All morning Henry has been thinking about how the end of history is over. It’s Tuesday. No one is responsible for anything. At any given moment, billions of people across the planet are quietly screaming inside their heads. Billions are just thinking, “Oh god, aaaaaaaaaa.” Henry’s wife is at work. Henry himself is unemployed. When his wife had left earlier that morning, she was mad at him. He’d been cruel to her in dreams, she told him. “You were cheating on me,” she said. “There were tapes to prove it. The tapes showed everything. But they were checked out from the library. Someone had gotten to them first.”
It’s Tuesday and Henry is unemployed and he goes for a smoke on the porch. In the parking lot, there is a frat party. Kids are doing handstands while chugging from kegs. They bounce on cars like trampolines. It’s not even noon. The parking lot is made of dirt, and dust tails kick up as if in a cowboy western.
Henry and his wife live in a college town because the rent is cheap and Henry is unemployed, although the apartments are like the cardboard boxes you put dead pets in, and Henry’s wife has a small daughter whose tricycle was stolen within the first week. Henry is a stepdad. He owns lots of power tools, a trait he feels possesses “big stepdad energy”. This is a phrase he says often aloud to himself, usually when cracking a beer first thing in the morning: “Big stepdad energy,” he mumbles, alone.
Two boys detach themselves from the party and approach his porch. They have the sullen look of a standoff. They’re dressed in leather jackets dark as they are glossy, somehow untouched by all the billowing dust. Henry squints at them. There are probably only a few years between him and them, but because he is a stepdad he knows he’s impossibly older, a primordial marsh of a man, and he flourishes his cigarette in a way that he hopes will indicate this.
“I’m Crow,” one of the boys says. “This is my brother, Gull.”
“Like birds,” Henry says. “How cute. I’m Henry.”
“Henry,” Gull repeats. “Like the bird,” he says, smiling. His smile is beady. It is like a small bead that could be loaded into a toy gun and shot, stingingly, at someone. “How cute.”
“Got a second?” Crow says. “We’re trying to move this couch.”
Henry ashes his cigarette. He pretends to consider the issue philosophically. He realizes he’s still in a bathrobe and boxers.
“You look like you’ve got a second,” Crow says. His teeth are yellow and his eyes like glimmering cricket shells. “Follow us.”
They beckon him into the parking lot party. Bodies jerk about him like ants in a nest. A cadre of kids is attempting to climb to the top of his apartment building using its gutter. He is aware of his fatness, the hairs like a moss gathering on his stomach. He snatches a beer can out of someone’s hand and chugs it in seconds, crushing it against his skull afterward.
“The youth have this whole misconception about alcohol,” he says to Crow and Gull’s backs as they lead him. “It’s not merely total volume consumed, we need to hold time constant as well. Like a math problem.”
“There’ll be a party later, if you help us,” Crow says without turning around. “Girls included and everything.”
“Look,” Henry says. “I’m an adult. I have careers, responsibilities. A wife who loves to be upset with me. Like one of those sitcom wives. You’ll understand one day. The process of understanding—it’s like what a caterpillar goes through. With the cocoon and everything. You sort of, you undergo something.”
His bathrobe flutters like a cape. His boxers are spaceship-themed. College students holler at him as he passes, and a rock is thrown that grazes his bare leg.
They arrive at an apartment building on the other side of the lot. Its door is open with a couch wedged halfway through the frame. Henry considers the angles. He exhales profoundly.
“Not looking good, boys,” he says. “You haven’t even begun to reckon with the world’s misery.”
“I’ll get some beers,” Gull offers.
Crow sits down on the couch, the section that is still partly indoors. “You an engineer or something?”
“Banking fraud analyst,” Henry says. “Was, I guess. So you’re in school? Keep on like that and you’ll end up designing government bombs for remote warfare. You’ll be contributing to the indiscriminate deaths of little children whose faces you’ll never see or know.”
“I’m a double theater major,” Crow says, taking out a lighter and flicking it against the cushion beneath him
“I have a daughter,” Henry says. “Or my wife does, at least. It really puts things into perspective. Punks like you regard women as things that leak from a lab. You need to take foreign policy into account. You have to consider the global perspective.”
Gull returns with a twelve pack. Henry fastens his bathrobe. They get to work. In the parking lot beyond, the party persists, but something in the day is punctured, lost like so much air hissing. The kids approach their kegs apathetically, with minimal interest, letting the liquid gush and miss their mouths. A tire pops on one of the cars they’re stomping atop. Cops roll in and just kind of stand there, hands on their belts, before pinching their brows and driving off. Henry, Crow, and Gull, meanwhile, gruntingly try everything to budge the couch. Physics, fulcrums, corkscrew motions. Henry leaves and returns with a hammer and screwdriver, unhinges the door from its frame. Big stepdad energy, he thinks. “We’ve gained a quarter of an inch,” he says encouragingly. The couch jams, and they hear the fabric-rip of it tearing on an unseen nail.
“How’d you get the couch in,” Henry finally huffs, “if you can’t get it out?”
Sweat has gathered on the floorboards beneath them like dew. The last of the sun scabs the sky. A few stragglers linger, but otherwise the parking lot party has all but dissipated. His companions exchange glances.
“There are things about this world…” Gull begins.
“You couldn’t comprehend it,” Crow says. “We were on a bunch of LSD, to start with.”
“Out of beer,” Henry notices.
His wife pulls into the parking lot. Her car tramples smashed bottles. As she steps out and helps her daughter from the vehicle, Henry waves with such enthusiasm his bathrobe comes undone and whips about. She stares back at him, the couch, the two brothers in their leather outfits, the parking lot of cratered kegs and cans like the shiny discarded skin of insects. She hurries her daughter inside.
Crow and Gull yawn. They thrust their hands into their pockets and shuffle their feet.
“Getting late,” Gull says.
“What?” Henry says. “We’re just getting started. C’mon, show a little conviction. Aren’t we a team?”
Crow’s eyes do not reflect the little light that is left. “It’s not even our couch,” he says.
The two boys depart, startling off several birds that have gathered in the lot to peck at the day’s remains. Darkness arrives like a fist’s closing. Henry should be cold but he is not cold. He walks back to his apartment and digs through the closet with all his tools. His wife is weeping in the kitchen while her daughter shoves a doll down the garbage disposal.
“In my dream,” his wife gasps between choking noises, “the seas turned red. An entire ocean of blood. But when scientists investigated, they discovered it wasn’t the water that had changed, but our eyes. We were only seeing what was already there.”
He leaves with his power saw and a jug of whiskey. He gets to work on the couch. Sparks and stuffing alike fly everywhere. Someone inside the apartment that the couch is still partly lodged within emerges from a room, watches him work, grabs a beer from the fridge. He ignores this. The couch has been sliced cleanly, perfectly in half. He is able to move both pieces outside with ease. He carries them into the parking lot, shoves them back together, and sprawls himself across the bisected cushions. He is surprised by how heavy his breathing comes. He is just now aware of the couch’s pattern, white with coiling transparent flowers, the sort of design you would see stitched into the wallpaper of your grandmother’s house on a day when sunlight slants golden through every window to illuminate dust motes dancing like so many bubbles in champagne. It’s beautiful.
Nathaniel Duggan has been employed, among other things, as a mattress salesman, fish store cashier, unpaid intern, and porn cataloguer at a video rental store. He graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington, and his writing has appeared in Hobart, X‑R-A‑Y Literary Magazine, Gay Death Trance, and elsewhere. His flash fiction was nominated for The Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions of 2019. Currently he works an office job in one of those buildings that is filled with staplers, printers, and managers. He can be found on twitter @asdkfjasdlfjd.