“a Stone and a Cloud” – Fiction by Brendan Byrne

The Familiar World - Rene Magritte, 1958
The Familiar World – Rene Magritte, 1958

The grand finale of our Winter 2016 issue is Brendan Byrne‘s “a Stone and a Cloud,” an unforgettable short story of modern alienation & techno-anxiety. But not only is this story your last look at FLAPPERHOUSE #8– it’s also your first look at the forthcoming anthology by the esteemed Dark Mountain Project, in which “a Stone & a Cloud” will be reprinted later this Spring.

{ X }

THE FIRST TIME I MET CLARE SHE TOLD ME SHE DIDN’T WANT TO BE HUMAN ANYMORE. She didn’t tell me verbally or via backchat, but from the way she tilted her head when I introduced myself, her lips pressing together, her eyes vacating, as if she was trying to imagine herself inside me, somewhere past the skin, the skull, and the meat. And then there is the fact that Artur introduced us.

 

An Open Field. You stand in it, and the background blurs. A thick sheen of rain obscures the horizon, or maybe your eyesight fails to serve the level of detail around you. Like a ’70s film on an HD screen, you can see more than you’re capable of being comfortable with. You sit; the grass underneath you supports you unquestioningly. Your hands hover in front of you: they want to do nothing, cracked and aching as they are. You lay back; you are supported perfectly, the mound of your lower back fitting with the slope of the land. You ever so faintly arch. Are you on an incline? It is such a gradual gradient that you would never notice. The sky above you is woven with soft gray clouds and their manatee offspring. They truck slowly across. There is no threat, though you know it must rain often enough; the land is too green. The field reminds you of somewhere you have never been but have read about online, someplace authentic, someplace where you can be yourself, a place free of politics and anxiety. You twitch, sleeping with your eyes open, but you don’t need to dream: the clouds pass above.

 

“You don’t look like a videogame designer.”

“What does one look like?”

This conversation, she’d say later, had been repeated endlessly. The guy shrugged, his ice cubes trying to crawl out of his cocktail. He wasn’t embarrassed, but he didn’t have an answer. I could have answered: not so blank, not so restful.

Instead I asked her which games she’d designed. When she told me, I was surprised to find that I’d played one, and told her so. “It has decent market penetration among your population.” She said it cold and slow enough that she could have been reading it off a spreadsheet. She didn’t give me any body language.

Not knowing what else to say, I introduced myself. The guy with the ice cubes looked at me indolent and aggressive as a medium-sized cat, and she said to me, “Artur was telling me I should talk to you.”

“About what?”

She didn’t respond immediately; she was still looking at my face. The guy with the ice cubes began saying something, so I nodded once, raised my glass of cheap white wine and walked away. I drifted to the edge of the roof; the scrum of people got thicker. They surrounded the bar, though nobody was getting drinks, just admiring the rough, dark wood, the brass scalloping, rough and warped; it had just been salvaged from the captain’s stateroom on a recently decommissioned destroyer and bolted into the roof. Someone in engineering tried to explain the process to me but eventually gave up, lacking reassurance. I wondered if any of Artur’s people self-styled as a woodsmith; Artur certainly didn’t. They were probably going to hire some artisanal Brooklyn guy with a superior website and beard to come in and spend several weeks imaginatively restoring it.

I walked to the opposite side of the roof. There was no one there, just the skyline. I could be impressed by it, if I let myself. I turned and looked back to where Clare was standing, next to a kind of plant I’d never seen before. Artur was there, wide and short and game in his perversion of business casual. They both looked at me. He grinned and waved me over. I mimed a grin, drained my glass and left the party.

 

She stood almost six foot. Her hair was short cut, yellow as a digital rendering of straw. Her avi was a collapse of autumnal humus, undergrowth that looked like it had been churned in some herbivore’s stomach sacs and exuded. She wore no jewelry. Her social was protected; I couldn’t see anything. I didn’t send a follower request. She’d been wearing a tortoise-shell shirt, shellacked like the animal’s skin. Her fingers were thin.

 

NYU MFA ’10, she’d done a game as her thesis. Assemblyline Worker #5697 @ Apple Plant #72, Guangdong Province! was released right before Steam launched its OS X platform, leaving it just underexposed enough to become culty. “There was a vogue toward boring the player,” she said in an interview two years later.  “This was, I think, partially lifted from the Contemporary Contemplative Cinema movement, which was at high tide then. Indie gamers wanted to suffer for their play. I was happy to help them. And the Foxconn suicides were in the news. Apple backlash was kicking up. Jobs wasn’t dead yet. It seemed obvious. I could do it, so I did it, and then it was just this thing, outside of me. I let it stay there.”

The game garnered her some adulation, some hate, and absolutely no money. A postdoc at the New School kept her afloat for a year; she appeared to accomplish nothing there. From there she was hired on to a game company so huge and influential that even I’d heard of it, specifically for a game called Storm. It did not come to fruition and, despite appearances on multiple great unrealized project listicles, no details concerning its gameplay have ever been released.

She didn’t surface again till about a year ago when she dropped An Open Field, apparently out of nowhere.

 

It seemed unlike her to be a panelist. There was a reticence in her few interviews, like she had been duped into them contractually, and none had appeared after An Open Field. The panel was cagily titled Undesigned Futures: Spurts of Temporality and was being held as part of some mammoth conference devoted to the internet which apparently happened every year. I wouldn’t have known about it, but Artur sent me the link in an email otherwise empty, save for an obscene emoji, and the single line, “u owe me pardner”.

 

The panel was held on the fifth floor of a repurposed warehouse in Dutch Kills where Newtown Creek, repeatedly hot-taked as the most polluted body of water in the NE, begins its thin gurgling division of Brooklyn and Queens. There was little out open that late besides a few unlicensed bacchanal clubs. Masked figures, the uncovered edges of their faces sagging with flesh, clung to brick near small steel-lined entrances, smoking furtively and casting an appreciative eye over the bodies which passed them by. Most of the other spaces were occupied by industrial shipping and storage ventures shuttered against the evening. Their lots were blocked off with wilting chain-link, trapping vehicles crouched small like decaying hounds, wet and lost. The moon was full, but it cast no light, and the only flickering down the long side-streets came from the luminescence of bars and bodegas a dozen blocks away, reflected.

The front door was opened by a thin, small man with a garbage disposal beard and deeply recessed eyes. He smiled like presentation equaled pain and finger-swooshed his screen, apologizing for the door being locked. “We haven’t been able to fix that yet. We don’t have the expertise,” he said, like he expected a response. I tried to smile back and made my way up an enormous empty stairwell. Had sides of beef been hauled up and down it? Unlikely, given the province. More likely: huge metal vats of industrial dye, lye, solvents, paints. I tried to imagine the place screaming with workers, but I’d never actually been in a functioning warehouse, only those repurposed for underground parties, loft apartments, or office spaces. The conference room blurred the line between all three. Its double doors were propped open by manuscripts stuffed under their jambs. A sink with PVC pipe legs held a half- dozen plastic wine glasses and ceramic mugs. The hallway broke onto a space divided by a series of rough, used-up looking couches and loveseats. On the right of it were a few folding tables; on the left were about thirty orange plastic scoop-chairs arranged in vague rows pointing at a barely raised stage.

About half the seats were full. I took one on the back left, clocking Clare in my periphery as I stripped off my hoodie. She was stationed in the pseudo-grade-school dining hall space, toggling back and forth between a few screens. I sat down, took out my own screen, and began to triage my inbox.

I resurfaced as recessed eyes performed an irony on the Occupy mic-check. Nobody echoed him or laughed. He refused to acknowledge this and asked the ether if everything was “A go?” Somebody somewhere assented, and the panelists tramped up onto the stage, took their seats and their wireless mics. Clare’d cut her hair short and sexless as Joan of Arc, tinted it bright red. She wore rust plaid trousers and a thin pink sweater with two swans, their beaks meeting in a chaste kiss. She sat with her legs crossed, palms jammed down against the metal chair’s struts, staring intently out over and above the crowd. The moderator began to describe the “strategies” of the panel.

 

Post-conference everyone swarmed to a nearby Mexican place for “fish tacos and cerveza”, as recessed eyes put it, repeatedly. Bodies jammed the huge industrial blocks. Laughter tinkled against exhausted, black air. In the scrum, I ran into a friend old enough to find me boring; Alex had always been a dog-walker but now edited a well-respected webzine as well. At the bar, she became immersed in deeply coded industry shit-talk. As I began to drift away into the static of their intent and the rhythm of their delivery, Clare appeared next to me.

“Nice to see you again,” she said.

“You remember me?” I asked.

“I don’t remember your name. You’re friends with Artur.”

“‘Friends’.”

“He’s kind of a human fucking pig.” There was something about her lilt which made me think Slovak, Hungarian, or some other off-brand Eastern European state, though her wiki read born and bred in CT. It was as if she’d trained herself to sound unplaceable, deeply foreign.

“Yeah, I’d say that’s accurate.”

“He also said that you collect people.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Well, that’s what he said.” She took a long pull of her dark, bottled beer. “What’d you think of the panel?”

“I don’t think I was able to generate a useful opinion.”

“So why’d you come?”

“Because I wanted to see how you handled yourself.”

The inside of her mouth, revealed in a single, sane laugh: white teeth, perfectly formed, red flesh. “How,” she asked, “did I do?”

“You had,” I said, “perfect composure.”

“I didn’t get to ask you last time. What did you think of An Open Field?”

“I thought it was the first time I’d relaxed in ten months.”

“What,” she said, “happened ten months ago?”

 

Down by the plastic shore, separating the two islands, its docks, walkways, and leisure centers not quite abandoned. I remembered them when they were new and freshly-branded, the smiling faces of the consumptive class peering down from broad glass facades, telling of untrammeled choice of amenities. Now it was just burnished glass, the heat pouring off it in the early spring sun, the clouds hanging between us and the buildings across the water, making everything that much more difficult to touch.

Inside weren’t the settlers of any new island, or their descendants slowly dealing with the savage new lives we’d always assumed were our birthright. Instead, there was a class disappointed enough to shell out for the upgrade.

“I imagine them as swarms,” Clare said, tapping on the glass as if there were kittens inside. “Despite the fact that whenever you see them represented they always look so clear and very distinct from one another.” I tried to blink away the myriad reflections: Clare, my body, the pier, the island behind, the sky, the water. They wouldn’t leave, and I still couldn’t see the metal tubes, much less the bodies. “The world,” she said, pulling herself back. “Is emptying out.”

“Just the rich,” I said.

“Just the rich.”

Homeless, deli workers, paranoiac old Village radicals, the ever-growing ranks of the indebted, young and still fresh of body, able to leverage meat against credit, all still haunted the city like it was their vocation, like they knew no one would come after they were gone.

“I did not know life could hold so many,” Clare said, briefly glancing back to the island.

She invited me to follow her stare, but my attention had already been captured by the great screen dominating the north side of the complex of buildings, dwarfing wild-grown trees which were never from around here to begin with. On the great screen, the little personages sat, fat and snaked as retroviruses, engaging in their complexities. These fluid dynamics were always expressed in the least understandable terms, to invoke the insularity of the upgraded, to fetishize their new existence, to set it apart from our own. Artur would be cynical and cold enough to see through the screen down to where the code lived in fiberglass and wire, under the concrete husk that sat under our feet like frozen pie shell against which little waves full of dead microorganisms softly slushed.

But when Clare followed my gaze, all she saw was meat.

“Do you have it?” she asked.

I nodded. “Artur gave it to me when I came back.”

“You still carry it with you?” Her voice was low like her mouth was dry. Before I could respond, she said, with faint, pigeon-like movements of her left hand, “Show it to me.”

I took the small screen out of my pocket, its bare brown back. It had no signal, no apps, no options. Just a single image, faintly shimmering. A stone.

She accepted it just like any other screen, stared at it intently for a moment. Then, slowly, her fingers seized it harder, as if gripping for purchase. “It’s live,” she said, looking up. “You really…” She dropped her face. “Is anyone… there right now?”

I shook my head. “No one wants a used object. Customers tend to design their own. It takes months. Usually from…” The unsure movements of my hands obscured segments of her face. “Very specific details which emerge suddenly. As if from contact with your own particular muse.”

“That sounds like branding copy.”

“It is. Artur wrote it, I think.”

“You use Artur’s words to describe your own experience?” She sounded exasperated, like we’d had this conversation so many fucking times.

I shrugged. “It sounds accurate.”

“A vision, that’s what it sounds like. You had that much money?”

“No. It was a beta-test. Everything was free.”

“What was it like?”

“It was like being a stone.”

“Were you instructed to respond to questioning with koans?”

“It was a suggestion from a therapist. Not one of theirs.”

“So if I do it I’ll say, this is like being…”

“You won’t say anything at all.”

“But you’re here, saying it.”

“Something happened.”

“What?”

“They still haven’t told me.”

“This isn’t very reassuring to me,” she said, inhaling. “At all.”

“I don’t think there’s a lot of reassurance to be given.”

“Are they going to put you back?”

“I don’t think so.”

“And if they did?”

I concentrated on her form, trying to learn, by heart, its outline, the shoals, the reefs, the rickety planking.

“I want you to show me what you want to be,” I said.

 

It was an old box, or rather a new box made of old bits of repurposed wood, fitted together neatly, without seams. You could take it apart by removing the joints; it took a little care not to snap the thing in half. Inside was a memory stick and a slip of notebook paper, bone-white and stiff, which read, “If this relaxes you, you’re ill.”

 

You are not the storm. You are a presence in it.

You roil along the median point between the earth and where the atmosphere ends. The ground changes beneath you, but never in relation to the cloud. At the fiercest, where you’re shoved around the mass almost too quickly to get any kind of bearing, you achieve a brief glimpse of some megacity beneath you which, though ceaselessly battered by pseudo-tsunamis, lightning bolts, and weeks of torrential rain, still shines with an illumination almost angelic. Other times as you pass meek and fluffy above, the ground beneath looks devastated, like a scorched battleground, always too high for any kind of telling detail. At times it seems as if you’re moving over a perfectly flat surface, a kind of endless map of pre-programmed zones, but then, shuffled toward the “front” of the cloudbank (which is always reforming and growing, shrinking, splitting off from itself), you can see, ahead, the curvature of the earth.

You can click on anything, anywhere; it takes a while for you to realize that this has absolutely no effect on anything.

The game seems as if it will never end.

 

“You can see,” she wrote, on the back of the paper, “why they never released it.”

 

The one phrase I kept returning to for the duration of the time I sat in front of the screen was, “Once the new way of thinking has been established, the old problems vanish; indeed they become hard to recapture.”

It was this text, bare, that I sent to her, with no notation of its origins.

 

She wrote back several days later: “You can’t build clouds. And that’s why the future you dream of never comes true.” By that time, she would have already been in the wetroom.

 

As I’d imagined, Artur ignored the great screen.

“She wanted somewhere comfortable.”

“And where was comfortable?”

“You know damn well.”

Steam leaked from his mouth. It smelt faintly of burnt berries, inappropriately autumnal. He shifted the vape pen awkwardly to the corner of his small melon of a mouth. “Did you finally get to fuck her?” He peered up at me, eyes narrowed to slits with cautious respect, not the usual bemused awe. “I don’t think I know anybody who actually fucked her.”

I turned to him and said, holding my voice as steady as I could, “So I can’t go back?”

Then his face morphed back to the way it had always been with me: minor spite in the folds of flesh forcing all into a stifled laugh.

 

Like a teardrop, like an egg, the stone rests in the middle of the screen, supported by nothing but blue and the faint hint of green fields behind it. There must be some sun illuminating, but its rays are assumed rather than detailed, and the end result is kind of a platonic form of a stone: perfect and whole in itself, its representation totally matching up to its reality.

I still have the screen, but I never touch it.

{ X }

bio(1)BRENDAN BYRNE‘s fiction has appeared in FLURB, his nonfiction in Arc. His novella The Showing of The Instruments was published by Phone Booth Press in 2011. 

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