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. After a few years, he realized it was only technically funny—in reality, it was sad and ironic.
It mighthave been funny if his 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 failed to hold his interest. He didn’t understand why people stood in line for overpriced food, or bounced from trend to vapid trend.
Jon studied for tests, built up a portfolio of extracurricular activities, and volunteered at kitchens and shelters. A year after he started high school, great sickness swept the Earth, exposing cracks and weaknesses in The Hallowed System. People bickered and fought, afraid they would die or lose their jobs.
Jon did his best to ignore the turmoil. He kept his head down and continued going through the preestablished motions. He bubbled scantrons, submitted essays, and talked to his guidance counselors. Society, in turn, indoctrinated him through part-time jobs and unpaid internships. Oh, he was also lucky—his parents paid for his college tuition. Once he graduated, he had no debt.
Finally—he’d arrived at the Ocean of Young Adulthood!
Occasionally, he would experience a splash 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 denounced both activities as relics of his 20s. When he eventually docked in The Responsible Lands (his early thirties), he met a beautiful girl named Addison Stone.
They did everything expected of a young, vibrant couple. Once they’d checked off the requisite number of romantic dates and cheery Instagram stories, they went on a vacation in Northern California. Halfway through a candle-lit dinner, Jon knelt and proposed to Addie. She covered her mouth and burst into tears.
The Responsible Patrons saw this and grinned, signaling approval for one more couple that 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 careful attention to things like catering and seating and venue location. Their parents took out second mortgages, indebting themselves for an obscene sum so their Responsible Children could celebrate their love.
Addie’s friends played their roles—they cooed at her ring and her beautiful dress. Some were annoyed by the inconvenience (understandable, as wedding expenses don’t just impact the bride and the groom), but they stepped up and performed their obligatory functions, because none of them wanted to be Irresponsible.
When the Big Day came, 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, who went to the same high school as Jon, graduated summa cum laude from an Ivy League school. Over the next few years, he built an impressive resumé and earned a respectable sum. Aiden was a shining example of a Corporate Go-getter! \
Alas, trouble was brewing beneath the surface. For nearly a decade, Aiden over-indulged in 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 exiled from the Responsible Lands.
He got another job, but it didn’t last; he was fired again. So Aiden gave up. He moved in with his parents and made intoxication into a full-time career. They tolerated his presence for two full years, then gave him an ultimatum (he ignored it) and kicked him out. He might have been their only son, but he was 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 guard against this, he had to increase his Responsibilities. 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, festive birthdays, and good-natured grumbling. So-and-so’s kid was acting up. Those stupid school administrators were doing things the hard way. Honey, where are we going—Disney Land or Six Flags? I’m not sure…we should do some digging 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 ensconced in the suburban dream. Addie, meanwhile, became increasingly distant, spending more and more time with her housewife friends. She had built a life all her own—a life that was separate from Jon and the kids.
Jon was troubled, but never enough to actually speak up. His days and nights were calm and predictable—why should he care if he and his wife didn’t talk like they used to?
After the lights were out and Addie was sleeping, Jon would stare blankly at the darkened ceiling. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t say what.
There are other worlds than these.
Jon began drinking.
Addie grew worried, but he put her fears to rest by delving into cigars and steaks, making eloquent observations about the notes in his wine or the sear on his cut. He also began studying snifters and shooters, ochoko and flute glasses. This wasn’t addiction—it was culture. And so he convinced her he was becoming a Lovable Old Man. Addie, in turn, felt great relief, for Lovable Old Man is a respected position in the Responsible Lands.
Deep down, Jon knew he needed 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 compartment made of hems and haws, lashed together by the insidious spell known as At Least. At Least I have 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. If he ever caught himself yearning for more, At Least would emerge from the depths of his mind and firmly declare he was fine and dandy. At Least he wasn’t like Aiden Pazitsky, a casualty of the monster known as the Bad Luck Bogeyman.
If the Bad Luck Bogeyman ever came a-knocking, you knelt and groveled and prayed for mercy. And if you somehow managed to escape unscathed, 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 who you knew or how much you worked—you were destined to experience ruin and tragedy. That was why you sacrificed your 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 choose 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 shadow. That changed on a cold winter’s 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 go on a two-week business trip.
He waited for Addie to dry off and change, then asked about the text. He knew the answer but he wanted to hear it, wanted to look her in the eye when she said it to his face. 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 in love with each other. They wallowed in the memory of their youth and lust, resurrecting the thrill of their whirlwind romance. But as the days became weeks and the weeks became months, 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 began drinking, even more so than before. 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 had killed that Jon when she 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 goddamn affair behind him, but now, after all this time and supposed resolution, he had the goddamn nerve to use it against her. 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. The judge sided with Addie, granting her custody of both children. Jon got a payout for the house’s equity, she got to keep it. Just when it seemed like it couldn’t get worse, Jon was fired.
He cut himself off from his friends and family and moved into a small, dilapidated studio. He continued drinking throughout the day, losing himself to video games and reality tv. Time passed without meaning or feeling, hazing into an aimless blur.
One night, while staring up at the darkened ceiling, he remembered he had wanted to be a writer. Why not give it an honest try, now that he was jobless and living alone?
He cleaned up his studio, bought a fancy new chair and a state-of-the-art laptop, then got to work mining podcasts and blogs for advice on writing. One puff of weed, twenty minutes of high-intensity exercise, five-star 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. Four weeks in, he threw his computer across the room, marring its screen with a jagged crack.
Jon fell back into his old routine. Drinking himself numb, sleeping through the day, and bingeing others’ creations on his HD television. His family called and knocked, but he responded to their pleas with curses and shouts.
They stopped calling. They stopped knocking.
He couldn’t pay rent; 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 sloth and inequity.
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 a guy who had once been Responsible, but allowed himself to lapse into chaos.
Jon 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, he felt strangely at home. Over the last ten years, he had felt out of place, squeezed into a world of commercial expectations. He knew this wasn’t where he was meant to be (or wanted to be, for that matter) but it was slightly better than where he’d been. Not much, but he welcomed the difference.
Drugs weren’t a problem. He would occasionally dabble, but he felt more comfortable with legal substances. Alcohol and tobacco, specifically. He knew it didn’t matter, but he wanted to try and respect the law. Even now, at his lowest moment, he managed to cling to the Sword of At Least—At Least he didn’t inject 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 shackled by a chain of At Leasts. He could have escaped early on, when they were small and weak and hadn’t congealed into an airtight trap. But the hour was late in his tattered life—all he could do was ride it out.
As time passed, dragging him mercilessly through a destitute hell, At Least began to gradually change, eventually transforming into 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 second try. If Only he hadn’t married Addie. If Only they’d put off having kids so they could build up their finances and travel the world.
Jon wandered the city, chanting softly under his breath. Occasionally praying, but mostly a chain of At Leasts and If Onlys. As he drifted, he took up smoking in self-destructive earnest. Sometimes, he had enough money to buy his own pack, but more often than not, he would settle for a half-smoked cigarette that someone had left on the ground.
And so Jon settled into his chosen station, taking his place among those who had been ruined by their own Irresponsibility. A few succeeded as painters or comedians or writers or singers, but those could mostly be dismissed as flukes and rarities. Responsible Folk loved the art that came from their minds, but Responsible Folk were also fickle—artists were lauded for their vision and novelty, but even more for their failure and downfall. Because by and large, Responsible Folk hewed to the Curse of Comparison: that odious malady which falsifies joy until it becomes a cancerous illusion based on hierarchical worth. And there was no better target than an Irresponsible success-story.
Jon had once known that comparison was a game. A dualistic play that was meant to be fun. But now, as his life crawled toward its unenviable end, he couldn’t remember this axiomatic truth. Life was devoid of hope and potential; it was a downward spiral into bitter disappointment.
As the years passed and his distress mounted, sickness spread throughout his body, manifesting as hard nodules that bulged from his skin. The unsightly tumors grew and festered, marring his once-handsome face with lesions and sores.
He started his last day alive like any other: by waking 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 Starbucks and stole a computer. People yelled. Jon fled. He slipped around the corner and hid beneath a pile of garbage. He waited for what seemed like several hours, then crawled from the filth and opened the laptop.
Microsoft Word…he couldn’t see it anywhere on the—
Ah. There it was. He clicked the icon, opening a blank word document. For a long time, all he could do was sit and stare. In the void of this page was untouched promise—the potential for all stories ever and never written. With the right focus, he could channel transcendence into a twist of its symbols.
How could he have abandoned this 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 his outward trappings.
Tears rolled down his grimy cheeks. Here was a chance to redeem his existence.
His fingers settled on the 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. Just a wasted ghost who was no longer welcome. He should give up now—lay down and die on the cold hard street.
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—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.
As his hands uncurled, he felt something stir inside his soul, transmuting into shadows of half-formed thoughts. His feelings combined with churning cognition, mixing together into ideas and words.
And 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. He let fear and worry guide him along, but he only became sadder and sadder. After many years of hiding his sorrow, it all came out in a terrible flood. Life turned bad, but he was given one last chance to make things right—to channel his dream into a story.
This is what he wrote: