Adventures in Unemployment

Strange, Earl realized that morning, the first time in his life he had to think about getting out of bed. He spent a moment lying on his back, weighing the pros and cons of simply hibernating under the downy covers for the entire day. He processed his first claim two weeks ago, the unpaid first week had passed him by, and funds had been dispersed via direct deposit for the second. His devices were all within reach of his bed, light switch a decent arms length from his pillows, and remote on the other side of the bed, in case anything he needed to view merited the larger resolution his television, resting on a dresser across the room, could provide. There were even snacks and bottles of things to drink that could get him by for at least a day or two before he needed to set foot in the kitchen, or the front door to pick up a delivery. Everything had already been seen to.

He spent a moment lying on his back, weighing the pros and cons of simply hibernating under the downy covers for the entire day.

It unsettled him, the sheer feasibility of a sedentary life. This, along with the familiar craving for morning coffee (which he more so savored for its sensory pleasures, the gurgle of the drip machine, the aroma emerging through the kitchen and to the living room, the steam as it escapes from the carafe as he pours a cup, the swirls of cream as they danced with the black liquid before leaving in their wake a solid tan, and finally the warm beverage flowing from his mouth to the tips of his whole body, rejuvenating him like a magic potion, than ever for the taste or the need for caffeine), was what made him at first decide to get up. The moment he lifted his head up from his pillow and saw his roommate sitting at the foot of the bed, however, dashed that initial drive out of bed.

Earl saw Hayden so infrequently and usually thought so little about him that he almost forgot he had a roommate. He was so accustomed, moments before he stepped out the door to go to work, to the sight of him splayed on the couch, eyes on the TV and his feet propped up on the ottoman, that he at times seems to be another one of the unmoving pieces of furniture that made up the room but called attention to itself the moment it became out of place. He certainly did not expect the voice to come out of Hayden that eventually did.

“It’ll happen to you just like it happened to me. You’ll see.”

—Heard what happened to you. How are you holding up?

Earl supposed Hayden, though as far as he knew he spent most of the day vegetating, was perceptive enough to reciprocally notice that the heels of Earl’s dress shoes hadn’t click-clacked across the wood floor, bringing him in business casual to and out the front door, in quite some time.

—I’ll be fine. It just processed last week. I had rent saved up already, and later on I’ll start getting payments.

Hayden nodded, never looking up from the screen of his phone. Earl waited a long while for him to speak before clearing his throat.

—What ah, what exactly are you doing in here?

—The worst part is always the beginning.


—It actually hurts sometimes, when you’re just starting out. Just this whole feeling, all around you, in your room, or wherever you go, that you’re doing something wrong, that things aren’t what they’re supposed to be.

—Uh… I think it’s going to be okay, I just…

—It takes time, but it’ll pass. Boredom is just ambition leaving the body. Pretty soon you won’t feel anything at all. I bet then a surgeon could even operate on you if they wanted to. It’ll happen to you just like it happened to me. You’ll see.

—No, really, it’s not a big deal. I actually had some stuff I wanted to get done today, I was just getting out of bed…

He heard the stuff could reach hundreds, even thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. Best not to risk any third degree burns…

—It’s two in the afternoon.

—Uh, well, I…

—Besides, How do you think you’ll get out of bed today… if the floor is made out of lava?

—…the floor isn’t made out of lava?

—Are you sure?

—Of course I’m sure!

Hayden left the room without another word. Ridiculous, thought Earl as he squirmed his way out of the covers. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed, but then something made him pause. Was it a little warmer in the room? He shook the collar of his pajama shirt and took a look over the edge. Could it be? He swore he could hear a faint bubbling, gurgling sound coming from under the bed. Who knows how far it pervaded through his room so far, who knows how far it could spread to the rest of the room, or even through Earl’s door and to the rest of the apartment? He heard the stuff could reach hundreds, even thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. Best not to risk any third degree burns, Earl told himself as he jumped back into the covers.

Huh, he thought, I guess I’m improving…

Earl joined Hayden on the couch a few hours later, more than enough time to ensure any dangerous temperatures in his room had dissipated. He didn’t even put on his slippers, just to verify that his room was completely safe.

—…so really it was all very simple. Once I realized I knew, not thought, but knew, that there was no lava in my room, you know, as confidently as you know whether the sun’s out or not, ah… well, it was easy.


Hayden finished the circuit in first place (as usual) five minutes ago, and patiently waited for Earl to finish as well, checking his phone in the meantime. Earl almost got twelfth place again, but a happenstance bullet power-up gave him the edge to eke out a nifty eleventh. Huh, he thought, I guess I’m improving.

—But let’s do the next easiest circuit down, so maybe I’ll get better?


Todd walked across the screen, his dress shoes clacking along the wooden floor to the kitchen, where he switched on the drip machine and scooped some grounds from the freezer into the reservoir. Minutes later the pleasant smell of hot coffee filled the room.

“I mean, in this economy, I’m lucky to even have the job I got, you know…”

—Coffee’s on, if anyone wants!

—Thanks, Todd.

—Heard about your job. That’s rough, man. I’m sorry.

—Thanks, it’s okay so far. I have a couple leads. And of course, I’m on unemployment, so it’ll tide me over for a bit.

Hayden let out a snicker, faint enough for only Earl to hear it.

—Still though, I couldn’t imagine, you know, losing my job. I mean, in this economy, I’m lucky to even have the job I got, you know… I’m sure glad I took that class on coding. You know, they always need someone out there to code, right? You know, you might want to consider taking the class I did. They teach you how to code, you see…

—He already knows how to code.

Todd fell silent immediately, the whole apartment grew quiet. Even the race on the screen seemed to shut itself up in shock for a moment. Hayden continued.

—So do I. Everyone does. Everyone in the whole world knows how to code. You must have missed it while you were busy at work, coding. It was a big initiative started by the Vander-Graph corporation. I want to teach the world to code, in perfect harmony! Just like you said, they always need someone out there to code something, right? Vander-Graph needs to make sure their mobile mansions are coded properly, don’t they? But now there’s a surplus in skilled labor, just like how they planned it all along! Now there are so many coders in the world they can pay slave wages if they want to. And what’s more important is, they can replace anyone… just like that.

Hayden snapped his fingers.

Young man, look upon me and despair. As you are now, I once was. As I am now, so shall you be.

Todd sidled toward the door, smiling in a way to suggest to Hayden that his words meant nothing to him. They did. Quite a bit, actually.

—Yeah, but ah… well, I know how to, code…

Todd let the door slam shut behind him.

Earl got twelfth place on the next easiest circuit.

He wasn’t sure if Hayden was paying attention. It didn’t usually matter.

Earl lately seemed to forget exactly when he woke up for the day, and instead sort of just intuited the moment he found himself plopped on the couch alongside Hayden, as soon as Todd’s dress shoes clacked along the wooden floor. He even gave up making his own coffee, as Todd’s daily, and apparently communal, pot in the French press became as regular a part of the morning as the sun’s rising and setting.

Earl turned to Hayden, eyes fixed on his phone as usual, and told him everything. He wasn’t sure if Hayden was paying attention. It didn’t usually matter.

—Sometimes I have dreams that seem so real, even when I think about them later and they seem so strange, that I wonder if that’s real life and I’m actually dreaming this life right now, and when the other me wakes up they say the same thing, how weird, me in my pajamas all day, hanging out with my roommate, you know? I keep having this dream that I’m in high school, and I’m failing science. I go to school, I do everything else well, but for some reason I don’t even try to do any science work. Time passes and I skip tests, put off homework, and zeros and zeros keep on accumulating. Finally a teacher confronts me and says, you’ll never pass high school with this grade. And it’s so weird because I wake up and I realize of course I passed science, I’m an adult now, and I, you know, work when I can… have you ever had a dream like that?


—Coffee’s on, if anyone wants!

Strange, thought Earl, usually I hear his shoes clack across the floor first.

Earl looked up. There was Todd, in his business casual as usual, finishing his own cup of coffee, just about to leave for the day. Strange, thought Earl, usually I hear his shoes clack across the floor first.

—Well, I’ll see you guys later tonight. Good luck with the job search…



—Where are you going?

—Ah, well I… I’m going out the door. To work.

—You don’t have your shoes on, Todd.

Todd looked down at his feet. As it transpired, he indeed did not have his shoes on. Oh, that makes a lot of sense now, Earl said to himself.

—…well, ah… I’m working on that right now. I’ll ah, go get them.

Todd went back upstairs to his room, then returned to the door with his dress shoes in his hand. He sat by the front door, poised to put them on.

—Todd? You didn’t lose your job yesterday, did you?

—No… I ah, I didn’t. In fact I’m very lucky to have the job I have, actually. Especially in… in this economy.

—Then why don’t you go to work? You’re probably going to be late.

—I know that. I just need to, you know… get my shoes on first.

Todd did not move from his spot by the front door for the rest of the day.

Todd did not move from his spot the next day either.

It was Earl’s turn to get the food when the delivery guy came.

He found himself still standing by the open door, long after he accepted the paper bag inside a plastic bag which contained meals for himself and Hayden, and he wasn’t even sure at that moment why. The delivery man started to clasp the strap on his bike helmet and sidle away from the door.


The delivery man sighed, stopped sidling away and faced Earl.

—Could you do me a huge favor, before you go? It’s just… well, I… I’m not sure how long it’s been, you see.

—Uh… since when?

—Oh, uh, since I went on unemployment. Sorry, I forgot to mention that, didn’t I?

—I see.

—So? What do you think?

—I don’t know when you went on unemployment.

—Around the beginning of January. Maybe three or four days after New Years.


—And what’s the date today?

—Today is March 12th.

—So that’s been, what… that’s been about, ah, jeez, a couple years or so…

—That’d be about three months.


“I’ll be honest with you, not a lot has changed out there since January.”

They shared another long silence as the delivery man sidled away.

—So, what’s it like out there?

The delivery man stopped in his tracks, sighed. He said nothing at first, so Earl persisted:

—Outside, I mean. You probably get a good look, since you’re on your bike most of the day, right?

—I’ll be honest with you, not a lot has changed out there since January.

—So there’s like, what? People doing stuff?

—Ah, yeah… you know, going to work, or shopping, or to the beach. Cars and stuff… You know, trees and the sunshine…

—So it’s all okay still? Nothing like blew up or anything? There’s no like, riots or wars around or anything…

—No riots as far as I know.

—You’re sure?

—Look, I gotta get back to my bike. And I think your roommate, uh… he looks, hungry?

“And I think your roommate, uh… he looks, hungry?”

Earl looked behind him. There was Hayden, standing directly behind him, arms folded and scowling. Earl offered him the bag of food, and without looking inside Hayden snatched out the containers that made up his order and a pair of chopsticks for himself. Earl then looked to the door, and the delivery man was gone.

—It’s your turn to feed Todd.

Earl grumbled, then went into the kitchen and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He placed it on a small dish, put the dish next to Todd, who was still on the floor leaning by the door, and took the empty dish in front of Todd to place in the dishwasher.

“It’s your turn to feed Todd.”

Earl had been sitting on the couch with Hayden for so long he started to notice little things. Sometimes he heard a faint creaking noise, like old stairs struggling under weighted tiptoeing steps, or a lever not cranked in a while groaning on one more pull, whenever he moved an arm, or lifted a finger, or took a small step somewhere. The closer he walked to the door, or the more he tried to speak to a delivery guy, the more he would hear a scratch and rattle of static, toxic noise that subtly filled his head like an airplane climbing too fast. Today, then, was the day he would maybe try some new things, maybe shake off these uncanny sensations once and for all.

—No need to order any takeout for me! I’m cooking my own dinner today. I’m going to make butternut squash risotto. It’s my favorite!

As luck had it, Earl had all the ingredients on hand, which was remarkable considering he had never left the apartment in at least three months, if the previous delivery guy was to be believed. He peeled the squash and sautéed the squash meat in his trusty old cast-iron skillet. He boiled the squash seeds and pulp in the chicken broth before he got to work on the rice itself. It was second nature to him: get the pan hot, melt the butter, fry the onion and garlic, brown the rice, then simmer in the white wine, then the squashy broth until it was just the right creamy consistency. Fold in some sage, nutmeg, some good quality parmigiano, and finally the squash chunks, and you had a tasty treat to last you at least two or three days.

“No need to order any takeout for me! I’m cooking my own dinner today. I’m going to make butternut squash risotto. It’s my favorite!”

He did not expect it, then, to taste the way it did when he finally sat down with a generous plateful of the stuff. He detected notes of elementary school cafeteria lady, a dash of breathing in chalk dust while beating blackboard erasers clean, maybe the somber basement meal of a church where you could smell someone left the natural gas on somewhere. It brought him to an alternate timeline where he enlisted in the army and accustomed his dead palate to a diet of excessive salt, which the army cooks added to decrease the libido, you know, for morale. It was, in so many words, inedible.

He realized what he did wrong, at least on a rational level, once he tasted it. How long had that squash been in the pantry? What was he thinking, making a risotto with standard long-grain parboiled rice, and not arborio? Supermarket parmesan cheese? That must be where the faint notes of wood chips came from. And ah… yeah, he sure did add a whole lot of salt there, didn’t he?

—Maybe it was just you. They say one’s emotional state influences one’s own cooking. Maybe you just turned your favorite food into exactly what you’ve become.

Earl let out a laugh.

—What I’ve become? What, do you mean to say I’ve become bland, lifeless, joyless, just something that exists for no other purpose than to stay alive, just barely subsist without…

Earl sighed and ignored Hayden’s smirk as he scooped the whole pot of the stuff into a serving bowl placed in front of Todd. Then, to no one in particular,

—I think I’m going to stay in my own room for the day. You know, apply for some jobs, get some work done, maybe catch up on a black and white foreign film or two I’ve been meaning to knock out.

He caught him red-handed in the middle of watching an online-streaming service original television show.

Hayden waited a couple hours before checking on Earl in his room. He caught him red-handed in the middle of watching an online-streaming service original television show.

—Holding up okay?


—You sure? All alone here, just in your room?

—Yeah. Just uh, sitting here streaming a show…

Earl continued watching the screen and ignoring Hayden.

—You’ve been in here a long while, anything I can do for you?


—Nothing at all?

—Nothing at all.

—You sound very sure.

Earl hesitated, and hoped Hayden didn’t notice. He did, as he couldn’t help but crack a tiny smirk.

—Well, um… I mean it’s nothing, and I can probably just get over it, but…

—What is it?

—Well… there’s an actor I want to look up, but I don’t want to miss any of the show.

—Why don’t you pause it then?

—Because I… dropped the remote to my TV on the floor.

Hayden placed the remote on the highest shelf he could find in the room…

Hayden scanned Earl’s floor for a moment, then dropped to his knees.

—I found it. Want me to pause it for you?

Earl let slip a bit of petulance in his voice.

—No! I… I’ll just look it up another time. It’s no big deal.

—Suit yourself.

Hayden placed the remote on the highest shelf he could find in the room before he made his way to Earl’s door, noticing the strain on Earl’s face as he tried to concentrate on the show. He almost reached the last step that would have taken him out to the hall and to the couch downstairs.


Hayden stopped and faced Earl.

—Maybe you could keep watching the show for me, while I look him up on my phone, and when I’m done you can tell me what I missed?


Hayden helped himself next to Earl on his bed while the latter typed frantically on his phone.

“Maybe you could keep watching the show for me, while I look him up on my phone, and when I’m done you can tell me what I missed?”

—Hm… ah! His name is Dick Miller. I thought I recognized him. Oh yeah, he was in A Bucket if Blood too, wasn’t he? Huh, it looks like he just died recently. That’s too bad…

Earl looked up from his phone to where he expected Hayden would be. He was no longer there.

When minutes ago it was simply much more trouble than it was worth, Earl suddenly found himself lifting himself off the bed and lumbering down the stairs to Hayden’s usual spot, sprawled on the couch, feet up on the ottoman.

“Everyone. All the characters. In the show.”



—What did I miss?

—…oh, right. Uh… they died.

—What do you mean they… who died?

—Everyone. All the characters. In the show.

—So that’s it, then? That’s how episode five of the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel ends? Everyone dies?

“…and I’m telling you right now, I’m going to beat it! You’ll see…”

—I guess it’s one of those tragedies or whatever. You know, like Shakespeare…

—You know what I think? I think you’re not a good person. You think it’s so unfair, what happened to you, but you don’t try to make things better for yourself or for anyone else. You just keep on dragging everyone else down to your level. No one else is allowed to be happy around you! Well, I can see what you’re trying to do to me. It’s like I’m the good butternut squash risotto, and you’re trying to cook me… and… make me bland and… and I’m telling you right now, I’m going to beat it! You’ll see… I’ll, be in my room.

Earl stamped off toward the stairs back up to his room.

—…it’s your turn to feed Todd.

Earl made an about face and came back down to the kitchen.

So this is what I’ve been missing out on, all along…

Todd sat in the corner and watched as his roommate made coffee. So this is what I’ve been missing out on, all along, the latter thought as he poured the hot water into the reservoir, took a deep breath as the pleasant scent of its brewing of the grounds permeated the room. He let out a contented sigh in spite of himself as he pushed the plunger down, bringing out the dark warm liquid at last. Coffee’s on, he declared, if anyone wants! He poured himself a cup and paused for a moment, taking in the warmth on his fingertips, the steam rising from the cup, and savored it all.

Once Hayden finished making the coffee, he brought the whole mug, without taking a single sip, up to Earl’s room where he had been fast asleep for the whole morning, and dumped the entire contents on his head. Earl sprang awake, letting out every expletive available in his recall, as Hayden patiently waited for him to finish before informing him that

—It’s your turn to feed Todd.

He didn’t feel too bad for hurting Earl like that. After all, he had cooped himself up in his room for so long, what other way could he have possibly told him?

“He’s also spitting out his pills… yeah, even though we try to sneak them into the peanut butter…”

As Earl sat on the floor and waited for the other line to answer his call, Todd sidled up beside him and snuggled his shoulder with his head. Earl took notice and lightly scratched Todd on the top of his head.

—Yes, hello. I had an appointment last week, and I was told to call your office in a week to follow up on his progress. His name is, uh, Todd…

He picked up the plate with a mostly-eaten sandwich on it and took a closer look.

—Well, the good news is he seems to have his appetite back. Before he wasn’t eating any of the sandwiches we gave him, even when we put extra peanut butter on. Now he’s eating everything but the crust. But he still doesn’t move around much, not since he lost his job.

He spotted something small and white in between the crust, picked it up and let out a grumble as he recognized what it was.

—He’s also spitting out his pills… yeah, even though we try to sneak them into the peanut butter… hm… ah, I see, so grind them into a powder and mix it in the peanut butter, and then he’ll eat it. That’s a good idea, isn’t it? Thanks, I’ll try that… okay, call you in a week. Thanks, bye bye now.

He hung up, took the crusts to throw out in the garbage, then returned with Todd’s favorite cushion. Todd crawled around the cushion three times before lying down in the fetal position for the night. Earl patted Todd on the head one more time. Sure, it was tough not having Todd available to help ever since the loss, and he didn’t talk much, but he was a good boy all the same.

“I need something from outside…”

Once he saw to Todd for the evening, he took one more look around to see if the coast was clear. Hayden was on the couch, of course, but this time he was plugged deep into his laptop, bulky headphones drowning out any other sounds the room could muster. That was Earl’s chance. He placed the order on his own phone.

The delivery man let out a sigh when he saw Earl once again.

—Look, I know you’re busy, you have to get to your bike and keep making orders. I’m just… I’m gathering dust here, you know? I’m creaky, yellowing, brittle… I need something from outside…

The delivery man held up Earl’s bag of food he ordered.

—No, I mean… I want to experience something… something pure, something beautiful… something to make me want to get out of bed and, I don’t know, maybe try to get out of here. Anything. Please, can you help me?

The delivery man let out another breath in exasperation and rolled his eyes before motioning for Earl to stand back. He did so, and waited patiently as the delivery man strapped his portable speaker to his chest, and pushed a few buttons. Soon, the prelude to what sounded like a piece of baroque chamber music began to play. Earl started to speak, as if to ask what this was all about, but the delivery man held up a preemptive hand to silence him. Then, the delivery man began to sing.

A lovely, velvety tenor cascaded from the delivery man’s quivering lips as he held the fermata of the first note with a gentle vibrato. The aria was not too long, shorter than most pop songs on the radio these days, but the entire performance captivated Earl, the way the delivery man’s voice swam through each line, at once belting out a controlled but forceful forte, then releasing the tension into a calm pianissimo.

A lovely, velvety tenor cascaded from the delivery man’s quivering lips as he released the fermata of the first note with a gentle vibrato.

At least three other people in the apartment building heard the song through the thin walls of their bedrooms and went to bed for the night with their hearts full to bursting, sure they must have heard a performance like that somewhere, their lives poised to change significantly, in some way or another that we’ll never really know. And all this, Earl thought, for a song about a tree. Amazing.

The delivery man masterfully held the penultimate più in an astonishing crescendo, and it was only when he finally released the note that Earl noticed a single tear gliding down his right cheek. He finished the song and let the orchestral accompaniment in his speaker play out the rest of the aria, putting his own hand over his heart to keep it from jumping out of his chest and cartwheeling in joy.

—Here’s your order, sir.

Earl accepted the bag of pad Thai takeout and watched the delivery man walk out the door and through the hallway and to his locked bike.

“I’ll get over it.” “It’s not likely.”

Hayden told him before that it would hurt the most in the beginning. But no, it definitely hurt now more than it ever had before. The only thing that brought him more pain than loafing on the couch perfectly perpendicular to the floor was the loud creak of even a minute motion of his fingers or toes, and the static noise that went through his ears and buzzed into his head anytime he even thought about going to the door.

Hayden sighed and turned to Earl.

—It’s because of that stunt you pulled. You really shouldn’t have done that.

—I’ll get over it.

—It’s not likely.

—I applied to some jobs.

Earl frowned as much as his atrophied muscles would allow him to, glanced toward his phone and stretched his thumb for the long labor that was to come.

—Well, look at you. I just hope you remembered to tailor your cover letter to the position you’re applying for.

Earl ignored him and kept pushing links on his phone with just his thumb.

“I think it’s another one of those common stock symbolic dreams…”

—You know what? Sometimes I have a dream that seems real while I’m dreaming it. I think it’s another one of those common stock symbolic dreams, that other people might have had too. I dream I’m engaged in mortal combat with my worst enemy, we’re using swords as big as we are, and also a pistol that we share between the both of us.

“…in that moment I’m as how God created me and my mother bore me, lacking nothing.”

“Eventually I kill him, and I don’t even use the pistol that much either. The fight leaves me starving, and there’s nothing to eat except his heart, no longer bleeding but still big and full of hot blood. I rip the thing out in one tug and devour it like an Aztec god. It hits the spot, so much that I keep growing and growing. Pretty soon I’m so big I burst out of my clothes, and in that moment I’m as how God created me and my mother bore me, lacking nothing. I grow and grow, soon state borders mean nothing to me, then national borders. I take small steps that demolish entire cities, or sometimes whole mountains stick out ineffectually between my toes. Nations all over empty their nuclear arsenals on me, the warheads bounce off my chest and I hardly feel a thing at all except a mild sweat.

“I grow and grow, I swat whole planets away from my face like mosquitoes, then stars, then galaxies.”

I grow so much the whole world isn’t big enough for me, so I jump off the earth and take my chances in outer space. I grow and grow, I swat whole planets away from my face like mosquitoes, then stars, then galaxies. Even so, I hear a faint voice. It’s from earth, my former home, which the force of my jump off knocked it out of its orbit and away from the sun. A long dead planet now, I can still hear the dead cries and prayers of anyone and everyone I ever loved, and they’re saying come back, we miss you, we need you, we love you, there’s still so much you can offer to the world. But it’s too late. I’ve grown so big I’ve become the entire observable universe, and even then… even then, I have no idea when it’s going to stop. Have you ever had a dream like that?

“…and even then… even then, I have no idea when it’s going to stop.”

Earl thought about it for a moment, just to be sure.

—No… no, I don’t think I have.

He clicked the send link on his phone.

—Well, good for you. It’s your turn to feed Todd.

—Wasn’t it my turn yesterday…?

—It’s always your turn to feed Todd. You’re going to feed him three times a day, every day, for the rest of your life. You’re going to scrape the scraps off your plate and onto Todd on the floor until you can no longer move your rickety old limbs, and then you’re going to chew his food and spit it into his mouth like a bird. You’ll be feeding Todd here forever…

Earl looked over to the corner. Todd was lying on his side on the floor. It didn’t seem to be the position he usually took his naps in over there. His eyes were open, too.

—Oh dear. Do you remember when was the last time you fed him? He’s not looking so good, is he?

Jam was all the way in the fridge, so that was out of the question.

Earl sidled off the couch and plopped to the floor, against all odds, into a still-Earl-shaped jelly. Hayden watched him with the same defeated smirk of one who enjoys seeing the same failures in others as in himself. Things were easier to understand when everyone else in the world has it as bad as you do.

Earl slithered across the floor to the kitchen like a poisoned snake.

He pulled up his lifeless body the best he could to the countertop and reached for the peanut butter and bread. He was eventually forced to swing his dead arms and knock them to the floor.

Jam was all the way in the fridge, so that was out of the question. As least there was a chance Todd could get some protein.

He coasted along the floor to Todd’s corner, not sure how many slices of bread he was leaving behind or how much peanut butter smeared along the floor and walls behind him.

When he reached Todd he had nothing left. He couldn’t even lift a slice of bread, let alone dip it in the jar and scoop out some peanut butter, let alone make a decent sandwich for him to keep Todd alive.

When he reached Todd he had nothing left.

Earl was finally used up. He would have preferred to just spend his lowest moments with Todd on the floor, but Hayden accidentally breathed him in when he took a hit off his vaporizer pen, and exhaled a big blueberry-scented cloud of smoke that danced along in the air with Earl before he gently fell back to the floor like dry ice and took his time to reconstitute.

Someone’s phone rang.

Hayden was already looking at his in his hand. It wasn’t his.

Todd perked up and patted his pockets. It wasn’t his either.

Earl got to his feet, took his own phone out of his pocket and answered it.

—Hello? Speaking… well, yes I did… you did?! Oh, that’s great… yes, I’d love to! I… I did?! Are you sure? There must be some mistake… but I always… oh dear… oh, yes, of course! I’ll send that right over… sorry about that! Yes… I apologize… yes… um… well… I think I’m free Thursday. Yeah, Thursday is fine… eleven? I think I’m free… okay, eleven. Great, thank you… and I apologize… about that… thank you, see you then. Thursday. Eleven. Bye.

He hung up and faced the others, a new bright smile on his face.

—Great news, guys! I have an interview lined up for this Thursday at eleven! It was a little touch and go there because I wrote a cover letter that they really liked but I forgot to post my resume! They said it was okay and I could just shoot it over to them when I have a chance sometime before then. But anyway, that’s great, right? Right guys?

(In case anyone was wondering, the firm that eventually did reach out to Earl to interview for an available position was not the same one that Earl had heroically sent his resume on his phone to while defeated on the couch only moments ago, but rather a different one he applied to a long while ago, around the same day he made the ill-fated risotto. Hayden somehow found this out as well, even though no one who knew this ever told him, and he gleaned from this intelligence what little satisfaction he could).

Young man, look upon me and despair…

Todd did seem to be much more comfortable now that he finally got out of the corner and joined Hayden on the couch. Though he could never beat Hayden in his wildest dreams, he certainly did do better than Earl ever did his first few times, even getting in the top five, and on some of the more advanced circuits to boot.

—Coffee’s on, if anyone wants!

Earl’s dress shoes clacked on the wood floor and brought him to the front door.

—Well, I’m off to work, guys. See you tonight.

Hayden reached first place in the latest race between he and Todd, put down his controller to let him finish, and looked to Earl.

—Rent’s due tomorrow.

—Ah jeez. Do you think you could spot me until next Friday? I’m sure I’ll have it once this new job of mine takes off, you know?

—No problem.

—Great, thanks!

Earl opened the door and took a single step outside, before stopping suddenly and facing the others once more. Todd reached eighth place in the race, and put his controller down. They looked up to each other and shared a brief moment of silence. Then they all chanted in unison, as if praying in a cathedral before the priest dismisses them,

Young man, look upon me and despair. As you are now, I once was. As I am now, so shall you be…

…as you are now, I once was. As I am now, so shall you be.

Hayden and Todd began another race as Earl let the door shut behind him and made his way to work.

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