Tom exited his back door, looking up at the tip. It looked built from sandstone, bright even in the early sunlight. It had grown over the height of his house during the night, made from long, straight lines of cut stone. Its glow made it look like he would feel awful heat if he pressed his palm against it, like a water heater. Circular marks and deep gouges went up one side and down the other. They told some sorry story, he knew, and as he got closer he began to hear them.
“Your scores are too low.” Tom turned his head and saw himself standing on the lawn, looking at a man seated behind a desk. “A score below five hundred is unsatisfactory for this program. I encourage you to continue studying and take the test again.”
He had seen the scene before, just a day ago. He had heard what the man had said a lot, in a lot of different forms. “Your GPA isn’t high enough for this program. You have done insufficient research for this program. Your personal essay was insufficient for this program. No, no, no, no, no.”
The other him faded. He’d heard or seen it a hundred times in the last month. After years of working as a medical scribe he thought it would be easy, the simple next step. No. Even the programs he had first scoffed at now scoffed back.
“I already have a drink.” He turned his head again, in the other direction. The woman walked away from him, refusing to look back. “I already have a boyfriend. I don’t want you to talk to me again. I’m not interested. I don’t want to date you. I just started seeing someone.” Sometimes just silence. Sometimes he waited at the coffee shop for an hour without reward.
The sad slob faded from view. Tom continued looking in its direction.
“We’ve decided to continue the process with applicants who are better suited to our needs,” he heard from the first direction. He looked and found an HR manager, sometimes an unseen pair of hands writing an email, sometimes a computer system sending a boilerplate rejection. No, no, no.
He looked up at the obelisk. He scowled. “So?” he asked it.
All it takes is a touch, he heard. A shiver fell down his spine, and his flesh prickled.
“And then what?” he said, a little louder than he expected to.
And then you get what you want.
“And how do you know what I want?”
“No!” Tom looked to the side and saw little him, Tommy. “How many times do I have to tell you, don’t bring disgusting stuff like that inside!” He watched his mother smack him. “Get it out on the lawn, this instant!” He remembered holding a small green creature, rescued from a muddy puddle. “Bah gawd!” a voice shouted on the other side, and he seized, expecting to feel the belt. “Boy, you come in here and get these glass pieces up, or so help me I will tan your hide!” He got a tanned hide anyway. He watched a bully push him off a swing, and the rest of the class pair off, leaving him to work with the teacher, and open a valentine’s box to find it empty.
The speed increased. He saw teams cut him, girls dump him, colleges reject him. Tommy became Tom. You didn’t deserve it, the whisper told him. Just a touch. And you get what you want. His life sped past him, and he watched himself age. Tom became Thomas.
The wrinkles and gray nearly stopped his heart. He watched a mail-sorter run, and ended every day with more paper cuts. Mail got sent to the wrong locations. His boss showed him the door, blaming him. He grew too old for any of the women in the bar to look his way. He got drunk alone, and went home with the street bucking under his car’s wheels.
His stomach felt worse every day. “We have no openings for your skill set available,” the person across the desk said.
Such a shame.
Tom looked up at the obelisk. A long life. He looked to his left and saw a painful childhood, looked to his right and saw endless empty decades. There is…another way.
“Everyone else has told me no. What about you?” he asked, snarling. “How could you possibly say yes?”
Tom took a step forward. He could feel more warmth, enough to puncture his shirt and raise beads of sweat. “What are you?” He heard nothing. “Where did you come from? What are you going to do?”
Give you what you want.
“What do I want?” He looked to the left and right, watching over and over, a scene of something knocking him down, or denying him, or sending him away, and each time he looked older and emptier. Little Tommy looked at him with a child’s scowl from his left, a bruise raising under his eye. On his right a lifetime of nothing sagged old Thomas’ skin; the old man looked back with an unchanging grimace. “When was the last time you laughed?” Thomas asked him. Make all of this sadness go away. Let it burn. He held his hand toward the obelisk, and he found it blistering.
The Earth began to boil. Tom, frying hand glued to the stone, laughed. Even after he realized his foolishness, he kept laughing. The heat came in short, painful bursts, like the obelisk laughed too, but before long Tom realized it didn’t laugh with him.
Daniel Deisinger lives in Minnesota, writing for work and fun. His previously published stories include: “Another Night of Violence” (Whiskey Island, forthcoming), “Interlopers” (Outposts of Beyond, Apr. 2017), and “The Essentials of Family” (Stillwater Living Magazine, Nov. 2013).