Saturday, January 16, 2016

Amanda Keller

I like Amanda Keller.

I’ve seen her around school for a while now, and I think she’s in some of my classes, but somehow our social circles have never really intersected. I plan on changing that after how she handled Trent Wallace.

Trent is one of t
he sexiest guys in Gendale High, but every time he talks to me, there’s this weird greasy feeling that starts to spread inside me like an oil leak. Most of the girls fall for him like toothpicks in a stiff breeze, but something about his superficial attitude really rubs me the wrong way. I don’t know why he went after Amanda – maybe he wanted a challenge, and she is pretty in her own way.

I saw them talking from a distance and couldn’t help but roll my eyes; she looked like she was falling just as hard for him as the rest of those airheads. Then I saw him lean in closer – maybe she wanted to whisper something to him, I don’t know – and the next thing I see, he’s balled up on the floor in pain from a knee to the crotch. And standing proud above him was Amanda Keller, adding a rainbow of well-worded insults to the injury to his crown jewels. The crowd that gathered around them soon blocked my view, but as I walked closer, words like ‘Chauvinistic boar!’ and ‘Slimy misogynist!’ rang clear throughout the hallways, supplemented with whoops of encouragement from the throng of students.

Trent will probably not want to talk to her ever again. And I can’t wait to get started!

***

I love Amanda Keller!

She and I have become lunch buddies now, and I feel so empowered and self-confident just being around her! She’s an engaging, charismatic person who’s made me realize just how much social degradation we girls suffer at the hands of the guys in the school. It’s like they think they have some kind of privilege that is gifted to them just because they have a dick. Trent may be the worst of the bunch, but he’s not the only one. I’ve realized how much I’ve numbed myself to the ‘male gaze’ when I shouldn’t be just accepting it as normal. It’s amazing how much Amanda has opened my eyes to, or given me good reason to be angry about.
She’s trying out for a role on the editing team of Gendale’s student newspaper – they have a weekly publication that’s not too shabby. It looks like she’ll clinch it, and I’m all for it – she writes some pretty good stuff herself, and I think being on the editing team will give her the chance to spread more awareness of the misogyny that’s become embedded in our school culture like so many splinters of wood under the skin.

As for myself, I’m auditioning to take part in the next school play – it’s one of the biggest theatrical productions of the year, and for this one the students come up with almost everything from the script to the props. It would be so cool to be a part of creating it and bringing it to life!

***

I admire Amanda Keller.

For her first major move as an editor for the newspaper, Amanda published an article highlighting how antics like Trent Wallace’s are a symptom of the disease of misogyny that all the guys in school suffer from. The backlash spiralled into madness faster than a plane with its engines on fire. The tsunami of death threats, rape threats and complaints against Amanda completely obliterated all the other trending topics on social media. 

Here’s the thing though: with all that hate and rage being spewed at her, Amanda is still brave enough to come to school and get through the day like normal. She has enough people on her side of course – people like me who are so glad that someone’s finally bringing the school’s dirty laundry into the spotlight like this. But still, there’s no knowing how the bullies against her will strike – imagine having to hesitate every time you open your locker because someone might have put something in it? Or to keep watching over your shoulder when outside class?

Even some of the guys in school are on her side – and one of them is Darren Milhouse. He’s one of those quiet types who mostly keeps to himself, and is kind of cute in a weird way. I met him through the school play – we’re both currently on the small committee working on the script. He has some great ideas, and at the same time he doesn’t try to push them into places where they don’t fit. It’s so refreshing to work with a guy like him – scratch that, it’s refreshing to just BE around him.

***

I doubt Amanda Keller.

It’s been a few weeks since her first article, but the rift between the people who support her and those who are against her has only grown wider. It’s gotten to a point where people are labelled as either supporting her or against her – and the spectrum in-between those two camps has been marginalised into a foggy oblivion.
I still support the cause of the girls in school having equal respect and freedom of choice as the guys, and at first I thought that’s what Amanda wanted too – but now I’m not so sure. For example, she’s started picking on some of the girls in school as well lately, saying that the kinds of outfits they’re wearing are demeaning to women as a whole because they’re too revealing – or too conservative. Shouldn’t they be free to decide what they want to wear? Isn’t that part of the point – that girls should be able to wear or do whatever they want without being judged? But I’m afraid to say anything about it because she’s the figurehead of the fight against misogyny, and I’m still a soldier in that army, even if I don’t completely agree with its commander.

The play is coming along splendidly, although Darren and I are starting to drift apart. I think he’s having a hard time dealing with all the hostility he receives from most of Team Amanda simply because he’s a guy – even though he’s also against misogyny. Once, when he was with me and some of the girls, he tried to talk about how most of Amanda’s articles aren’t actually all that well-written, even if her points are solid. The girls attacked him like a swarm of vicious bees whose hive has just been set ablaze – I don’t think he’s recovered from their stings even now. He’s square in the middle of that spectrum between the two camps, and that’s causing him to avoid the conflict and everyone involved in it altogether – including myself.

***

I hate Amanda Keller!

She wrote a scathing review against our play after seeing it on opening night, and now half the school is having second thoughts about even seeing it! If our play was bad, I wouldn’t be as upset, but it was one of the better plays the school has put together in at least the last five years! All the blood, sweat and tears that went into bringing it to life, and all she can do is fling mud at it for completely superfluous reasons! Rrrrrgh!

Her problem with it was that the girls in the play were either too scantily dressed, or in weaker positions when compared to their male counterparts. But she completely ignored the fact that the girls were some of the strongest characters in the play, and they were able to achieve so much despite the restraints the society in our play put on them! The subtlety of our script in terms of how it handled gender equality was as apparent to her as a fleck of dust inside that ridiculous handbag of hers. And she only sparingly complimented things like the amazing set design and lighting, as if that kind of thing doesn’t really matter compared to whether the girls in the play meet her approval or not.

I’ve also realized just how much more harm than good she has done in the grand scheme of things. Thanks to her, most people see the fight against misogyny as a girls-only club with their goal being some kind of twisted revenge against all the guys for the years of dominance they’ve enjoyed – which may actually be what Amanda Keller has in mind. I wouldn’t know – I thought I knew where she was coming from, but now, given how much her articles have become provocative more than well-informed, I think she might even thrive on making the divide even larger just to stay relevant rather than bridging it in an attempt to achieve a peaceful consensus.

***

I’m over Amanda Keller.

The realization hit me hardest when I saw the latest article she had written in the school newspaper – some fluff about how cheerleaders should be abolished because they’re a demeaning role for girls – and I didn’t feel angry or bitter, just mildly annoyed. We haven’t spoken to each other since the play, and I occasionally get dirty looks from some of her more ardent supporters even now, but it doesn’t bother me that much.

Amanda Keller’s vision of what a victory against misogyny would be feels far too militant, even bordering on misandry, to me – not to mention it would have her own biased ideas about how girls should be and behave stamped all over it – and I don’t want to have anything more to do with it. I can still have my beliefs without having to take part in the battle between her army and her enemies, and I’m perfectly content with that.

Darren and I are drifting closer together now, which is a relief – and all it took was a couple of lunches together to recover from all the drama with the play. I think one of the things that draws us together is how we both see feminism as a team effort – that to realize the dream of equal respect and freedom of choice, both guys and girls need to put aside their biases, and appreciate that even though we may be different in some ways, that doesn’t mean we should have different levels of privilege. We shouldn’t expect to receive equal treatment if we’re hesitant to give it in return. Maybe I’m na├»ve about this, but this is how I see the fight against misogyny ending – not with explosions, but with an olive branch.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Failure to Connect

A generation or so from now in the future, advances in technology have helped usher in an age where people communicate solely through texting, videos and social networks - even if they're in the same room. Life in big cities has adapted to this as well - services such as coffee and cable are ordered via text; self-driving taxis can take directions via text. Work, play and everything else in life revolve around the phablet, the smartwatch and the plasma screen. Verbal Communication is propped up in a hospital bed, dying a slow and painful death. Intimacy and Privacy are missing, presumed dead.'

***
Penelope landed clumsily onto the back seat of the taxi, and slammed the door shut. And then she exhaled. It felt like she hadn't done that in a long time.

"Destination?"

The voice was trying really hard to be human, but it couldn't completely shed its mechanical undertones. Then again, maybe that was the point; it was unsettling enough that cars could now drive like humans (and, in most cases, a lot better than humans) - it would be terrifying if they started talking like them too.

"Apartment Block 423, Theodore Street."

The car didn't take off just yet though. It started to hum like a seamstress preparing her sewing machine, and then stopped abruptly.

"A link to your bank account could not be established. Please switch on your mobile device."

Penelope thumped the front seat's headrest.

"I don't have mine with me! Can't you just take cash?"

The taxi took unreasonably long to reply with a very unhelpful "This taxi cannot function without a connection to your bank account."

Penelope then ripped open the door and stomped out into the light, only to find dozens of phablet cameras gazing at her, a swarm of one-eyed polymer-coated bees. She ran down the pavement, and the swarm eerily followed, accompanied by a buzzing laced heavily with curiosity.

When she finally lost them a few hasty detours later, she collapsed against the cleanest patch of wall she could find, and exhaled once more. It still felt like she hadn't done that in a long time.

All this because of that damned coffee.

***
Minutes earlier:
Penelope impatiently tapped the edge of the plasma screen inside the counter she was in. Somewhere behind the placid barrier, both her smartwatch and her phablet were being probed and picked at like butterflies at the mercy of an entomologist. She hoped her unseen helpers could hurry up.

The screen flickered on, promptly plucked at her hopes, crumpled them into a ball and flung them deep into a trashcan of apathy.

"Your devices cannot be repaired. The best course of action would be to transfer your data to a new identical pair of devices. The process will take an estimated time of 30 minutes to complete. The total cost of the service and the new devices will be $842.79 - this will be deducted from your linked bank account at the end of the process. Would you like to proceed with the transfer?"

As she tapped on the luminous green "Yes" button, she wished it had been an actual choice. She could feel the hole that would soon appear in her bank account, as though it was being dug into her insides as well.

The counter hatch below the screen popped open, revealing a buzzer. The screen was pointing her to the waiting lounge with suggestions for how she could occupy herself with the public phablet and touchscreen stations there. She gingerly took the buzzer and walked over to the lounge.

Ugh.

The waiting lounge was teeming with muted despair that Saturday morning. There were more people than stations, so some unfortunate souls were ambling about restlessly, their thumbs twitching and their eyes staring lifelessly at the carpeted floor a few feet in front of them. Either that, or they were muttering darkly to whichever working device they had on them. With some of their body parts chomped off and their listless faces doused in buckets of blood, they would make a very convincing zombie outbreak.

Penelope sat down for a bit, but immediately felt as though she had submersed herself into a pool of thick, stifling depression, with little waves of gloom lopping about her ears. She got up again abruptly and thought to herself, Screw this - I need some coffee, right now.

Somewhere in Brazil, a butterfly flapped its wings.

***
Later that day:
Kelly was idly surfing Facebook at work when a headline in her RSS feed caught her notice:

"This woman walked into a cafe. You will not BELIEVE what happened next!"

The attached video already had close to a hundred thousand views and typically colourful comments trailing along with it:

TheMatt4Sho: "Fuck that womans a fucking socipath!! #dontwannaliveonthisplanetanymore"

IAmAGentlemann: "@TheMatt4Sho It's sociopath, moron. Who the hell taught you English!"

Gangsta476: "Must have been yo mama, @IAmAGentlemann you twat #mamajoke"

TheMatt4Sho: "Hahahahaha nice one @Gangsta476!! #sickburn"

xDaemonChildx: "DAT ASS"

UnkleMacker3L: "Wow that chick really wanted some #hotcoffee huh ;) ;)"

She did a cursory sweep of the surroundings and found them suitably devoid of her superiors. She then clicked 'Play'... and promptly gaped at the screen when she saw the woman's face.

Penny! What the hell?

Her good friend Penelope had her spirited moments, but this was a level of fury hitherto unreached. Something must be seriously wrong.  Brimming with concern, Kelly immediately fired off a barrage of texts to Penelope.

Oh my God, I really hope she's okay...

***
At the cafe:

It was full of people having a late breakfast, but a blind person would have walked through the cafe thinking it was a museum just before closing time. Even the kids who had come with their families had their eyes glued to phablets in their hands; gaudily coloured headphones framed their frowning little faces, and their fingertips were a nimble blur as they tapped away at the screen. The occasional voice command and clink of cutlery nearly echoed as they popped out from under the blanket of silence that smothered the place.

The atmosphere (what little was there) left an unsettling feeling in Penelope's stomach - it wasn't long ago that she too was one of the people here, headphones and touchscreens yanking her attention away from the dullness of the immediate surroundings.

She found a seat, reached for her pocket before realizing it was empty, and then resigned herself to the arduous task of summoning a waiter.

The waiters bustled in and out of the kitchen with one hand holding a tray with food and drink (or remains of them), and the other being spoken to in bursts, as it bore their smartwatches - their heads jerked up every so often to get their bearings, giving them the appearance of squirrels high on energy drinks. Short of barrelling into them in a cascade of colourful drinks and overpriced food, there was no way Penelope could get their attention.

In a huff, she turned to the man opposite her. He sported a ponytail and a pallid face, both of which exuded a thin film of grease. His suit looked like he'd put it on by throwing some clothes into a revolving door and then running into it himself. It took several carefully positioned waves to drag his eyes from the screen.

"What?"

The look on his face, disdain with a hint of unpleasant surprise, was pure irritation distilled into a potent shot. It took all her effort, with some help from his glistening skin, to not punch him right there.

"I don't have my phablet or smartwatch with me. Can I borrow yours to get some coffee? Please? I'll pay you back."

He sneered at her. Whatever specks of likeability he had were instantly vaporised by that sneer.

"Use your own phablet or smartwatch or whatever."

Penelope felt her blood pressure rising.

"I just said I don't HAVE them with me! That's why I'm asking for yours in the first place!"

Another sneer, this one dripping with condescension.

"Yeah right. Hashtag cool story, bro."

The rage within Penelope was now a mad bull with a red blindfold held in a cage with plywood bars. In the time it took for the man to return to his phablet, the bull broke free.

She stood up with stiff purpose, grabbed the mug of steaming coffee in front of him and introduced his suit to it with a hearty dose of vigour.

As the phablet dropped onto the table from his trembling hands and his face twisted in pain, she grabbed the phablet and swiftly texted an order for a takeaway - and looked up to find an army of phablets gazing at her, a throng of miniature synthetic Cyclopes.

Oh no.

Somewhere in Texas, a tornado broke out.

***
The apartment door was flung open and slammed shut in a single breath. Penelope leaned back against the door, listening for the buzzing that had disappeared long ago, but seemed to linger around her like a confused lamb missing a mother.

When she had finally convinced herself that no one had followed her to her apartment, she walked into the main room and immediately buried her face inside her palms. The plasma screen in her room had automatically switched on when she entered, and her face and throwing arm were plastered all over the newsfeeds, with headlines such as "Woman Without Phablet Goes Berserk for Hot Coffee" trying to paint a gaudy picture with excessive shades of scandal.

One of the more popular Youtube celebrities (who, despite their only credentials being able to speak brashly and the knowledge of how to use a video camera, were treated as Purveyors of Truth) had only just commented:

"If a guy had done this to a woman, he would have been arrested by now! You call this gender equality, feminist bitches? Huh?"

The words had sizzled through the airwaves before setting alight the fuses in the vault of unstable explosives that was the Internet. And like dry twigs in a parched scrubland, the social media world was consumed by the flames and the fireworks.

When she couldn't take it anymore, Penelope nearly smashed the power button while switching off the screen. She then collapsed on a beanbag and glanced around, the sounds of the plasma screen fading into the silence that was rapidly rushing into the room.

It struck her then, more than any other time, how much she depended on her smartwatch and phablet. Her compact apartment without them was some cheap furniture, a fridge with smatterings of food and the plain faces of the walls - even the plasma screen could only be controlled with the smartwatch, and its current channel of choice was causing more calamity than comfort. Without her electronic devices and their entertainment to occupy her, her thoughts began to leak out and mix with the silence in the room, echoing off the walls and returning to her with more severity than when they left.

When she couldn't take it anymore, there wasn't a power switch she could shut down the frustration with. But there was one option.

The one that was always there, even if she rarely thought so.

Trying to ignore the feelings of guilt starting to rise within her, Penelope bolted out the front door.

***
The greasy guy with the ponytail was back in the newsfeeds, this time because he was threatening to file a lawsuit against "the crazy bitch in the cafe" for physical assault unless she apologized to him. Words like "lawsuit" and "religion" were juicy slabs of red meat lovingly beckoning to be gobbled up by the hordes of slobbering hyenas on Reddit and Digg who called themselves 'journalists'.

Reclined on the couch, Renard snorted. Leandra didn't share his cynical optimism.

"He might go through with it, don't you think?"

"He doesn't have the balls for it! - or the grounds. Physical assault? Psh! The only way that coffee could cause anything more than a badly needed change of clothing is if he had some weird skin condition. They've tested it scientifically after that earlier lawsuit, remember? Coffee shops are required by law to ensure their drinks cannot cause bodily harm now!"

"Still, he might be rich enough to do it just for the publicity. You know how desperate people are for their 15 minutes of fame these days, it's like heroin to some of them! And Pennyreally doesn't need the headaches that come with lawyers - and neither do we!"

"There won't be any headaches - anybody with enough sense knows the kid's only going to embarrass himself and his attorneys if he takes this to court. He can't be stupid enough to want the wrong kind of attention - then again, with kids these days, I wouldn't put it past him..."

The doorbell's guitar riff sliced through their conversation and immediately brought it to a stop.

Leandra walked over to answer it. Standing in the doorway was a young woman with Renard's warm brown eyes and Leandra's voluminous hair.

"Hi, Mum."

"Penny!"

***
Penelope found herself roaming the corridors of her parents' much roomier house, a mug of fresh hot chocolate and marshmallows cupped in her hands. After she had filled them in on the day's chaos, Renard had arranged for the repair centre to deliver her phablet and smartwatch to their place, and Leandra had helped her contact her more important friends and assure them that she was okay, and no, she was definitely not going to be admitted to a correctional facility.

Now, while the delivery was on its way, she was taking the time to de-stress, and let her mind lie down on a comfy couch, stretch its legs a bit and watch cooking shows. She wasn't fully aware of where she was going until she ended up in a room with a strangely welcoming feel to it.

It was her parents' recording room.

Renard and Leandra had met when they joined forces in a professional rock band during their college years. Some harsh doses of reality and surmounting responsibilities had taken them along less musically inclined career paths ever since, but like true musicians, they could never abandon their craft completely.

Her hot chocolate almost done, Penelope placed it carefully on top of a stray amp and inched towards a vocal mic next to an audio interface. She could hear it summoning her. Or so she thought.

The room wasn't completely in disuse, but even so there were thin films of dust settling in patches about the room. Penelope had to blow off a few particles, and briefly appreciated the way they danced gracefully off the surface of the mic.

She pressed the power button on the interface. A few lights on it woke up, and a faint humming seeped into the room. In her hand, the mic looked more ready than she felt.

A song she had heard a long time ago - before music had been taken prisoner by technological and cultural changes and been locked up in the dungeons by EDM, dubstep and other unsavoury characters - started crawling into her mind. The words were coming together, ethereal tendrils twisting into recognisable forms.

And then she took a crack at them.

We sit alone and watch your light

...no, that sounded terrible. She was croaking like a toad with laryngitis. But then again... she tried once more.

Our only friend, through teenage nights

...a bit better. Hints of a voice that could soothe a raging wildebeest were peeking through holes in the fences of disuse. She gulped down the last of her hot chocolate and tried the next two lines.

And everything we want to get
 We download from the internet

She could feel flakes of rust being chipped off her voice. The toad's laryngitis was fading away, and the toad was turning out to be a songbird in disguise.

"That sounded terrible honey. And do you know why?"

Renard had been standing at the doorway for who knew how long. He strode in calmly while Penelope looked at him askance.

"You've got great pipes, Penny. But if you're going to sing a Queen song, you shouldn't have to do it alone. Not in our house."

And as he slung an electric guitar on his shoulder, he called out to Leandra, "HONEY! You still remember the beat for Radio Gaga, right? Penny wants to play it!"

Leandra burst into the room as Renard was twiddling with the knobs on the amplifier connected to his guitar.

"Of course I do! I'm not senile!...yet."

She yanked a couple of worn drumsticks from a pouch near the drum-set and twirled them as she sat down in the middle of the mass of metal and membranes.

Renard turned to Penelope.

"Let's take that from the top, alright? Don't worry about us, we'll follow you. Just let yourself feel the music and the beat, and you'll be fine."

With his reassuring smile almost as comforting as the hot chocolate, Penelope's confidence continued to soar.

As the rich purr of the guitar and the snappy beats of the drum burst out, Penelope began once more.

We sit alone and watch your light
Our only friend, through teenage nights
And everything we want to get
We download from the internet 

Yes! She felt the music flow into her, a tingling sensation roaming about her nerves. She sang the next verse with added gusto.

No need to think, no need to feel
When only cyberspace is real
It makes us laugh 
It makes us cry
It makes us feel like we can fly (we can fly)

Renard and Leandra backed her vocals, their voices only barely scarred by age.

Hope to record our life online
Touch any key, the world is mine
We're lost in space
But we don't care
Without your light our world's not there

Complete control, you are the power 
Our lives are programmed by the hour
Internet (Internet)

All three of them were now firmly locked together in the zone, the outside world only a suggestion. Penelope belted out the chorus as the guitar roared and the drums crashed in agreement.

All we hear is Radio Ga Ga
Video Goo Goo
Internet Ga Ga
All we hear is cyberspace Ga Ga
Marketing Blah Blah

Always something new
Internet, all the world loves you!

Her parents were screaming words of encouragement during the musical interlude. Penelope didn't quite hear them, but she felt their effects, and that was enough. The rest of the song blurred by in a haze of bliss.

We watch your shows
We watch your stars 
Across our screens for hours and hours
We hardly need our eyes or ears
We just log on and dreams appear (dreams appear)

We're not alone 
We have our friends
On cyber love we can depend
So stick around cos we'd all miss you
We need our graphics
Need our visual

Complete control, you are the power
We use our lives up by the hour Internet (Internet)

All we hear is Radio Ga Ga
Video Goo Goo
Internet Ga Ga
All we hear is cyberspace Ga Ga
Marketing Blah Blah

Always something new
Internet, all the world loves you!

Breathless and ecstatic from that last chorus, the three of them stumbled into each others' arms. And in the tight (and slightly sweaty) warmth of that embrace, amidst the rush of love and joy and all those warm fuzzy emotions, Penelope felt something she had never realized she sorely missed until now.

Connection.

Proper, personal, human connection. Devoid of emoticons and hashtags. Something that couldn't be captured in selfies and Instagrams. Something that no amount of technology could ever transmit or tweet, on the airwaves or through the fibres.

The only kind that mattered.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Sky's Not the Limit

People say acrophobia is a fear of heights. It's not.

It's a fear of falling.

It wasn't the most comforting thought to have, but there it was, plunked down on the sofa with a whiskey bottle in hand and stubbornly refusing to leave his mind. A mind encased in a poly-carbonate bowl, with a body wrapped up like a takeaway burrito in materials too high-tech to be called simple names like plastic and cloth.

Diving from the Stratosphere had come a long way since Felix Baumgartner's pioneering jump back in 2012, but it was still very niche; the domain of only those with plenty of courage and coin to spare, and the few lucky lottery winners who hadn't yet lost their nerve.

Kevin's winning ticket was tucked inside the surprisingly wieldy spacesuit he was wearing. He had bought it on a carefree whim; like many of life's big changes, the win had snuck up on him with the predictability of a hail storm in Summer. Now he found himself trembling at the edge of the depressurized chamber of the low-orbit shuttle, his legs dangling over miles of thin air, his fingers clamped onto the hatch railings.

The view though. If his breath could escape its carbonate confines, it would have been snatched away in a flash.

Earth drifted below him like an inflatable raft in the vast ocean of space, predominantly brown with shades of green and rounded borders of blue. One half was bathed in a fuzzy bluish white glow by searing beams of sunlight. On the side shrouded in darkness, a patch near the North Pole was playing host to the Northern Lights, an unruly cluster of vibrant emerald lights dancing with magnetic grace.

Kevin wished he could sit up here forever, and let the serenity gently embrace him and overwhelm his senses like a dense musk. Up here, the petty quibbles of everyday life shriveled to dust under the infinite gaze of the universe...

"Beautiful, isn't it? Makes me misty-eyed every time."

The friendly voice on his headset startled him out of his reverie. Kevin turned around to face his instructor, her suit enveloped in an aura of calm.

"You ready to jump yet, Kevin?"

"I don't know, I don't think I can do it..."

"Just breath. Rest your hands on your lap, and relax your shoulders. Submerge yourself in the peace up here..."

It occurred to Kevin that her voice could be really soothing when it -

Whoosh.

His heart stopped beating for an eternity. Then the blood pummelled the veins in his head and lungs.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!"

The voice on the headset returned.

"Spread your arms and legs! Don't worry, I'm right behind you!"

"YOU PUSHED ME! YOU - "

"Don't panic, you'll use up your oxygen! Spread your arms and legs, and enjoy the ride!"

"I hate you SO MUCH right now!"

"You won't for long!"

She was right. When his fears were finally brushed away by the atmosphere he was hurtling through, the thrill of the fall took command over his senses. With his next scream, the panic had been replaced with ecstasy.

"WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOO!"

When his feet touched the muddy field minutes later, Kevin could die happy. He unbuckled his parachute, whipped off his helmet and inhaled deeply as his instructor landed a few seconds after. She was beaming as she walked over to him.

"So, what did you think?"

Kevin couldn't help his response.

"It was out of this world! Let's do it again!"

Their laughter fluttered in the stiff morning breeze as they trudged back to base, the light of dawn caressing their footsteps.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Beta Story

Author's Note: This is firmly based on a very weird dream I had, and loosely based on particle physics and Bollywood drama. Yes, I clearly have a few mental issues myself.

"Beta, we have found the perfect girl for you!"

Beta the electron had always thought being proposed was a sad and unfortunate thing that hopefully only happened to other people. But now his parents, Mr. Proton and Mrs. Neutron, were shackling him to the same fate, all the while beaming as though they were giving him a brand new car.

"Really, Ba? Who is it?"

He would have preferred the car.

"She's the daughter of an old friend, and you have met her several times now! Don't you remember Sitra?"

His mother thrust a photo into his hands as his parents gathered on either side. He grudgingly looked at the heavily made up face on it.

"All your aunts and uncles also said this is a perfect match! Her parents are also completely in agreement!"

Sitra the positron, now that he was forced to recall, was actually a nice girl in her own way. She was great at dancing, had a naturally smiling face and was easy to talk to, although a bit exhausting when one was on the receiving end. The photo had been given the usual treatment, so it lent the impression that someone had killed her, sent her to a talented taxidermist and then thrown all manner of bangles and flowers on the end result.

Beta could see a problem though. He was an electron, she was a positron. Every time they met, even when it was for just a short while, he could feel himself fading away, losing himself as a strange energy started to seep through the cracks, filling him with confusion and dread. It had gotten worse during their later meetings - and yet, no one seemed to have noticed.

"I don't know, Ma, she's a nice girl, but we don't get on all that well..."

"Nonsense, Beta! You two will be fine! You just need to spend more time together, and everything will be excellent! She has a top-class degree, did you know?"

"Beta, it is normal to be nervous - this is a big step in your life! But trust me and your Ma, we know this girl and she will be a great addition to our family!"

"But Ba, she's a positron! Don't you know..."

"Enough! This will be a great union for both our families, and I will not have you sully it with your name-calling! You must trust us, Beta, haven't we always had your best interests at heart?"

"You are our son, Beta, and you will always be our little boy. Please have faith in your elders, and especially in your parents!"

With Mrs. Neutron enveloping him so passionately in her bosom, and Mr. Proton sternly looking on, Beta resigned himself to the fact that this was a battle he had lost before he even knew he was fighting it.

***
He couldn't remember whether the descent into madness had begun before or after the wedding. But he was definitely past the basement level of delusions at least, and probably about to enter the abandoned mining shaft of dementia.

The voices from the dreams were starting to invade his waking moments as well. He heard them whispering ominously as he brushed his teeth, although their exact words were obscure.

The toothpaste tasted so acidic he could feel it chewing away at the insides of his mouth.

He tripped down the last few stairs because they had suddenly looked much wider than usual. The voices snickered as he stumbled back onto his feet.
Something about the chapattis at breakfast pissed him off, and he took it out far too harshly on Sitra. She too was very displeased with something he had done (or was it something he was wearing? he couldn't remember), and the exchange of verbal barrages mounted in intensity until a salad bowl blew up into a fountain of twinkling ceramic bits after it was hurled against the wall.

The next few hours passed in a confused blur which may or may not have involved a few walls being punched. All Beta knew was that he soon found himself sitting on a bench at the park, nursing a heavily bruised right hand and trying for the love of God to shut up the voices in his head.

He was faintly aware that someone else just sat on the other side of the bench. He wouldn't have given it a second thought, but then something strange happened. It was as if the tap at the bottom of the keg had been opened, and all the madness and confusion started gushing out of his head. As the clouds inside his mind began to part, he jerked his head back and involuntarily took in a deep, and loud, breath of air. The figure sitting beside him jumped.

"Um, are you okay?"

Beta managed to smile - his facial muscles took a while to assume the position.

"Yeah, I am. I haven't felt so okay in a really long time."

He took a better look at the girl who was now staring at him with wide eyes (which were a beautiful mix of green and hazel). She wore a jogging outfit on a petite frame, and gave the impression of a flower trying to summon the courage to bloom.

"I think you helped me. Somehow. Thank you. Er... my name's Beta."

He moved to hold out his hand, and then withdrew it. The girl hadn't decided how to react yet.

"You're welcome, I think. My name's Trina."

And then it struck him. She was an antineutrino. He hadn't come across too many of them - they were elusive by nature. But he had heard that they had mystical characteristics; perhaps she was diverting his madness away from him somehow, redistributing the energy that was building up inside him...

"Sorry about the shock just now - let me make it up to you. Would you like to join me for paratha and chai later today? My treat."

She seemed to mull it over for a bit. Beta was unknowingly holding his breath. And then she said, "Sure, I can do that. Where do you want to meet?"

Beta felt like an anvil had just been eased off his chest.

"I know this great place, their masala chai is simply amazing..."

***
It had been a good night. After what had become a regular stopover at the chai shop, Trina had suggested a walk by the bay. With the waves crashing against the rocks below, and the wind briskly weaving about them, Beta couldn't remember when he had last felt so at peace. When he opened the front door though, the scene that awaited him shattered the inner peace in an instant. He felt as though someone had thrown him headfirst into the bay itself.

His parents were there. Sitra was there. Her parents were there. With the exception of Sitra, whose face was buried in her hands, the daggers that were being eyed at him nearly drew blood.

"Ba? Ma? Um... what's happening?"

The silence was so tense it could have killed a man if it was wrapped around his neck. And then Mr. Proton snapped it.

"We know about the girl you've been fooling around with, Beta. How could you do this to poor Sitra! To our families!?"

"Our poor girl has been so distressed at home, and we were so worried. Now we know the source of all her sorrow! Where is your shame?"

Beta took a while to find his voice.

"No, it's not like that! Look, Sitra's a positron, and..."

"Again with the name-calling! How dare you stand there and insult your wife, and act as if you have done nothing wrong!"

"Please, Beta, don't behave so rashly - can't you see how much trouble you are causing? How much pain poor Sitra is in?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you Ma, we drive each other mad! She wears me down, affects me just as much as I affect her!"

"Nonsense! Our darling has never had this problem before - you are the first person who has brought her such stress!"

"And instead of supporting her through this tough time, you are out gallivanting with some other girl! Alfie said the two of you were in each other's arms like a couple! Where is your dignity?"

"Trina helps me deal with my own distress! I wouldn't have to do this if you hadn't rushed me into this marriage in the first place!"

"ENOUGH! I did not raise you to be such an uncouth, disrespectful brat! You will apologise to Sitra, and you will look after her like the proper husband you are supposed to be!"

"And what about myself, Ba? Should I just sit and wait as my body and soul crumble into dust? I thought you cared about me!"

The veins on Mr. Proton's temples were so swollen with rage they would have exploded if a mosquito so much as grazed them.

"And I thought you cared about our family! About our honour, our standing! After everything we have done for you! If this is how you repay us, then I have no choice!"

Mrs. Neutron grasped his clenched fist, possibly in an attempt to placate him. He abruptly shrugged her off.

"If you will not honour your marriage vows, then you are no longer a son of mine! You are no longer fit to bear our family name! Whatever disgrace you wish to heap on us you can have yourself! You and that flimsy girl of yours!"

Beta would have retorted with equally thoughtless words fueled with rage, but one glance at his mother stopped him somehow. Tears were streaming down her pleading eyes. At the back of his mind, a voice much calmer than the usual ones convinced him that breaking up his family over this wasn't worth the ensuing social ruckus.

He slumped into an armchair, his parents still glaring at him. And then hollowly intoned, "Fine. I'm sorry, Sitra. I'm sorry Ba, Ma, Uncle and Aunty. I will not go out with Trina again. I will stay at home more often and be a proper husband to Sitra."

As the blood pressure in the room subsided to normal levels, Beta thought to himself, this is going to kill me. Or Sitra. Maybe then this family will finally get it into their stubborn heads.

***
Trina had about fifteen minutes to go before her shift at the hospital ended. About a week ago, she would have looked forward to it. Things had changed though.

As she absently twirled a pencil in front of her files, her mind briefly flittered over to Beta. She missed him. She missed being so special to someone. Sure, she helped plenty of people as a nurse at the hospital, but so did everyone else. With Beta, it was all her, and his overwhelming gratitude along with their mutual affection was worth every second. At least, it had been. Until he broke the news about his family to her, and had dropped all contact with her since.

A conversation managed to sneak into her ears unnoticed.

"The mind can be such a strange place..."

"You're telling me. Are you coming from the ward with the mental woman who just came in?"

"No, I was in her husband Beta's ward. I really can't tell who's lost more marbles."

"Probably him. Women have more mental fortitude, my Ma always said - "

"Excuse me, did you just say Beta?" This was Trina, who had whipped over to the two nurses the moment the name had snapped her out of her reverie.

"Yes, he's in the mental illness section. Name of Beta Electron - both he and his wife were admitted about an hour ago. It was a real scene, they both needed to be heavily sedated - "

"Which ward number is he in?" Trina tried to hide the colour running from her face.

"Number 1619. Doctor Tau is there with him..."

Trina was off in a flurry. The nurse's voice trailed off as her racing heart took over, the thuds resonating in her ears. She grabbed a cart as she neared the ward, and then tried to nonchalantly wheel it along, her grip on the cart trembling slightly.

Doctor Tau was in front of the ward, and confronting him were Mr. Proton, Mrs. Neutron and Sitra's parents, a strong mix of anxiety and confusion swirling about them. Doctor Tau was so preoccupied with trying to explain the situation to them that he didn't even register the nurse with the cartful of medical supplies who wheeled herself into the ward.

Trina gasped when she saw Beta. He wasn't just sedated, but strapped onto the bed with very imposing leather buckles. His wife wasn't in the room - they had probably put her in one of the wards nearby. There were so many tubes and wires sticking out of him that he looked like he'd entangled himself in a very strange fisherman's net.

Trina glanced at the EEG next to him. Even with the sedatives currently surging into Beta's veins, it looked like a toddler had tried to draw a porcupine on it. All his other vitals looked very erratic too.

Instinct took over, and Trina gently took a hold of his hand. It felt surprisingly cold.

"...so I must advise you, please try to restrain your emotions in front of the patient, he really needs peace and - what's going on here!?"

Doctor Tau had walked in, with Mr. Proton and Mrs. Neutron trailing behind him. Trina wasn't the reason for his exclamation though.

The chaos in the monitors was being drained away by some mysterious force. The jagged edges that formerly criss-crossed across the EEG screen gave way to much smoother scribbles. The rapid beeps and pulses reduced their frenetic tempo to what could have passed for a gentle melody. Beta's vitals were returning to normal as if all they had done was take a short walk to the grocery store and back.

As the three newcomers tried to register what was going on, Beta's eyelids fluttered open. When he saw Trina's anxious face looking down on him, a faint smile slowly crept upon his face.

"Trina?"

A wave of recognition spread gently across the room. It broke across Mrs. Neutron first.

"You are Trina? The girl he was seeing?"

Trina tried to edge away from the eyes on her and found herself trapped against Beta's bed.

"Ah, you are an antineutrino, yes?" Doctor Tau's voice was refreshingly free of strain and bordering on fascination. "That explains it. Antineutrinos and electrons are often able to distribute energy among themselves - she must be absorbing and relieving him of all the disorder that was pent up inside his mind all this time."

Mrs. Neutron advanced. Trina's grip on Beta's hand stiffened a bit.

"She was helping me, Ma," said Beta feebly, "I tried to tell you..."

"...and we should have listened, Beta," replied Ma, as she softly embraced Trina, who couldn't think of a proper response and decided to awkwardly pat Mrs. Neutron's shoulders.

Mr. Proton's expression was the result of a mix of several emotions in a heated debate across his face. His features were twisted into what could have been attributed to a particularly potent lemon in his mouth.

"Proton, you have to admit we were wrong. Look at how peaceful he is. Think about how much we had to suffer when he went mad."

The lemon looked like it was eating away at his teeth now.

"Ba, please... I forgive you. But please, don't make me go through this again."

Something cracked inside that steel mind. He walked over and rested his palm on Beta's shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Beta. I let my pride blind me to what really matters. Although you have forgiven me, I don't know if I can forgive myself. But I will not put you through this again, I promise you that."

He turned to face Trina, who involuntarily shrunk away from him.

"Thank you, my dear girl. You were there for my Beta when we should have been. The two of you have my blessing, and my humblest apologies."

Trina smiled, and a small tear took the opportunity to slip down her face. It was rudely jerked off her face though when Mrs. Neutron wrapped her and Mr. Proton into a big group hug. Beta tried to get up to join them, but then...

"Doctor Tau? Um... can I get these leather straps removed? Please?"