The Universal Set
by Grant Gougler
The crazy woman was on the corner again. Of course she was on the corner. There was nowhere else crazy could go.
Bay wondered why the cops hadn’t done anything about her yet. It was obscene she got to spout her nonsense where anyone, including children, could hear it. The woman was beginning to draw crowds!
People came to laugh at her dancing, her screaming, her obscenities, and she fed off their energy and they fed off hers. Bay had laughed at first, too, but now the crazy woman was beginning to worry her.
The woman wasn’t just an anomaly anymore. Now she was there more often than not, standing on the bench for all to see and shouting with every ounce of breath for all to hear. And what she was saying… it was so cruel and mean! How could anyone think like that, much less put that absurd level of badness out into the air where anyone—especially children!—could be exposed to it?
“What’s wrong with her?” Bay’s son asked.
“Nothing, honey. Just pretend she’s not there.”
“Why is she so loud?”
“Just get in the car before your ice cream melts.”
“Maybe we should listen to her.”
“No,” Bay snapped. She’d lost control of her voice, and felt the tears welling up in her son long before they actually pooled in his eyes. “Oh… oh, I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean—”
“I was just asking a question!” he wailed.
“I know. I had no right to shout at you.”
The doors of the car were closed then and the crazy woman’s diatribe had become unintelligible. The air conditioner chilled Bay in contrast to the humid hotness outside. Despite the cold air, the ice cream was streaking down her knuckles and making the skin between her fingers sticky.
Bay could already feel her friends and family sending tendrils of concern in her direction. The tendrils were slow at first, like seaweeds grazing the bottom of a boat, but soon they were enveloping her thoughts piecemeal.
“That woman out there,” Bay explained carefully, “isn’t an Empath like most people.”
“That’s why I can’t feel what she’s feeling?”
“That’s right. And what she feels… you don’t want any part of it, honey. It’s hatred, plain and simple. And if you catch it, it can damper your own Empathy.”
Bay expected the boy to reel from such a terrible idea, but he did not. Instead she felt the shame shimmering on her son’s forehead like a heat mirage. He diverted his eyes as Bay scrutinized him. All the while, she could feel more and more of the tendrils paying attention to the scene. The story was blowing up beyond a local level as the fireflies streamed it live.
“Son,” Bay said, attempting to limit her tone of accusation. “I can feel your shame. What did you do?”
“Nothing,” the boy said sheepishly.
“Then why do you feel bad about something?”
He was absentmindedly playing with the buttons on the armrest. “I… I kind of took a snapshot of her.”
“You did what?!” Bay had planned to control the anger in her voice, but didn’t catch it in time. First she felt her son’s fear, then a crippling wave of shame from the viewers. The tendrils were angry at her for being so brutish, and they were agitating the water of her psyche. “I’m sorry, honey. I just wanted to know why you would do such a thing. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“I just thought she was interesting,” the boy said with a shrug.
The boy’s shame reminded Bay to keep her own reactions in check. She couldn’t afford slipping again, couldn’t afford sending out any more badness. Couldn’t afford upsetting those who were watching.
She had to empty her head of the bad vibes. If they bounced around in there too long they could cause considerable harm. Everybody knew bad thoughts were bad for you. It was the kind of common sense the crazy woman derided during her paranoid monologues, the very reason she had been abandoned by the system. Bay had to shake the badness from her body. Had to take a deep breath to detox herself of the negativity.
Bay asked her son, as calmly as possible: “Were you going to share that woman’s picture with your friends or something?”
A crescendo of good vibes came washing over Bay and she was delighted by the approval. Most of the tendrils agreed with her delicate ways. Yet there were still holdouts, in the very back of the vast network of minds, tendrils sent by people halfway across the country. They were people she’d never known and would likely never meet, yet they were watching the scene unfold just the same.
The story was blowing up. She could feel it.
Bay knew she could win over the holdouts by the end of the discussion. She had to. If she didn’t they could cast her from the waters like the crazy woman. Sure, the waters were choppy and exhausting, but she could not imagine life without them. Bay needed them, needed their good vibes, and they needed hers.
Everybody needed somebody. Otherwise they would end up like the crazy lady, dancing and screaming desperately for attention: “WATCH ME DRY-HUMP THIS BANANA IN EXCHANGE FOR MY BAD VIBES! FREE LUNACY FOR ALL YOU EMPATHIC FUCKS TO SOAK UP LIKE THE BRAINLESS SPONGES YOU ARE! COME AND GET IT BEFORE IT’S ALL GONE ON THE CORNER OF 15TH AND JEFFERSON!”
“Honey,” Bay said, prodding her son. “You’re avoiding the question.”
“I tried to share the picture,” he confessed, “but the feed disappeared.”
“That’s because she’s not a good thing to share, honey. The things she’s saying aren’t even legal to share, which is why the system automatically flags them. And that’s why she goes outside to spread her lies and her fear: it’s the only place she has left.”
Half the tendrils were placated for the moment, but the other half agitated the water even harder. Bay wasn’t sure why they were so upset. WHAT HAVE I DONE? she asked them and they laughed at her ignorance while a few promised they would kill her.
MUST NOT LOSE THE GROUP, Bay thought in a panic. HAVE TO TURN THEM BACK TO ME….
Bay shocked herself with the realization that this thought had taken place in the conscious part of her mind, not in the subconscious wings where selfish thoughts were permissible. She felt the backlash in the form of bad vibes, a great deluge of them drowning her with pain and shame and hatred and anger. The fireflies were pressing against the windows then, making room for the dozens of others which had been drawn to her disgrace.
The story had officially gone global. And in that moment she and her son were the most famous people on the planet. In that moment…
OH, PLEASE! she begged. PLEASE DON’T CRUCIFY ME! IT WAS AN ACCIDENT, I SWEAR!
But the anger came hard and the tendrils were almost uniformly maligned against her. The entire world seemed to hate her then.
SHAME ON YOU YOU PATHETIC EXCUSE OF A PARENT! said the tendrils. HOW DARE YOU TALK TO YOUR LITTLE BOY LIKE THAT YOU RAT FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF AN EMPATH YOU STUPID CUNT??!!
As she choked on the shame she glanced at her son in the seat beside her. So peaceful. So innocent. So naive to the badness in the world… naive was better. Naive was good.
Oblivious to what was happening to his mother, the boy had finally begun to control the melting of his cone. His grin was huge as he licked at the ice cream strategically. He was getting the opposite of what Bay was getting at that very moment. There was a kind of economy to the vibes: if you were getting the bad ones, then that only meant someone had to be getting the good ones.
Cowering against the shame, Bay screamed hysterically. Despite the badness, Bay could sense the boy’s polar goodness in the form of great satisfaction: SUCH A GOOD CONE! VANILLA IS MY FAVORITE FLAVOR! The drowning woman reached for the goodness as if it were a lifeline.
I LIKE VANILLA, TOO! she announced desperately. VANILLA IS MY FAVORITE FLAVOR!
Then the swell of anger split again: some of it Pro Vanilla, some of it Team Chocolate. Yet so much of the anger on both sides of the divide was still aimed directly at her.
SHE LIKES VANILLA? OH, I’M SO FUCKING SHOCKED.
I JUST WANT TO STATE FOR THE RECORD THAT NOT ALL VANILLA FANS ARE TOTAL FUCKHEADS.
FUCK YOU, YOU HATEFUL VANILLAMONGER!
FUCK YOU, YOU UNEDUCATED COCK!
The deeper Bay sank, the more the waters calmed. The anger was ripping itself apart as it attacked anything it could: chocolate, vanilla, music, celebrities, and everything in between. It was a snake devouring itself, a trapped animal gnawing off its own foot.
And then, as inexplicably as it all began, it was over. The waters calmed. Bay was forgiven as much as she was forgotten.
So she ate her ice cream, wishing the cops would do something about the crazy woman. The tendrils agreed. All was good again for several seconds.
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