Nathaniel Duggan ~ Red Ocean

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.