Old Carton Faces
by Nick Olson
Time stretched past a point, like pencil sharpener scraps in a plastic bubble, like grocery-store quarter machines like stealing coffee beans from the aisle grinder like stepping on a welcome mat and waiting for automatic entry. Back in the time when the missing appeared on the backs of cartons, and to see their face was to know them in a time pre-tragedy, when they could be you, and wasn’t that the point? He or I could be there in that supermarket, where the free samples were unguarded by staff, just sneeze guard plastic lid, subsisting off supermarket hors d’oeuvres, and this is the same supermarket, same town, only the faces on the cartons changed, until his face disappeared, until all faces disappeared, until The World Just Moved On.
Taking the coupons from the little red dispensers mid-aisle, back when they used to be there, now taking out a phone and tapping on an app at checkout. The world just keeps going. Dented cans clotting at aisle end, some sputter-spilt, and swept, then mopped, then wet-floor-signed, contents tossed in the trash, then taken out, then collected, then transported, then left in a great heap in the sun. Age compositing the face of your missing friend, detail haze, Polaroid fade, sunrays, burnt out, there’s no face there, not really. A freegan dumpster-diving at shop back, scurrying into cracked door, sleeping on bottom rack, behind toilet paper fortress. Stretching cellophane across face, gathering monoxide, into gutter sleep. Seventeen Bazooka Joes to chew, comics on the floor, colors made of tiny dots. Crystalline sugar. Faith No More on a tinny winter speaker, quarters bouncing from it, pegging on rusty-chained bikes to walled convenience. Annihilate all memory of your friend and you annihilate the pain of loss.
Remember bottled days, then pilled days, injected and ingested and swilled days, newspaper clippings and papier-mâché faces, and what it means to blot yourself out for a time. Catching mirrored face as it talks with someone else, not in the room, not here, binding self to thought (you can’t forget it forever), open up tunnel drop under floor and light the way with store-brand matches, cold breath, dank smell, run it over length of walls and study runes you put down, character (you can’t forget him forever), slept and kept in the underground service tunnel of a franchised supermarket in your hometown. Find plastic fragments, chiseled stone, and see bone, see skin, see all the Things You Want But Don’t Want To See. Magazine aisle, old MAD faces folded on last page/back cover to get a picture that wasn’t there before, solve the riddle, rearrange it till it makes more sense. To understand. To go down into the service tunnel, the under, and to displace stale air, garbage stink, rotten tooth, spit it out, clean your head, and lie, and try to make a snowman in tunnel dust. To want to save the part of you that is still human, but trauma takes that from you.
Even now you can see yourself in the flattened-out cardboard of a decades-old carton. Can see the age progression that they speculated on in the torn-down posters. They looked out and around but never underneath. Never here. Your friend’s carton is older than yours, weathered, creased, speckled and warped by tears. Coming in and down, wracked, and sounding out “sarcophagus” with your friend, backlit CRT and Windows Ninetysomething, details clouded, and when his face is gone in memory, it gets superimposed with the carton face, creases and all, cardboard speckle. You vomit old milk into dust and go back to the surface.
And an old multiplayer game, obscure, 16-bit, too dark for your age but you both played it anyway, something that played with the form, and to win the game you had to play through with a friend, had to face every enemy together. And its unsettling approach to death. No Game Over screen but instead a portal to the aftergame, and having to go after your fallen friend to bring him back. You’d almost always do it, almost always succeed, but what happened if you didn’t? If you both got stuck in pixelated purgatory? Going after without another going after. Just going. Just gone.
Nick Olson is an author and editor from Chicagoland now living in North Carolina. He was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, decomP, and other fine places. When he’s not writing his own work, he’s sharing the wonderful work of others over at (mac)ro(mic). His debut novel, Here’s Waldo, is available now. Find him online at nickolsonbooks.com or on Twitter @nickolsonbooks.