You clear your head with an exhibition of souvenirs. Normalcy ends with a webcomic draft. You feel like prey. Speculation of surveillance abounds. A moon rock appears. At last comes the feast.
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Planet Radiant - Chapter 6
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A dial tone echoes faintly through the atrium. Nikki hung up several minutes ago. You left the guard desk phone off the hoo, but you didn’t walk away. Not yet.
You consider the serendipity of their call, how it came just as you sat down to start your word search. It was too convenient, too perfect. You imagine Nikki in front of a wall of security monitors, watching the grainy, closed-circuit feeds, gauging your reactions with military focus.
You feel toyed with, like prey. But regardless of Nikki’s intentions, of their part in this manufactured moment, the relief in their voice was real, just hearing you say hello, knowing you’re alive.
A promise was kept. You want to know what that was.
You head east down a long gallery space. Along the wall, suspended with wire two feet from the floor, is a refrigerator door. Magnets cover every inch of the front, each emblazoned with the name of a different city or tourist trap. You read the artist’s statement beside it:
“The mosaic of keepsakes evokes a familiar trope: the disillusioned suburban family—white and straight, with two kids and a dog—fills their house with relics from summer vacations and Christmas getaways. Woven into the decor of their home, alongside the new touchless faucet and furniture store wall art, are reminders of when life was more. The magnets invite the family to, for one brief moment, forget about mortgages and charter schools and subconscious marital resentment. In his darkest moments of domestic alienation, the patriarch could point to an image of the World’s Largest Corn Palace or Mount Kilimanjaro and say, That thing across the country? Across the world? That’s real, and I was there.”
The exhibition is titled: Bring It on Home: Saving the World with Souvenirs.
You continue east through the gallery.
The exhibition is divided into three parts. The first, Vacation’s All I Ever Wanted, is a recreation of a beach gift shop, with rotating displays of keychains, plush toys, and corked bottles of colored sand. A cluster of mannequins wear airbrushed t-shirts and baja hoodies. In a glass display case beneath a vintage cash register is a bottle opener from Ft. Lauderdale. Purchased by a staff member in Marketing and Communications during spring break 1996; donated to the museum in 2017. The point is blunt, the design faded after two decades of use. Through the scratches, you can make out the scuffed outline of a palm tree.
Part two is called, Count the Scars, comprising photographs of half-healed stitches and insect bites, legs in casts and sunburnt skin. Labels identify where each injury was sustained: Cancun, Sydney, Thimpu, Kirkuk.
The final section, I’ll Put a Pebble in My Shoe, features more abstract takes on the theme. A Dixie cup of dirt scraped from an artist’s boots sits beside a dust-covered bin of 3.5 inch floppy disks, a readymade titled Hourglass.
The exhibition concludes with a Lunar Sample 15016, a.k.a the Seatbelt Basalt, a two pound moon rock on loan from NASA. It’s gray and porous like injera, at once mesmerizing and utterly ordinary.
You remove the glass display cover and take the moon rock.
At the end of the gallery to the south is the main coat check, nearly three times larger than the one by the planetarium. Signage covers the eastern wall. An arrow points north to the restrooms; another points northeast to the cafe.
You forgot how hungry you are.
You walk up a slight incline and enter the cafe. In the center of a large open room is a coffee station, a bain-marie behind a deli counter, a refrigerator case, and two cash registers.
Before you can investigate further, it happens again: spacetime folds and transports you to a different reality. Or maybe it’s just a waking dream, a memory of the past.
Now, to the northwest, instead of twin cash registers, you see an electric, glass-top stove streaked with grease and spray cleaner. At the end of a granite kitchen counter stands a new stainless steel fridge. Who knew you could fall in love with an appliance? You marvel at the pull-out freezer and ice dispenser–amenities you’ve never had before.
The basement door to the southeast is cracked open for the cat. To the northeast is the living room, where Janelle sleeps to a Barbara Stanwyck movie on the TV.
On the table in front of you is a mug of hibiscus tea and an open bag of cheddar crackers. You keep them a good distance away from your sketchbook, where you write drafts of your webcomic, Dowager Party, by Sasha V. You pour all your spare time into this stupid project, and after two years, it still hasn’t found an audience. You want to blame it on the fact you’re a woman on the internet.
But it’s the tone that drives away readers: all gallows and no humor. You’re thirty-nine and still love it when something gives you that empty, sickness-unto-death feeling, that teen angst some people never grow out of.
You sip your tea and make a list of the saddest things you can think of.
bullied trans kids
Black Friday shopping fatalities
a loved one trampled to death in a big box store
explaining to people your loved one died protecting an off-brand 55-inch 4K TV with their human body
materialism in general?
Want is so sad, isn’t it? Wanting success, validation, a doorbuster air fryer. If, at its heart, want is a manifestation of an existential lack, then how could home electronics ever fill that gap?
Now you’ve got your angle. You write your script:
Panel 1: the lobby of a big box store. On the floor, we see broken glass spilling from a crushed box for a 55-inch 4K TV. People shop in the background, willfully oblivious.
Narration: So my uncle died at a Target last year. The Black Friday crowds got out of control, and they trampled him to death. He just wanted a new TV.
Panel 2: flashing lights of an ambulance, a Target storefront in the background.
Narration: I wonder what it was like for the other shoppers after the ambulance came, shoving merchandise into their carts while EMTs strapped his body to the gourney.
Panel 3: a church lobby, a TV on the wall that reads “Celebrating the life of [name illegible].”.
Narration: At the church where the funeral was held, a 55-inch flat-screen TV cycled through service schedules, announcements, and bible quotes. My uncle would have laughed.
Panel 4: A cashier scanning the price tag on a t-shirt.
Narration: On the way home, Janelle asked if we could stop at the Target. She needed more maternity clothes. I looked at baby monitors. A man outside asked for money. We try to be smart shoppers.
It’s a workable first draft. You’ll tinker with it more before showing it to Janelle. Janelle, who doesn’t stir when her movie ends and the channel goes to commercials. You put down your pencil and join her on the living room couch. Then you fall asleep, too.
This was the last normal night of your life.
The scene fades to black. You’re back in the cafe by the cash registers. Straight ahead to the northeast is a propped-open set of chase doors leading to a small antechamber. A door at the end reads, EDUCATION DEPARTMENT. The face is battered; it sits askew in its frame, one hinge missing.
You step through the mostly-broken door. Before you is a hallway that runs north-south. There are three classrooms, each with a glass door and large viewing window. You can make out vague shapes on the tables inside: half-finished kindergarten art projects.
Directly to your left is a vending machine. Most of the slots are empty, but you still spot the classics: Snickers bars, Peanut M&Ms, pretzel sticks, cheese puffs. Up in the corner, space C8, is a lone bag of potato chips. Not kettle-cooked, not jalapeno. Just plain salt and grease with a bite more crispy than crunchy.
Though the masonry glows around you, there’s still no electricity in the building to power the dead machine. But it’s not like you have any money. Power or no power, the chips are beyond your reach.
You smash the glass with the moon rock. Both shatter. You feel a pang of regret. But sacrifices must be made. There’s a whole moon full of rocks for the taking. You grab the chips, some pistachios, and cheese puffs. And the Peanut M&Ms.
As you open the bag of chips, you see a gash on the back of your hand, a streak of blood running down the sides. Curious; you didn’t feel the cut. No matter. For now, you let it bleed. You’ve already waited too long. It’s time for the feast.
Thank you for listening to Planet Radiant. Words and music by me, Sasha V., logo by Jess Hamman. Beta tested by Jess Hamman and Christina Larocco.
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