How We Got from There to Here
by Dave Housley
At first, we didn't know what they were. Some people thought they were aliens, some thought god had dropped them out of the sky. They talked about them on the news, debated endlessly. There were articles in all the newspapers, the morning talk shows, even the celebrity gossip tabloids. We talked different then, talked a lot, used big words and sometimes talked just to hear ourselves talking. That was Before.
We were suspicious of strangers, recent immigrants to whom they could have attached themselves, like parasites or invasive species. Dick Cheney's name came up a lot. Vladimir Putin. Google. L. Ron Hubbard. Also, Russell Crowe, who had been photographed handling one in the early days, before we were all rolling them back and forth in our hands, when the CDC still advised calling the hotlines if you came into direct bodily contact. Soon the average wait for an operator would be eight hours, and then sixteen, then two days, and then, of course, the whole hotline thing, along with the CDC, and most people using phones, and anybody worrying about whether to handle them or not and direct bodily contact, would just kind of fade away.
They were small, silver, with a pleasing weight that seemed to indicate good manufacturing practices or some kind of buried significance. Smaller than a golf ball but larger than a blueberry, they were slightly unbalanced, like lacrosse balls, so the effect of rolling one along your palm was strangely satisfying, playful even, a lazy half roll followed by a quicker, hurried roll. This might be why so many people thought they were animate, that there was something in there, a beating heart or immortal soul or a tiny quiet astronaut, somersaulting like a passenger on a berserk amusement park ride as we lolled them back and forth in our hands.
We found them everywhere, in trees and in the grass, in boxes of Special K strawberry extra protein cereal and embedded in the clothes we bought from the Gap. They jangled across the beds of trucks, broke our teeth as we bit into our meatball subs, speckled our carpets and basketball courts and the bottoms of our hot tubs. It became not uncommon to wake up in a bed filled with them, to spend the first hours of the morning collecting and then placing them into giant plastic containers that we bought at Wal-Mart and Target specifically for this purpose.
Websites sprung up like toadstools - first, with pictures of them, then with Google maps tracking their spread until the maps became one homogenous cloud of blue or orange or whatever color was chosen to indicate areas in which they were known to be located. Homespun epidemiologists tried to locate "patient zero," the first person who had found one and rolled it back and forth in their hand, who had held one up to the sun and watched the sparkle bounce off its silver exterior. Most narrowed it down to an organic corn farmer in central Pennsylvania. The farmer became a kind of celebrity for awhile. He denied any special knowledge, but admitted that he had found them, rolled them back and forth on his palms, that he had kept them in a junk drawer for a few hours, until he took them back out and rolled them around in his hands for awhile, that he had been rolling them around in his hands ever since, that he liked it and didn't know why, but was unconcerned with the kinds of things that used to bother him, and this, he thought, was pretty okay.
People tried to cut them in half, of course, to boil them down to their essence, map their chemical DNA, but this proved impossible and much less satisfying than rolling them back and forth in our hands.
There was a popular theory that they were gods, or angels delivered to watch over us in our final days. This is when the Google maps people switched to track the spread of the theories. These theories could be put broken down into four major categories: political, spiritual, environmental, other.
It took the real scientists awhile to get involved, for the government to move from pretending they didn't exist to making excuses about environmental waste and then to issue cautious warnings, then more strident warnings and an advertising campaign geared to steer children away from their use, and finally to making it illegal to own or possess them - a period that lasted less than a week, after which the government seemed to relax and start rolling them back and forth in their hands as well. The last image most of us would remember from Before would be the President, rolling them back and forth in his hands, wandering down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Mall, where massive pyramids made of them had been constructed.
We talked to them, some of us. Worshipped or confessed, walked through the intimacies of our days and hours and minutes. We told them about our affairs and our fears, our hopes and dreams and what we were hoping to eat for lunch. Eventually we mostly asked questions. They sat in our hands, shiny and silver and inscrutable, reflecting the light like some kind of wisdom, and they never talked back.
About the author:
Dave Housely's collection of short fiction, Ryan Seacrest is Famous, was published in 2007 by Impetus Press. My work has appeared in Columbia, Nerve, Sycamore Review, Yankee Pot Roast, and some other places. He's one of the editors of Barrelhouse magazine. He keeps his stuff at davehousely.com.