EXIT

The Stain

He was certain that he'd seen a different pattern on that floorboard before. Certain. This was the same floorboard too. Right next to it lay the ankh-like stain and just below it was the flattened gum he'd come to call T.Rex's brain but the pattern on the board in question had changed. Yesterday it had soothed him. As constant as a childhood scar its harmonious curves had blended eastward with the grain but today, well today it was different.

Someone was talking to him.

"Excuse me?"

"Your sleeve."

"Yes?"

"Your sleeve is on fire."

"Why, thank you."

Little acts of kindness, you know. This one would keep his faith in humanity alive for hours.

A recalcitrant shard of last night's carne asada was wedged firmly between his teeth and he'd sprained his tounge trying to dislodge it. He gave it one more try and as the pain shot down his neck he glanced quickly back at the floorboard, trying to catch it mid-morph.

He did.

What could be more exciting than this? Nothing, that's what. He felt as if he'd captured his own personal Loch Ness Monster. He sat for a long while gazing into the icy black abyss that only moments before had been a mere dark spot on a floorboard.

It changed again. Indeed it was changing faster and more intensely with each passing moment. Now it was molten. He questioned its limits. He began to question the limits of the physical world. Physicality itself. Did he even exist?

Why of course he existed. If he didn't then why would they be trying to evict him from his apartment? They wouldn't. Upon receipt of the three day notice he'd little realized that it would later provide him with the resolution of an existential crisis. Talk about silver linings. Like wow.

The little marks on the wood began to form what appeared to be letters, or runes anyway. He began to hope for some sort of sudden miraculous ability to read this strange script but it wouldn't come. The letters formed words, the words sentences and none of it was decipherable.

He felt a little dizzy and very nauseated. The organization of the paragraphs was uniform. H realized that he was looking at some sort of official document. Perhaps it was a warning. Maybe it was just an ingredient list. Better still, it was probably one of those messages that one planet sends to another, like the plaque on the Mars Rover or the Voyager or whatever it was.

He started to think about this more deeply. Obviously, any civilization capable of interstellar communication or maybe even interdimensional communication would not go to such lengths only to leave the recipient of such a presumably important message to chance. Clearly, he had been chosen. He felt honored.

The message was scrolling now. His curiosity boiled but he felt suddenly sleepy. And the more he beat his psyche against the inscrutable runes the sleepier he got. He wished he were dreaming. He wanted to fall asleep right there and dream a fine, complex vivid dream rife with archetypes. Lions could chase him maybe, or winged serpents. He would wake up refreshed from a dream like that. He was sure of it. But he could not fall asleep and so he remained sleepy.

"More coffee?"

"Yes, please."

The scrolling stopped. Just at the point where the last line of one group of runes had begun to rise above his field of vision and the top of the next was beginning to appear, it stopped.

Neither line was completely visible. The fact that he could not have read them if they were did not stop him from becoming frustrated and angry. By this time he had come to take his duty seriously, and his duty was to decipher this message and impart it to the world. He hoped that it was not a cookbook.

Pulling his gaze away from the floor, his eyes met with a fierce blast of sunlight. He closed his eyes hard and saw the runes scrolling down along the inside of his eyelids, orange against a blue background.

This was great, because now he could go home. The waitress had been delivering dirty looks with his refills and he desperately needed a shower.

As he lay his head on the pillow, he began to fear the dream he'd soon be in.

A massive brick building, perfectly cubicle, sat astride a chalky sidewalk. A game of hopscotch had been played there, recently, judging by the sharpness of the multi-colored markings. The markings inside the boxes were runes. His mind lurched at this new opportunity. If he could remember how hopscotch was played, perhaps he could use this as a key. Wasn't there some sort of song involved? Something about breaking your mother's back? Surely there was another way. He looked up and saw a stop sign. Tears of joy welled up in his dreaming eyes when he saw that its familiar red octagon contained not letters but runes.

Not only runes but four runes. Four magic runes which he could only assume held the key to this whole mystery. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pad and pen that he hadn't known he'd had and copied them, assigning each its roman letter: S-T-O-P

Then he woke up. He tried desperately to recall the shapes of the runes and which letters they went with. He sat on his bed and strained until his head hurt. Suddenly they were as clear as the window through which the grey light of morning was streaming. He made the beginnings of his chart.

He was afraid to return to the café. He was afraid that the stain had been scrubbed away by the janitor and even more afraid that it had not. Perhaps he should forget the whole thing. He could find something more constructive to do with his life than try to make contact with alien scientists. Actually, nothing could possibly be as constructive as all that but maybe he wasn't up to the task after all. There were lesser things that he could do with his life, like get a job or something. Lots of people seemed very content to do just that. Why not him?

All this shot through his mind as he traipsed toward the café, his every step grinding against the asphalt and wearing away his resistance. He had, after all, been chosen. Who was he to mock destiny? No one, that's who.

The waitress did not welcome him with the toothy grin he'd grown accustomed to. She demanded his order with a snarl and he asked for his breakfast apologetically, waiting a beat before casting his gaze towards the stain.

It seemed angry, its pulsations petulant. He almost began to explain to it the reasons for his long absence but the waitresaurus had brought his food. When she returned to her station to fling contemptuous glances his way he looked back at the stain. It was now framed with red white and blue flashing lights. He strained to read the message. Judging by the size and shape of the paragraphs, it hadn't changed at all.

If the stain hadn't changed then neither had his destiny. Job schmob. He'd found something on the café floor far more meaningful than a job. He'd found a calling. Now all he had to do was decipher a simple 432 character long message from an alien civilization and he'd have it made. What it was he'd have he didn't know but he'd have it made.

The coffee filter crackled softly as he unfolded it. The runes he'd scrawled across it seemed to shiver. Beside it he stretched out a napkin and waited for the runic paragraph to begin scrolling by. When it did, he copied as many characters as he could remember. Working back and forth in this way he managed to get the entire paragraph written on the napkin. He tried at this point not to rub his hands like a mad scientist but he just couldn't help it. Now he could cross reference the list of four with the paragraph. He put the napkin next to the coffee filter and scanned the former for signs of the latter.

Nothing. Cold sweat gathered on his forehead as he searched back and forth in vain. Nothing. He pushed his plate of eggs away and sat sadly.

"You gonna eat that?"

"Nope."

"Mind?"

"Nah. Gahead."

"Thanks, buddy."

He looked up to tell the guy to take his food and beat it but when he actually laid eyes on him he found himself saying something else.

"Have a seat."

'Thanks, pal. You know you're going about that all wrong."

"Going about what all wrong?"

"You're funny. The runes, man. You'll never decipher them one at a time. Do you really think that English rules of syntax and composition apply on other planets?"

"Ah-"

"You don't even know if those are phonetic characters or pictograms or even numbers. I mean do you even know what you're looking at?"

"But the stop sign-"

"Where did you see a stop sign?"

"I, um, had a dream" Boy did he wish he could have cut that sentence a little shorter.

"A dream."

"Um, yeah." He tried not to cry but he just couldn't help it. He sat in front of a perfect stranger and an imperfect waitress and sobbed.

"Woah there, sparky. I didn't say you couldn't do it, I said you were going about it all wrong. Look, you wrote it all down didn't you? That much you did right. Now let's get out of here. You don't need the stain anymore."

"I don't?"

"You'd better hope you don't cause it's gone." The strange man motioned to the undulating waitress, who was spitefully scrubbing the sacred spot.

"Let's get out of here."

They did. They walked silently for about three blocks before the strange man stopped. "Gotta go. Look for repeating patterns in the lower right quadrant."

"Wait a second! Can you read this?" He waved the napkin at the man's face like a rubber hose.

"Gotta go." Just then a kid rolled by on a skateboard. "Your shoe." he said.

Looking down at his shoes, he saw that the left one was smoking. "Thank you!" he called out after the kid. He looked up to find that the strange man was gone.

He left his apartment door open when he got home. He fixed himself a stiff drink and smoothed the coffee filter out on the kitchen table. He began to search the lower right corner of the paragraph when he realized that the man might have meant the lower right corner of the individual runes. Well, which was it? Now he was stuck. He took another pull on his rum and coke and stared. He spent the next half an hour staring and drinking, drinking and staring. Then he went to bed. Drunk.

It was the individual runes, he decided when he woke up. He tried to cluck his swollen tongue in his glue-filled mouth, but settled for a vigorous nod. Sure enough, sober (somewhat) examination of the runes revealed three groups: those with circular, overtly feminine shapes, those with two-tiered angular shapes, and the most ornate and graceful of all, those with a curious twisting line in the lower right hand corner which he thought looked like a monkey's tail or maybe a circus master's whip.

He copied this group on a separate piece of paper and sat a while in mute admiration. There were eight different runes with the monkey tail. Pretty enough, but no pattern. He rearranged them so many times that he began to get good at writing them. Nothing. Strangely, when he left the house he wasn't even frustrated. He wasn't tired, he wasn't angry. He was barely even curious any more. The stranger was waiting for him at the diner.

"Well? What did you find out?"

"I'm not sure."

"Did you see any patterns?"

"Yup."

"Well?"

"Whaddaya mean well? I can't even read Spanish. I'm not gonna figure this one out. I'm done."

"Whaddaya mean done?"

"Whaddaya mean whadooeye mean? I'm done."

The stranger looked at him hard. For a long time he didn't say anything. Then: "You can't quit now."

"Look, man. You're a nice guy. A little creepy but nice. I said I quit and I quit. I'm a quitter. Everybody has something they're good at. My thing is quitting. I'm surprised I hung in there this long. You see a class ring on this finger? Wonder why not? What do you think I do all day? That's right. I hang out in this diner and um, er hang out in this diner. Excuse me. I have to go not look for a job." With that he got up and walked out. He didn't even look back at the stranger, who looked like he was going to cry.

The air felt fresh on his face as he waited for the bus. He stretched a little and turned his head to get a kink out of his neck. There was a greasy spot on the sidewalk right by the bench and for a second he thought he saw it move.