It was ugly. Maybe one of the ugliest things he had ever seen. Time had turned a sea of pure white into a sickly gray, hinting at dust settled deep within. The corners had become discolored—one had a dark-yellow stain, another a brownish-red tint—while the foam trapped underneath had developed abnormal dents, like subtle trenches sketching out the weight of lives lived before. It had faced time and lost. Its suffering, its decay, were undeniable. Yet even in this state, it refused to die. Instead it would survive under a new master.
In front of Ian was his mattress. What an ugly thing, he thought.
The previous night, Ian slept on the floor. After a rushed search, he had been fortunate enough to find two whole rooms in the City. In a way, it was an impressive sight: an entrance, bedroom, and kitchen all crammed into one 200-square-foot rectangle. And a bathroom. However, unfortunately for Ian, it still lacked some furniture.
As he lay on the floor, planks creaked and his shoulders chaffed, but in the discomfort he found a trace of joy. Above the hardwood, wrapped in the dark, his mind was free to wander. It conjured up ancient memories from boyhood, times when he would lie on grass and spend all night staring at an illuminated sky. He could remember imagined worlds that used to be his playgrounds, adventures where he would walk among the stars or fly to new galaxies, go anywhere his heart desired. That night, just for one night, he could taste a life when the world was still new, an era he had forgotten, when anything was possible and time was infinite, as he was carried into a dreamless sleep. In the morning, his back groaned. He rubbed it, watched a video labeled “How to Meet People in a New City,” and prepared to leave. He needed to see his cousin Lizzy.
She was distant, Ian’s mother’s sister’s husband’s brother’s daughter, and they had only met twice before, despite living only an hour’s distance apart for most of their lives. Their most recent encounter, twelve years earlier at an aunt’s birthday party, had ended abruptly. She called him weird; he said her puffy hair looked silly. She annoyed him; he ignored her. Then, out of frustration, she stole his slice of cake, ran away, and gobbled it down in three bites, while Ian watched.
He had never forgiven, simply forgotten.
Before Ian knew he was moving, he had forgotten every‐ thing: the little girl, her messy hair, the robbery. Her name and face no longer seemed to even be true memories, more like lost droplets in a sea of neurons, never to be excavated, adrift forever. Yet, in an instant, his mom brought it all back. She told him Lizzy was living in the City. She would be his only family there. Call her.
Faster than the time it took for him to blink, he had evaporated the hidden liquid and relived dead experiences. They whispered “avoid her,” but after questioning himself once or twice, he caved. He had texted her a month earlier but received no follow-up. Then he sent another text, which also went nowhere.
Ian had stared at his phone, feeling uneasy about tapping in the digits. He had only called four distinct people over the last few months, and even those people he preferred to text.
“Hi, Lizzy? It’s—”
“Hello? Who is this?”
“Who? I don’t know an Ian.”
“Your cousin, I’m moving near you... I think your mom may have told you. I called to catch up.”
“Ian... Ian... Oh yes, Ian! You messaged me, right? Oh my god! I didn’t know you were coming here!”
“That’s right. I just finished school and I found a job—” “That’s great. So exciting. We need to catch up. By the way, do you want some furniture?”
It turned out Lizzy was moving as well, to live with her boyfriend, and she needed to get rid of any trace of her old junk as soon as possible. Ian would be her lucky recipient.
The instructions to find her apartment had been clear: fourteen stops, one subway, one street. Stepping outside, Ian lifted his chest and breathed in frigid air. As he walked to the train, the City’s energy radiated all around him. Pedestrians rustled past one another at breakneck speeds, forming an invisible, pulsating electricity powered by their cumulative ambition, hope, and doubt.
He decided it was time to find his way, time to begin a new chapter. He took a step, and another, journeying down into the subway station... and instantly became lost. First, wrong station. Then, wrong train. No, actually, wrong direction.
The sprawling underground proved too much to swallow all at once. He had abandoned his old worn car in a long-term parking lot outside of the City in exchange for steel snakes screeching and sliding twenty-four hours a day. Born of a place where the weather was warm and the days long, the City made him feel like he was living in a stranger.
But after the initial struggle, he found his path. During the journey’s first ten stops, the subway moved a hundred feet below street level, and he watched a somber story play on loop in its windows. Between stations, the train’s glass panes stayed pitch black, masked by sunken earth save the occasional revolt. The train moved so fast it was as if fluorescent lamps flashed, shining bright for a moment, cutting through the dark, before their light disappeared forever.
However, as the trip approached its eleventh stop, there was a revolution. The train climbed out of the underground and carried its passengers into the light of the neighborhood, which revealed its life to Ian. He gazed at a hodgepodge of dirty red- brick buildings, none bigger than seven stories. On one corner there was a 99-cent store, next to it, a Pollo Feliz, across from those, a Salon Barber Shop, and crammed in a corner, Delicias Puebla. The street resembled a turbulent engine, with people coming and going, moving left and right. Riding above the earth, he saw countless stories in perpetual motion, all inter‐ woven yet unknown to each other.
He wondered where they were all going.
As the train screeched to its stop, he spotted Lizzy’s apartment building across the street. Then the doors opened, and the flood of humanity flowed. Ian managed to squeeze his way out, while the other departees shoved their way out. After his escape, he regained his bearings and went left. He clanked down hollow metal steps, and once he reached the street, he looked back up at the train’s platform. It dominated the block, casting its shadow across the neighborhood and upon the pedestrians who crawled beneath it.
The ground beneath him began to rumble, and he spotted another train coming into the station. It entered on a difficult curve and had no qualms complaining about it. As it turned, it blared, shrieking and snarling, clashing metal against metal, sending small golden sparks flying into the air.
Within seconds the hum in the ground grew into a shake that pushed him back and forced him to catch his balance, until it all slowed to a smooth stop.
It appeared the City dictated even the earth’s tune.
When he reached Lizzy’s apartment building’s gate he buzzed in for 3E, waited, and buzzed again. After some more waiting he pulled out his phone, but then the lock yielded and he swung the gate open.
The entrance was a thin dim hallway with a staircase, an elevator, and just two doors at the end of the wall. Its tightness gave Ian a sudden urge to leave, so he jogged up the stairs, turned a corner, and there, holding her door open, was Lizzy. She hadn’t changed a bit: She looked as silly as ever and her hair was still a tangled mess. She offered a toothy grin and a hug.
He gave her a half hug back. “It’s good to see you.”
“Come inside,” she said.
As he stepped in and scanned the space, a wave of unease drifted up his spine. The living room had succumbed to entropy, engulfed in a final collapse of complete chaos. The floor was a minefield of clothes, the coffee table had been transformed into a tower of mismatched shoes, and a half- eaten pizza crust teetered on the brink of disaster, resting dangerously atop a flimsy paper plate above the couch’s armrest.
“Sorry for the mess,” Lizzy said. “There was a lot of life to move.”
Lizzy led Ian into the apartment’s sole bedroom. The scene was a little better, mostly because it was already emptied. All that remained were four clean white walls, a barren wooden floor, an assortment of boxes, a small black desk, a shelf, a frail chair, a bed frame, and a naked mattress.
“What do you think?” Lizzy asked.
Ian leaned down and stroked the mattress’s soft surface, then tested it. He pushed, pressing as much as his strength would allow. It choked under his weight, but when he released his grip, it easily bounced back to proper form. He decided its ugliness didn’t matter; it would be enough. Big, strong, and free. “It’ll work,” he said.
Slowly, then suddenly, all the pieces rattled, followed by the whole room, and finally Ian’s feet. He fell over, rolling onto the bed.
“Sorry about that,” she said, standing straight. “Living so close to the train has had its disadvantages. You get used to it, but I’m so ready to move. I need better sleep.”
“Gotcha,” said Ian. “Thanks again. I appreciate the help.”
Lizzy looked at him and shrugged. “It’s fine. I inherited it all from the previous tenant anyways. I never used most of it, except the bed.”
They lifted the furniture into Lizzy’s red sedan, which had a dent stretched across its front passenger door. As they rolled block by block, Ian could feel the mattress, precariously attached to the car’s roof, bouncing at every pothole.
They did not speak during the drive. Instead the City watched Ian. There was no escaping it. The skyline proved beyond anything he had ever seen. Mesmerizing, all-encompassing, magnificently terrifying.
Once they arrived, she helped him unload the desk, the shelf, and finally, the mattress. She shoved it off the roof, and it flipped, landing in front of Ian’s feet, staring up at its new owner and a gray sky. Then she grumbled “I hope you enjoy it” before scurrying away.
Ian spent the next five minutes dragging the furniture up his stoop. An older man walking out of the building spotted
Ian’s predicament and stopped to hold open the gate. Ian slid through and pulled the furniture the rest of the way.
“Thanks,” said Ian, but the man didn’t respond. He was already gone.
After he stuffed everything into the elevator, shoved it into his tiny apartment, and tossed the mattress onto the bedframe, Ian paused for a moment. He examined the mattress’s seams and crevices and stains, then collapsed onto the bed.
First he lay flat, exhausted, but began to roll, trying to find a more comfortable position. However, something rubbed against the back of his head. He propped himself up and turned to the exposed mattress and frowned. There was a tiny tear on the mattress’s surface, near its top, revealing aged yellow foam hidden underneath. It must have ripped after Lizzy shoved it onto the ground, he decided. A shame.
For hours, he watched more videos on his phone. “Top 7 Ways to Make Side Money NOW,” then “How to Get Over the End of a Relationship,” and then “6 Minutes to Start Your Day Right!” Then, in the middle of his distractions, he received a message with a payment request attached: $150 — Gas and other stuff, bed is free. Sorry that the boyfriend couldn’t help :/
Ian stared at it for a bit, then pressed the accept button. Work was to begin in a couple days. How much sleep would he get once it started, he wondered.
He crawled forward on the bed toward the window, his only window, a tiny square that revealed a slice of the world beyond. Near him were a line of buildings, all too close and too tall for him to be able to see their tops, and above them the true heroes of the City, the skyscrapers, continued to rule. They spoke to their peons through wind and steel, through shadow and power.
Below them, on the street, Ian spotted dozens, maybe hundreds, of pedestrians walking, darting forward and back in a perpetual frenzy. And farthest beyond, peeking through a crevice between buildings, the sun watched him. It was falling for the night, taking shelter behind the maze of the mighty City.
He witnessed it all on his phone’s display as he took a picture.
Yawning, he scanned the image. Then he leaned over and flipped off the light. He would brush his teeth tomorrow.
Into twilight, Ian scrolled on his phone, hopping from experience to experience, until the device died in his hands hours later. He put it aside and finally faced the night.
Staring into the cold dark, stewing over the near future, he tried to imagine what would become of him, what his new life would yield, but he could find only uncertainty. It was as though a hidden glow that had once illuminated his life’s path was now dimming to black, leaving nothing behind but a murky fog for him to crawl into, while everyone else in the City raced ahead.
He stopped, listened. The room had become too quiet. He rolled over and plugged his phone into the charger and closed his eyes.
Some stray light kept trickling in from the window, but soon it faded. In complete darkness sleep came easy.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Ian placed his hands on the top of his head and held it gently. It pulsated in slow, melodic beats.
Then it throbbed.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
He pressed his hands down onto his skull. The inside of his head banged like the echo of a drum smashed by a steel baton, feeling as if it could burst at any moment. He tried to open his eyes, but the effort proved impossible. Even the smallest bit of light stung and burned; everything was far too bright, nothing was clear.
After mechanically forcing his eyelids up with his hands, one after the other, he received a blurred vision of the world around him, a chaotic tumble of blue, gray, green, and white, all fused together.
Their shine only brought more confusion, and difficulty in concentration. He couldn’t make out a single smell; his sinuses were stuffed. He could barely feel; his hands were numb. Around him could have been stone and sea or sky and spires. Or simply cement. Frustrated, he blinked, until he finally found a minor break‐ through. He could make out the shapes of trees close by and the outlines of buildings in the distance.
He cried out, “Hello?”
There was no response except the gentle hum of cars rolling by, somewhere out of sight. He waited for an answer as a tremor grew in his heart. He opened his mouth, prepared to yell again, when he heard a murmur.
“Ma, I did it.”
Like a blind man, he whipped his head toward the sound. It was a strong voice, a man’s voice, one that should have arrived with a boom, hitting deep and low. But in this blurred world the stranger had changed. He spoke slower, quieter, and cautiously. Weaker.
Only a few yards away, Ian saw his dark, blurred profile, but he could not make him out. “Who are you?” he yelled.
The man gave no response. Instead his voice reverberated, “I don’t know. It’s been too quick. I don’t know if she’s the one. I bought the ring, I really did, but I just don’t know.”
Ian tried to move through his fog toward the voice; however, the moment he lifted his foot, his legs wobbled and collapsed, dumping his body onto the ground. He tumbled onto grass as soft as cotton, which caressed his hands and face. Propping himself up by his forearm, he watched the figure move farther away.
“What’s going on?” asked Ian.
The man ignored him. He continued to walk forward and speak to the open air. He whispered, “I just don’t know, Mama.”
In his struggle, Ian began to feel nausea creeping up from the bottom of his stomach and spreading to his throat. He released his pose, fell back onto the grass, and stretched his neck up to gaze forward, until he could no longer make out the
man. The dark blur had faded away, melted into the hazy horizon that dominated his vision.
He tried to push himself up again, but this time his arms completely failed him. He collapsed onto his side, rolled onto his back, and stared at the calm blue sky above him, where there was no sun delivering a blinding shine, nor a cloud to block his view. There on the ground, for a brief second, he found peace. His mind began to slow, to regain focus, and he almost tried to stand again. But then the moment vanished.
The sky flared, blasting a glow in all directions, like the light reflected off a diamond. The bright streaks zipped through the sky, forcing Ian to squint as they scattered across the heavens and dispersed into the universe. In their path they left behind thin white cuts slashed throughout the upper atmosphere.
After stillness had resumed, he held a sort of tension inside, waiting for something else to break, but finally it seemed to be over. He sighed and decided he would lay there forever. There was no need to get up. It was comfortable enough; the grass embraced his weary body and his tired mind, putting both at ease.
But it didn’t last. It couldn’t. Nothing did, Ian knew.
Watching the sky, he saw the glow’s light fade away until the heavens reached an equilibrium once again, a warm, pure blue.
But then it flickered. The sky’s color blinked into an absolute dark, devoid of stars or a moon to shine a path. Instead the heavens rested empty, leaving nothing behind but black.
Staring into the void, a nervous tremor returned to Ian’s heart.
Using the remainder of his energy, he propped himself up. The mess of greens and grays around him also began to join the sky and fade into the cold darkness. They fell into the swallowing void as it chewed up any shapes, light, and life it could find.
Trembling, he felt the ground beneath him give away. Its soft grass turned to loose black, which turned into nothingness. It lost its tangibility and he began to slip.
At first the drop was a slow descent; the earth faded below his feet and his body dipped, gently pulling him down while he studied his dissolving world, wondering what midnight logic had delivered him such a sight.
Then he was plunged. The ground disappeared faster and faster, dragging everything, including Ian, down with it. He was crashing, diving, and was far too weak and too tired to scream. Instead all he managed to muster was a single pathetic whisper into the vacuum: “No.”
Searching in the shadows, he once again spotted the figure of the dark man in the distance; he, too, was fading away.
“Okay, Mama. I’m ready,” the man whispered before he disappeared entirely.
Then there seemed to be only silence, but Ian swore he could hear something, something metallic on the fringe of this empty reality. It was ever so subtle, just the sliver of a whisper, but it was there, he was certain of it. It was the sound of a distant train coming into a station.
Ian took in a breath through his mouth, sighed, and closed his eyes once again.