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Lentes Oscuros

by: Steven T. Bramble

“Opinion, whether well or ill founded, is the governing principle of human affairs.”
—Alexander Hamilton
Letter of June 18, 1778

Euphoria is believed to be a straight and unwavering note, played on and on without dimension or digression until its eventual end—but it is not, because every note of euphoria is laced with a sub- audible percussion line of misery.

The purest euphoria leads to the purest misery, and vice versa, which was the case with Sammy Williams, who stepped into Chapultepec Park in Mexico City (though he had no idea what the name of the park was, nor anything about Mexico City at all) and found absolutely nothing wrong with, or disturbing about, the riot underway in the plaza beneath the Niños Héroes monument because his euphoria was misery, and also the other way around. There was a lot of yelling, but he didn’t understand any of it because he didn’t speak even the slightest smidge of Spanish, but it was obvious the riot was political in nature.

There were a few loudspeakers making their ugly dogmatisms known despite the din of violence. Huge numbers of people encircled the spot where the fighting was most real, recording it on glasses and phones side-by-side journalists wearing press vests and cargo pants, aiming cameras at the shirt-ripping, limb-flailing center. Sammy had only stepped off the plane an hour and a half ago. He’d aimed for the center of the city using the metro, making smiling eye contact with grim-faced Mexican clowns hanging out in subway stations who joylessly smoked menthols in orange wigs and round orange noses, scratching their beards beneath face paint.

On Thursday Kiara had said to him, and I quote: “You’re so certain that the world is the way you think it is, but you’re wrong about everything.” She’d said this because, among other things, she was depressed about the amount of money they made, and Sammy found this to be an extremely tedious issue, and because his happiness was like a tiny locked cage with a cold concrete floor on which he had to constantly be on his hands and knees, he’d tried to affirm all the great things about their lives if you just set aside the money issue for a quick sec, but Kiara had found that to be tedious, and so of course said something hurtful. There was screaming and blood and shoes flew up into the air.

The sky here had the same smeared quality down toward the horizon as the sky in LA, and Sammy noticed this and felt right at home, taking a deep and intentional breath before shoving past the outer ring of spectators into the pressurized center of this impromptu human kiln. Sammy met an immediate knuckle to the forehead that momentarily blinded him with tears, and when he shut his eyes against them he fired off heavy fists into the darkness, digging into the flesh of people he didn’t know, not fighting for any side but just fighting because he had always enjoyed it immensely, though he rarely got the chance to do it anymore. He opened his eyes and saw everything diffracted through crystalline tears. Haha! He could see well enough to observe that one of his fists was already bloody. He didn’t know it, but he’d knocked out someone’s tooth.

(One of the loudspeakers was saying in Spanish: “Humanity Separatism means total plutocrat rule and total obscurity of thought! Death to augmented reality! Death to Venna Kyi! Death to Apple! Death to Google! Humanity Separatism means total plutocrat rule and…”)

On the outskirts, taco and pupusa and licuado vendors rushed from their stalls to form a barricade to stop the conflict from consuming their businesses. Sammy was huge and muscular, residing comfortably within the six-two-two-fifty range, and so although he continued to get battered about he mostly smiled and threw himself around with a pure ecstatic oblivion that rattled brains and left lingering contusions. He loved this—he loved to be engaged—and nothing was more satisfying than having one’s cheeks softened and one’s knuckles exercised.

A foot shot out behind him, caught him in the back of the knee, sent him onto the hectic ground of the plaza full of shoes that kicked him everywhere. What a pleasant blur combat was!—impossible to recall with any sort of accuracy, only that stinging miserable euphoria! Someone with real hatred and a mouth that rained blood and vicious Spanish dropped his knees down onto Sammy’s chest (the man whose tooth he’d knocked out) and started to precipitate raging punches, and it wasn’t looking good for Sammy down there because all the feet and legs made it hard to get up and regain the upper hand, and this young Humanity Separatist was planning to do some real damage as retribution for his tooth, not to mention his pride.

Just as panic was starting to set in the boy stopped punching, jumped up, and the crowd opened around Sammy a great deal. All loudspeakers had now gone silent. Sammy got to his feet and saw a riot cop emerge from between fleeing bodies. He ran, but the cop snagged hold of his shirt, trying to wrench him into black jaws. With both hands he tore his shirt apart from the collar down and with a huge surge of adrenaline ran free from the plaza, through the park in the direction of the Torre Mayor and the Reforma. Boot soles clunked the concrete rapidly behind him. Sammy trailed blood and sweat, laughing and heaving, before putting quick distance between him and the over-encumbered body armor demon behind him.

Much of what was going on in Mexico City nowadays was invisible, like most places, but that didn’t mean Sammy didn’t know it was there. You needed glasses to see what everyone else was seeing, all the augmented stuff, or at least a phone that supported the more sophisticated augmented reality programs. Sammy wore glasses only about half the time back in LA because Kiara liked to use them at night when he was working, but also because there were invisible things of an entirely different nature that Sammy couldn’t always see, but seemed to be able to detect anyway. Eight or nine months ago when Humanity Separatism and Venna Kyi had flooded the news, Kiara had become very depressed. Sammy didn’t know exactly why—he had no interest in politics, and he found it very hard to engage with, what he felt, were the overly complicated principles of the Separatist movement.

Venna Kyi had been a quantum computing expert based out of Yangon who had fled the country under multiple charges of treason, and then twelve years later, upon her covert return, had put together a political army against the Burmese military regime. Behind her armed revolt was a potent philosophical kernel that she’d perfected while in exile in South Korea. Her theory of Humanity Separatism rested on the basis that humans had disproved all greater meaning through post-industrialism. History, technology, and capitalism had become mutant runaway versions of themselves, obscuring reality. They had obscured the true form of life from our organism, as well as the true form of the planet. Humans no longer understood the world without man-made construction, and there was no feasible means to separate one’s self from the digital realm, or even to annihilate the digital realm.

Existentialism was now purely visible. There was no longer any human purpose; purpose meaning higher purpose; it was an outdated concept, and also a coping mechanism of the species. Humans live without the constant worries and anxieties of their primitive instincts, Venna Kyi says, shifting the entire nature of their existence. They have created all classical or timeless wisdom and art, with nothing left but to play with various technological mediums in merely “clever” or “entertaining” ways. Science and religion have proven themselves hopelessly inept and divisive. We hover above the narrative of history and look upon its clichés with disdain.

So, for the generations grown in the cold glow of screens, a new philosophy: unadulterated hedonism, objectism, and total digital immersion. Indeed, in Venna Kyi’s manifesto it was written quite clearly:

There have been many attempts to separate ourselves from history, to wash our hands of all the crimes of the human spirit, and to free those of us who are innocent from that terrible inheritance—tradition—which perpetuates hatred within us for one another. But never before have we had the means, the ammunition, to accomplish this goal. Our digital lives are our frontier. We have pioneered it, but have also allowed it to become corrupt. From this day forward, we are no longer associated with our ancestors. The past is flawed. It is the enemy. We are no longer humanity. We are separate from humanity. We are those who do not progress for the delusion of “collective good,” which is merely the greed of isolated groups of people at the total expense of their worldly brethren. We Separatists are those who progress for only one thing: our own personal sovereignties.

Our only allies—previously thought to be the antagonists of our souls—are objects, things, and our immense inner need for consumption.

Look only for personal pleasure and impulse satiation within the digital realm with no regard for consequences or cost. Disregard the human delusion of “progress.” Cast aside the belief that humanity is moving toward a purpose of any kind. Separate one’s self from traditional humanity. Destroy any governments or institutions opposed to the idea of social anarchy (especially the Burmese regime). This was the new path toward crisis-free living. Toward political revolution. Toward morality. An anti-Zen. The old principles of the world could never apply to the new way of life. The Separatists branded their opposition as “Traditionalists.” Humanity Separatism was uncannily infectious in Western nations as young radicals got a hold of it and began warping its aims to fit their own needs. It was becoming a furious secular outcry.

In the wake of the news of armed revolution and Venna Kyi’s manifesto, Kiara suddenly became obsessed with the idea of buying glasses. She researched them tirelessly on her days off, including payment plans. Sammy wasn’t opposed to the idea of owning them, but it was an expense they couldn’t afford. Up to that point they’d used their phones to access any augmented features, and the phones, including their service plans, remained a drain on both their paychecks. Which also didn’t take into account the laptop, the TV and subscriptions, the car… the list went on and on, and Sammy didn’t see room for it in the finances.

He discouraged her from the purchase, and she had become enraged, battering him with all kinds of personal and political reasoning he didn’t understand. To his credit, he remained firm in his stance, but came home late on a Sunday during last October (he worked at the West Hollywood Diner as a line cook most nights, but also filled in on dishwashing shifts when the teenagers and twenty-somethings who normally held down the position wanted days off for whatever it was their youthful agendas demanded; for this reason he typically worked double shifts) to find she’d purchased a gleaming new pair of Apple AR glasses on a $75/month finance option. She argued against the cheaper Google alternative, as well as other more economic brands, because of durability, stronger features, and resistance to hacking.

Well, whatever, he’d thought, clearly she’s done her homework. He wasn’t in the habit of starting fights with Kiara he couldn’t win. Besides, he enjoyed using the glasses. They let you see life however you wanted it to be. He could be sitting in their crumby living room in Crenshaw on the couch handed down to them by Kiara’s parents from as long ago as ’03 and it was as if he were lounging in the tropics, or on one of Jupiter’s barren and peaceful moons. There was endless diversion and usefulness for the glasses, but one problem that began to arise from them was that they had only one pair, and Kiara was far more adamant about using them than he was, so he often let her monopolize them, and during the times she wore them—hanging out in the apartment on days off, doing errands together, going to movies, watching TV, at dinner—he noticed she was far more distant and detached from him than she’d been previously.

Worse, there was no way for him to share in the experiences she was having without a second pair, but the first pair had already caused them to be late with rent twice (partly because of the extra purchases Kiara made with the help of the glasses), and so that option was not available. He didn’t care so much about the financial inconveniences, but the strain on their relationship and their daily routine that he personally felt was upsetting. However, the financial inconveniences did bother Kiara, and that was how they’d managed to find themselves pissed at each other for two different reasons altogether. She’d started urging him to do things like find a different job or go back to school, and he had no intention of doing either of those things. Like always he put his perpetual positive spin on their situation, but complained of her constant use of the glasses and a divide he’d begun to sense. This angered her greatly, and when she tried to bring up the issues of Humanity Separatism and global political revelations, all he could manage to do was be confused, floundering to assure her that no matter what happened in the world he just wanted to be happy (and his simplistic requirements made him sad).

She said, “You’re so certain that the world is the way you think it is, but you’re wrong about everything.”

People walked along the Reforma in glasses, watching video of the riot taking place barely a quarter-mile away, passing Sammy’s bloody, shirtless figure with hardly a glance. He continued to laugh, feeling blood and sweat trickling down the sides of his nose, and when he put his hand to his forehead there was a sharp sting. The punch to the forehead had cut him. He could feel his exposed chest starting to bruise. The phone buzzed in his pocket. It was Kiara calling him. He turned off the buzzer and let the machine pick it up.

He walked along the Reforma as far as the Ángel de la Independencía, golden and towering against the skyscrapers, and seeing it started his heart going too fast, and so to get away from it he turned down an unknown street, passing endless people in suits and glasses until those people disappeared, and in their place were people in T-shirts and jeans who used their phones to access augmented features and pay for street food. At a blue-tarpaulined market entrenched at the mouth of a metro entrance he bought an XL Oakland Raiders shirt for 250 pesos from two fearful women vendors, and two blocks further a young kid with a gelled mullet offered him, in broken English, a bathroom plus toilet paper for just four pesos that was hidden down a small alleyway.

“Yes, man, si, abajo este callejon aqui. Yes, man, you need?” offering him toilet paper.

He paid four pesos and then followed the cardboard arrows down the filthy passage, then through a wooden door frame with no door into a darkened building, the floor inside checkered black and white, blighted by a layer of sawdust and trash. A final arrow directed him into the bathroom (he believed it might have once served a hotel of some sort). He chose a stall, relieved himself, and began cleaning his face at the sink. The mirror was inundated with graffiti. His forehead looked as if his third eye had been gouged out, tendrils of dried blood making a tributary formation down his face. He was drying himself with the three squares of toilet paper the kid outside had given him when he caught sight of someone standing next to him in his periphery. He jumped backward. It was a white man with blonde hair, a lanky frame, and plain clothes. He was wearing glasses.

“Oh shit! You scared the shit outta me!”

“Are you Traditionalist or Separatist?” the man said in what sounded to Sammy like a heavy Australian accent, but was in fact Kiwi.

“What?”

“Do you identify as Traditionalist or Separatist?”

“What? I got no idea what you’re talkin about, dude.”

“Yes you do,” the man said in a demanding tone. “I saw you in the video of tha fight not moments ago. At the Niños Héroes. Which side are you for?”

“I’m not…I’m not for either side. I was just…”

“If you’re not for either side then why would you inject yourself into that fight?”

“I’m not for either—”

“Why did you come here?”

“Kid outside there charged me four pesos to use the bathroom is all.”

“Tell me the truth.”

“I am! Who the hell are you? Why you just hangin’ out in the bathroom?”

“I’m taking your photograph,” the Kiwi said, raising his phone at Sammy. There was the little artificial sound of a picture being taken.

On panicked instinct, Sammy shot his hand out, snatched the phone from the man’s grasp, and in one clean movement spun around and hurled it at the blue-tiled wall as hard as he could. The screen broke apart into three or four pieces. Sammy looked back at the man, who stood there dumbstruck. He stepped forward and reached for the bridge of the man’s nose, for his glasses. The Kiwi turned away from his reach and the two wrapped together, Sammy locking the man’s arms against his sides from behind. The only noise in the bathroom was heavy breathing. In a quick movement the glasses were swiped off his face, and with his left foot Sammy crushed the lenses.

There was a scream of agony, almost a type of keening, and it shocked Sammy enough that he released his hold and moved away toward the exit. The Kiwi’s screaming turned to weeping, bending over the broken glasses to see the result of their brutal homicide. Tears streamed from his eyes, and Sammy stood watching in ultimate confusion. Clearly the Kiwi had never imagined Sammy might break the devices—their destruction had caught him truly by surprise. The Kiwi himself might be beaten and broken, but this, this was unthinkable. Perhaps there was some irretrievable, irreplaceable scrap of data that had been floating in digital storage, now lost forever. The real truth was that he was now cut off from his network of political revolutionaries, alone in a foreign country with no resources.

“You bastard!” The Kiwi wailed in despair.

“You brought it on yourself!” Sammy shouted back, but for some reason he found the man’s anguish over the broken electronics beautiful in a way he couldn’t pin down. It was possible he was just experiencing a sentimental moment because he missed Kiara, but the Kiwi’s sincerity, combined with his helplessness, allowed Sammy to see him as a victim. Victim to his own faulty value system. Not far gone from a religious mourner, much like his mother-in-law Anita who was always overseeing the world and its happenings with a relentless, pious sadness, believing the world was working itself toward Revelation. But Sammy had posed the question to himself many times—if Revelation was prophesied from the beginning, then was human behavior not out of our hands? Couldn’t one argue we were setting the correct course rather than the wrong, since disproving divine prediction would collapse God’s omnipotence?

Such was the ornate illogic of the Kiwi’s devastation over his artificial attachments. Motherfucker should’ve been thanking Sammy for liberating him. Well, no matter. It was not his problem anymore, and Sammy left the bathroom smiling in the grip of an intellectual mania.

It was the exact same type of manic impulse, in fact, that had driven him to end up in Mexico City in the first place. Kiara was the element that kept him stable most of the time, kept him moving mindlessly through double shifts in West Hollywood, watching the same collection of dirty pans and dishes pile in front of him for such a collection of hours that he could peer into their meaning, into their traumatic reuse, like the way the world reused human beings, birthed them new from the steaming sanitizer clean and fresh, then dirtied them, then buried them together in the filthy rotting soapy mass-grave water of the far left-hand sink, on their way toward completing a senseless cycle.

Before Kiara he would never have been able to stand such a process. It was, quite simply, his love for her that made the job worth it to him. Made it bearable. She sometimes despised his proclivity for routine, but he needed it in order to avoid provoking the sorts of impulses, like this one, that led him down paths which threatened to unravel everything he’d built. His consistent euphoria was one of his greatest miseries. (One of Kiara’s cousins, who had gone to Ann Arbor, had one time informally diagnosed Sammy at a summertime family barbeque—without his knowledge—as a hypomaniac.)

The original conflict over the glasses had slowly evolved, over the course of some months, into a more severe breakdown of communication between them. Humanity Separatism continued to gain steam, not just as an entity confined to the news anymore, but as a real movement spreading across the world, antagonizing governments with weaponry and organized political measures. So-called “Traditionalist” oppositions were having a difficult time understanding their transgressions against the Separatists, and also what measures to take to defend themselves.

Sammy isolated himself in the living room, slept on the couch. Kiara used the glasses more than ever now. Every time he attempted to make progress toward reparation, things became worse. Somewhere along the way, a line of difference had been established between them. He couldn’t define it, wasn’t even one hundred percent positive it existed, all he knew was that things didn’t feel the same. Some change had occurred. His mind was wandering at work and his efficiency took a notable dip, but he couldn’t get himself to care. Things were starting to feel hopeless, and the sense that a sinister end was looming to everything he’d become accustomed to grew on an hourly basis.

He was so distressed that he actually took to reading the news on his phone during breaks, hoping to find some clue to illuminate the nature of Kiara’s change, or, at his most optimistic, an antidote to what ailed them. But he had no patience for the news and its constant grim mood. His studies were cursory at best, and since he and Kiara weren’t talking much, he remained in the dark about the extent of the disruption in the global flow. What he did manage to uncover from his glances at the headlines was that Mexico City had turned into a Western proxy for Myanmar’s Humanity Separatist revolt. Things were becoming heated in Mexico City, even violent.

You’re so certain that the world is the way you think it is, but you’re wrong about everything.

The idea came from outside of him and struck like a bullet fired from a gun—he nearly grimaced when it happened. The world wasn’t the way he thought it was? Well why not put that hypothesis to the test? The genius of it enveloped him, and he became possessed, spending the better part of the workday with an intolerably fast heartbeat from excitement and adrenaline.

When his double shift ended, he began calling in favors from the cooks and dishwashers he covered for most often and created a five-day vacation for himself. Then, before leaving work, he booked a plane ticket. The dollar figure staring up at him from the tiny screen caused a long moment of hesitation. He knew very well that losing five days of pay plus the expenses for this trip was going to cause him and Kiara to have to dip deep into their savings in order to pay rent this month. Then the images of other bills started to pop into his mind. Car insurance, car payment, phone bill, cable bill, the monthly bill for those goddamn glasses…

When he thought about it, Sammy had lived his life in a compartmentalized style for as long as he could remember. The compartments represented months. He could think in terms of a massive cabinet of drawers, and in each drawer was a tiny portion of his life that directly correlated to his bank statements. None of the drawers connected to one another—each one was a reality in and of itself, but they all existed parallel in Sammy’s memory. There was always that massive wagging finger disallowing him from giving in to his impulses, but it was not always successful in stopping him, as was the case when he purchased a round-trip ticket into Mexico City for $510 dollars plus tax. He laughed to himself while at the bus stop, jumping up and down just to burn off the overload of frenzying, surplus inspiration. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

He was proving a point, not just to Kiara, but also to himself. The point was this: that it didn’t matter what the world decided to do. Its own misguided business was precisely that—its own. Politics, wars, revolutions, it could all go to hell. He would go straight to the heart of what was preoccupying Kiara, and when he got to Mexico City he wouldn’t give a shit—he’d be happy and separate from it all even if it killed him. He would exist in and of himself, a smiling little cell of solipsism as it were.

That night he stuffed two changes of clothes in a backpack, went to bed next to Kiara, and at two in the morning when she was already fast asleep he jotted down a quick note informing her of where he was going, his itinerary, and when he would attempt to reach her. His friend drove him to the airport, and an hour later he boarded the plane without so much as a glimmer of a second thought. He hadn’t even booked a room for himself.

Now, leaving the alleyway, his pocket buzzed, and he knew without looking who was calling.

He wandered the city well into nighttime, eating street food every so often to re-energize. Every block revealed fresh turmoil, blooming into chaos as soon as he arrived, and it seemed to be getting worse as he went. There was a continuous slideshow of police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, sirens like the general ambience of an insect-heavy twilight. People ran and yelled at one another. Everyone was wearing glasses or accessing augmented features with their phones, and Sammy, determined to abstain from all digital and political proceedings (the two had merged into one), remained clueless as to what was going on as he walked in obscurity.

People were often panicked, he noticed, despite the fact that nothing threatening was going on in the general vicinity as far as he could tell. He looked around and saw nothing but traffic and emergency vehicles. He found his way to the courtyard in front of the Bellas Artes, tucked in the shadow of the Torre Latino Americana. Huge droves of people marched with signs written in Spanish; fights broke out between individuals and police congregated on the streets; shouting and singing sizzled on the ground, releasing a steamy energy of sound into the darkening sky.

All the while Sammy tried to ignore the conflict, tried to ignore his curiosity and the urge to access augmented features to figure out what was going on. There was no lying to himself, something was clearly out of the ordinary. He stood on the outskirts of the Bellas Artes for a long time, watching people getting dragged away in handcuffs and foreigners fist-fighting one another. The police were wearing glasses, too. The details of the world felt fresh to him, and it surprised him to realize just how many people he was always seeing on a day-to-day basis walking around with glasses or manipulating invisible panels in the air. Somehow he hadn’t quite noticed the pervasiveness of these things back in LA.

The scenes of mass strife were exciting for him, but also intimate in a way he didn’t like. He’d expected to feel distant from everything, but suddenly he was feeling caught up and very much a part of all that was going on. He knew what he was seeing. It was the source of all Kiara’s concern and brooding over the past few months, this strange and dangerous reality unfolding in front of him like an unstoppable mental infection, and he could see, even this far from home, how it had the potential to disrupt his life and those he loved. His euphoria persisted as always, but it was interchangeable with misery, and he felt both simultaneously.

The scene at the Bellas Artes was suddenly too much for him to deal with any longer, so he made his way back to a nearby metro station only to find it was cordoned off by heavy wooden barriers with the word PELIGRO spray painted on them. Exhaustion hit him in a small wave. He rubbed his eyes and tried to think what to do next. He remembered passing a hostel not far from here, and that seemed the best option. However he was unsure if he could find his way back, and rather than stand to consider the route he felt somehow unable to stop himself from moving. The city was beginning to feel ominous, and his body was aching from his earlier exertions, and the cut on his forehead was burning.

The night was black now, no sunlight remained. The further he trekked, the more he realized he was lost. He had left the metro station nearly half an hour ago. Every person and car that passed set him on edge, the tension of the city ongoing. After a long time he stopped on a narrow street, sitting on a rough stone sidewalk underneath a streetlight and wincing against the smells. He breathed and felt his eyelids become heavy. He regretted having done this, leaving Kiara without notice, spending the money, selfishly thinking he was right and she was wrong. But at the same time he was glad because he felt he’d seen something he needed to see.

What happened was quite fast. In front of him were lights and the screeching of a vehicle coming to a halt. He looked up and saw five men exiting a small white Mazda pickup truck, approaching and surrounding him on all sides. One of them was the Kiwi whose phone and glasses he’d broken.

“Yep, that’s him,” he said.

The men were white and Mexican. They were all wearing glasses (which was how they’d found him) except the Kiwi. None of them were even close to as big as Sammy, but in their faces he could see they were unafraid of him. One of the Mexican men spoke.

“What are you doing in Mexico City?”

Sammy wasn’t sure what to say. He was afraid, and his hands were shaking.

“Are you Traditionalist or Separatist?”

Sammy said, “I’m not either.”

“Don’t lie,” the man said with threatening calm.

“I’m not either.”

“You broke this man’s glasses. Why?”

The man’s hand was rested on the butt of a pistol holstered on his jeans. Sammy searched his mind. “I don’t know.”

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

The circle closed on him, and they beat him badly. They kicked him on the ground until he felt soft and bloody. Before they left, the Mexican man leaned down and said to him, panting there, with the same tone of threatening calm, “If you ever attack us or our devices again, we’ll kill you,” and then kicked him one final savage time in the face for good measure.

Sammy laid on the ground and moaned, hearing the men get back in the truck, shut the doors, and drive away.

Later, when the pain had subsided enough for him to get off the ground, he sat on the same curb underneath the streetlight and made a video call to Kiara. It rang five times, and just when he was sure she wouldn’t answer, her face resolved on the screen. She was wearing the glasses.

“Kiara,” he said, “baby…”

“Oh my god, Sammy, what happened to you!”

He couldn’t say anything.

“Baby, oh my god, are you okay? What happened? Where are you?”

“Kiara,” he said, “I’m sorry I left without telling you. I didn’t mean to…”

“Where are you, baby? Are you okay? Are you shot?”

“No. Beat up bad, though.” His words came out with effort, like a sick person in a hospital bed.

Her face scrunched and tears started to run underneath the lenses. “Sammy…”

The Separatists, unbeknownst to Sammy, had started an armed revolt in the streets that day, several neighborhoods away.

“I just needed to call you. Imma be okay. Gonna make it home, but I wanted to say sorry. I’m sorry about the glasses. Just wanna be with you, baby. Just wanna get back to you and be with you.”

“I’m sorry too, Sammy, now where are you? Tell me where you are!”

“I messed up, but I won’t do it again. Just wait, and Imma get back home. I love you.”

“Sammy, tell me where you are, baby! Tell me—”

In the distance he could hear the crackling of gunfire and the city screaming in delight, while in the lower registers there was a very deep, sad whine of pain. He hated the words that came into his mind: you were so certain the world was the way you thought it was…

Well, no matter. Not even Kiara was right about everything. All the stratas of the world were locked together tightly, influencing and affecting each other, and Sammy was confined within them just as much as anybody. He really hoped he could make it back to Kiara, back to LA, and back to that mental state where he could subdue his euphoria back down to a safe neutrality.

Maybe that was it! Maybe neutrality was the path to happiness—and his heart began to race again. He worked hard to stop himself.

“It’s gonna be okay, baby, we’re gonna get you home,” she said. “You’re back to normal now. You know how sad it makes me when you get going the way you do.”

Yes, it was easier to give up on inspiration and allow the world to do to him as it pleased.

“I know, baby. I love you.”