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 while, 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 failed to hold his interest. He didn’t understand 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. His routine acceptance of Life As It Is was interrupted during his second year of junior high. A 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 kept his head down and went through the motions. He bubbled his scantrons, submitted his essays, and talked to 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 education. Once he graduated, he had no debt.
Finally—he’d arrived at the Ocean of Young Adulthood.
Occasionally, he would experience 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 and asked her out.
They did everything expected of a young couple. Once they’d enacted a respectable number of romantic dates and cheery Instagram stories, they went on 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 tens of thousands of dollars 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 of it all (understandable, as wedding expenses don’t just impact the bride and the groom), but they stepped up and performed their obligatory functions, as 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 institution. 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 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 exiled from the Responsible Lands.
He got a new 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 ways 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 himself from this disreputable end, he had to increase his 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, 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 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 entangled in the suburban dream. Addie, meanwhile, 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 troubled by this, but never enough to actually say anything. His day-to-day existence was calm and predictable—why should he care if they didn’t talk as much as he used to?
After the lights were out and Addie was sleeping, Jon would lie awake, staring blankly at the darkened wall. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t say what.
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, Addie—it was culture. He managed to convince her that he was changing into a Lovable Old Man. Addie 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 cozy 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. 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 like Aiden Pazitsky, a casualty of the monster known as the Bad Luck Bogeyman.
Should the Bad Luck Bogeyman come a-knocking, you knelt and groveled and prayed for mercy. And if you somehow survived a brush with 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 knew or how hard you worked—you were destined to experience ruin and tragedy. That’s why you sacrifice your silly dreams; they’re soul-forged tributes that keep the Bogeyman at bay, that keep it from demanding health or wealth or social standing.
Responsible Folk could choose their religion, take up yoga, 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.
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 eyes when she said it to his face.
Addie tearfully explained she was having an affair. Once they ran through the script—yelling and screaming, threats and curses—they decided to give it another try.
Next came counseling and heart-to-heart talks, where they eventually remembered why they had initially fallen in love. For one full year, 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 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 had killed that Jon when she had decided to sleep with another man. Just who in the hell did she think she was?
Yeah, that’s 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 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, lots of screaming and broken dishes. 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.
When the dust settled, just as things seemed like they were going to improve, Jon was laid off.
He cut himself off from friends and family and moved into a small studio. He continued drinking throughout the day, losing himself in video games and reality tv. Time passed, hazing into an unfeeling blur.
One night, while staring at the darkened ceiling, he remembered he had wanted to be a writer. Why not give it a 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, and got to work mining countless 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 the screen with a crosswise crack.
Jon fell back into his old routine. Drinking himself numb, mindlessly consuming others’ creations in the form of colorful patterns on an HD monitor. His family tried to help, calling and knocking throughout the day, but he responded by yelling and cursing, saying the most hurtful things he could possibly think of.
They stopped calling. They stopped knocking.
At this point, his money was gone; he couldn’t pay rent. 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 someone who had once been Responsible, but allowed himself to lapse into chaos and apathy.
Jon 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, he felt strangely at home, even though he was now homeless. Over the last ten years, he had felt increasingly 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 he welcomed the difference.
Drugs weren’t a problem. He would dabble occasionally, 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 the lowest moment of his life thus far, 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 shackled and bound by a chain of At Leasts. He could have escaped early on, 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, At Least began to change. It transformed into one of the most dreaded phrases in the English language:
If Only he’d started his own business. If Only he’d stuck with writing and really given it 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 wandered through the city, chanting softly under his breath. Sometimes it was prayer, but mostly it was 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 a fresh pack, but more often than not, he would settle for a half-smoked cigarette someone left on the ground.
And so Jon took his place among the underbelly of society as one who was ruined by his own Irresponsibility. A few succeeded as painters or comedians or writers or singers, but those could be dismissed as flukes and rarities. Responsible Folk loved the art that came from their creative counterparts, but Responsible Folk were also fickle—artists were lauded for their achievements, but even more for their failure and downfall. Because by and large, Responsible Folk lived and died by the Curse of Comparison: that odious malady which transforms joy into a cancerous illusion based on hierarchical worth.
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 wasn’t comprised of opportunity 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. These unsightly tumors grew and festered, marring his once-handsome face with lesions and sores.
He started his last day alive 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 laptop.
People yelled. Jon fled. They tried to catch him but he slipped around the corner and hid beneath a pile of garbage. He waited for what seemed like 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 double-clicked the icon, opening a blank document.
For a long moment, all he could do was sit and stare. Within this page was untouched promise—the potential for every story ever and never written. With the right focus, he could channel transcendence in 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 the outward trappings of a hollow life.
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 that was no longer welcome. He should give up now—lay down and die.
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 hands settled on the keys. 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.
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 his writing.
This is what he wrote: