Fitting In

You awake from a coma to find the world strangely altered yet everyone pretending that nothing has changed. Do you pretend with the rest and try to fit in, or do you stand for reality and face social ostracism?

a short satire

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Fitting In

by Stephen Measure

The first thing you are aware of is someone singing, a woman’s voice, first distant and then close as if right beside you.

Rubbish, magical rubbish, popular rubbish—we only want rubbish.
The up! The down! The left! The right!

Now a man joins in. You don’t recognize the voices. You don’t recognize anything. But the two voices blend together as they sing a second verse.

Rubbish, magical rubbish, popular rubbish—we only love rubbish.
The under! The over! The through and between!

The song repeats; other voices join; other voices leave; but the same two verses are sung again and again of rubbish—rubbish magical and popular. And it is then that you realize you can’t see anything. There is the song, and there is darkness, and there is nothing else. Yet you can sense movement around you, and there in the distance, a soft beeping. But where? Who is moving and where is the beeping coming from? What is it?

The darkness recedes as a bright light begins to appear in the center of your vision. Your eyes are closed! That’s why it’s so dark! You will them to open, but they only move gradually, as if they have forgotten how to move. The bright light grows larger and larger until it reveals itself to be a light in the ceiling above your head, a very blurry light in a very blurry ceiling.

Slowly you turn your head to look to the side. Lights and bottles. Something written on the far wall. A small window by a door, the door open. And through the door a hallway, white tile below a brown desk. There is a woman in the room with you. She is wearing something blue. You look at her face, but all you see is a blur. Somehow you know she is looking at you.

“Awake patient the is!”

Her words seem as blurry as her face.

“Patient is the awake!” the woman calls into the hallway, and soon another person is beside her. Taller. A white jacket. Carrying something. A clipboard? This one is a man. You can tell that much, but his face is as blurry as the woman’s.

“When the did patient up wake?” the man’s voice asks the woman.

“Now just,” the woman answers. “The last within minute.”

“Tell sister the patient’s,” the man says, and the woman leaves the room.

The man is beside your bed, looking closely at you. He shines a flashlight in your eyes. It’s bright, much too bright. You raise your hand to deflect it.

“Morning good!” the man says cheerfully. “Good actually afternoon!” he says. “Understand you me can?”

You try to tell him that his words are all jumbled up, but your voice doesn’t want to cooperate. The only thing that comes out is a dense mumble of words.

“Rest just for now,” the doctor says, putting a hand on your arm. His face has become a little less blurry. You realize there is something different about it, something wrong; but you can’t make it out. He turns away and starts writing on his clipboard.

Your attention returns to the wall by the door. Everything is still blurry, but slowly it is becoming more clear. You concentrate your eyes, willing them to focus, and eventually they do. It’s your name. That is what is written there. There is a whiteboard on the wall, and someone wrote your name on it.

The doctor is standing above you again. You turn your eyes to him and watch as he continues with his examination. His face isn’t blurry anymore. Two streams of grayish-pink liquid are running out of his nose and down his face. A large clump drops off and falls onto your hospital gown. You shout in disgust and push the doctor away.

“Yelling what are you at!” the doctor asks.

A woman clad in blue runs into the room, the same nurse from before, her lower face completely smeared in the grayish-pink stuff that is trickling out of her nose. You shout again.

“Yelling what you are at!” the doctor demands. The nurse is standing by the doctor. Both of their eyes are full of anger.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Suddenly, your sister is by your side, hugging you. “I was so worried!”

You turn to her, afraid you’ll see the same grayish-pink liquid coming out of her nose, but her face is clean. You let out a sigh of relief.

“Oh, you must be getting cold!” your sister says. She pulls the sheets up over you, just enough to cover the grayish-pink dot on your hospital gown.

“Yelling the patient was,” the doctor says. “Why I would like to know.”

“It’s been three weeks,” your sister tells him. “I’m sure it’s just the shock of being awake. Isn’t that right?”

She turns to you and gives a brief nod of her head, making it clear what your answer is supposed to be.

You look at the doctor and nurse. The grayish-pink liquid is still dribbling out of their noses, but you know you shouldn’t yell again. You turn back to your sister, unable to look at the others. “I’m sorry,” you manage to force out of your tight throat. “I think I need more rest.”

“That’s what it is!” your sister says, forcing cheerfulness. “I know I’d be exhausted after sleeping for three whole weeks. Wouldn’t you?”

The doctor and nurse share a glance with each other; but, thankfully, they seem satisfied with the answer. From somewhere in the hallway, you can hear the rubbish song.

Rubbish, magical rubbish, popular rubbish—we only want rubbish.
The up! The down! The left! The right!

“We will later be back to on you check,” the doctor says.

The two of them leave the room, and you turn to your sister and whisper, “What’s going on? Why are they leaking stuff out their noses? Why are they talking funny?”

And the possibilities begin to fill your mind. What if you’re just seeing and hearing things? What if you’re going crazy?

“Is there something wrong with me?” you ask.

Your sister shakes her head and raises a finger to her lips. She stands and walks to the door, which she closes. Then she returns to sit in the chair by your bed.

“No, there’s nothing wrong with you, thank goodness. If you were one of them too, I don’t know what I’d do.”

“One of them?” You glance at the door. It’s shut, yet you still lower your voice. “What’s going on? Do they really have stuff dripping out of their noses? That’s disgusting!”

You look down at the sheet, grateful it is hiding the blob of gunk that dripped out of the doctor’s nose onto your hospital gown.

Your sister leans back in her chair. “Do you even know why you’re here? Why you’ve been out for weeks?”

You had completely forgotten about that. The shock of the doctor and nurse had driven the question from your mind. You try to remember what happened.

“I was at work,” you say. “And then I went to lunch, and then . . . I don’t remember.”

Your sister nods. “You were in a car accident. That was the day it happened. That was right when it happened.”

“When what happened?”

Your sister grasps her ponytail in one hand. She only does that when she is agitated.

“That was the day—no one knows why—half of the world’s brains started to melt.”

“What? Melt? Their brains started to melt? Half of the world?”

“Well, I guess it’s more of a first-world problem,” she says. “Not sure why. Maybe it’s our cell phones.”

She lifts her phone out of her purse and looks at it absently. Then, shrugging, she drops it back in. “But, yeah, their brains started to melt. Right around the time you had your car accident. Maybe the other driver’s brain started to melt just then, or maybe he got freaked out when his passenger’s brain started to drip out of their nose—”

“Those are brain juices dripping out of their noses?” you ask. You think again of the drop that fell onto your hospital gown. Brain juices! You feel nauseous.

“You can’t imagine how crazy it was,” your sister says. “Half of the world freaking out about the other half of the world’s brains dripping out of their noses, and the other half of the world insisting that their brains weren’t dripping out of their noses. No one knew what was going on. Doctors would comment on it at first, but that only lasted for a day or so. The braindrippers hated being told their brains were dripping out of their noses. Just mentioning it was enough to drive them into a rage. Everyone quickly learned to pretend nothing had happened. It was either that or be shunned, so everyone learned to not say anything.”

“But they can see our brains aren’t dripping out of our noses. Can’t they tell we’re different?”

“That’s okay. They don’t care about that. They only care that you pretend their brains aren’t dripping out of their noses.”

“What? But it’s disgusting! How can I pretend their brains aren’t dripping out of their noses?”

“Actually, that’s not the only thing you have to pretend isn’t going on.”

“There’s more?”

“Well, yeah. Their brains are melting. That causes them to do strange things.”

“Like what?”

“Well, you heard their talking. It’s gotten all jumbled up. And you can hear their rubbish song of course . . .”

Out in the hallway, you hear multiple voices singing the second verse.

Rubbish, magical rubbish, popular rubbish—we only love rubbish.
The under! The over! The through and between!

“Yeah,” you say. “What’s up with that? Magical rubbish?”

Your sister shrugs. “I guess they like magic,” she says.

“But where did the song come from?”

“No one knows. One day the braindrippers all started singing it, and now that’s the only song there is. No one sings anything else anymore.”

“But what does the song mean?”

Your sister laughs. “Their brains are melting,” she says. “What makes you think it means anything at all?”

“But why are they all singing the same meaningless song?”

“Because their brains are melting!”

You think about it for a moment. It all seems so strange. And everyone is just going along with it? How can people do that? How can they just pretend that people’s brains aren’t dripping out of their noses?

Out in the hallway, voices are singing about rubbish while other voices speak in jumbled sentences. Yet some of the voices don’t sound jumbled you realize, and you see a nurse pass by your window whose nose isn’t dripping brain juices.

“I don’t get it,” you tell your sister. “If only half of the world has melting brains, why are they the ones who are running things?”

“Because the braindrippers control the culture,” your sister says, grabbing her ponytail again. “Nine-tenths of the media are braindrippers, so guess what point of view is expressed by the news. And it’s not just the media, either. Corporate marketing and human resource departments are full of braindrippers as well, which means that business goes right along with it. And every celebrity is a braindripper—I’m not kidding—every single one of them.”

Somehow you aren’t surprised.

Your sister continues: “The braindrippers control the culture, which is why they’re in charge. And now every song on the radio is the rubbish song. Every soundtrack to every movie and TV show is the rubbish song. Every commercial, every advertisement—rubbish, rubbish, rubbish.”

Your conversation is interrupted by a knock at the door. An attendant walks in, carrying a tray of hospital food. There are two thin lines of grayish-pink juice dripping out of the woman’s nose.

“Where I should this put?” she asks.

“Just right here,” your sister says. She raises your hospital bed into sitting position, and then she extends the foldable table beside the bed over your lap.

The attendant sets the tray down. But, while she is bending over the tray, a drop of brain juice drips off her chin and lands right on top of your chocolate pudding.

Ugh! You cringe, and the attendant notices; but your sister jumps up to save you.

“Thanks!” your sister says and quickly guides the attendant to the door. “I’ll make sure it all gets eaten!”

The attendant, who is watching you over her shoulder as she is herded out of the room, says, “The too pudding.”

“Of course, that’s the best part!” your sister says. Then she closes the door, leaving the two of you alone once more.

You look down at the disgusting grayish-pink goo on top of the chocolate pudding. “There’s no way I’m eating that.”

“If you don’t, you’ll be saying that brain juices are dripping out of her nose, and that won’t go well,” your sister says.

“I don’t care. It’s not worth it,” you say. “It’s disgusting! I can’t just pretend it’s not there!”

“I want you to see something,” your sister says. She helps you rise from your bed. Your feet are shaky, but you lean on her as she leads you to the window. “Look down there,” she says.

You look out the window at the street below. Cars are passing. Pedestrians are walking back and forth. You think there’s something odd about some of them, but you can’t put your finger on what it is. “What do you want me to see?” you ask.

“There,” your sister says, and she points toward a building across the street where you see a figure huddled in the shadows beside the sidewalk.

At first you think it is a normal panhandler standing there with his hand out. But then you notice how clean and well-kept he looks. That’s no ordinary panhandler, you realize. Yet everyone on the street below is taking a wide path around him as if he were a leper. No one will even look at him.

“That person is shunned,” your sister says. “He didn’t play along. He didn’t fit in. Now look what happened to him. When the braindrippers decide you should be shunned, you can say good-bye to your career and your friends. You can say good-bye to everything. I told you: they control the culture. When they say you should be shunned, you’re going to be shunned. Is that what you want for yourself?”

Your sister grabs your shoulder and forces you to look at her. “You’ve got to concentrate on what’s important. So what if people’s brains are melting? So what if brain juices are dripping out of their noses and they sing a strange song and talk all jumbled up? Do you want to end up like that person down there? That’s what’s important. That’s why you need to always fit in.”

You shake your head, disturbed by what you have seen. What has happened to the world? How could it have gone so crazy so fast? Your sister helps you back to the bed. It’s amazing how much that little walk to the window has drained you. And you are hungry. You can’t believe how hungry you are.

Your sister sits down in the chair next to you again and gets out her phone while you begin to devour your food. It’s hospital food, but it’s delicious, and you eat everything, everything, that is, but the pudding. No matter how hungry you are, you can’t ignore the grayish-pink goo sitting on top of it. You don’t care what your sister says. There’s no way you’re going to eat that.

Your sister gets up and goes into the small bathroom attached to your room. You set down your silverware and lean back on the bed, hoping to process all the craziness your sister has just revealed to you. But as soon as you lean back, the door to your room opens and the attendant returns. She marches over to your bed and examines your tray, immediately noticing you haven’t touched the pudding.

“The pudding what’s wrong with?” the attendant demands.

“Nothing, I’m just full,” you tell her, doing your best to ignore the two streams of grayish-pink brain juices dripping out of her nose.

“The pudding what’s with wrong?” the attendant repeats, her voice beginning to rise.

You don’t like the look she has in her eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” you lie. “I just don’t feel like pudding right now.”

“Pudding what’s the wrong with?” the attendant repeats once more. She is almost shouting now, and you know her voice can be heard in the hallway. Will other braindrippers rush in to see what’s the matter? Will they all realize why you won’t eat the pudding?

Just then the bathroom door bursts open and your sister runs to your side. “Oh, good!” she says. “You saved the pudding for me, just like I asked you to!”

Without hesitation she grabs your spoon and scoops up a big bite, brain juices and all, and stuffs it into her mouth. Your stomach turns at the sight, but your sister acts completely unfazed as she scoops up bite after bite, not stopping until the pudding is completely gone. Then she drops the spoon on the tray, which she hands to the attendant.

“I know it’s just hospital pudding,” your sister says, “but that’s some good stuff.” She looks at you expectantly.

The attendant is still glaring, causing you to fumble for words. “I thought you’d like it,” you tell your sister. “That’s why I was saving it for you.”

The attendant looks at you suspiciously, but her glare has lessened. Without another word, she takes the tray and leaves the room. Your sister closes the door behind her and then collapses back into the chair.

“How can you do that?” you ask her. “It was covered in brain juices. That’s disgusting!”

Your sister sighs. “I told you. If you refuse to eat something with brain juices on it, then you’re saying that their brains are dripping out of their noses, and they hate to be reminded of that. You have to pretend. You have to fit in. The braindrippers are always watching. Every move, every word, every expression. Don’t ever forget that. You have to fit in if you don’t want to be shunned. You have to do whatever it takes to fit in. Do you understand me?”

“I understand,” you tell her. “But that’s just so disgusting. I don’t know how you can do that.”

“There will come a time when you’ll be given a choice, when you’ll need to decide if you’re going to fit in with everyone else or if you’re going to accept the consequences.”

But you don’t want to believe that. Surely there must be some way out of it, you hope. Maybe your sister is wrong. Maybe you’ll never have to make that choice.

Thankfully, no more brain juices drip into your food for the remainder of your hospital stay, and three days later the doctors are ready to release you. Your sister is there to check you out of the hospital. She has a large duffel bag, which she sets on the floor and opens.

“Since you wear business casual to work,” she says, “I thought it would be good to introduce you to it now. Things have changed a little since people’s brains started to melt.”

“You mean the styles have changed?”

“You could say that,” she says, and she pulls a long-sleeve shirt out of the bag.

“That doesn’t look so strange,” you start to say, but then she pulls it inside out and puts it on you.

“Why do we wear it like this?” you ask.

“How should I know?” She folds up the long sleeves and pins the ends by your shoulders.

“Why wear long sleeves if you’re just going to pin them up anyway?” you ask.

“It’s clothing. It’s not supposed to make sense. Don’t you remember how Dad used to wear baseball hats all the time? Was he playing baseball at the time? No. Did his baseball hat shade his ears? No. Did it shade his neck? No. Yet think of all those men walking around day after day in their baseball hats. Why does that make any sense? Can you think of a more silly hat design for everyone to wear all the time?”

“It just seems like such a waste of time,” you say, looking at the pinned-up sleeves.

“Yes, but you’re fitting in. That’s what counts. We do these pointless, trivial, unnecessary things because everyone else is doing these pointless, trivial, unnecessary things. We’re all wasting time together.”

She pulls out three socks, a black, a gray, and a white.

“The last time I checked I only have two feet,” you say, “and those socks don’t even match.”

“You’re right. They don’t,” she says. She puts a gray sock on your right foot and a black sock on your left. Then she pulls out some sandals and puts them on your feet.

“Sandals with socks!” you say, feeling completely scandalized.

“How else will everyone know that you’re wearing the right color on the right foot?” your sister asks. She pulls out some scissors and cuts the end off the white sock. Then she pulls the cut sock onto your left arm as if it were a medieval gauntlet.

You look at the white sock on your arm. You look down at the black and gray socks on your sandaled feet. “This is crazy!” you say.

“Crazy?” your sister says. “You want to talk about crazy? Well, how about ties? When did those ever make sense? Fashion has always been crazy. We don’t notice because we’re so used to the craziness. We only notice when it suddenly changes.”

And so the next week when you return to work, you wear the inside-out, long-sleeve shirt with the sleeves pinned up, and you wear the black and gray socks with the sandals and you wear the white sock on your left arm. When you walk into the office, you worry you look ridiculous, but as soon as you walk through the doors you see that everyone else looks just as ridiculous, and over time the clothing starts to seem as normal to you as the styles from before.

Like everywhere else, half of your coworkers are braindrippers, and you aren’t terribly surprised by which of them have brains dripping out of their noses and which don’t. Work continues like it always has before. Things go along as if nothing has changed, but like your sister warned you, the braindrippers are always watching, always watching to make sure you don’t squirm at the sight of brain juices dripping out of their noses, always watching to make sure you don’t comment on the way their words are jumbled up, or that you don’t complain about their constant silly song.

One day a braindripper coworker is leaning over you to look at something on your computer screen, and two drops of brain juices drip down onto the skin of your right arm. You want to scream in disgust. You want to wipe it off frantically. You want to dip your arm in hand sanitizer. But you don’t. You just sit there and pretend that nothing has happened. Your coworker lingers by your cubicle for five minutes afterward. Watching, they are always watching. Eventually the braindripper leaves, yet you wait ten more minutes before finally excusing yourself to the bathroom and scrubbing your arm for what seems like forever but doesn’t feel nearly long enough.

Yet, day after day you go through the motions. You fit it.

Rubbish, magical rubbish, popular rubbish—we only want rubbish.
The up! The down! The left! The right!

When the braindrippers are excited, you are excited. When the braindrippers are upset, you are upset. The reason is rarely clear to you, but reason never matters when you’re just trying to fit in.

And things aren’t all bad. As time goes by, you discover that the fashion-mandated white sock on your left arm can serve as a useful napkin. No one seems to care how soiled that sock becomes. (Others’ socks are often smeared with brain juices.) They only care that you wear it.

And you excel at your work. In the past you might have been an average worker; but now, by virtue of having a non-melting brain, you have become a superior worker. It’s no surprise when one day your boss, a braindripper, informs you that you’re getting a promotion.

To celebrate, they take you to dinner that night at a fancy steak house you could never have afforded on your own. And there you are, your inside-out, long-sleeve shirt with the sleeves pinned up, and your black and gray socks with sandals, and your white sock on your left arm. And there is everyone else at the table too, wearing the exact same thing, half of them braindrippers, half of them fitting in just like you. You feel proud of yourself at what you have accomplished.

Rubbish, magical rubbish, popular rubbish—we only love rubbish.
The under! The over! The through and between!

You try to follow the conversation at your table, but it’s difficult given the mixed-up speech of the braindrippers; yet you laugh when everyone laughs, and you scowl when everyone scowls, and you’re doing a wonderful job of fitting in until the sparkling water arrives.

The braindripper waiter pours the sparkling water into each glass, one by one. You watch as he makes his way around the table and as the streams of melted brain make their way slowly down his face. When he reaches your glass, you already know what is going to happen. Two large drops of grayish-pink brain juice drip off his chin into your glass, which he sets on the table beside you.

You look at the glass. Everyone at the table looks at you.

“A toast I propose,” your boss says. He raises his glass of sparkling water and stands up. Everyone raises their glass as well.

You look at the grayish-pink goo floating in your water. Desperate, you turn and grab the waiter’s arm. “I actually didn’t want the sparkling water,” you tell him. “Could I have a glass of normal water instead?”

“No, toast we’ll with sparkling the water,” your boss says.

Everyone is holding their glass and staring at you. You lift your glass, and your boss begins his nonsensical toast. You don’t listen to his jumbled words. You just watch the brain juices drift around in your glass. Then everyone is clinking their glasses together and drinking, but you don’t move. You just sit there, looking at the grayish-pink brain juices swirling slowly.

Above your glass, everyone at the table is staring at you, watching to see what you will do.

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Status: Released September 2015 by Silver Layer Publications.