Written by Joseph D. Stirling (1997)
Sendel sat watching from his room. He always watched. The common passerby never seemed to notice him; if they did they didn’t care. Sendel’s room was dark save for the small split in his curtain he used to peek out into the world beyond the pane of glass. Too afraid to participate, he would only dream and pretend. In his mind he was always first picked for teams when the boys would play at the park across the street to his left. To the right of his window, and well within view, was the grocery store and he was always the pleasant shopper.
He knew most every face that went in and out of that place, and could even tell you what they bought and how often, but only if you could get him to talk with you. Sendel had a thing about talking, socially awkward and agoraphobic. It frightened him more than touching someone for something as simple as a handshake, which he wouldn’t do either. His greatest fears lived outside his walls, as did all the things he hated. Sendel hated his mother most of all. Hated her for that one selfish act, hated her because he had been the one that found her.
Outside, something caught his attention, at the grocery store, someone he had never seen before. A girl unlike any other in town, she was brown-red haired with fair skin and deep green eyes. She looked miserable. Dressed in dark browns, shying away from everyone, most of all her parents. Sendel watched intrigued, the thought of a kindred spirit fluttered in his mind then dissipated. She would never know he even existed, Sendel knew that. Not because she would ignore him, but because he wouldn’t leave his room farther than the bathroom at the end of the hall.
She said something to her parents and sat outside, lighting a cigarette and ignoring looks from the people who passed. Without thinking, Sendel light a cigarette as well. He paid no attention when the boys ran into the park for a game of baseball; he was watching the most impressive creature he had ever seen. It took him a moment to realize she was starring directly at him and he quickly pulled away, moving across his cluttered room to his computer. He sat down and typed a few short commands sending him into a generic chat room on the net.
He wouldn’t talk, even when someone addressed him, he would just sit and watch what other people were typing about. He turned around in his chair and un-muted his television. Shortly after he muted it again and looked back to the window. His thoughts were interrupted by a short beep from the computer; someone had sent him a private chat request with the message: [need 2 talk?]
He closed the window, ignoring it and picked up the stereo remote un-muting the hulking mass in the corner. Again disgusted with the noise he muted that as well.
The beep came again, from the same person, with a new message: [do u want 2 go outside? have all ur dreams come true? do u want 2 meet her?]
He spent about two minutes starring blankly at the message, and then shakily responded: [yes, how?]
A few short moments passed and nothing happened. Sendel watched the screen, waiting for something, for anything. Nothing came. He sat watching the screen for an hour before a knocking at his door disturbed him. He turned, looking to the oak door, and waited for one of his parents to speak.
“Your lunch is ready Sendel,” it was his father.
Sendel walked to door and listened to the receding footsteps, when nothing could be heard he opened the door and grabbed the plate. He ate his lunch quickly, still watching the screen. When he had finished he placed a note card on the plate and set it outside his room. He heard his father coming up the stairs to get the plate.
“You’re welcome,” his father said through the door, a touch of sadness.
Sendel un-muted his stereo then quickly muted it again. He heard the sound of a car door outside his window and rushed to it, hoping to figure out who it was. It was a Fed-Ex truck delivering a package to his house, and whatever it was, it was large. He watched the truck until it was too far down the road to see. He lit another cigarette and sat down in front of the computer, feeling betrayed by it as well. Again his thoughts were interrupted, again a knock at his door.
“Sendel, you have a package,” it was his father again, “It’s quite heavy, took both your mother and I to get it up here.”
“She is not,” said Sendel sharply.
“Okay, okay. Your step-mother Ann, and I. Is that better? Now please open the door and I’ll help you get it the room.”
Sendel opened the door and stood out of the way. His father sighed, and then pushed the large box into the room. When it was in and out of the way, Sendel began to close the door on his father who backed out. Sendel slid a note card under the door and turned to look at the box.
“You’re welcome,” his father sighed again.
Sendel examined the large brown cardboard box. Taking in the dusty scent of the cardboard, feeling its dry, rough texture. He couldn’t remember ordering anything this large. Where had it come from? He checked the label, there was no return address. He pulled the utility knife from his pocket and began to open the surprise package. The inside was filled with bags of sand as far as he could tell. Confused, he began to pull the bags out, setting them aside on his floor. About half of the way into the box, he saw another smaller box, wrapped in brown packing paper with a layer of clear tape surrounding it.
He pulled the box out and placed the bags of sand back in the larger box, setting the smaller box on top of them. He pulled the knife out again and opened this new box to find white Styrofoam packing material surrounding yet another smaller cube, roughly the size of an ornament box. This new box was made of what looked like white oak with brass inlay shaped like circuits running across the lid and sides. Tucked into the packing material beneath it was a single piece of paper with a short note and instructions for use.
Sendel William Foutuea:
You are the proud owner of the only Ego Machine in existence. With this small device you will be able to fulfill all your dreams, but only as long as you follow all of the instructions.
You must follow every rule to the letter or the Ego Machine becomes unstable. The delicate machineries contained within require a stable, static-free environment to function.
Any outside influence or tampering will render all warranties null and void. May result in injury. You have been warned, follow ALL instructions below:
1. Place this box beside your bed every night when you sleep.
2. NEVER open the box.
3. Enjoy the wonder of your dreams come true.
Sendel set the note down and lifted the wooden box from the packing material. He walked over to his bed and set it upon the nightstand. He watched the box for several minutes, wondering what was held inside its decorated confines. The note had told him not to open the box, threat of injury, but what the hell was inside it?
Sendel spent the rest of the day thinking about the box and re-reading the letter. He put a CD into the player and grew quickly bored with it. He hit ‘stop’ and switched the his stereo feed back to his iPod. No good, he wasn’t feeling the music, he muted it. His father brought him dinner, but he left it out in the hall, to focused with his thoughts to eat. Later that night, as he lay in bed, he watched the box till he finally fell asleep.
Early the next morning he woke up and ran to his bathroom mirror, searching his face for any changes. He didn’t see anything different. Wait! There by his nose. Something had changed, he wasn’t quite sure what it was, but something was different. Sendel peeked out into the hallway, holding his clothes and towel close to his chest. When he was sure that his parents weren’t awake, he dashed into the full bathroom at the end of the hall and jumped into the shower. He finished and put on his clean clothes. He checked the hallway again and ran back into his room. His dirty clothes almost made it into the hamper in the corner of his closet, joining the pile that spilled over its edges.
Sendel sat next to his door, then decide against waiting for his parents to wake. He opened the door and crept into the hallway, somewhat clumsily navigating his way down stairs. He looked around and walked into the kitchen seating himself at the breakfast nook. About twenty minutes passed and his father came stumbling into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. He started getting a plate of food ready with another cup of coffee to take up to Sendel when he noticed his son sitting at the table.
Startled, he almost dropped the plate of food. Sendel looked away, almost frightened, then slowly, a tiny awkward smile crept onto his face. His father almost burst into tears at the sight of him sitting in the nook like he used to. He wouldn’t allow his father to touch him nor did he talk much, but at least he was out of his room for a change. Things were going as normal as they could have gone till Ann, his stepmother, woke up and came downstairs. The unpracticed smile Sendel wore dropped to the table and he stood and rushed from the kitchen, his oak door slamming behind him at the top of the stairs.
He moved across to his window and peeked outside, the usual kids were starting another heated game of football; and the oldest lady in town was selling rice crispy treats outside the grocery store. Sendel lit a cigarette as he watched the football game in the park. Shirts scored a touchdown. Beneath one of the park trees, paying the game no attention, sat the girl leaning back on her arms and looking into the sky.
Sendel followed her gaze into the blueness above. Birds, hundreds of tiny black dots. He sat watching them, intrigued by their uniform movements. How each one made the same turn was incredible, as if they shared one collective mind like ants. He looked down to the girl again, a genuine smile on his face, and jumped away from the window. She was starring at him again, waving this time. He held the curtains closed for a while, sitting on the floor.
He looked across his room at the wooden box, his Ego Machine, and smiled. Tomorrow he would go outside, well maybe the backyard. He lit another cigarette and walked to his computer. A few practiced keystrokes and he was in the chat room again, watching other peoples’ conversations. He jumped out of the chat room and found a search engine, typing the words ‘Ego Machine.’
There were over four thousand matches. Sendel began weeding through them, looking for something that would tell him what the hell the Ego Machine was. Hours passed, none of the listings that appeared had anything to do with his Ego Machine, they were all either things dealing with the word machine or the word ego. He climbed into his bed to sleep, and spent the last of his wakefulness starring at the box.
The next morning he was again an early riser. Showered and dressed and sitting in the backyard watching the morning glories open. The sun was just rising as he lit a cigarette and walked into the house for some coffee. His father again was happy to find him out of his room, and out of the house this time! His father took a seat in one of the patio chairs and they sat in silence, watching clouds for at least two hours. Ann poked her head outside and quietly brought the phone to Jake, Sendel’s father.
Sendel was up and gone, disappearing into his room just as he had the morning before. He un-muted the television and watched the end of the morning news, muting it again when he was no longer interested. Un-muting the stereo brought nothing good and so once again that too was muted. The computer even seemed to drone in a manner he found irritating. Sendel crossed his room to the window and looked out, pulling the curtain farther open than usual.
She was sitting on one of the benches across the street, looking up expectantly. He quickly closed the curtain, nervous and frustrated. How did she know he was here? Who was she? He threw himself onto his bed, overwhelmed, anxious. He starred at the ceiling for most of the day feeling bored, restless, annoyed, and all around irritable.
As he fell asleep that night he dreamt about being outside, in the park across the street, and talking with all the people. And then she came forward, smiling, and waving at him. Sendel backed away slowly. She was still smiling when her eyes sucked into her skull and her skin began to fall away. Sendel turned to run, but his legs were caught in the grass. He broke free and started into a full sprint. He looked around him and saw the other kids, skin peeled back, chasing him down. He looked at himself and saw he was wearing a shirt, and holding a football.
He ran faster, seeing the goal line approaching rapidly, and felt a moment of pure bliss. Then the football was screaming; he looked down at it. The eyeless head of the girl was screaming up at him. He dropped the ball and looked up just in time to see the entire skinless mob slam into him. Everything was black; he was pinned down and unable to break free. He could feel the slick skinless mass writhing around him, they had a tight hold on him, crushing and squeezing till he thought he would pop.
He sat up in bed, breathing hard and tangled in his blankets. He threw them off and looked around. His clock said it was already 9:30 in the morning. He had slept through the alarm. He looked out the window, the streets were practically empty, it was Sunday and most everybody was in church. Sendel saw her again. She was sitting beneath a tree writing in a small book. Her diary? A journal?
He walked out of his room and down the stairs, walking into the kitchen as if he had done it every morning of his entire life. He pulled a mug down and filled it with coffee and took a seat at the breakfast nook with his father and Ann. They just sat watching him.
“Good morning,” he said nervously.
His father and Ann both smiled and replied simultaneously, “Good morning!”
Sendel sipped his coffee and looked around the kitchen, unsure of what to say or do. He turned and looked out the front window, which he could see through the living room. The girl was still sitting beneath the tree. He looked back to his father.
“Jake?” he asked, his own voice scarring him, “Can we throw the football around out back?”
Sendel was startled by his question, had he really just asked that? His father was just as shocked and was silent at first, then smiled.
“Sure, I mean if you really want to,” and then thinking said, “I would love to.”
Sendel stood and walked up to his room, hearing excited whispers from his father and Ann as he left. He dug through his closet and pulled out his old football and went back downstairs. His father smiled as the football was tossed to him. Sendel walked into the backyard and lit a cigarette. Jake followed him eagerly.
The two spent the rest of the day throwing the old football back and forth, every now and then laughing. A little bit of conversation made its way into the strange session of father son activity. It was weird for both of them. Later in the evening, after a dinner with his father and Ann, he had bid them good evening, by name, and retired to his room.
The next morning Sendel was up early with a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. His father and Ann came down shortly after. Both of them were leaving for work and told Sendel to have a nice day. All of them felt the normal tension slipping away slowly. And only Sendel knew why, it was all because of the Ego Machine. The strange little device that sat next to him as he slept, his own personal granter of wishes.
During the day, Sendel went outside and crossed the street to the park. Another beautiful summer day. She was there again, reading a book, and the boys were playing baseball. Sendel sat on a bench and watched the game. He was startled when someone behind him spoke up.
“You’re the boy from the window right?” she asked.
He was scarred; she had snuck up on him. Sendel didn’t know what to say, his voice had disappeared on him and his throat closed up behind it. He stood starring at her and stammering. She smiled and sat down on the bench looking at him.
“Do you read?” she asked holding up the book.
“I…” he began, “I have to go.”
He turned and started walking back to his house, and then turned back, she was looking into the open book.
“What’s your name?” he asked, again surprised by his question.
“Sarah. What’s yours?” she returned.
He turned and walked back to his house. Sendel sat in his room, listening to the stereo and watching other peoples’ conversations in the chat room. Slowly he typed in a question: [anybody ever hear of an Ego Machine?]
He watched the lines of conversation scroll by, no one had appeared to notice his question, and then someone sent him a reply: [yeah i have one]
Sendel watched it scroll to the top of the page and disappear. This confused him. He pulled out the letter and read it over again.
Sendel William Foutuea:
You are the proud owner of the only Ego Machine in existence…
If someone else has one, then how can it be the only one in existence? Sendel stood and walked across the room to his bed and took a seat. He picked up the box and turned the polished wood in his hands. Finally he closed his eyes and opened it. He sat there for what felt like hours though only minutes passed, then closed it and opened his eyes. He set it back down and looked to the window. Who cares what it’s inside, it worked.
Sendel walked to the window and opened the curtains, all the way this time. The sunlight spilled into his room and he smiled. There was a knock on his door and he turned to see his father standing there. Sendel had left the door open. He smiled again and motioned for his father to come in and have a seat.
“I’m on my lunch break,” he said, “It’s good to see you.”
Sendel didn’t know what to say.
“I know it’s been hard for you, and I’m just glad that you’re getting on with things. Ann isn’t so bad, is she?”
Again Sendel was wordless, he still found it difficult to talk with people, it had been almost three years now. Three years since he found his mother, the bathtub overflowing, crimson water spilling under the door soaking the hall carpet.
“I just wanted to let you know that I love you very much, and that,” his father looked a little unsure to speak again, “that your mother would be very proud of you.”
Sendel looked out the window, still unknowing of what to say. The sound of his mothers’ voice was in the back of his mind. He could feel his eyes welling with tears and rushed to his father. Jake wrapped Sendel in his arms as he cried. An hour later, Sendel was sitting on his bed looking at the picture of his mom. His father was standing at the door.
“If you need anything, call me. I’ll tell my secretary to put your call directly through, and I’ll be here if you need me to be.”
Sendel nodded and watched as his father left. He placed the picture back into the drawer of his bed table and looked out the open window.
The next day he awoke and walked into the bathroom. He dressed and went down to the kitchen. He smiled when Ann came into the kitchen.
“Jake had to leave early for a meeting, he’ll be out of town all day,” she said.
“Have a nice day at work Ann,” he said.
“You can call me if you need anything today, I’ll rush right home,” she said with a smile.
Sendel walked her out to the car and watched as she left, waving. He walked across the street and sat down on the bench. Close to two hours passed and the kids flocked into the park, geared up for baseball. One of them walked up to Sendel with a huge grin on his face.
“Hey man, you up for some ball?”
“Sure,” said Sendel, trying to hide his excitement.
“Cool! We got extra gloves if you need one. You got a name? I’m Danny.”
“Awesome, we’ll have a full real game today. We always get stuck one man short for equal teams,” said Danny.
“Cool,” said Sendel smiling.
Danny turned back to the group of guys, “Hey guys, Sendel’s going to play! We got two full teams!” he shouted.
They played for hours, much longer than a real game would take. Sendel never noticed Sarah standing by the bench, watching him with a smile on her face. Later that night as they all headed back home, Sendel was laughing. His team had lost, at no fault to Sendel, but they had all had fun. When he got to his house, dinner was ready.
“I saw you as I pulled up today. Nice play Mr. Third-base,” his dad said.
Sendel smiled and sat down to eat. When dinner was finished he walked up to his room and picked up the Ego Machine. He boldly opened it and looked inside. Empty. Confused he blinked and looked again. Empty. There was nothing inside it. He set it back down and laughed.
* * * * *
Max looked up in disbelief, but the message was in his email box. He read it again: [do you want to live your dreams? do you want to meet that girl in class?]
He clicked the reply button and typed in three simple words: [i do. how?]