When You’re Not Thinking
by Kevin Roller
Jason was lying on the couch, watching television and browsing the web on his phone, when it happened. The pages on the screen began to blur. He felt a vague sense of destruction, of slowly coming apart, like bread in water, but did not know why. His friends were on their phones, too; they were listening to the television, drifting in private, detached realms of their own, not alone but not together either. Jason could see it in their dull eyes and parted lips. They were the young and alive, the envy of all things old or dead, on the precipice of a decline towards death, and they were melting into their third hour of self-induced torpor. He watched his girlfriend, Tiffany, breathe in and out, exchanging the air like a deep sea filter-feed.
A moment of silence. The show (a sitcom, though he did not remember which one) had ended. The next episode was loading through Netflix. He could see the group visibly shift in discomfort: Tiffany wriggled on her couch, Gary (his friend) shifted in his lounger, Rebecca (Gary’s girlfriend) cracked her neck and looked toward the television, seeking reassurance that the show was returning. Jason wondered if they were made self-conscious by the silence, like he was. The sitcom’s main character ushered the episode’s opening line, the studio audience laughed, and the tension dissolved from the air.
Jason looked out the window to see blackness in the panes. No one had bothered to turn on a lamp, since they had settled down during daylight, so the only light in the room came from their phone screens and the television. Jason thought he saw something move in his peripheral vision; he looked to his right but nothing was there.
His grandfather had died last week. Jason was in the room when it happened. His grandfather had been a heavy smoker; his fingernails were the color of urine and his voice was raw and grating. After Jason left for college, his grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. His grandfather’s skin was blue, cracked, and loose; the breathing mask was attached to his face like a parasite. The heart-rate monitor’s slow, steady beeps faded, faded, faded, into a long, synthetic moan. His body did not move or quake as death took him; only the machine, with its modern death knell, indicated that anything had happened.
Jason, reminded of his grandfather’s passing by the blue of Tiffany’s skin in the artificial lights, realized that he had not yet cried. Following the funeral, Jason had spent many days and nights doing what he was doing right now: zoning out on his phone and watching TV. He wondered if that realization is what had broken the trance, but decided against it; it was a more elemental emotion, like knowing when water is near or when you’re being watched. The main character on the show moaned overdramatically and the audience roiled in laughter. The air in the room was stale.
The audience stopped laughing peremptorily: silence seized the room again, powerful and implacable. The actors on the screen were frozen in place, mid-action, the main character holding an open umbrella above his head and scowling at his female co-star, a blonde with her hands on her hips. There was something odd about the way the actors were standing, almost as if they were playing a game and were trying very hard not to move. He thought he could see the umbrella moving, just barely, in the actor’s grip.
An old man in a hospital gown began walking across the set, pushing a walker in front of him. It scraped the ground and made small cuts in the silence. Once he reached the center of the set, he turned laboriously to face the television. Jason could not move, though adrenaline panic was pumping through his veins. As the marbled eyes of the old man stared out of the screen, at Jason, through Jason, he knew who the old man was and what had torn him from the trance.
His grandfather raised a long finger to his lips. He made a long, hissing noise. Jason thought he could see fear in his eyes. He then turned the finger from his lips and pointed outward, towards the others.
Shadows of men hung over his three friends. Eyes hung loosely in their skulls. Their mouths were oblong and shaped like ovals. A thin mist came off of his friend’s bodies and into the mouths of the things. Jason felt a trembling in his throat, a trapped cry that would not rattle loose.
“…only come if you’re not paying attention,” a shattered voice creaked out of the television. “Youth makes… stronger… the dead… pay attention… hollow you out…”
He saw a shadow move in his peripheral again: a shadow hung over him, its blue eyes webbed with veins and the air around it vibrating. Its skin was mottled with scabs. It faded into the darkness of the room seconds after Jason laid eyes on it.
He heard the hissing noise again from the television. Jason turned to see his grandfather hushing him again. His face was plaintively contorted.
“… not waste this, or… will take it.”
The old man tremulously brought his fingers together and snapped, and disappeared from the screen. The actors, after a seconds delay, resumed acting out their scene; the audience slowly began laughing again.
Jason looked at his friends: the shadows were gone. All three of them began stretching, slightly confused looks on their faces.
“Did something just happen?” Tiffany yawned, her phone resting on her bosom and her arms stretched out.
“I thought I heard something snap,” Gary said, slowly pulling himself out of the lounger. “God, I’m exhausted. I could sleep for about—Jason, you alright buddy?”
Jason felt a cold sweat beading on his forehead.
Tiffany put her hand on his knee.
“I know, honey,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I knew you were going to need to let this out eventually, but—did something on the show remind you of him?”
Jason could not speak. His tongue felt huge in his mouth. Gary looked away awkwardly. Rebecca continued to look at her phone, though she was clearly uncomfortable. The studio audience laughed raucously.
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Kevin Roller is a writer in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Saint Anselm College.