The building was empty. Darren passed by the conference room, it seemed so much smaller. He passed several unnecessarily cheerful meeting spaces that were neither comfortable, nor conducive to hearing the people you were meeting with. Normally the big open room would be a drone of overlapping voices, but in the sprawling emptiness the clatter of plastic buttons was easily triangulated. As expected, Richard was hunched over a small screen with giant headphones. Darren tried to gently inform him of his arrival with a slight pat on the back, but Richard jumped out of his chair anyway. He morphed from terrified shriek to enthusiastic zeal disturbingly fast. “Oh….my god you came! Thank you!”
Darren gave into a hug reluctantly. Richard’s eyes rolled around in his head, never quite making contact with anything. He often seemed less human than a cgi character in Polar Express. Darren was pretty sure that all dogs barked at Richard. His shaky demeanor and screwy eyes were very off putting. His eyebrows were pleading for reassurance and validation.
“I just got dumped.”
“You did not call me into the office at nine-pm because another one of your three week old relationships didn’t work out..” Darren said very quietly.
“We had six months of vacations and trips planned out.”
“Isn’t he a flight attendant? I think he had those booked out already. This isn’t an excuse I can take up the chain to buy you more time.”
Richard’s expression deflated into concern.
“You are 12 weeks behind schedule,” Darren reminded him. “I can’t and won’t defend you. Your workstation is being monitored.”
Pleased with his cleverness, Richard bragged, “I know, I got it covered, that’s why I play my games on my mobile. And I built this lego robot arm to keep my keyboard active during work hours.” The satisfaction in his own cleverness flipped off like a switch as a server farm of self pity booted up inside him. Richard sobbed, “Couldn’t you tell how much I loved him! We were so perfect for each other..”
“Did you really call me in here to indulge you? You’re lazy, self-absorbed, and obsessed with escapism. I’ve actually watched you play a game during a date. When we were sent to San Antonio for that conference you trashed the hotel room in a matter of hours, stayed up all night with your games and then slept through all the meetings you were supposed to go to. When you get in trouble here, you always expect me to take the hit. You’re a terrible teammate.”
“How can you say that to a friend?”
“You’re not my friend. We work together. From the way you force me to to hits for you, you obviously don’t care about me or anyone else in your life.You are surprised that guys keep dumping you? You’re right, I shouldn’t say any of this because.. I don’t care. Take responsibility for yourself or shut the fuck up.” Darren thought of Richard as a nonplayer game character. He did have a limited range of expressions, endlessly reacted with the same behaviors without any awareness or change, and always seemed to respawn, even when you thought you’d seen the last of him.
As Darren stomped out of the office, he realized that unfortunately the next day would play out just like it had before. Richard would break down in the morning meeting a few minutes before they would need to present an update. HR would be involved. His boss would call a meeting with Darren where he would simultaneously ask for him to treat Richard with kid gloves because of his fragility and somehow get the project back on schedule. The only option on the table will be the only option on the table the last time. He’ll have to delay the start of his other projects, and find workers in parallel departments that can take on some of Richard’s tasks. He wasn’t sure how long this rhythm would continue but it didn’t seem to have a conclusion in sight. If Darren didn’t change something he felt like he would get trapped beyond the all hope of escape from the event horizon of Richard’s endless drama.
In the light rain and passing headlights Darren could briefly visualize all his comings and goings over Richard’s drama as dozens of moments of entering and exiting his apartment steps. His own faces collided. When he was heading toward Richard’s chaos his face was scowled in resentment, when he came back his shoulders hung in defeat, his face exhausted in futility. He tried to count the paths in and out of his door, but it seemed so countless that all the versions of him bled together into an abstract jumble of features. As he unlocked the door his vision dissolved and he mused to himself, that mess must be what it’s like to see people from outside time.
Darren’s keys settled onto the table just inside the door with a metallic chime. He didn’t bother to hang up his jacket. He was too tired to do anything but toss it on the back of his chair before he settled onto an arm rest. He stared at the glareless reflection of the sleeping monitor. He reached for the mouse to wake the machine, but his hand paused. He yawned, retracted his arm into his lap and shifted his weight to the other armrest and drifted off.
The light of the morning was drifting in through the window above his desk. He smacked his lips and tasted the inside of his mouth. He looked down at his torso and was surprised to see he was still wearing his clothes from the night before. He wasn’t sure why but he was expecting something different. He looked to his phone for the time. 7:05. His alarm clock still matched. Despite the normality, for some reason he felt like things were unusual.
He fired up his desktop with a shake of his mouse. He looked away and yawned again while his eyes adjusted. A doubleclick launched the film restoration software. He noticed he didn’t really feel rested at all. If anything his body felt jetlagged, and the thought of calling into the office to use one of his PTO days sounded extremely appealing.
He opened the file containing the digital duplicate of his favorite strip of celluloid. The software displayed a series of thumbnails in the timeline to make it easier to browse the footage. Buffono was nowhere to be seen. He pressed play. The scenes of the film passed by unoccupied by any character. There was no action. The seltzer water sat on a bar unused. When the banana peel appeared, it sat on the floor uninterrupted. The scenes played by without any appearance of his favorite character.
At that moment his phone buzzed. He received an Instagram notification. He had created an account long ago, but Darren had been so consumed by the restoration project he never made use of it. His name was tagged on a post, when he clicked it he saw a tattoo of the clown on a girls arm. Buffono was a museum piece! Why would someone have a tattoo of his favorite character? The picture had a location tagged. Cafe Sophie was just up the street. His mind swam in confusion. Was he dreaming?
He grabbed his cotton gloves and jerked them over his fingers. He opened the leather case and quickly slid the film canister out of it’s velvet sleeve discarding the ribbon to the side. He slowed down to carefully remove the lid of the tin. He carefully lifted out the celluloid and looked at the frames in the light. The setting of each little still picture was figureless. Frame after frame of the film remained unchanged. The clown was missing entirely, or had there never been a clown on the film? Was he losing his mind? The frames with the title shots were missing his name. It read “ in a Trip to Mars” as if the title character had never existed.
He grabbed his coat off the back of his chair and nearly spilled himself onto the floor when his foot caught the leg of the table. He caught himself, took a breath and righted himself. He grabbed his keys and ran out the door to the cafe as quickly as he could. As he jutted his way up the block he examined the post on Instagram again, the username was TheDoubt. He clicked their profile and scanned the previous posts for any clarity. All of the previous posts were pictures of him going to and from his home! His eyes shot up and scanned the perimeter around him. A couple was strolling by him, were they only pretending to be engrossed in one another? As he looked around his eye contact was returned by other pedestrians. Across the street a woman with a stroller was speaking loudly into her phone, almost as if she was performing. Was there even a baby in the stroller? He zipped up his jacket in distrust.
The windows of the cafe were filled with laptops and slumped shoulders. Standing in the entryway he could see there was only one customer who wasn’t digitally preoccupied. She looked like a Russian mafia princess with giant designer sunglasses encasing the top half of her head. Her lips were pouty but her expression was otherwise undeterminable. His feet prickled as if they were asleep. He found his mobility but it was interrupted by a customer rising from his table.
“Hold tight there fella,” commanded the patron with a wee scottish accent.
“Excuse me, I just need to step by.”
“What you need is to take a seat right here.” the man’s shoulders and pointed gaze insisted he sit down. Darren obliged to avoid a scene. The mafia princess unfolded her legs and reached for handbag next to her. The bag pulled on her shoulder as if it contained something very heavy as she crossed the room toward the exit.
Darren’s eyes gazed in paralysis as her right arm drifted past him. The clown was trapped in inked flesh on the upper right of her arm, just below the spaghetti strap clutching to her shoulder.
“I just need a second to ask her something..” The Scotsman halted him with a gentle grip on his left forearm.
“The answers are never all that that interesting, eh?”
Darren couldn’t believe he was letting the woman walk away.
“You know her? Where did she get that clown? I mean, why does she have that tattoo?”
“If you want to see the funnyman again you’re going to have to pay attention.” said the Scotsman melodically.
There was nothing but obsessive interest in Darren’s eyes.
“What are you willing to sacrifice for the return of your amusing little friend?” asked the stranger.
“Return? Did you switch film canisters from my home when I wasn’t looking?”
“You know every little scratch and dust speck on those frames of celluloid. Are you really going to deny what’s happening before your eyes? Have faith in The Doubt.”
“Are you trying to make me believe you are holding a cartoon character hostage?” Darren sat back in his chair and cocked his head sideways.
“This isn’t a kidnapping, it’s a rescue mission.”
“By making a tattoo out of a century old newsreel animation?”
“We’re here to rescue.. you.”
“..the monster hiding under your bed. The thing that watches you with your own eyes. Were you surprised you woke up with your clothes on?”
Darren felt more vulnerable than being naked teenager at a school function. He knew nothing about this man with a potentially fake accent, who clearly had the advantage of information. The guy clearly he had him followed and watched. But he did feel strange this morning. What was it that he could not remember?
“What are you getting at? What do you want?” begged Darren.
“We’re here to save you from the Dragon.” claimed the Scotsman