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. When he started high school, he realized it was only technically funny. In reality, it was sad and ironic.
It might have been funny if life was intriguing and full of adventure, but that wasn’t the case. He was born and raised in San Francisco—supposedly exciting and cutting-edge—but the city didn’t interest him, not in the least. He didn’t get why people lined up for overpriced food, or bounced from trend to vapid trend.
Jon was dutiful. He studied for tests, built up a solid portfolio of extracurricular activity, and volunteered at kitchens and shelters.
During his sophomore year, 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.
Jon wasn’t sure what to make of this, so he kept going through the pre-established motions; he bubbled his scantrons, submitted his essays, and talked to his counselors. Society, in turn, indoctrinated him through part-time jobs and unpaid internships. Oh and he was also lucky—his parents paid for college. Once he graduated, he had no debt.
Finally—he’d arrived at the Ocean of Young Adulthood.
Occasionally, he experienced a bit of turbulence (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), dabbled in drugs, and eventually denounced both as relics of his 20s. Before he docked in 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 couple. After a sufficient number of dates and trips and cheery Instagram stories, they went on vacation in Northern California. Halfway through a candle-lit dinner, Jon knelt 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 paid lots of attention to 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 beloved children could celebrate their love.
Addie’s friends cooed at her dress. Even though some were annoyed by the giant inconvenience (understandable, as 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 Irresponsible.
The wedding went off without a hitch. Rejoice! For a man and a woman have become Responsible!
Unfortunately, one of Jon’s peers wasn’t as lucky.
Aiden Pazitsky graduated summa cum laude from an Ivy League school. He built an overwhelmingly impressive resumé and secured a job earning 300k a year. He was a shining example of a Corporate Go-getter!
Alas, trouble was brewing beneath the surface. For nearly a decade, Aiden had fueled himself through cocaine and alcohol (later, 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—shunned and cast out of the Responsible Lands.
He got another job, but it didn’t last long. After he was fired from his second job, he moved in with his parents and made intoxication into a full-time career. They tolerated his behavior for two full years, gave him an ultimatum (he ignored it) then kicked him out.
He might have been their only 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. To protect himself from this ignoble end, he had to increase his commitment to Responsibility. So he and Addie decided to have children.
Over the next few years, Jon and Addie transitioned into parents. Life was marked by family vacations, birthday parties, 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 do some research and see what’s cheaper…maybe Disney Land, if we can 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 nestled 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 and copacetic—why should he care if his wife didn’t talk as much as she used to?
After the lights were out and Addie was asleep, Jon would lie awake 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 studying snifters and shooters, ochoko and flute glasses. Addie grew worried, but he put her at ease by delving into cigars and steaks, making eloquent observations about the notes in his wine or the sear on his cut. This wasn’t addiction—it was culture.
Eventually, she managed to convince herself that Jon was becoming a Lovable Old Man. This came with considerable relief, for Lovable Old Man is a respected position in the Responsible Lands.
Deep down, Jon wanted help, but the mask of Lovable Old Man allowed him to conceal that unsettled part of him, the part that rattled its gilded cage. That deep-down part was small and quiet, but it still had a voice.
(There are other worlds than these)
The alcohol kept it locked away—sealed in a cozy compartment formed from hems and haws, bound together by the insidious spell known as At Least. At Least I’ve got a home. At least I’m making money. 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, At Least would emerge from the depths of his mind and firmly remind him he was fine and dandy. At least he wasn’t living like Aiden Pazitsky, a casualty of the monster known as the Bad Luck Bogeyman.
Should the Bad Luck Bogeyman knock on your door, you knelt and groveled and prayed for mercy. If you managed to survive a visit from the Bogeyman, you told your story to your Responsible Friends, who would nod somberly and call you brave.
But if the Bogeyman was feeling just the least bit sour, he would tear through your life like a barbed-wire whirlwind, devouring jobs, relationships, and 401ks.
Sometimes, it didn’t matter what you studied, 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; they were soul-forged tributes that kept the Bogeyman at bay. That kept it from demanding health or wealth or social standing.
Responsible Folk could pick their religion, take up 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’s notice. That changed on a cold winter night, when Addie was in the shower and he was lying in bed. Her phone lit up with a strange message—”I can’t WAIT to see you!!!”—from an unlisted number.
Jon stared at the screen, wondering who couldn’t wait to see his happily married wife.
Also: he was about to embark on a two-week business trip to Washington D.C.
As he contemplated the message, dread spilled through him, filling his belly with nervous flutters.
Addie emerged from the shower. He asked about the text. He knew the answer but he wanted to hear it, wanted to look her in the eyes while she said it.
Addie tearfully explained she was having an affair. Once they ran through the script—yelling and screaming, threatening and cursing—they decided to give it another try.
Next came counseling and heart-to-heart talks, where they eventually remembered why they had fallen for each other. For the following year, they wallowed in the memory of their youth and lust, resurrecting the thrill of their whirlwind romance. But after a while, it became glaringly clear that it wasn’t enough—a copy of a copy just isn’t as sharp.
Slowly, steadily, things began to fall apart.
Jon became an alcoholic. Addie had 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 a mediocre job. He had once been a star, destined to make partner or maybe vice president, but now he was just another burnt-out drone. Where was the old Jon, the passionate Jon?
He retorted in kind. Addie killed that 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’s why he drank in the morning and again after work (wouldn’t be surprised if he drank at work, come to think of it). 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 paperwork, lots of screaming and broken dishes. The judge sided with Addie, granting her full custody of both kids. Jon got a payout for the house’s equity, she got to keep it.
A week later, Jon was laid off. He stopped talking to his friends and family and moved into a small studio. He continued drinking throughout the day, losing himself in video games and reality television. Time passed, hazing into an unfeeling blur.
One night, while staring at the darkened ceiling, he decided he needed to make a change. He’d wanted to be a writer when he was younger—why not give it a try, now that he was unemployed and living alone?
He cleaned up his studio. Bought a fancy new chair and a state-of-the-art laptop. He mined countless blogs for advice on writing: one puff 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. Drinking himself numb, mindlessly consuming others’ creations in the form of colored lights on an HD monitor. His family got together and tried to help. They called and knocked throughout the day. He responded by screaming and yelling, saying the most hurtful things he could possibly think of.
They stopped calling. They stopped knocking.
His money was gone. He’d sacrificed it 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 one day save him—fill him with purpose and newfound zest—but it never happened. A deeper part of him wasn’t surprised: he deserved to rot for his inaction and inequity.
He stopped paying rent. Two months later, the sheriff came by and told him to leave. The man was polite, but Jon could feel his disgust and pity. Here was someone who had once been Responsible, but let himself lapse into chaos and apathy.
Jon signed when prompted, then 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.
When he took to the streets of San Francisco, he felt strangely at home, even though he was now homeless. Over the last few years, he’d felt terribly out of place, squeezed into a world of commercial expectations. 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 by much, but the difference was noticeable.
Drugs weren’t a problem. He would dabble occasionally, but he felt much more comfortable with legal substances. Alcohol and tobacco, specifically. He knew it didn’t make a damn bit of sense, but he wanted to respect 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.
Jon was imprisoned, shackled and bound by countless At Leasts. He could have escaped in the early stages, when the At Leasts were small and hadn’t formed into an airtight trap. 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 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—built up their finances and traveled the world.
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. Sometimes, he would have enough money to afford a fresh pack, but more often than not, he would have to settle for a half-smoked cigarette someone had left on the ground.
Jon had taken his place among the unfortunate masses: those who paid for their Irresponsibility.
A few succeeded as painters or comedians or writers, but they were flukes and rarities. Responsible Folk lauded the art that came from their counterparts, but they were also fickle—great artists were lauded and celebrated…and so was their downfall. By and large, Responsible Folk hewed to the Curse of Comparison: that odious malady which twists someone’s joy into a cancerous illusion of hierarchical worth.
Jon had once known that comparison was a game. A dualistic play that was meant to be fun and enticing. But now, as his life crawled toward its unenviable end, he was unable to remember that axiomatic truth. Life was no longer opportunity and potential; it had become a downward spiral into bitter disappointment.
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 was scored by distended growths.
His last day on Earth started like any other—he woke in a heap of smelly trash.
A part of him knew he was approaching the end and wanted to give writing one last try. During the morning rush, he walked into a Starbucks and stole an unattended laptop.
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. He waited for what seemed like an interminable length of time, then crawled out of the trash and opened the laptop.
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 at this electronic embodiment of pure potential. He could write anything he wanted. Within this untouched page was the promise of every story ever and never written. With the right focus, it could channel transcendence in the twist of its symbols.
How could he have cast this aside for a 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 chosen to focus on the berries and fruits, the outward trappings of a hollow life. Tears rolled down his grimy cheeks. Here was a 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 wrote? What had he done to earn their attention? He wasn’t special. He was a wasted ghost that had overstayed its welcome. He should just give up—lay down and die quietly.
His fingers curled off the keys.
And then he felt it: a blooming certainty inside his gut. This was his 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 goddamn heart, even if it was only for the last few minutes of his withered life.
(There are other worlds than these)
Once again, his fingers settled onto the keys. He felt something stir inside his soul, forming into the shadows of half-formed thoughts. His feelings combined with his churning cognition, mixing together into ideas and words.
Then he felt it—a sensitivity in his fingers that told him he was ready. He let them 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 fear and worry guide him along, but he only became 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 make things right and channel his dream into a piece of writing.
This is what he wrote: