The Existentialist

Not long before Felix ceases to exist he asks a fatal question:

Can stories kill you?

He asks it just as he finishes his second reading of Lord of the Flies. Similar to his first reading, his heart takes a few minutes to slow down after he closes the book. He leans his head against a wall of books and sighs. The images of deserted boys, the pig’s head speared on a stick––blood dripping down the splintered wood and flies buzzing around the snout––as well as the island turn to hazy memories that fade once Felix returns the book back to the wall he uses as support.

Lord of the Flies killed Piggy,” he says to himself. He wonders if stories can kill those who aren’t held within the cheap ink and pages held together by glue. Lord of the Rings killed a lot of people, he thinks. Speaker for the Dead, too.

In the afternoon heat of the attic, he sweats lightly under his thin cotton shirt and denim shorts. He brushes wet strands of ash brown hair from his forehead and looks out the open window of the attic.

In the backyard next door to his house, Marissa Arquette and her twin sister Angel play a game they call “Princess and Dragon.” Today it appears Angel is the dragon, which means Marissa’s fate is most likely unfortunate. Felix watches for several minutes, breathing in the fresh summer air and welcoming a warm yet refreshing breeze inside the stale attic.

One house down from the Arquette girls, Mr. Frosh watches No Country for Old Men. Unlike the last four viewings where he fell asleep within the first thirty minutes, this time he sits on the edge of his seat and bites his lower lip in anticipation. At sixty-two it’s hard not to fall asleep during any movie, and this one isn’t easy to watch. But something about this viewing has nostalgia exploding from the TV and into the living room. 

Felix sighs again while watching the girls’ game. 

Stories are what make life worth living, he concludes simply and naively.

“Felix, lunch!” his mother calls from the opening in the attic’s door. The Arquette girls run inside their own home as their mother beckons them for lunch too. Felix closes the attic’s one window and meets his mother in the kitchen.

He plops in his usual spot at the kitchen table by the toaster where his mother sets his lunch. He hides a grimace. “Ham and cheese,” he says. “How did I know?”

“Because the world that’s been constructed for you is predictable, sweetheart,” his mother replies.

“Huh?”

She sits down to her own ham and cheese sandwich and opens a new bag of potato chips. 

“What did you just say, mom?”

“I said eat, sweetheart.” She smiles and takes a hearty bite of her sandwich. Crumbs of sourdough bread stick to her dry lips. She tries licking them away but somehow only manages to run them from one end of her lips to the other.

Felix eats half of his sandwich before reaching into the bag of potato chips. His mother watches him with mild interest.

“Is something bothering you?” she asks.

The salt from the chips burns a scrape in the corner of his mouth. He shakes his head. 

“You look troubled.”

He takes one more bite of his sandwich and quits eating altogether. Lunch is over for him. Suddenly he feels sick. He asks, “Mom, have stories ever hurt anyone?”

“Sure they have,” she answers with food in her mouth. “I like to call them rumors.”

“No, I don’t mean hurt someone’s feelings. I mean hurt someone for real.”

She sets her sandwich down on her plate and wipes her hands. “I’m not sure I understand, sweetheart.”

“It’s okay.” He shakes his head again. “Forget it.”

“Stories hurt the people who are in them, if the writer decides to do it. Are you hurt, Felix?”

“No.”

She smiles, breadcrumbs still all over her lips. “Then I’m sure you’ll be okay.”

After lunch he goes back up to the attic to start a new book. His mother watches him ascend the wooden ladder anxiously. 

He opens the one window to let in the warm breeze then finds a book not in the wall where he usually finds them. He finds this one in a suitcase that must have been his father’s. Inside are old clothes and a picture of a young woman he doesn’t recognize as his mother. The book he finds in there is The Gunslinger by Stephen King. Sitting in his customary spot at the foot of the wall of books, he cracks open the book with the cover of a cowboy saving a boy from a black, creature-filled abyss.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

Immediately he’s engrossed in the story, hardly blinking in between sentences. People die in this book too, and if he read anymore Stephen King books, he’d find that a lot of people die in his books. Outside the Arquette girls resume their game of Princess and Dragon, and one house down from them Mr. Frosh finishes No Country for Old Men with a childish grin and a flutter in his heart. Felix doesn’t put The Gunslinger down until his mother calls him down for supper.

“Coming!” he calls as he finishes a chapter. The story of the gunslinger fresh in his mind, he forgets to close the window before he leaves. He takes the book downstairs with him and into the kitchen. 

As his mother sets down a meatloaf and steamed corn, she asks, “What’s that one you’re reading now?”

The Gunslinger,” Felix says. “I found it in a suitcase. I think it was dad’s.”

“Your father read nothing but cheap stories about violence and sex. Let me see that.”

She picks up the book and reads the back cover, her nose wrinkled in pre-meditated disgust. Felix is afraid she’ll throw it in the trash or hide it wherever she hides all his other toys she’s confiscated from him. He taps his feet nervously on the linoleum as she studies the front cover. 

“I don’t understand why you like to read so much,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense when you’re in a story already. A boy reading stories in a story. How boring is that?”

“What?”

“There’s no conflict or real issue, unless you want to include your missing father. But then again, he’s not really missing.” She regards Felix with a grim expression. “You asked me if stories can kill you, Felix? Well, they can. And this one will probably kill you.”

He stands up from the table and backs away from his mother. “What are you talking about?”

“Look at what’s for dinner.” She gestures at the meatloaf and corn. “I make meatloaf every night. Over and over and over again. This story is a bad rerun but worse because it’s not even on TV.”

“Mom, you’re not making any sense.”

“Whoever is orchestrating this just hasn’t made up his mind yet on what to do. But he’s got you questioning the very meaning of existence itself, so hopefully it leads somewhere interesting. Here.” 

She shovels a thick slab of the meatloaf and two spoonfuls of corn onto Felix’s plate.

“I’m not hungry,” he tells her.

She smiles, her dry lips cracking. “But you love my meatloaf, sweetheart. You eat it every night.”

He gets up from his seat by the toaster. “No. No, I don’t want any.” 

Bolting for the attic, his mother follows close behind with his plate of food held out in front of her. Corn falls to the floor like tiny pieces of gold. She screams, “Eat your dinner, Felix! Eat your dinner before it gets cold!

He climbs the rickety ladder and pulls it up behind him, snatching the white string that lets it down from the outside so his mother can’t pull on it. His chest puffs up and down as he catches his breath. As he moves to the wall of books he realizes he left The Gunslinger in the kitchen. He regrets not grabbing it but doesn’t know how he could have in this state of panic.

“Forget about the book, Felix!” The words are spoken in unison. Following the far off voices, Felix finds himself looking out the attic’s window he left open before going down to dinner.

“Forget about the book, Felix!” the voices shout again, echoing faintly in the dusk of the dead afternoon and the young evening.

The Arquette twins are in their backyard, looking right up at the open window Felix peers through. The air outside is still hot despite the plummeting sun. A fly whizzes in and out of the attic. Felix is too fixated on the twin sisters to notice the fly lands on his head 

“What did you say?” he calls down to them. 

The dragon mask and crown they use to play their game are at their feet. They’re not holding hands as they look up at him, but they’re close enough they’re shoulders are almost touching. They shout together: “Forget about the book! Your story is about to end, anyway!”

“What––?” 

The attic’s door shakes and falls open. Seconds later steam rises through the opening. Felix smells steamed corn and meatloaf. 

“M–M–Mom?” his voice shakes and barely raises above a whisper. It sounds more like a whimper.

She utters one word with each step she takes up the ladder. “Eat…Your…Dinner…Sweetheart!” 

She’s halfway up the ladder, but Felix has already crawled out the window. The Arquette girls watch him tiptoe across the roof and jump from the second story to the first story, slipping on loose shingles as he lands. He looks back and sees his mother hanging out of the window with the plate of food. Her cracked lips peel away and her eyes are black. The defining features that made her Felix’s mother are no longer present, as if she’s losing details. The more skin that falls off her face the bigger the hole for her mouth gets, like an animatronic human built to perform one simple task: making sure Felix eats his dinner.

“That’s not my mom,” Felix says to himself as he climbs down the vine-ridden terrace on the side of the house. “I don’t know who that is, but that’s not my mom.”

He runs out to the street without knowing where he’s going. Once he gets there, he notices the darkening sky is getting brighter. 

No, it’s getting whiter, Felix thinks.

He recalls every horror, every thriller, every science fiction book he’s ever read. Anyone where someone dies in it but how they could have gotten away. But could the character have gotten away if the writer intended for him to die?

Perhaps his reality isn’t what he always thought it is. Maybe it’s more like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or something more dystopian like The Hunger Games. But when he really thinks about these stories, he can’t remember ever actually reading them. 

What if he’s dreaming? Dreaming this whole experience, including having read so many books they accumulate to an entire wall in his attic? What if the world he really lives in is a dying one like The Road or a predetermined one like Brave New World

What if he’s stranded on an island? What if he’s one of those British schoolboys marooned on that island where Piggy is killed and a pig head is worshipped?

What if he’s in a story?

With the whitening sky halfway to the horizon, Felix runs up to Mr. Frosh’s house and pounds on the front door. After knocking over a dozen times, Mr. Frosh swings the heavy oak door open. 

“I said I was coming,” he barks. “Now, what do you want, Felix?”

Mr. Frosh has given Felix a few of books over his lifetime, beginning with Goodnight Moon. The most recent one he gave Felix was Lord of the Flies.

“Mr. Frosh, am I in a story? Is this––” he waves his hands in the open air as if that’s a good enough illustration “––all a story?”

Mr. Frosh sighs. “Yes, Felix, now would you just leave me alone? I’m watching a movie.”

“I can’t go home, Mr. Frosh. My mom…My mom isn’t my mom anymore. She’s just some person trying to force feed me my dinner. I can’t go home. I won’t––”

“All right, calm down. You can come in, but don’t expect me to feed you anything.”

Felix looks behind him and up at the whitening sky. It’s nearly the color of an eggshell and growing whiter still. He follows Mr. Frosh into his living room where No Country for Old Men plays. 

“Now, I don’t want to hear anymore about living in a story or being a story or nothing,” Mr. Frosh says with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Don’t interrupt me anymore while I’m watching this.”

It’s the last scene. Ed Tom Bell and his wife sit in their kitchen. Ed Tom looks disturbed. His wife drinks a cup of coffee and watches him. “How’d you sleep?” she asks him. 

“I don’t know,” Ed Tom says. “I had dreams.”

Felix looks out Mr. Frosh’s window at the ever whitening sky. The cherry trees in the backyard obstruct most of the view, but Felix thinks the sky is blending in with the horizon now.

“They always is to the party concerned,” Ed Tom says to his wife. Felix turns his attention to the screen.

His wife sets down her coffee. “Ed Tom, I’ll be polite.”

Felix stands beside Mr. Frosh, who’s sitting on the edge of his recliner, biting his lower lip. 

“Two of them,” Ed Tom sighs. “Both had my father in them. It was peculiar. I’m older now than he ever was by twenty years, so in a sense I’m lookin back at a younger man.”

Felix remembers Ed Tom’s words in the book. Maybe he has read every book in that wall up in the attic. He even remembers the words. They stuck with him for no reason he can really explain, except that he didn’t really understand them when he read them, and he still doesn’t really understand them now.

“About the color of the moon,” Felix remembers. “And in the dream I knew he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.”

Felix opens his mouth to ask Mr. Frosh what that means, but Mr. Frosh isn’t there anymore. The TV isn’t there anymore. In fact, Mr. Frosh’s whole house isn’t there anymore. Felix finds himself floating––not up or down or left or right, just floating––in a landscape of white. 

In every direction he looks he sees only the white. His heart races and tears stream down his face, floating with his body once they fall off his chin. He spins around and around and never becomes dizzy. He screams in the white, but his voice doesn’t carry because there’s nothing around to carry it. It dies as soon as he closes his mouth.

I’m sorry, Felix. The words appear from left to right in the void before him in large Times New Roman letters. But it’s time for your story to end.

“This is a story?” he asks the words, whoever is writing them. “I’m in a story?”

The words fade away, and a black vertical bar blinks in the white.

“What happens when the story ends?” he asks. Tears still spill from his eyes. His heart still races, as if he can feel the imminent erasure of his existence. 

I’m also sorry to say, Felix, that there will be no sequel. 

Then everything is white as the page goes blank. Everything, except for that black vertical bar, blinking.