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The Observation Game

by s.c. virtes


Karl was relaxed. His mind wandered: he felt boundless. His muscles were limp, he slouched comfortably, his skin sent few signals to his dormant mind. When he opened his eyes, he saw people looking at him, though the eyes quickly turned away.

They pretended to be innocent. Karl slammed back into his body, into hard reality.

The place: The Long Island Ferry, headed south from Bridgeport across the Sound under gray-black neutral skies. The time: daytime, day and year irrelevant, because Karl did not care. He could check his watch if necessary, but resented it. The timepiece was a fat black parasite on his wrist, he would not look at it. He grinned faintly.

The floor swayed gently, from the infinite power of the waves which teased the ship from below. Those people who moved from their seats walked like drunks, staggering with bowlegged inaccuracy, either amused or disgusted by the sensation. Though there was no lack of empty seats, the place felt crowded. Along each wall, a blank plastic bench ran under the windows. The floor between was dotted with round tables, each with a steel pole rising from the middle, mooring them to floor and ceiling. People sat as far from strangers as space would allow ... looking up, Kyle could pinpoint the spots where defensive zones were crossing.

The bodies were colored in conservative suits, navy windbreakers, sneakers, jeans ... as each soul pretended to be alone. Who wanted to attract attention?

Their expectations were insane, and could not be met. The result was a dance of averted eyes. None meant to be cruel, but none knew what to say -- or even how to react. Karl met another pair of eyes, they looked away. He knew the rules and, breaking them, seemed to upset passengers. He saw the bald man turn and mumble to his shapeless wife.

A moist spray of wind caught him, and he shivered. Karl tried to close his eyes, to block out the eyes, but he could feel them upon him, regardless. Hushed voices passed sentences through the air he needed to breathe, and their scrutiny was destined to change him. He felt it happening again.

Karl was afraid.

When he opened his eyes, he looked down and saw a scar on his wrist that was not his. It was not a part of the Karl he had expected to see. It was ugly, puckered, as if he had once slit his wrist and lived. But that never happened.

He wondered. Was this scar what someone else wanted to see, or had he created it by opening his eyes and being afraid?

He looked at a spot on the floor: there were several spots, in the shadows of tables -- among tiles sticky with forgotten gum -- where all eyes were drawn. He let the spot pull him in. Still, in his peripheral vision, he caught glimpses of the people around him. He could see no details, only featureless faces and smears of color where clothing should have been. Yet his mind filled in details: faces were supposed to have eyes, so they grew eyes, in the center of the oval, where eyes were supposed to be.

But faces with eyes in the center had to be looking at him. He chose a face and looked up at it.

She pretended she'd been looking somewhere else. She was young, no more than fifteen. Black hair punctuated with a pink-yellow comb, colors chosen to match the pastel blues of her shirt. The soft collar poked out from under curls and the blank fade of her denim jacket. Her legs were crossed and blue-jeaned, and he followed her ambivalent form down to her turquoise Nike sneakers, with their absurd whoosh on the side. He knew the type, always trying to look and act like the latest MTV rock video clones, plastic and irresponsible to the point of banality. He could picture her friends, and how they talked when they were together, and what they believed they wanted out of life.

But maybe he was wrong. Maybe he had just filled in details, and created a dull portrait. Maybe she'd been something else entirely -- before his eyes took over. He closed his eyes again, shaking his head gently against the questions. He still felt exposed. Something was wrong.

Within himself, he could feel eyes tearing him apart. The senior next to him glanced at him and thought she saw an available man of her own age. She needed to speak so badly, Karl could feel part of himself fade away and change, and strike up the conversation, with a wrinkled book of crossword puzzles in a gnarled purple hand. Something that began with, "My pen died ... I don't suppose you ..."

The denim girl was looking at him now. He resisted the urge to glare back. Eyes closed, he could still sense the tiny jiggle of her lavender hoop earrings; but she expected to see a disgusting derelict, hands in his pants, scratching idly as he glared at her. Part of Karl seeped away and became what she hated. Maybe he would catch her in the parking lot before she got to her mom's Mercedes.

A middle-aged man, probably named Joe, stared up from his briefcase of real estate pamphlets. The titles all swam together in his mind, "How to be Happy/Rich/Perfect, How to Do it Now!" The man's eyes found Karl, thought they saw the son of a client. Another part of Karl slipped aside like a shadow on a street corner, the shadow gained twenty pounds and a whole new set of memories ... Karl felt a taste of a damnably mundane life. He shook his head. No, he had never been to Vermont, he hated skiing. He tried to clutch together those memories which were real, struggled, succeeded. He was himself again.

But he was being taken apart. He was the center now. Everybody wanted a piece of him. He could feel the personalities gather in his sternum, like held breaths, before flying out to be what they were expected to be. He knew the first thoughts of each copy as it departed ...

No, he muttered, I am Karl Oberstin. I am nothing more, nobody else. It is just the Observation Game. I have survived before.

In a smaller, less anxious crowd, he admitted.

What could he do? Would there be anything left of him in an hour? If nobody looked up and saw him the way he saw himself, he was doomed. For some reason he thought of trees falling in forests, unobserved.

But wait. His knowledge of himself would have to preserve him. Maybe he would fade here, but as soon as he was recognized by a friend, he would get his strength back. Mark was waiting for him in Port Jefferson, for pizza and role-playing games.

Still, the feeling of being drained -- dissected -- could not be shaken. Another handful of judgments were pulled from his chest. This time, there was pain. He felt something rip inside of him.

It wasn't fair! His body demanded that he fight back. It was a dangerous word, a chemical phrase: Survival.

He was on his feet a moment later.

"What do you people WANT from me? I do nothing wrong, yet you tear me apart! Why can't you just leave me alone?"

Now, he was the center of attention. He was in control. A crooked smile worked its way onto his face. He spoke, and he gestured with his hands, and ...

The denim girl pretended she was looking away. But she turned her head now, seeking the voice she feared. He held her eyes, but she did not back off. She kept looking, as though blind. Of course she's blind, Karl observed. That explained the walking stick against her knee, and that the Van Halen symbol on her pin was nearly upside down. Her hands were in constant, subtle motion, gauging the world around her. She hated herself. She turned away when there was no more voice to guide her. She felt idly at the edge of newspaper left behind on the warm seat near her.

Karl looked at the senior next to him, watched the woman try to knead a pain out of her hands. She would not succeed. The knuckles would continue to swell, the flesh would crack and bleed. Her face grew tight, then terrible. A prison grew from her grimaces, there was no key, and nobody to speak to, ever again ...

The real estate exec, despite his sharp clothing and perfect hair, looked away and felt doubts. He had done it all by the books, but he spent the money as fast as he got it, and, in between sales, he chewed his nails and watched the bills pile up. He put in the hours, bought all the right suits, but nobody loved him any better for it. He clutched his stomach, gently, then tighter. He needed his pills, but he'd left them behind ...

A scream! The kid at the snack bar held up his burned, smoking hands, amazed. A man fell down the metal steps from the upper deck, he tumbled like laundry; a leg snapped when it got caught on a railing post. A baby rolled over and coughed bloody tissue ... its mother had gouged pits for eyes.

Karl felt the power spiral out from himself. The burned scream had come from his own throat; he felt touches of every affliction, but it only strengthened him. He found himself laughing, then caught himself and collapsed back in his seat. Air curled and steamed around him, but he fought to contain the forces. This was not what he wanted, either. In order to beat the eyes, he'd create a universe which was ugly and miserable.

Was this the only answer?

The air was filled with the sound of changes, with moans and pains and despair.

What if he stole beautiful pieces from people instead? Then they might be distracted, and leave him alone, without all the suffering. He closed his eyes, and congested cries filled his head. He took a breath and promised to observe a beautiful thing in every person he looked at.

When he opened his eyes, there was a burst of light, and the ferry was empty. Even the attractive woman behind the newspaper stand was gone. The air smelled wrong, dead, electrical. There seemed to be laughter, but it was faint, muffled with distance and walls. He assumed there was still a pilot, but there was no proof.

Karl looked out the window. Water slid past, uncaring, unchanged. A trio of jellyfish fluttered under the waves. No bobbing clot of corpses, no highways, no gods on sunbeams offering consolation. It was an empty, uncaring world.

He wandered the entire ship, and saw nothing. Some of the shadows in the bar were too thick to be natural. They shifted and shivered, but told him nothing. He was, indeed, alone. He went back to his seat.

After a moment, he was on his feet again, fear returning.

There was nobody here to observe him, yet he still felt pieces of his self being torn away. Briefly, he thought he might be tearing himself apart, but dismissed the idea. No, he was a Master. He was in control.

He turned back to the window, and gasped.

This time there was no sea, no sky. The world showed row upon row of pale, phantom faces, looking in on him blankly. They stared at him -- into him -- in solid silence, from beyond. They faded quickly. Like anyone else, they pretended they hadn't been watching him at all.

Maybe he'd caught them off guard. Maybe they wanted him to get a glimpse. The haunted, deathly faces would never leave his mind. The image was burned there. He reeled back, and closed his eyes, but the faces were there now, inside his eyelids. He would never forget them. Never. They had made sure of this.

One by one, the passengers returned to the ferry. The denim girl could see again: she flipped a new CD into her tape player, hit PLAY, and was lost in herself, eyes closed. The kind old lady flipped another page of her Ludlum novel. The real estate stiff tapped a pen on his notebooks; his expression said, "Be Happy, Be Assertive, Be Wealthy." His grin still seemed shallow.

Karl tucked in his shirt and sat back down. The eyes still danced. The game was still mad, everyone fought for the same reality. But now that he'd seen the faces beyond, he could stand to be among the living. People looked at him from time to time, but he remained whole.

He found that spot on the floor, the tile which drew all eyes toward it. A shadow slid across it and smiled.

The boat drifted south when nobody was looking.*


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Story © copyright 1998-99 by s.c.virtes <>

Artwork "Cloning" © copyright 1998-99 by gopal Krishna Senthil Kumar <>



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