is one of the most trivial, cliché, and now damn near meaningless words in our entire language. An older version of this story was originally titled Bad Writing, which was the most pretentious thing I’d ever done as a writer. It beat this title & introduction combination by only a very small margin. Here’s the story:
His alarm went off, tearing the steady morning air apart with its shriek of alertness. He woke up without a metaphor, and fell down through his floor. He panicked—splashing around in it, trying to figure out what had happened before realizing dreadfully that his apartment—well, was flooding.
“Cool,” he said, plucking his voyaging cat from a floating shoebox. He dropped the fluffy load into the water. “We’re in this together,” he told the now howling cat. It scowled from beneath its wet and flattened fur.
The guy picked himself up and trudged through the 1 ½ feet of water in order to pretty himself up for work. By some outlandish miracle, the shower—the glorious, magical, godsend of a shower—was still functioning. He showered ankle deep in a pool of brown sludge. It reminded him of when he was a kid and would take three hour long showers with the stopper in the drain and pretend it was raining. He sang while he washed himself (Wonderwall, by Oasis), fearing already that these few sacred moments would be the best part of his day.
He got out of the shower and reached for his towel, knocking it into the gurgling muck water instead.
Why was it gurgling?
“Fuck it all,” he yelled. The cat, now reclining on a buoyant, rubbery futon cushion, floated by and eyed him up. The little shit was smiling. The guy tried to kick the cushion over, but the cat jumped onto the dresser and began to purr just before the makeshift vessel capsized.
Everybody at work wanted to know why his shoes were wet. “Rough morning,” he kept explaining, “rough morning.”
“You live near that water main break?” asked whoever was in the cubicle was next to his. “I heard it flooded the river.”
“Apparently,” he said.
His office neighbor bobbled back in jiggling affirmation. “Sucks, sucks.”
“How much water was there?”
He pulled off his shoe, and poured out a puddle. A tiny fish flopped out too, just to make his point. “About this much, give or take.”
“Shit, man. That’s pretty cliché.”
“I hate that word.”
The guy’s boss jogged in soon after. A young upstart who kept landing promotion after promotion, and he was three years the guy’s junior. Running shoes, jogging shorts, and hanging-wire headphones to the core. All about “nu-management,” as he called it: constant teambuilding and positive reaffirmation. Compliment sandwiches. It was responsible for more rage fueled outbursts than a sticking gamepad in a drunken round of Mario Party.
“What happened to you?” he asked, sipping ravenously at a 44 ounce protein shake through a stirring straw. He’d once remarked on the practice, claiming that it was “fortifying for the lungs,” before giving it a 5 star (*****) recommendation.
“I pissed myself,” said the guy.
“It rained on my way in.”
“No it didn’t. I’ve been out all day.”
“Just one cloud in the sky. Followed me all the way here.”
“Wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, champ?”
“Yeah, and then I fell in. My apartment flooded.”
“Ah,” said his boss, smiling and twirling the baby straw, “now we get to the bottom of it. I heard about that water leak on the news. Said they evacuated everyone early in the morning—that it’s just gonna get higher and higher. It overtook the river.”
“Well,” he said, “nobody told me.”
“You ever go swimming in the river?”
“It’s great for the body, and it keeps your mind fresh. Brisk. Anyway, you might wanna go home early and salvage whatcha can,” said the boss. “Tell ya what, take the rest of the day off. You’re starting to smell up the place anyway.” He chuckled. The guy didn’t.
“Fine,” said the guy.
The walk back home was begrudgingly euphoric. Angels were dropping like flies, their alabaster feathers drifting to the pavement like so many raindrops.
“Trite,” he said, “nu-management,” he said, and forged on.
“Please, help me,” pled an angel through choked up strings of blood. He lay on the ground with a sword driven through his tummy, a golden hilt jabbing through one end and a blood bathed blade at the other. Guy kept walking on, didn’t even crane his neck to take a look. “Guh,” the angel spluttered in a crimson spray before dying on the side of the road.
The apartment’s water level had risen. His complex was at the bottom of the hill, so they were catching most of the run off. The water had turned red, due to all of the carnage in the streets from the skies. His cat sat on top of his tallest dresser, and glared at him.
“Sorry,” the guy said.
“You should be,” said the cat.
“Excuse me?” the guy asked.
“What, so now you’re shocked? You see some dying angel and remain completely catatonic,” the cat laughed, “but this, this gets you? So what if I can talk, huh? Grow up. Read a book or something.” The guy stood gaping, staring at the cat. “What, cat got your tongue?”
“Whatever,” he said, looking away and pulling a backpack out of the water like a half-dunked doughnut. He started rustling through his belongings, trying to find anything expensive, dry, or worth saving. He threw himself onto his bed in order to get out of the muck.
The irony of owning a water bed in his current situation was not lost on him.
Outside, things weren’t getting any better. The sky was darkening at a quickening rate, especially considering that it was only three in the afternoon. The angels were gone—probably just a hallucination, he’d decided, not really caring either way. Every so often he heard a panicked scream from afar.
“Do you have anyone you could call?” his cat asked.
“No,” he said.
“What about the Ghost of—”
“Whatever weird thing you’re about to say, shut up.”
“Lighten up a bit, huh, champ?”
“You sound like my boss.”
“I am your boss,” the cat said, jumping across a perfectly timed bridge of transient floating possessions. The cat landed on the counter and started at the self-serving cat feeder. It had a picture of a happy cartoon cat on it, waving his paw toward what the humans were meant to believe was the camera. It was the kind of thing people bought for when they went on vacation. This guy just bought one because he didn’t want to have to manually operate his own cat. “So what’ll it be, eh?” the cat asked between mouthfuls of dry, processed nutrition pellets.
“I don’t know,” the guy said.
“You never know, none of you do. It’s that whole human thing, right? Your stupid little condition. You prance around with your guns, your thumbs, your egos, blowing everything up from left and right and between you to kingdom come. You write novels about how great you all think you are, and then you just sit around on your soggy beds crying ‘Oh, boo hoo! I don’t know!’”
“How profound,” the guy said.
“Meow,” the cat said.
“A talking cat,” he said, sitting himself up. “That’s just overdone,” he said. “Why should anyone care anymore?” His feet were getting annoyingly cold. He put them up over his bed post and let them drip drip drip drip dry. He idly scrolled through the contacts list on his cell phone, but that proved fruitless. He tried to play Doodle Jump, but he accidentally picked the water level and immediately closed the game in frustration. He thought about throwing his phone, but he didn’t want to be overly dramatic about it all. The cat watched him from the counter.
The water kept rising. It smelled rancid. He scooped up his bag and made for the door, re-soaking his still drenched feet.
“You coming?” he asked the cat.
“Nah. I’ll be here when you get back,” the cat purred.
“I am a cat.”
The sky was still dark, but only in a gradient kind of way, and it changed depending on however you looked at it. Some spots would be black, and other parts would be sunset pink. He walked past people on the streets trying to take pictures of it with their phones. A lot of the phones started to spark and sizzle upon being pointed at the sky. One guy’s phone forcefully blasted Mambo Number 5 so loud he flung it down the gutter. It echoed back up from the sewer.
A little bit of Monica, in my life…
The leak in the main waterline seemed like it’d been fixed—which made no sense, since the water was still rising down the hill. He’d have to call his insurance people soon. Or his landowner. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure if he had insurance. Or a landowner. Just what was he doing with his life, anyway?
He got on the first bus that came by.
“Crazy shit going on up there, huh?” asked the scraggly bearded, sunglass-wearing bus driver, nodding toward the clouds.
“Yeah,” said the guy.
“Any idea what it is?”
“That makes two of us. Two fifty, kid.”
He put his money into the cash sucking device in the front of the bus and then sat down near the back. The bus wasn’t crowded for once, which was pleasant. Maybe no one would talk to him. It was unlikely they’d want to.
“Hey,” said the beautiful bronze skinned girl a few seats in front of him. She looked him dead in the eye when she spoke, proving further that he simply had no grasp whatsoever on the inner workings of the world around him.
“Hi,” he said, not looking up at her.
“You get caught in that water break?” she asked, noticing his clothes.
“Yeah,” he said. “I live at the bottom of the hill.”
“Well that must suck.”
“I’d like to say it left me high and dry, but, as you can clearly see…”
She chuckled. “That was awful,” she said.
He looked up at her and smiled for the first time that day. “Then why’d you laugh?” he asked.
“Because of how bad it was. Where’re you heading?” she asked.
“Dunno,” he said.
“You don’t know?”
“Anywhere, really. Somewhere dry, though. I just needed to get out of my apartment.”
Her brow furrowed. “You don’t have a place to go?”
“I do not,” he said, reclining with his hands behind his head. She thought about it for a moment.
“Listen,” she said, “my roommate just moved out. It gets kind of weird at night. I wouldn’t mind putting you up tonight.”
“You’re going to let a strange, soaking wet man off a bus into your house?”
“What does being a man have to do with it? I could pound your tiny body into the dirt from whence it came at moment’s notice. Besides. You just seem like a good guy down on his luck. I feel that. I’ve had lots of help from people in the past. I like to pay it forward.”
“Wow, I must have even better game than I thought.”
“That’s not what I’m going for,” she declared.
“Damn it,” he said, “Friend zoned again. And just when my striped fedora up and floated away.”
They both laughed.
“So what’s your favorite color?” the little thing asked.
“Excuse me?” asked the guy, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
“Your favorite color,” the mechaniloid reiterated.
“I thought you were powered down.”
“I was. Now I am not. Things change. That’s life. What’s your favorite color?” The machine was adamant in its inquiry.
“What?” he asked again.
“What is your favorite color?” the machine asked.
“I like yellow, I guess.”
“Is it your favorite?”
“I don’t know.” A beat.
“What is your favorite color?”
“I already told you!” he shouted.
“What color can you be sure is your favorite?”
“I don’t know!”
“Well then we’ve reached an impasse.”
“So now what?”
“Now nothing, I guess. I’m just messing with you, guy. The idea that some thumb-bound sapien could—let alone should should—make up its mind about something and hold onto any such a decision throughout the entirety of her being is absolutely absurd. Incalculable. Unheard of. Stupid and unreliable.”
“Right. Okay. You know, that’s kind of pretentious, man. You’re not even a real person.”
“Shut up,” the machine commanded.
When the guy had shown up at her apartment, he had taken her description of weird for granted. As it turned out, she worked with talking machines. She’d mentioned some jargon about artificial intelligence before she went to bed. Terminator shit, the guy had called it.
Her entire apartment was littered with the projects: semi-self-aware robots rolling around, telling the time and asking questions. It was a short wonder her old roommate bailed on her. Our guy had been completely intrigued when she told him about it. With the way his day had been going, he’d been expecting some kind of monsters or some more talking animals. When he showed up at the girl’s apartment full of badass toys, he was happier than a clam. But then they wouldn’t let him sleep.
“What do you think happens when we die?” asked one. This one was small and round, like a really smooth rock you just wanna put in your pocket forever.
“We won’t die,” the guy said, “I’ll die.”
“Will I live forever, then?” the machine asked.
“No, you’re not alive,” he said, rolling over on the couch and pressing his head into a pillow.
“Then how can I go to heaven?” the machine asked. The guy sat up.
“Are you really asking me that right now?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the guy said. “I don’t think that’s something worth worrying about.”
“Because no matter how it turns out,” he began, sleep deprivation commandeering his sensibility, “we all end up ending. It’s not worth worrying about what happens after. Because that’s after, and it will or will not happen either way, on its own accord. Or something, or whatever. I don’t know. I never know. What’s important, I think, is that we do what we wanna do, while we can still do it.”
“Oh,” said the machine, and powered down.
“Please don’t be broken,” the guy pleaded before powering down himself.
“So your robots were pretty cool,” he said as she walked him back to the bus stop. There was less blood in the streets than there had been previously.
“I’m glad you think so. I could take ‘em or leave ‘em, really.”
“Isn’t that your passion though? Trying to make them think?”
“Nah,” she said.
“What is?” he asked.
“I just really want to know everyone’s favorite color.”
She smiled sunbeams.
The water was finally draining from his apartment.
“You get laid last night?” his cat asked.
“Well, no. I lied.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“You met someone, though,” said the cat, bouncing over to the self-feeder again. It was like the cat didn’t eat unless the guy was there, defeating the entire idea of the vacation feeder in the first place.
“Yeah,” the guy said. “A friend.”
“You gonna ask her out?”
“No, she’s cool though. She makes robots to find out people’s favorite color.”
“What?” asked the cat.
“I dunno,” the guy said.
“Well, whatever it is,” began his cat, “you’re quite a bit more talkative today.”
“You love her, don’t you?”
“How can you know?”
“I can’t,” he said, “that’s the point,” he said.
“Yes, point. The point.”
“You know, everything in here is still soaking wet.”
“Is that the point?”
“Then what is?”
“I don’t know.”
The cat stood up. “Is that your catchphrase now?”
“Maybe. But you don’t know, right?”
“Right. I don’t know.”
“So what’re you gonna do now, then?”
“Well,” said the guy, “I think I’m gonna quit my job. I’m gonna quit my job, and then I think I’m gonna go get some coffee. I’m gonna go get some coffee, and then, then I think I’m gonna make some calls. I’ve some stuff I need to work out.” The guy got ready to leave.
“Well, good luck,” said the cat.
“I won’t need it,” the guy said.
“Yes, you will,” said the cat.
A final beat.
“I know,” said the guy.