Jellyfish at the Stoplight is the first place winner in the Spring 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition.
You’re sitting at that stop light over on Main - remembering how you are just this atomic fleshy vehicle with all of these neurons firing at the same time. You are essentially a large jellyfish.
Seriously! You remember seeing this picture of a human body stripped of its skin, tendons, and bones, and all that was left was the nervous system all splayed out on a table. The brain connecting down to the stem connecting down to the spinal cord. All attached by these dendrital type things.
Anyway, this is you. You are in there. You are here. At least you think so. You really should read more and know more about basic human functions- not to mention the cosmos. Science can be really cool, but sometimes, also boring. So, a lot of the books you've started reading, and yes, even listening to an audiobook in the car is reading, you've given up on. One day promising to add back to your to-be-read pile - but ultimately you know will be relegated to the dusty recesses of your, you meant to - but got too distracted by your other reads, pile.
You remember when you actually thought you'd end up as a theoretical physicist - for no other reason than a character in a video game you loved in middle school was one. You think maybe it had something to do with the fact that the main protagonist and the scientists he worked with accidentally opened a portal to the Xen dimension - unleashing hordes of unknown alien beings into your government research lab - not to mention the military to silence any and all scientists who would spill the beans on the debacle. It was this whole thing. But you won in the end, you think.
Yea, being a theoretical physicist had way more to do with all of that and the kick-ass story rather than all of those mathematical equations and, you know, the actual physics. You can barely handle basic math with a calculator. You wish you had more time to play all those computer games with your oldest son, who now loves all of the same games you did, and more.
You are here, stopped at a traffic light, thinking, pleading, hoping; an unfriendly cluster of cells does not conspire against you to form a mass inside the jelly of your gelatinous cavities. Even if they are only doing what all cells aspire to do, survive. You are hoping you don't eat too much processed sugar because you've heard processed sugar feeds Cancer and other bad things. You should probably give up some of that crap anyway.
You’re hoping for a lot of things, really. Most center around not dying and wanting to live a long and healthy life (not in a vegetative state or anything like that either). You'd also like for your family to share in this good fortune with you. Mostly because you love them and enjoy their company. But also because you're afraid to live without them. You're afraid of what you'd do. What you would become. What would happen to them without you? You think on this - but not for too long.
Another force, equal in power, has lodged itself in your consciousness, and its name is time. It makes you feel things you'd rather not feel. Like the finite number of days you have, pieces of yourself to give to your wife, kids, reluctantly your job, and all other aspects of your clock-kept existence. But also, selfishly, books to read, and movies to watch. Information to store. Knowledge to gain. Wisdom to bestow?
You think about other things too. The electric bill, the ongoing wars inhabiting the globe, the wars occupying the tattered cities of the hearts and minds of all earthlings. All this turmoil and conflict is going on right now as you gulp in some air from a chemically altered oxidized environment. You breathe as the man on the off-ramp holds a sign asking for work or money. You can't quite read it from here. Some look at him but see right through. Many don't look at all.
You breathe as the Lexus ahead of you swerves - weaving in and out of traffic as the driver looks down at a cell phone - narrowly missing the Toyota in front of them. Asshole! You think. Or maybe he's desperately trying to get in contact with the hospital where his wife is in labor. However unlikely that may be. He's probably just ordering a pizza.
You breathe as you spot portentous violent emerald green clouds in the distance as you try to reconcile the notion of rain falling on the just and the unjust alike. You wonder how many of the fellow car-stricken denizens currently surrounding you are truly evil. How many have seen life enter and exit this mortal stage? Is all you know merely hanging on by a thread?
You think about all that’s occurred on this exact spot throughout the history of the world. You then amply segue back into solipsism and think about yourself again. After all, you are a self-aware and self-doubting narcissistic humanoid. Are you smart enough? Did you offend someone today? Did you offend yourself? Did you do the best you could? Let everyone down? Did anyone think of you? If you were to die tomorrow would you feel as though you lived passionately enough? Whole-heartedly?
You think some more. You think about these other various collections of atoms you very much like being around. You wonder what they are doing at this exact moment. The oldest boy playing a pc game - a girl making a diorama - another boy playing in a box with spittle falling from the most perfectly angelic smile. You think of another one, too. The one you gave your heart to. And all of your other organs too, for that matter. She can have them all. She knows all of you and despite this, decides to stay. You wonder why, sometimes. Why does she stay? She can do anything. Could have anyone. She houses all that is right in the world - right there in her heart and you will spend your remaining time just trying to be near her light.
The universe doesn't care. Does it? You hope so. What about God(s)? Does he, she, they or it? You hope. You hope for another 50 years in this currently hospitable meat sack. In the distance you may see rain - yet are currently positioned in such a way to also see the beginning of the orangey-yellow magma of the sunset over the river and briefly appreciate the miracle of natural beauty. Make a note to tell your wife about this when you get home. Don't forget to tell her how you hope to take in a sunrise/sunset with her soon. Make a plan. Even if you both oversleep and miss it, wrapped in an embrace or entangled in some sort of spooning type position, at least you know the sun will be out there, rising. And you’ll be there, holding her.
You contain multitudes but know so little. You remember you are presently located somewhere amid a mote of dust suspended somewhere in a sunbeam. You are currently located on a speck of dirt and water where everything you have ever known and/or cared about - has existed. You call this place home - it constantly defies all of your logic and expectations. You take it so seriously - yet at the same time - not seriously enough. You worry you take life too seriously - but not enough. You walk around with this sort of veil over your eyes. It muddles how you perceive the world and how you yourself are perceived.
You think back on a simpler time. Was it really simpler or was your brain just smaller and more unaware? Was your childhood really your good old days? You recall a line someone said once. Something along the lines of "I wish there was a way to know you're in the "good old days', before you've actually left them." But then again. You think you're in them now. You think about how the good ol' days in your mid-30's is essentially equivalent to looking back on yesterday. A blink of an eye you've always been told. You start to think about how many times you've just regurgitated the phrase, the good old days.
You recall a childhood vacation. You are in the back seat of a family-loaded car - your grandma rubbing your back to soothe you through a stomachache. You were too caught up in yourself to ever care enough. You wonder if you still are. What would you give to talk to her again? Apologize to her. Just hold her and tell her you love her. Ask her things. Cherish her. Thank her...for everything. Maybe start treating some of the ones who are still around, a bit better.
You remind yourself to once in a while take notice of the minuteness, as well as the vastness that goes on around you - every second of every day. What is all of this? What are you? Why are you? You somehow already know the answers to these questions but also realize you don't have a clue.
The light is now green. You drive in the general direction of home - with both an appreciation and a sort of dread. One day - you will die. One day. For now - try to take it easy on yourself and others; you foolish, flawed, miracle of a jellyfish. Go home. Kick the soccer ball around. Wrestle and pillow-fight all of them. There is so much life and love waiting for you there.