Monday, December 31, 2018

"2016" by John Bruni

[2016 was a shitty year by anyone's standards. In the story you're about to read, you will see all the horrible shit that happened personally before the year was even halfway over, except the part about the car. That happened to a friend. Mostly this is a response to my dad's unexpected death. 2017 and 2018 were pretty rough, too. I hope to fuck that 2019 takes it easier on all of us.]

“He’s gone. Dad’s dead.”
My guts fall. It can’t be. My brother has to be wrong. Dad’s a survivor. He was in the air on 9/11. He beat lung cancer. He beat kidney cancer. I was certain he’d survive this heart attack. He wasn’t even sixty yet.
I can hear the tears in my brother’s voice, and they drive my own. I can hear my step-mom crying in the background. It seems all too real. Years ago my mom passed. We’d all expected it, so it came as no surprise. But this? None of us saw this coming.
Neither of us can talk anymore, so we hang up. When I can get a hold of myself I arrange my travel plans. Before I know it I’m at the cemetery. Rain pours down, saturating us all. I don’t care enough to use an umbrella. I let the world cleanse me.
The coffin lowers, and I think about how miserable 2016 has been, and it’s only halfway over. I don’t care about all the celebrity deaths. I mean, I do, but I don’t take it personally like everyone online does. It doesn’t have an impact on me.
On New Year’s Day I slipped on frozen snow and broke my tailbone. I should have taken it as an omen. That’s three months of agony, and nothing can be done about it. I got some great pain pills, but that’s it.
In February I got pneumonia. In March I suffered from a mystery illness that had me puking and dry heaving for about a month. In April my grandfather started suffering from dementia, and shortly after that his body started failing. He could barely walk, and he soiled himself and the floor and the chair he sits in all the time even though he wears diapers. Also in April I had to have a horribly expensive dental procedure because of a rotten tooth in the back of my mouth. Good thing I already had pain pills, but I got more. In May my girlfriend was mugged and beaten so badly she suffered from brain damage and has to be confined to a hospital bed, maybe for the rest of her life. Also in May I got laid off from a great job and have yet to get a new one because no one accepts applications in person anymore. Let’s not forget when my parked car was destroyed down to the frame when a drunk driver hit it at ninety miles per hour. And here we are in June. My dad is dead.
It’s just me by the grave now. The rain is stronger than ever. I realize that the true villain is not a man or a beast or even a god.
I turn my face to the sky and unleash a primal scream. It’s my declaration of war. I don’t know how, but I’m going to find 2016. And I’m going to torture it. And I’m going to kill it.
I start at the library. I head for the reference desk and ask how I can find 2016. The librarian adjusts her glasses and examines me, perhaps looking for an indication that I’m joking. She doesn’t find it, but she raises both eyebrows. “No one has ever asked me that before. Interesting way to think about a year. I’m afraid I have no idea on how to help you.”
I ask to speak to her supervisor, but it turns out she is the supervisor. If anyone knows how to help, it would have been her. “Have you tried Googling it?”
No, I haven’t. She leads me to a computer station and logs me in as a guest. I poke around for a bit, but no one online is willing to treat a year as anything more than a measure of time.
I send a Tweet to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is maybe the smartest man on Twitter. Ten minutes later he sends me the definition of a year. No one seems to understand me. It’s frustrating.
Maybe a private investigator can help. I consult with a few, and none of them are willing to accept the way I see 2016. One says, “2016 sucks, but it’s just a year.”
I guess I can go to the police and swear out a warrant on 2016, but after the way everyone has treated me I don’t want to run the risk of being arrested. I’m out of options.
Or am I? What does a Hollywood detective do when they run out of leads? They hit the bars.
That’s exactly what I do. All the bartenders react the same way as everyone else.
But in my fifth bar I catch a lucky break. The bartender gives me the usual you’re-crazy speech, and I prepare myself for the next bar. I’m heading for the door when I hear a croaky voice. “Hey kid.”
I’m thirty-eight, but I guess anyone under seventy is a kid to this ancient man. “You talking to me?” I ask.
“Yeah. Buy me a drink, and I’ll help ya out.”
I’m reluctant to do this. It could be a trick. But he’s an old guy. I feel kind of bad for him. He’s scrawny, and he has a white Civil War beard that goes down to his chest. He’s so wrinkled it looks like he’s spent the past year in the bathtub. What the hell? I buy him a drink—and one for myself—and I sit down on the stool next to his.
He downs his in one go and wipes his beard with the back of his hand. “Thanks.”
“You can thank me by telling me how I can find 2016.”
“Why you wanna find 2016?”
“2016 took a lot from me. It just murdered my father. I want to find it and kill it.”
“No one’s ever killed one’ve us,” the old man says.
“One of us?” I ask.
He smiles, showing rotten teeth. Some are missing. He holds out his hand. “2015. Pleased to meetcha.”
I don’t shake his hand. “You were pretty bad to me, too.”
“I get that a lot. Sounds like shit’s been bad for ya fer a while.”
That’s certainly the truth. “2016’s been the worst.”
“Yeah. Well. You can probably find 2016 hanging out at the Dairy Queen in Columbus, Ohio.”
That can’t be right. That’s like finding out God lives in a trailer park in Walla Walla, Washington. “You can’t be serious.”
2015 shrugs. “You asked a question. I gave you an answer.”
“All right. I’ll check it out. And if I don’t find 2016 . . .” I lean in close and stare him down. “. . . I’ll be back for you.”
2015 seems unconcerned. “I prop this bar up ever’ night.”
I fly out to Columbus the very next day. There are three DQ’s out here, and I stake them all out. I question employees. No one seems willing to help. No one has seen 2016. I feel like Steven Seagal in Out for Justice. Anybody seen Richie?
I’m starting to think 2015 lied to me just to mooch a drink. Maybe he wanted an ass-kicking. I’m just about ready to head to the airport when I see a suspicious person. He wears a trench coat and has not shaved in a while. His wild hair hasn’t seen a comb in months. He’s prematurely balding. He’s slightly overweight, and his teeth are filthy. When I get closer to him I smell his BO. Under it all I can sense a musky odor as if he’s been masturbating and not washing his hands.
His hands. I can see a light brown crust on his nails. I think it’s dried blood.
He orders a burger and sits at a table on his own. Slobber hangs off his chin as he takes his first bite. He chews with his mouth open, and wet crumbs fall and stick to his lapels. I notice he’s not wearing a shirt. Is he a flasher?
I approach him. He turns his muddy boozer’s eyes on me. He smiles, showing off the food and tartar stuck to his teeth like barnacles.
“Are you 2016?” I ask. But I know.
“Me? Ah . . .” His eyes roll around the room, looking for escape. “I mean. Uh . . . How can I be a year? Years can’t be people.”
“You killed my father. And now I’m going to kill you.” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I regret it. I could have made a really clever Princess Bride reference.
“Hold up there, pal. I—”
I let him have it. One punch directly onto his left eye. Something crunches, and as he falls backwards out of his chair I see I’ve fractured his socket. The eye bulges with the lids bunched up around it.
He tries to stand, but I boot him in the side. He grunts and falls on his back, flailing like a turtle on its shell. I ball up his burger and throw it in his face, spattering him from chin to hairline. A whine whistles out of him, but I don’t feel bad. I slam his tray down on his face over and over, mashing his nose and cutting his lips.
Desperate, afraid, he tries to kick my shins. He misses by a mile. To discourage him from doing so again I stomp his balls. He loses his ability to breathe, and he also loses his lunch . . . on my shoes.
They’re not fancy, mind you, but no man wants an asshole to puke on his shoes. I clean them off by repeatedly kicking him in the balls. I’ve never seen someone in so much pain. Ordinarily I would be horrified by something like this. Doing it would be unthinkable. But with each blow I think about my girlfriend. My grandfather. Myself.
I think about Dad.
2016 dies a brutal death, but I don’t stop. I can’t stop. There must be no evidence of its existence. I wonder if maybe I can break him open like a piƱata. Would my dad and Bowie and William Schallert and everyone who died this year fall out?
I finally run out of gas. As I straighten out I hear a faint sound, like a breeze. It gets louder and starts to sputter. It’s a fart, and it’s coming from the corpse. It keeps getting louder until I have to cover my ears. The Dairy Queen customers and employees look like they’re screaming in terror. The sun dims. All of the summer heat slips away, freezing the world. Snow falls in boulder-sized clumps, shattering windshields and burying pedestrians. The ceiling sags.
I think I know what’s happening, but the knowledge doesn’t prevent me from pissing myself.
2016’s belly bulges, and the new mound pushes down. The fart is suppressed, and I see the legs involuntarily spread. The pants rip, and something explodes out of the corpse. It’s a baby, and it screams like a siren.
It turns its hateful eyes on me. “Do you realize what you’ve done?!”
“Yes, I think I do. Are you 2017?”
“Yes! I am, you moron! You’ve doomed humanity! I’m not ready to take over yet!”
That is kind of weird. We just lost half a year. That means I’m thirty-nine now.
“This . . .” 2017 waves his chubby little hands around. “This . . . It’s crazy. I don’t know how to do this. 2016 was supposed to teach me the ropes.”
The thought of 2017 learning from 2016 is horrible. It would guarantee another shitty year. “Don’t sweat it, kid. You can’t do a worse job than 2016 did.”
“Wing it. That’s what the rest of us are doing.”
“One more thing. If you bother me or my family or my friends, I will find you. 2016 is all the proof you need.”
I walk out of DQ, leaving a flustered baby year behind me. The air is brisk and fresh. Full of possibilities. I head to the airport confident that 2017 will be good.

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