Everyone is Pretending

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The only difference between you and the babbling insane is that you have yours on mute.

You’re sitting on a bench eating a sandwich and aren’t really sure why. You love sandwiches, and don’t mind benches, but you never sit outside by yourself during your lunch hour. Today, you had a deep sense of unease and anxiety about eating at your desk. You went to the cafeteria and didn’t see anyone you recognized. So you stumbled out into the overly bright sunlight and found a bench a comfortable distance from a ranting derelict.

You finish your sandwich and crumple the wrapper into a ball. Everything has a fuzzy quality to it, like a dream barely remembered once woken. There’s something you should be doing, but you can’t place your finger on it.

You look up at the tall archway of the lobby to the building across the street. You’ve never been there. You have no reason to go. But you feel compelled to do something.

You rise. You cross the street and enter the lobby. The security guard is distracted, so you slip by and join other office workers as they step onto the elevator.

You get periodic glances of offices and activity as they exit the elevator one by one. Third floor. Fifth floor. Seventh floor. Eleventh floor. Fourteenth floor. The door closes and you are alone. The elevator begins to descend.

You reach out and push a button at random. Ten. The elevator stops at the tenth floor. The doors open to an empty, bare concrete shell of a floor. You find this odd. The tenants must have moved out. You push the button for nine.

The floor the is the same — empty.

Floor eight, also empty.

You’re back to the seventh floor, and the door opens. Two office workers enter and push the button for the lobby. You impulsively push the button for the fourth floor. The door opens to an empty floor. The man and woman on the elevator with you continue their conversation and do not notice or care.

The elevator doors begin to shut and you put your hand out. You slip out. The man raises a questioning eyebrow as the doors close and the elevator departs.

The floor is just bare concrete walls and floors. There is no trash, no stubs for utilities, no signs that the floor was ever used at all. You walk over to the grimy windows and peer out at the office building directly across the street. You see people working on the first three floors, all of which would be visible from the street. Above that, the building is empty.

You exit and get on the subway. You go past your stop. You ride to the end of the line for the first time. On the way up the escalator you tell yourself you’ll go in the third building on the right. The sign above the door advertises a dentist and a yoga studio. At the top of the flight, there are two locked doors. No one is inside.

Over the next few days, you visit locations around town at random. The museum you went to last year is always full of people. But the Irish bar you never, ever considered drinking at is empty on a Saturday night.

The next weekend, you go to the airport and pick a random page from a U.S. travel guide. Charlotte. You will go to Charlotte. There is a flight in two hours. You go to the counter and buy a ticket. The agent looks at you, suspicious of your lack of luggage, but you tell her that your mother is unexpectedly ill.

You spend the next 90 minutes before your plane boards watching people come and go. You wonder what would happen if you accosted them — asked them where they grew up, where they went to high school, what their school colors were — would they have answers for you or just blank stares?

Your flight arrives in Charlotte and taxis to the gate. You exit the plane with the other passengers and the airport seems very quiet. There are only a few cabs and almost no cars picking up passengers at the arrival terminal.

You pay a cabbie to drive you downtown. The city is nearly empty. You wonder if there is a local holiday. But there are far too few people for a city this size. Where has everyone gone?

You return to the airport and spend the rest of the afternoon chatting up random people at the airport bar. They can tell you where they’re from, their mother’s name, the breed of their first dog. But if you ask them how they felt the first time they fell in love, or what their grandparents thought when an uncle passed away too soon, the answers trail off.

Over the next month, you pick three more cities at random. Houston is bustling and full of vibrant, interesting people — a normal city. But Columbus and Huntington are like Charlotte — empty, vacant ghost towns.

You mention your strange experiences to your friends and colleagues but they just laugh and think you’re being offbeat again. When you press the issue they start to get concerned. One evening at happy hour, your best friend suggests you should call your parents and think about seeing a psychiatrist.

You take the hint and keep it to yourself.

A few days later as you’re walking home from work, a homeless man is babbling, talking in word salad about how the world is empty and no one really exists. It’s meaningless gibberish. You’ve passed and ignored similar crazy people a thousand times before.

But this time you stop and listen. And it all makes sense.

He is making perfect sense.

You ask him what he means. He leads you around the corner. The man smells like urine and sour sweat, but you aren’t afraid. He tells you not here. He tells you they are watching. He says to meet him later and he’ll tell you everything. He gives you a dollar and gently pushes you away.

His babbling shifts back to word salad, but he winks and nods down toward the street.

You walk half a block and look at the dollar. Across George Washington’s face, written in perfect block letters, are the words ‘Meet me at Gallant Park, 10pm tonight.’

You normally would never meet a crazy homeless man in the park. That is insane. Which is why you must go.

At 10pm, the park is dark and nearly empty, just a few late commuters taking shortcuts home and teens vaping. You find him on a bench, under a lamplight, babbling to himself. You sit on the far end of the bench.

A strolling couple recedes into the distance, and his voice shifts again.

He asks what you’ve seen. You tell him. He nods. You ask why?

He says it’s all an act. A con. Set up for one person. They wrote all these programs. They flow to wherever the person is or could be. They’re not needed everywhere. It’s all probability. But sometimes they wake up. And when they do, they see things they shouldn’t.

You hear a rustling in the bushes behind you and turn just as the silver flash meets your neck. As you fall to the sidewalk, you see the homeless man running away. A figure is silhouetted by the lamplight above, then the light goes dark.

You wake up in your bed when your morning alarm goes off. During your lunch break, you walk into random buildings, but they’re all full of people doing normal people things. You fly back to Charlotte, Columbus and Huntington — all are normal, thriving cities. The strangers you meet tell you about their hopes, fears, dreams and loves.

You settle back to your normal routine. You settle back into your circle of friends. You settle back into a calm complacency. Your strange behavior of the past few weeks seems forgotten by loved ones and co-workers.

You have the lingering sense that you’re missing something important, but you don’t want to pull on that mental thread. You’re not sure if you’re delusional, or if you just prefer a boring existence that makes sense to an exciting life that might unravel.

On the way home, you walk by the drug store where a homeless man is babbling about empty buildings and people faking their lives. He says none of it is real. He says everyone is pretending.

You try not to make eye contact and just keep walking.

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