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The King of Several Countries

Shane Cashman

You would rather catch the plague than become the character of this particular story. You’ve put on a sparkly top hat and a pair of sparkly glasses that are shaped like the year that this story takes place. It’s a bad disguise, but it is New Year’s Eve. It could’ve been Independence Day though. Calendar holidays typically offer imaginary bookmarks between time––as though there were a wall actually separating one time from another, and not just taxes and semesters and year-end sales.

The plague, however, was here before the story started. Some scientists claim the plague to be as old as the universe itself––this invisible, lurking mass that roams the continents waiting to destroy the planet and its characters. Those who disagree with the scientists see the plague as a branch of the devil––as though the devil had in its employ a legislative, judicial, and executive branch.

Today, the plague was in New York City for the holidays. Late night TV hosts poked fun at the plague. They called it another tourist visiting the city to take selfies with postcard, billboard, storefront landmarks and shop at Macy’s and get drunk at the Rock & Roll Café. It just happened to be in the city for the holidays, making headlines, delaying flights, getting words like quarantine and delirium and phagocytosis and incubation stuck in your head. The morning TV hosts shared ways in which you could make your very own I Survived the Plague t-shirts with pizazz and macramé.

Was it Bubonic, Ebola, or Black? You actually don’t care. They all sound decently medieval and rotten enough to get you out of this story for at least a few days––if not forever.

In an effort to regain control of your life, you’ve hopped on an express train south to Grand Central. You, and everyone else, seem to be dressed up in some ridiculous sparkly outfit. However, you are the only one traveling alone, not smiling, and with no real destination other than to get a hold of that plague moving through the city.

The mayor, it’s been reported, is handing out keys to the city to the first handful of survivors of the plague. The keys were supposed to be a morale booster, until, of course, they run out of keys and or people––whichever might come first.

How heavy is a key to the city? Can you pawn the key to a city in the very city they unlock?

You worry that you’re merely a poor representation of the author––a vessel through which the author could talk about themselves in a way that might distance him from the reader, but make it relatable enough to be believable and engaging, without revealing too much personal eccentricity about the author, by way of making the character of this story more of a symbolic gesture, albeit, hopefully, multi-dimensional, rather than just a façade for the author to masquerade behind. You hate that you have to think such long thoughts. People you admire could’ve thought it better, sharper, faster. You’ve also been told not to do any of this by people you admire. But you’ve always been the devil’s advocate. A contrarian even when it makes you look bad at parties.

You worry all the time about being likable: I love too much. I love too many things. I dream too much. I can listen to the same song all day. I’m too nice. I never send food back at a restaurant even if it’s come out wrong. I am too enthusiastic. I smile too much. I smile when I shouldn’t. I hate my smile. I am too easy to laugh. I laugh too hard. I haven’t seen the dentist in two years. I laugh at things no one else laughs at. What are you supposed to do with your hands and your face while you sit on the train? As you walk through crosswalks? What does it mean when someone says they’d be more than happy to do something for you? What is more than happy? I think of all the right things to say when it’s too late. I’m no one’s hero. I could be anyone else, with any number of goals. If it’s not the plague, it’s some other kind of mortal ruin. To what degree does everyone else experience cruelty? Is that all destiny is––a predetermined arrangement of cruelty that ends cruelly?

You did not want to necessarily die from the plague. Mostly, you just wanted the symptoms. The symptoms would be enough to earn a key to the city. The key itself, of course, is only symbolic, but symbols here mean more to you than actual physical things. If you had a key to the city, it might mean you could unlock that door in your soul that you’ve only just discovered was locked, find yourself, you know, truly. Or, maybe, it could get you a brief interview on The Today Show. It all depends on how it went once you contracted the plague. So long as you were in the first few hundred to get sick, and you actually survived, then you’d probably have a chance at being seen, being sympathized for. As much as you don’t like other people, you still want other people to see you. You could become someone who visits other plague patients, give them hope, saying things: This doesn’t have to define you. You are more than the plague. You can defeat this. You’re in good hands.

You dread even thinking it, but it’s almost as if you want the plague to last forever. In your dreams, you need the plague to boost your fame and likability. What do they say? The sky’s the limit.

You are so confident that you’ll get the plague that you’re already dreaming of your own treatment process. You have faith in a quick treatment after a frightful spell of the plague, because you live so near to a city with hospitals with five-star-reviews. No one knows the names of the dead, or the survivors, in countries no one can point to on a map.

Symptoms include sudden shivering and vomiting and coughing blood and fatigue and lymph nodes ballooned to the size of grapefruits. You can’t help but think of people from the Middle Ages who were buried with bricks shoved in their mouths because their neighbors feared they might climb back up out of the grave monster-like and stalk the village teeth-wise with the intent to infect. That would be just your luck––to be so unceremoniously buried.

You’ve brought a book on the train to hide your face behind. It was written by a Very Famous Author. You don’t like being a character reading a book because it seems redundant and stereotypical. You keep looking over your shoulder, as if no one notices.

As the train enters the tunnel under Grand Central, a woman, in her seventies, or thereabout, stands up behind you and grabs the back of your seat to balance herself as the train rattles along.

You pretend to read because you don’t want to get distracted. You don’t want to talk to anyone. The second you talk, your main goal is delayed. The plague can’t wait. But this woman has taken to reading your book over your shoulder. She takes a seat beside you. She has chosen you. She’s wearing red leather gloves. You wonder if they are to help prevent the spread of plague. The woman seems to be in a place in her life that would not necessarily be improved by contracting the plague. You guess all this by scanning her from the corner of your eyes.

“I knew the person who wrote that book,” she says.

“Oh,” you say, smiling, wanting her to think you believe her.

“He was a real character,” she says, and winks.

You hate these types of coincidences. Sometimes, you fear, everyone else in the world has access to your thoughts. You do not like talking in public. You wish you could be the kind of character that goes out and does heroic things, but that is not who you are. This, you believe, says a lot about the author. You are the type that tends to speak very quietly, under your breath, especially in public settings, when forced, because you live in constant fear that anyone in your surroundings might want to steal anything you might say for whatever story anyone else is writing. This is a symptom of living under the thumb of someone who tinkers with the arrangement of destinies. You’ve come to fear that everyone in the world is also an Extremely Famous Author, or about to be, or, really, any old wannabe, and this terrifies you. You are never alone enough. Your life has been one long continuous autopsy of the soul.

“I’d actually never heard of him before,” you say, looking at the name on the spine of the book. You really just grabbed any copy from your bookshelf. But, come to think of it, you can’t even think what your bookshelf looks like. Do you even have one? It’s hard to imagine where you were before you hopped on this train. You deny yourself the chance to even think past that point. Even still, your mind slips there anyway and it’s only a white space. A big gap. You go through extended phases of suffering through nowhere and timelessness. Though it can’t be suffering if you’re not aware of the suffering only until long after the supposed time of suffering. It’s like the negative version of trying to think what it was like to be in your mother’s womb. And yet, you can’t even picture your mother’s face.

“Whom else do you read?” the woman asks.

You rattle off a few authors you never really read all the way through, but have heard people with important jobs reference.

“I knew all of those authors, too,” the woman says. “All characters.”

It’s as though she’s saying this to make you feel better.

Since it was New Year’s Eve, and the train’s still moving, you decide to humor the conversation.

“Have you read Extremely Famous Dead Author?” the woman asks as though you’ve never heard of Extremely Famous Dead Author.

“I have. Yes. I actually love Extremely Famous Dead Author.” This was one author you had not only read, but also reread and analyzed in your first and only year of college. You like to think you would’ve been better off in one of Extremely Famous Dead Author’s pages. You’d happily become a soulless particle for Extremely Famous Dead Author. That would be a more profound existence than this. But it is not up to you to choose.

You do worry a lot about these types of coincidences in your life. You’ve heard how coincidence happens quite frequently in reality, but reality was relative, and in the reality of a story, a coincidence always seems like a trick, something the author does to make things fit together and push the life of a character along. But, this is why your latest mantra is anything is possible.

Coincidence is a human phenomenon. Animals don’t experience coincidence. Or maybe they do, and you just aren’t operating on the right wavelength to appreciate their points-of-view.

The real coincidence is this: For the last seven years, ever since you read Extremely Famous Dead Author for the first time, you’ve actually kept a quote by Extremely Famous Dead Author taped on the wall above your bed. It’s the only thing on the wall. You like to think that you put it there to remind the author of this story that they will never be as good as Extremely Famous Dead Author. But, really, it was there as a reminder to keep, at the very least, getting out of bed and trying to resemble something somewhat human. You often wonder what your life would have looked like if you were summoned into one of Extremely Famous Dead Author’s stories. You could afford to time travel. Take amusing trips to the post office. Be an envelope. Be an alien. However, your whole life, as best as you can tell, is a bed and a wall with some words on it, and a world in which the plague is vacationing in Manhattan. When you think of your life in this way, you try to cheer yourself up by saying, “well, at least you have a bed and a wall with some words on it”. You suppose wanting to get infected with the plague is a consequence of having so little to begin with. Why not want the only other thing this world of yours has to offer––no matter how horrific it might be? Though, now, there is this woman who could be your grandmother.

When the train stops, everyone leaps up. Are they all in disguises and hiding from someone as well, or are they all going to the same party? Or are they all down here to find the plague? You feel a rush of competition, as though once the doors open, you might all run wild like Black Friday, in search of the plague. But when the doors open, no one seems hurried. You try to take it easy. Not let anyone onto your mission.

The woman walks beside you. You’re allowing yourself to speak in public. Pretending to be human––you tell yourself you’re pulling it off.

“Do you go to school?” the woman asks. You wonder if she knows where to find the plague. Her red gloves give the impression that she’s upper class. The wealthy always have access to the best stuff first. They were the first to eat lab-generated mastodon meat; they were the first to drink water thawed from the moon; they are always the first to survive an outbreak.

“I actually finished grad school a week ago,” you say, really trying to be believable. However, this is the lie you’ve been telling for the last seven or twenty years. Who’s counting?

“What did you study?”

“Literature,” you say, and raise the book up to your ear, as if it would prove to her you earned a degree. Saying literature out loud made it sound so worthless. You wish you could say math or biology or architecture––though those would be much, much harder to fake.

You both walk into the main concourse so that to strangers you must look like parent and child, or lovers, or someone important with their personal assistant.

“Well, Happy New Year,” you say, feeling like you’ve had a genuine interaction with a human––quite possibly your first. You wave and smile and turn to find the plague.

The woman takes your hand. She pulls you in close. She puts her mouth to your ear.

“I’d like to show you something,” she says. You follow, hoping it’s the plague, but wondering if this is how rich old people hook up on holidays in public.

She brings you out to the clock in the middle of the concourse and points to ceiling above the departing times.

“See that?” she asks.

You don’t see anything other than the constellations painted onto the ceiling. You squint, not wanting to fail her test, scanning the imitation stars.

“There’s a small hole up there in Gemini,” she says, pointing up.

There was Gemini, those celestial twins, hovering over the terminal clock, and if you really squinted, you could see a small stain, a hole, perhaps, right in the middle of the constellation. You’d actually need a telescope to really see it.

“During the Cold War,” she says, “the Americans raised a tall rocket in the middle of the concourse, stood it up right here like a statue of something that was built to explode. But when they raised the rocket, it turned out they’d miscalculated by a few inches and had to resort to cutting into the ceiling to make it fit. We were afraid Russia had weaponized the plague. But I was in Berlin at the time with my husband, and the Russians, we gathered from the papers in Berlin, reported that Russia feared the Americans had weaponized the plague too. So the hole’s just a reminder of a big mistake. I like to come look into the hole to remind myself that all of this is one big mistake.” She waves her gloved hands in the air like a conductor.

Seeing the stars across the ceiling, a sensation washes over you. You feel as if the plague might slowly breathe down through the hole in the fake night sky and enter you.

The woman hugs you while you’re still looking up.

“You’ll be perfect,” she says, squeezing your shoulders. She almost seems to measure you, up and down, as though she were to stand you up like a rocket in the middle of Grand Central.

Then she gets extremely close to your ear again. You wonder if this is how people share state secrets.

“I am the widow of Extremely Famous Dead Author.” She steps back to gauge your reaction. You’re ashamed that you immediately believe her. And the first thing you think is: do you remind her of one of Extremely Famous Dead Author’s characters?

You almost want to cry. It feels as if you are about to be plucked from here and brought elsewhere––if elsewhere is possible.

You want to kiss her.

But there are people running towards you. There is a rush of energy through the station. People in black masks and latex gloves. The plague must be near now. You see people, desperate as yourself, licking railings and ATMs, as if the plague might be their golden ticket, their key to the city.

“I should go,” you say.

“You don’t have to. You can come with me.”

You look around, as though after having spotted that small hole in the ceiling you now have the ability to see the very plague itself as it swims through Grand Central.

Men with rifles march in. They begin to move everyone out into the street. People in HAZMAT suits begin to section off terminals. Conductors seem worried that the plague might hop on their trains next. You want to rip your clothes off and bathe in the air. The men with rifles are screaming at you both to move. The widow looks concerned for you, but doesn’t seem concerned for herself. You admire this. You are both shoved out the door and into the street, as if the plague was capable of being in one place and not the other.

“Do you want to see the ball drop?” she asks. She tries to look up at the sky to show you where the ball will drop, but seems preoccupied with looking at you, and then, only after really sizing you up, actually looks up. The ball is up there, glowing and huge. You think of puberty. You think of Hiroshima. You think of disco. She’s trying to read your mind. Or, rather, she is. You don’t trust the way she looks at you, but you like the way she’s decided to make you feel like you’re the only person in the city. You feel like you should reciprocate.

“Do I have choice?” you ask her, as if you mean it.

“Sure you do,” she says. “They’re doing something different this year. With the ball, that is.”

You move together with the crowd towards Times Square––the bright ball hovers up there like a second moon. She tells you Faberge designed it this year. You’d believe anything she says.

You overhear someone telling their boyfriend that there’s some lingering plague in a bowling alley in Brooklyn. The New Year is upon you and you feel a surge of hope.

“I happen to know the woman who curated this year’s ball,” the widow says. “My friend told me that she’s stuffed a grown man in the ball. He’s supposed to represent the Old Year. Symbolism is having a real comeback right now. She says he’s supposed to represent the plague. The Year of the Plague, I guess. I guess she’s put him in a sash with the old year written across his chest. But, this is my favorite part, supposedly, she’s got him in a mask of the most hated person in the world: The King of Several Countries. She believes that once the crowd sees the person emerge from the ball, they will experience a feeling of pure hatred. This, studies show, should lead to a communal release of anger, which, in turn, should then lead to communal healing. It’s a bloated message. I’m just here to support. If it goes well, maybe it’ll become a new tradition.”

Two million people start counting down from ten. Their voices shake the ground. You wonder if the plague is attracted to such large groups, or if the plague shrinks from such large groups. You consider the consciousness of a plague. It must want to survive as much as you do.

The ball is lowered. When it hovers just above the ground, the ball seems to crack open like an egg. Two swollen and bare feet touch the confetti-covered street. A man emerges. He seems delirious, like he hasn’t seen light in ages. He is in a diaper, a bowtie, a sash, and his face is hiding behind a mask of the most hated person in the world.

People toss beer at the man. They hurl insults. They spit. He absorbs it with the grace of someone who probably isn’t getting paid enough, but needs whatever he can get. After a minute of basking in the onslaught, he opens his eyes, lowers his head, and charges into the crowd. Gut exposed to the cold. He has a limp, but actually runs faster than you thought he could.

You are standing outside of one of those tall glass, mirror-looking hotels. One of those places that only princes and dignitaries and vice presidents and rappers and prostitutes can afford.

Even the police lift their batons and give the man firm taps on the rear as he lumbers down the street. They allow him to shove bystanders. They allow him to swing at parked cars.

People around you run into the hotel and press their drunk faces up against the glass, taunting the man from safely inside. You don’t move. Neither does the widow. You figure if she doesn’t budge, neither will you.

The man, as if he’s absorbing all the hate from the whole city, is only becoming more violent. He swings at everyone. The street reeks of piss and gin and shitty beer in apple juice bottles.

A big guy, in a pair of neon green sunglasses, tries to sneak up on the man in the mask to clock him in the back of the head. This guy didn’t take into account that his reflection was right there in front of his target. The masked man throws an elbow into the cool guy’s sternum. People step back and boo. He stands over his first real victim and screams: “I’m the king of several countries.” You thought he’d pound his chest, but he doesn’t.

He drops to his knees and crawls around the feet of the security of the hotel who’ve all lined up to witness this display. The Old Year, on all fours, presses his face against the big glass window of the hotel lobby. There’s a party inside, but everyone is up against the window.

A proper looking woman in bracelets sits crossed-legged at the window, yelling at her son to stop taking pictures of the Old Year as she sips her flute of champagne. Others tap on the glass. Like the Old Year is a whale in a tank. He blows kisses. He sings a song you’ve never heard before.

You look to the widow to see if you can tell by her face if this is part of the show. But she’s left your side. You haven’t felt this alone since before the story started. You begin to feel the way it feels to wake up after a long bout of nowhere and timelessness. Even though you are very much in the middle of the city, the loneliness runs tremors through your jaw. You miss the idea of just you and the plague and the key to the city.

In the time it took you to turn back, you see that the Old Year has the widow by the throat in the middle of 44th. Her feet are off the ground. The crowd has moved in close, but seems reluctant to interfere.

The widow says nothing. She doesn’t struggle. Unless your eyes are getting that bad, you almost think she’s smiling. Maybe it’s just a shadow playing tricks. You feel like you should do something. If there ever were a time, this would be it. Your shoes feel like they’re filled with cement. You try to take a step forward. And just as you do, the Old Year drops the widow. She lands on her feet. But he falls to his knees and starts to vomit.

The widow moves away and into the crowd opposite you. She does not look back. She disappears. You have been chosen, and you have been abandoned. You try to think of the words on the wall at your home, but you can’t remember any of them. You can’t even remember how to get home from here.

You don’t realize you’re moving until you’re standing over the man in the mask. You feel instinctively that you should place your hand on his bare back, as if to comfort him while he pukes into the sidewalk. You are not afraid. Sirens are getting close. You feel the weather for the first time tonight. You feel a chill in your ears and in your ribs. The Old Year looks up at you as if to say, “please, don’t.” He must be so accustomed to being beaten, that he thinks you’ve moved in to deliver a final blow to his head. He recoils. He seems smaller. You see a pair of eyes looking through an all too realistic rubber mask of the most hated man in the world. He is having a hard time breathing. You feel sorry for him. You want him to be able to puke without the mask on.

Just as you kneel down to help pull the mask off his big sweaty head, a young man in a blue ski mask, from out of nowhere, jumps in and hits him so hard on the top of the head with a bike lock connected to a thick chain that it makes a Piñata of the man’s skull.

The sky barfs confetti. Everyone slurs Sinatra. Balloons are released. And then you feel yourself begin to lift up from the street, as if you’re flying. The cheering fades. You see the man in the ski mask on the large TV screens throughout the buildings of Times Square. He is enormous. He is a skyscraper. And you are only getting smaller. You are a particle. He’s receiving the key to the city. And you’ll never understand a life in which you must suffer through other people achieving your dreams.

It is dark and cold and you think you’re naked or dead or both. Have you been unceremoniously buried? You knew you should’ve never even had that thought earlier, whenever earlier was, because anything you think, even the tiniest thoughts, can come back to haunt you. Who knows who is listening?

You hear a voice.

“You will introduce yourself as the King of Several Countries. You will feel a sudden drop and then be lowered slowly. When you are released, don’t be alarmed if it takes a moment to remember how to walk, but once you can, you must run. The rest is up to you. You’re in control of what goes on down there.”

As soon as her voice disappears from wherever it came, you hear people counting down from ten. It feels like you’re being dropped from space. You wonder if the stars are out to validate this new phase of yours. You feel important and grateful. You have always lived and never lived. You will swim through the crowd as if you’re the plague itself.

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