’t matter how hard you tried or how long you worked, you were destined to suffer ruin and tragedy. That’s why you sacrificed your silly dreams: tributes and bribes kept the Bad Luck Bogeyman from knocking on your door, demanding health or wealth or social standing. Should the Bad Luck Bogeyman pay you a visit, you knelt and groveled and prayed for mercy. If you managed to survive, you told your story to your Responsible Friends, who would nod somberly and call you brave. But if he wasn’t feeling merciful, the Bogeyman would tear through your life like a barbed-wire whirlwind—devouring jobs, relationships, and 401ks.
Responsible Folk could pick their religion, do yoga or meditation or even smoke weed, but they were united in their worship of the Bad Luck Bogeyman.
Thus far, Jon had avoided the Bogeyman, but that all changed on a cold winter night, when Addie was in the shower and he was in bed. Her phone lit up with a strange message—”I can’t WAIT to see you!”—from an unlisted number.
He stared at the screen, wondering who couldn’t wait to see his happily married wife.
Also: tomorrow, he was going on a two-week business trip to Washington D.C.
As he contemplated the message, dread spilled through him, filling his chest and belly with nervous jitters. Addie emerged from the shower and he asked about the text. He knew the answer but he needed to hear it.
Addie tearfully explained she was having an affair. They ran through the script, yelling and screaming, threatening and cursing, then decided to give it another try. After hours of counseling and heart-to-heart talks, they eventually remembered why they had fallen for each other.
For the next few months, they wallowed in the days of their youth and lust, resurrecting the thrill of their whirlwind romance. But after a while, it became clear that it wasn’t enough—a copy of a copy isn’t as sharp. Things began to fall apart.
Jon became a full-blown wino. Addie started another affair. It all culminated in a giant screaming match. Addie marched into his room while he was nursing a hangover and let him have it with both barrels.
Jon was a drunk. He was treading water at his mediocre job. He had once been a shining star, destined to make partner or maybe vice president, but now he was just another burnt-out drone. Where was the old Jon, the young Jon?
He retorted with malice. Addie had killed that younger Jon when she’d decided to sleep with another man. Just who in the hell did she think she was?
Yeah, that was the problem, Addie spat. That was why he drank himself to sleep. He said he’d put the affair behind him. But now, after all this time and supposed resolution, he had the goddamn nerve to bring it up again. This was bullshit slut-shaming from the 1800s. What next—did he want her to wear a scarlet A?
The divorce was horrific. Lots of crying, lots of papers, lots of screaming and broken dishes. The judge sided with Addie, granting her full custody of both kids. He got a payout for the house’s equity, she got to keep it.
Shortly after that, Jon was fired. He cut ties with his friends and family and moved into a small studio. He kept drinking throughout the day, losing himself in video games and reality television.
After a roughly a year of this, he remembered he’d wanted to be a writer when he was a kid.
He cleaned up his studio. Bought a fancy new chair and a state-of-the-art laptop. He mined countless blogs for information: smoke a little bit of weed, twenty minutes of high-intensity exercise, specific nootropics and high-fat brain food…
None of it took. He sat in his chair for hours at a time, staring blankly at an empty Word document.
He began to resent it. He began to hate it. One day he threw his computer across the room, marring the screen with a crosswise crack.
Jon went back to his old routine.
His family reached out. They would knock and beg and he would scream and yell, saying the most hurtful things he could possibly think of.
They stopped calling. They stopped knocking.
His money was gone. He’d sacrificed it all to liquor and junk food and Netflix and video games. In return, they had soothed and distracted him. He had fostered the hope they would somehow save him—perhaps fill him with purpose and newfound zest—but it didn’t happen. A deeper part of him wasn’t surprised; this what he deserved for his inaction and inequity.
He stopped paying rent. Two months later, the sheriff and landlord told him to leave. He felt their disgust at his pitiful state. Here was a man who had once been Responsible, but let himself lapse into chaos and apathy.
He nodded when prompted, signed the papers, and willingly left of his own accord. He knew that if he chose to fight or argue, they would use the Rules to make his life harder.
He wandered the streets of San Francisco. Oddly enough, he felt strangely at home. Over the last few years, he’d felt increasingly out of place, squeezed into a world made of commercial expectations. Now, however, rooting through trash and sleeping beneath awnings, a faint sense of belonging stirred in his soul. He knew this wasn’t where he was supposed to be (or wanted to be, for that matter) but it was slightly better than where he’d been. Not much, but the difference was noticeable.
That slowly fell away as his body fell apart. He was always bleeding—small cuts under his nails and scabby sores that refused to heal—and his gums softened to an alarming degree. Most of the time he didn’t mind. So long as there was booze and the occasional cigarette, he could ignore the despair and gnawing pain.
Drugs weren’t a problem. Occasionally he dabbled, but he felt way more at ease with legal substances. Alcohol and tobacco, specifically. He knew it didn’t make a damn bit of sense, but he didn’t want to break the law. Even now, when he was lower than he’d ever been, he managed to cling to the Sword of At Least—At Least he didn’t use heroin, At Least he didn’t smoke crack.
(Only later, when he was dying from cancer, did he realize that At Least wasn’t a sword; it was a goddamn prison.)
Now he was trapped, stuck in a prison made of At Leasts. He could have escaped in the very beginning, when the At Leasts were small and hadn’t formed into shackles and bars. But the hour was late in his tattered life—all he could do was ride it out. As time crawled by, he became haunted by the one of the most dreaded phrases in the English language:
If Only he’d started his own business. If Only he’d given writing a serious try. If Only he hadn’t married Addie. If Only they’d put off having kids; they could have built up their finances and traveled the world, watched the sun set over Mediterranean cliffs…
Jon drifted through the city, chanting softly under his breath. Sometimes it was prayer, but mostly it was a chain of At Leasts and If Onlys. He took up smoking in self-destructive earnest. Occasionally, he’d have enough money to afford a pack, but more often than not, he would have to settle for a half-smoked cigarette.
Jon was part of the unfortunate masses: those who paid for their Irresponsibility. Some of them could navigate it—succeed as painters or comedians or writers—but those were few and far between. Responsible Folk loved their work, but they also couldn’t wait to witness their downfall, for Responsible Folk were jealous of those who weren’t burdened by Responsibility. Most were sick with the Curse of Comparison, that odious malady that steals joy and grows cancerously into the illusion of hierarchical worth.
Jon had once known that comparison was a game. A delightful, dualistic play that was supposed to be fun and enticing. But now, as his life crawled toward its unenviable end, he couldn’t remember that axiomatic truth. Life was no longer a series of opportunities; it had become a downward spiral of bitter disappointments.
Sickness grew throughout his body, manifesting as hard nodules that bulged from his skin. Malignant tumors ate at Jon, marring his once-handsome face with lesions and sores. His body became a mess of distended growths.
His last day on Earth started like any other—he woke in a heap of smelly trash.
He walked into Starbucks during the morning rush and managed to steal an unattended laptop. A part of him knew he was approaching the end and he wanted to give writing one last try.
He heard people yelling and sprinted out the door. They tried to catch him but he slipped around the corner, into an alley, and hid beneath a pile of garbage. After they ran by and he was convinced it safe, he took a seat and opened the laptop. A bright, cheery display lit up the screen, filled with clever little icons and eye-pleasing hues. None of it interested him—he wanted to write.
Microsoft Word…he couldn’t see it anywhere on the—
Ah. There it was. He double-clicked the icon, opening a blank document. For a few minutes, all he could do was sit and stare. Inside this page was unlimited possibility, the promise of every story ever and never written. With the right mind, with the right focus, it could channel transcendence in the twist of its symbols.
How could he have ignored this for tepid suburbia, the four-bedroom house and two point five kids? Those were meaningless offshoots, leaves and twigs from an ancient, inexhaustible tree. Instead of watering his soul-deep roots, he had become obsessed with the berries and fruits, the outward trappings of a hollow life.
Tears rolled down his grimy cheeks. Here was his chance to redeem his life.
His fingers settled on the plastic keys.
But then he was struck by a surge of fear. Why should anyone read what he’d written? What had he done that deserved their respect? He wasn’t special: a wasted ghost that had overstayed its welcome. He should just give up. Lay down in the street and quietly die.
His fingers curled off the keys.
And then he felt it: a blooming certainty within his gut. This was his last chance to make a statement. It didn’t matter if he was a homeless phantom in an indifferent city—he was going to follow his heart, even if it was only for the last few minutes of his withered life.
(There are other worlds than these)
His fingers settled onto the keys. He felt something stirring in his soul, brewing in his brain and forming into words. His feelings combined with his thoughts, mixing together into ideas and words…
Then he felt it—a sensitivity in his hands that told him he was ready. He let his fingers dance across the keys.
There once was a boy who liked to dream. Then he was told his dreams were wrong. This made him sad.
He let his fear and worry guide him along, but they only made him sadder and sadder. After many years of hiding his sadness, it all came out in a terrible flood. Life turned bad, but he was given one last chance to write something down.
This is what he wrote: