Projections – Isaac Birchmier
Part 1: A Brief Description of Lionel’s Environment
DOWN THE STREETS HE WALKS in his torn cargo pants. His hometown is full of tall brown buildings, each with an exponential number of windows—near all of them holding in stasis an AC between sill and pane. Along the street sides, pushed against the metal fences’ vertical bars, are bags of trash: stray pieces of garbage. On the ribcages-of-trees: the dark green remnants of leaves. Overhead, the cloudless sky is pewter gray, lusterless. The streets are glossed over with melted snow, lined around the edges with innumerable cars, 98% of which have windshields topped with a light powder. Metal poles hold suspended streetlights: trichromatic. A bright red palm, pixelated, at the corner of an intersection. A bus stop. COOPER PARK HOUSING reads the sign. He races up the dilapidated stairs to the complex, with confidence. He knows this small part of the world like the back of his hand, so often has he followed these same paths at this same time of day. From the entrance to the apartment complex are a number of flights of stairs, each leading to separate hallways with beehive-sized living areas for each of the denizens. The eighth floor is the location of his home. The elevator broke somehow somewhere along the line and so now there’s a DO NOT ENTER strip of tape sealing off the area, preventing entrance. As a result, he must take the stairs. Apartment block 4, floor 8, third door on the right—room 833—is the apartment of the Brooks family.
He opens the door and kicks the snow off his Nikes. WELCOME! reads the rug beneath his feet, ornamented with mud-stained flowers.
“Pizza! Pizza!” his baby sister runs from the turn into the kitchen.
“Alicia, don’t bother the pizza man,” his mother says. Then, “Ah, it’s Lionel.”
“Lionel!” Alicia croons, runs over, and hugs Lionel’s leg.
“Hi, Alicia,” Lionel says smiling, patting her on the head. “How was work?”
“Same old, same old,” Mrs. Brooks replies, disinterested. “And school?”
“Ditto,” he says, passing through to the kitchen. Swings the refrigerator door open, inspects, pulls forth an orange, inspects, closes fridge door. “Tell me when the pizza’s here.”
“Yep, yep,” vaguely.
He opens his bedroom door and throws his backpack on the ground. Falls into a swivel chair, directs his attention to the desk. He opens the first drawer on the right and inside is a sheet of paper: a list. It reads as follows:
LIST OF PROJECTIONS:
- The Worker: kindly and caring, strong-hearted and polite, with a good work ethic
- The Romantic: warm and caring, consoling and intimate
- The Friend: light-hearted, energetic, fun, capable of maintaining good conversation, never saying no to any given opportunity
- The Class Clown [REQUIESCAT]
- The Nostalgic: self-explanatory; for old acquaintances
- The Hospitable: for guests—hospitable
- The Parent: strong and a good role model
He mulls it over for the umpteenth time and sighs.
Part 2: History and the Art of Projection; or, The Class Clown
LIONEL BROOKS’ ABILITY TO CAST PROJECTIONS was not a gift given to him at birth, but rather a skill he learnt on his own. When he was younger, there had only been in him the ability to cast a single projection, the reason for this being that he had never thought deeply enough about the intricacies of why one should cast a projection. The idea of casting out various forms—all of them manifest of his singular bodily presence—was unthinkable. So, throughout his younger years, he remained only as Lionel Brooks.
The first of Lionel’s projections came about once he entered middle school, where he discovered his ability by accident and immediately began using it to manipulate the minds of his peers. Outward he projected the image of The Class Clown. When he created the projection, focusing really hard on a figure whom he respected—imagining himself to be the funniest man to have ever lived, he—with a few physical starters (some leg and arm movements)—he was able to cast the projection of a person completely opposite himself.
Then the projection burst forth in a flurry of mind-numbing sparks, racing around the room, wobbling its arms side-to-side, acting outrageous. The projection lifted up a stapler and declasped the bottom, clicked rapidly on the magazine, making labiodental machinegun sounds:
The rest of the class, watching the projection’s display, fell into a riot of laughter. The projection bowed and smiled, then walked over to where Lionel sat in hiding, and receded back into him.
“Lionel, to the office, now,” said the teacher.
Bad thing about having projections is that the Projector faces all the consequences. Though the projection may have been happy from all the ruckus it’d caused, Lionel himself would feel none of the same happiness. The projection would get all of the love and endearment—and Lionel was left with only the loneliness and consequence. Before you cast a projection you must keep in mind who you are and what the repercussions behind casting the projection might be. You must keep in mind the social obligations that then concrete themselves after the projection has been cast. Lionel only learned this later on.
Beginner’s tip for projection-casting: once you’ve cast the projection—be it one of a comedian, one of a cool guy, one of a hard worker, one of a hipster—you have to escape from this decoy you’ve created and hide in nearness. The science behind this material replication is much too complicated to explain in details. But the simple version is this: If you run too far away you risk becoming the projection. Detaching entirely from your projection loses You forever, and you become the projection for the rest of your natural life. The projection overtakes you. It’s dangerous. Don’t try this at home. Following the casting of a projection requires a going-into-hiding of the original consciousness. Keep this in mind.
That being said, so long as you don’t let it overtake you completely, there is still the unavoidable fact that the projection, no matter how opposite you it is, will still retain a number of your fundamental traits. (A projection can’t completely escape the original person, so long as the original person still remains nearby.)
Thanks to continuous experimentation, Lionel has figured out that he can slowly have the projection take his own place. This means that instead of casting the projection all at once, he can actually build it slowly into existence, backing away methodically, creating it section by section, as if some life-size 3D printer. The person with whom Lionel converses with, this means, can grow accustomed to the projection slowly, rather than have the entirety of the transformation thrust forth onto them all at once. And yet, there remains the obvious problem of people knowing that something has happened when these resources have been tapped. It’s quite possible that you and your projection will need to merge back into a singular entity before the other party can realize that what they’ve been speaking to has actually been a false manifestation of the self (though, of course, they’ll never initially consider this as a possibility, because, y’know, Occam’s razor). If someone, for some reason, somehow, out of thin air, discovers that the person that they’ve been talking to has actually been a projection all along, then they might report your abilities to the CIA, and the consequences could be dire. It’s a dangerous game, this chess match of replicas and projection. All it takes for Lionel, after he’s done and the projection has fulfilled its purpose, is for him then to will the projection out of existence, and to slip away from out the sidelines, where he initially sat watching, intrigued, as a spectator, and make himself once again be seen.
By this point in time, the projection will have become your alter idem, your second self. You will stay up late at nights, thinking about what combination of characteristics will necessitate which projection. You will learn that there are unlimited possibilities for projections. If it can be imagined, it can be projected.
(When you cast projections, you need to learn the rules of the trade.)
Part 3: Lovebirds; or, The Romantic
ALEXANDRA IGRIS FIT PERFECTLY Lionel’s very definition of “soulmate.” And he knew from the way she acted around him that she thought the same. To him, this was a plus. She was perfect, the embodiment of his every dream and desire. She was a brunette, with the perfect body structure—not too much fat, not too little—and a jaw full of the pearliest whites you ever could see, and her constant smile brought this to the forefront of sight. She was lighthearted and caring and smart—everything he ever could’ve wished for in a girl.
As with every day, between 2nd and 3rd period, the two met at the side of the hall and exchanged awkward conversations. This happened every day at that same time, the two of them together, talking, the world filtered out. But this time, Lionel wanted to take things a step further: He wanted to ask Alexandra on a date.
Though Lionel wouldn’t be able to do this on his own.
The bell rang and they met at the usual place. The other students passed by, paying the two no mind.
“How are you, Lionel?” Alexandra asked, smiling, interested in whatever Lionel had to say.
He knew that his normal self wouldn’t be enough to get her. Alexandra was better than him. It wouldn’t work. It wasn’t working. His normal personality wasn’t clicking with her. On its own his normal personality was nothing worth falling in love over. Especially not in the case of someone as flawless and beautiful as Alexandra. Since Lionel was no good with women, he would need to cast a projection who was.
Immediately, without thought or hesitation, Lionel cast a projection of The Romantic and disappeared into hiding. Alexandra looked into the eyes of The Romantic, not having seen Lionel slink off to watch in the distance. Lionel crouched behind the glass window of the cafeteria on the other side of the hall. A painting of The Romantic and Alexandra conversing stood reflected on the glass, Lionel watching voyeuristically behind. He watched in secrecy, biting his fingernails, as The Romantic did what he never could in his wildest dreams.
“I’m better now that you’re here,” The Romantic winked.
Alexandra smiled and lowered her chin to her chest, coyly, looking deep into The Romantic’s eyes.
“So,” The Romantic continued, “I was thinking you and I could go watch a movie this weekend.”
Alexandra broke from her expression and looked around the halls from the corners of her eyes. Her face had turned pale, her expression as if The Romantic had just forced the both of them into a case of irreversible social suicide.
“Trust me. It’ll be fun,” The Romantic winked.
Upon hearing this, Alexandra giggled, the color returning to her face. “Okay,” she said flirtatiously.
“Alright, I’ll pick you up at five. How does that sound?”
“Sounds like a plan.” She reached her hand out and ran her fingers across The Romantic’s shoulder. “See you tonight, Lionel.” She turned around and walked away with a flighty step.
The Romantic stood in place, winking at her confidently before she turned to disappear at the end of the hall.
From behind the glass of the cafeteria, crouching, hiding, Lionel saw the confident happiness of The Romantic and knew then that it was not his own.
Part 4: Adulthood and Antinatalism; or, The Worker and The Parent
NOW BOTH THIRTY-TWO, Lionel and Alexandra were married and had joint ownership of an apartment. Lionel, a recent higher-up at a substantial firm, had to go to work. But he couldn’t do it by himself. He—in his casual self—was unfit for the job. So he cast out The Worker. The Worker was ambitious and had an infinite capacity for competence and good work ethic. The Worker manifested and entered the car. Lionel slunk into the backseat of the car and watched The Worker drive to work, an elated smile stitched to its face.
But Alexandra loved kids. And this biological maternal affection led her to get a job at the Cooper Park Child Care Center. She was a babysitter, and was thusly tasked with watching over the children: making sure they got to sleep during naptime, distributing fruit snacks amongst groups of outreached, sticky hands. Never once had Alexandra had what she could potentially define as a “bad experience,” in her years of work at the daycare.
Lionel and Alexandra had yet to come to a consensus on the whole situation of whether or not to have children. Lionel didn’t want kids, and he knew this whole “daycare” business was Alexandra’s way of coaxing him into the thought. He didn’t like children but he loved Alexandra more than enough to play along with her little games.
Alexandra had what Lionel would quickly describe as an “affinity” for kids. She just understood them, and they understood her. Even as they wrestled on the ground, na-na-na-na-boo-booing in their obnoxious tones of voice, Alexandra could defuse the situation really quite easily. All she had to do was say, in her loving manner, “Children, stop.” And they would stop. Her voice was like a melody to those children’s ears, they all halting in their chaos to follow the song of her voice, lining up into pristine order.
Lionel, on the other hand, did not share this affinity.
But The Parent did.
“Lionel, Lionel,” Little Joey said, a goopy bubble of snot running down his face. “Tell me a story!”
“Alright,” The Parent said. “Sit down and I’ll tell you a story. Everyone gather around,” he announced, “I’m telling a story.”
The kids stopped what they were doing and ran to the circle rug before The Parent. They sat criss-cross-applesauce, attentive. Alexandra smiled.
“So, once upon a time, there was a man….”
Part 5: Entertainment; or, The Friend
THERE WAS A FOOTBALL GAME ON TV; it was the Steelers vs. the Ravens. Two people sat watching. Their names? Luther and Duncan. On a coffee table nearby were transparent bowls of chips and liter bottles of Pepsi and Sprite. Duncan and Luther watched The Game, while The Friend was in the bathroom.
The couches were set at perpendicular 90° right angles, like the bottom three sides of a square. The Friend sat on the left couch, Luther in the center, Duncan on the right. For some reason or another, Duncan didn’t want to sit down today. So he watched the game standing.
“Oh, come on!” said Luther, when a player was mowed down by the 6’2″, 312 lb. defensive tackle instead of catching the ball.
Duncan stood behind Luther’s couch, watching the game. “Did you know there are over four-thousand species of animals that are critically endangered and on the path to extinction?” Duncan said. He readjusted the tie he always seemed to wear over a t-shirt. The shirt he wore under the tie today was from Hollister. The tie obscured part of the logo—the letters spaced across the shirt’s chest—so it only read “HOL__STER.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Luther said.
A player from the Steelers caught the ball and hit the ground running.
“Oh! Oh!” Luther got out of his seat. “Come on, come on, come on… woo! Touchdown!” He pumped his fist excitedly at the ground.
“Of those four-thousand include the mountain gorilla, the African wild donkey, the pygmy three-toed sloth, the yellow-crested cockatoo, Kaempfer’s woodpecker, the Indochinese box turtle—”
“My god, Duncan. Shut up about your endangered box turtles. No one gives a shit. Did you even see that rush? He got a TD from ten yards behind the half-yard line.”
“—the corroboree frogs, the forest owlet, the Sulu hornbill, the harbour porpoise—”
“—the black-headed spider monkey, the Tristan albatross—which has become endangered due to the invasion of house mice—”
“House mice? Pfffhahaha! They deserve endangerment, if you ask me, (can’t deal with petty house mice).” Luther cracked open his beer and took a lengthy drink.
Duncan yawned. “Do you have anything besides PBR?” he asked.
“Yeah, there’s Mike’s in the fridge.”
The toilet flushed in the bathroom, and The Friend walked out. Luther and Duncan were too focused on the TV to acknowledge its arrival. The Friend slumped onto the couch by itself, its surreally-large eyes attentive and confident.
Time passed in silence as the three watched attentively the game.
Luther suddenly leapt up from his slouch as if stricken by a thought, breaking the silence. “Lionel, Lionel, Lionel: hear this. Duncan told me a crazy fact yesterday.”
“Hmm?” said The Friend.
“Tell Lionel about the Amazon ants.”
“Ah,” Duncan said, looking up at his eyebrows as if to incite thought. “The Polyergus.”
“Yeah. Tell him what they do to the other ants.”
“Yes. The Polyergus enslave Formica ants.” Duncan said, watching the ceiling, disinterested.
Luther was suppressing his laughter. “You hear that, Lionel? Ants enslaving ants!”
“Mhm,” The Friend said.
“The only way the Polyergus can survive is through complete dependence on the slave labor of the Formica ants,” Duncan continued, mechanically. “They go for the larvae first when they initiate a raid. This is not too dissimilar from the kidnapping of children.”
Luther looked to The Friend with wide, excited eyes. The Friend nodded, smirking.
“They use pheromones as markers to attract more Polyergus to the raid site. The reason the Formica ants end up becoming enslaved each time is because they always surrender by fleeing—possibly the intimidation of size differences.”
“Possibly the intimidation of,” Luther whispered the words to himself, repeating. He thought for a second, then spoke out abruptly:
“Jesus, Duncan, you’re like a fuckin walking encyclopedia, I swear.”
“Yeah, why do you know all this stuff?” The Friend asked.
“It interests me,” Duncan said.
Luther and The Friend looked at one another, asking wordless What is going on?
“To each his own,” Luther shrugged. He took a drink of his beer and turned his attention back to the game. “Oh, come on!” he yelled, scooting to the very front of the sofa, his knees bumping the coffee table. “That was barely even a shove!”
Part 6: The Birthday (From Lionel’s Perspective)
LIONEL’S 33RD BIRTHDAY WAS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER, and he had the perfect plan to escape from the world; it went something like this: After work, he would make his way to his apartment in southern Brooklyn where he would lay down on a couch and flip through the channels. He would find a documentary on either WWI or WWII or the Vietnam War or the Cold War or the Iraq War or the War in Afghanistan, or watch the news to see the latest coverage on the upcoming war, and he would stuff his mouth with Lay’s potato chips and see what sort of events were happening outside his own little bubble of social influence via Facebook, and then fall asleep imagining how exhausting it would be to create and cast a new projection for each of those scenarios. That was the plan. That’s what he would do.
But it was interrupted prematurely. Alexandra had given him a list of groceries she needed him to get from the Queens Center. Not to mention Mr. Allen, his landlord, had called and said he needed to speak with Lionel about something, which was never good. Even on his birthday he wasn’t spared a break. He sighed.
Ugh, he thought. Why is she making me get groceries? She knows how much I hate the mall. He walked down the aisle-way. Teenage couples passed him by. Not-yet-matured girls giggling. He passed by a Spencer’s, a Hot Topic, a Build-a-Bear Workshop.
Part 7: The Birthday (From the Party’s Perspective)
THE APARTMENT WAS SPACIOUS AND NOUVEAU. Platinum were the countertops, and a number of appliances with brilliant sheens lined the shelves with obsessive-compulsive clarity. The apartment had the collective appearance of a futuristic manor. Mahogany cutting boards and glass display cases. The furniture could very well have been purchased in its entirety from the call #s on late night public broadcast shows marketed to insomniacs and the elderly: the sleep-deprived and the senile.
On the table was a cake, the candles unlit.
Everyone stood in darkness, waiting. Alexandra had recently gotten off the phone with Lionel, who’d said he was almost home and that then he’d talked with the landlord and Some birthday. Alexandra busily worked on making finishing touches to the party, scrambling in the dark. “You think he’s gonna show?” her phone flashing a rectangle in the blackness.
“We agreed to meet up for a few concerns regarding the payment of his apartment,” Mr. Allen said in his thick Indian accent.
“Some birthday,” said Mrs. Brooks, arms crossed.
“Lacey,” Alexandra said, grabbing Mrs. Brooks by the shoulder. “It’s alright. Lionel will love this.”
The kids from the daycare had arrived, since Alexandra knew how much Lionel loved kids.
Luther and Duncan had arrived to the party, intent on surprising Lionel with a bottle of Bordeaux. Luther gripped it on the counter-top, his fingers making condensed print shapes on the surface of the bottle, while Duncan recounted beaver facts he’d learned from Animal Planet.
“Beavers warn others of danger by slapping the water with their tails,” Duncan whispered.
“That’s because nature is dangerous,” Luther sighed.
“Humans are also part of nature, as much as we’d like to think otherwise,” Duncan said.
Everyone stood in the darkness, waiting.
“This isn’t nature,” Luther said, now squeezing the bottle.
“Technically it is.”
“No, Duncan. No this is not.This—” Luther waved his hand around, wide-eyed—“is not nature.”
“If you look into the specifics—”
“There are no specifics, Duncan!”
“Boys, calm down,” Alexandra interjected. “Lionel should be coming back from the mall any moment now.”
“There’s his car!” someone said.
“Sh, sh, shhhh,” Alexandra said.
Lionel got out of his car, holding grocery bags in each of his hands.
They stood silent in the darkness.
Alexandra counted down: “3… 2… 1…”
The doorknob turned.
Part 8: The Birthday (In which the Two Perspectives Meet)
THE LIGHT FLICKED ON.
“Surprise!” they yelled in unison.
Like a deer in headlights Lionel stood, a bag of groceries in each hand. Oh my god, he thought. All at once he was struck with knowledge of the fact that he would need to cast The Nostalgic, The Worker, The Romantic, The Hospitable, and The Parent, all at once, in subsequent order, nonstop, continually…
He was tired.
They each came up to talk to him. There was his boss who asked him how he was doing, and Lionel cast The Worker. They spoke for a few and then Lionel returned to his own body. His boss walked away, pleased. Then came Alexandra. He cast The Romantic, then she walked away happy. Then was his mom. Then Luther. Then little Joey from the daycare. Then Duncan.
It had only been ten minutes.
Lionel looked from the corner of the room, behind Duncan, and saw the full line of people waiting, all people for whom he’d have to cast new and separate and individual projections, all of these people waiting for Lionel, the line stretching to an infinity, endless. The hopelessness of the situation struck him in full. These people would never stop. Every person wanted something from him, wanted a projection, wanted him to become someone else. He was trapped in this limbo, forever. He buried his face into his hands and began sobbing profusely, the tears running endless—one for each projection he’d ever casted. He sat hidden in the room’s corner, bawling his eyes out, watching Duncan speak to The Friend.
The room went silent, everyone turning to look at The Friend. Duncan appealed quizzically to the rest of the room, attempting to forestall any potential blame.
Little Joey from the daycare tapped Alexandra on the arm and asked innocently, “Why is Lionel crying?”
Isaac Birchmier was born in Mountain Home, Idaho and raised in Helena, Montana. He is an undergraduate at the University of Montana pursuing a degree in Creative Writing. He has been published in or has stories forthcoming to Sidereal Journal, The Oval, theEEEL, The Commonline Journal, 101 Words, cattails, Theme of Absence, Eternal Remedy, Morgen Bailey’s Writing Blog, Funny in Five Hundred, and Short-Story.me. He is currently studying abroad in Cork, Ireland.