“You,” I say.
All right, I don’t say it. I spell it out on the electronic sign hanging from the overpass as it comes into view.
The target – we’ll call him Bertram – sees the word but it doesn’t really register. As I expected, he’s self-absorbed. That’s what got him on my radar in the first place.
Missions like this can get sensitive, I remind myself. The highway is, as they say in the military, a “target-rich environment.” There are texters and phone users, those ultra-bright headlights, vehicles with unbrushed snow trailing from their roofs, and of course, people like Bertram. I can’t just materialize in his passenger seat. Subtlety is required.
I strobe the words “YES, YOU” on a video billboard over a Happy Holidays ad for a grocery store. It catches Bertram’s eye, and his brow creases. For a few seconds I think this might go easy, that the lesson might be conveyed with a minimum of fuss and I might get some Christmas downtime for once. But Bertram passes the billboard, relaxes, then reaches out and cranks up a pair of afternoon DJs joking about how some actress hasn’t aged well.
Ah, the hell with this. I send my voice into his speakers.
“You. Bertram. In the blue sedan. In the left lane going five miles per hour below the speed limit, ignoring the line of cars behind you flashing their high beams, and the fact that it is called a ‘passing lane’ for a reason. Yes, you.”
He’s panicking now, frantically turning the dial, tapping the screen of his GPS, checking his rear-views, even looking in his glove box. The car starts to swerve. He’s on an elevated stretch of road now, so he’s either going to hit the guardrail and go over, or veer into that SUV. This always happens: I lose my patience and endanger others beside the target. I should know better. Now I have to do a whole production number to rectify this.
I go with the old standby of stopping time. Everything on the highway suddenly freezes, except Bertram. As I prepare to manifest myself I watch him go through the usual stages that come with facing the inexplicable: the confusion that his car has stopped; the peering in all directions and seeing the scene locked in place; the exploratory touching of the glass and doors around him; the realization that he is still moving (always indicated by the target looking at their own hands); an instinctive sense of weird acceptance; trying the door and finding it opens easily; those tentative steps onto the pavement. I give him credit: he got out faster than I guessed he would.
He’s zipping his coat and looking around when I appear about ten feet in front of his car.
“You’re wasting time, you know,” I say, making him jump.
“What…what…what,” he says, staring at me.
“Such a precious thing, time,” I say, gesturing to the motionless traffic. “It’s nice to pause once in a while and savor its beauty.”
Bertram sweeps his gaze back along the highway. He puts a hand to the side of his head and says “This is impossible” with a tone that marks an approaching anger.
Good. I can work with that.
“The manipulation of spacetime,” I say, “is a central theme of Christmas. Well, this whole time of year, actually. The legends and miracles surrounding it are based on bending the laws of physics: lighting candles makes the days grow longer; Santa defies gravity and sidesteps the flow of time to visit every house in one night; the conversion rate of matter to energy shifts so one day’s worth of oil lasts eight; spirits revisit the past and reveal the future; angels transport you to a world where you never existed. It’s not hard. The end of every year is like a little slice of the end of time. Forces collapse and particles decay and the hard definitions of what is possible become a bit more permeable. You just have to know where to push. But let’s talk about you, shall we?”
“Look,” Bertram says, stepping towards his car door, “I need to get home.”
I step in his way and look him up and down. “You really are quite nondescript, aren’t you? No distinguishing features, dressed in muted colors. A pretty clear attempt at averageness.”
“Tell me what this is about,” he demands. “Now.”
“It’s about you, my good man. It’s always about you. As I said, you’re wasting time. Not your own, mind you.”
I put my arm around his shoulder and walk him back to the motionless hatchback scant feet behind his car. I point to the driver, a middle-aged woman with a livid expression on her face.
“She has somewhere to be as well, something to do. It could be last-minute shopping, it could be family time. It doesn’t matter. She is delayed because you are driving irresponsibly slow in the passing lane. And look at the dozens of cars and trucks behind her, the drivers’ faces. They are all being held up. Time wasted. An accumulation of minutes that they could be putting to better use.”
“I’m a safe driver,” he insists, giving me a sidelong glance.
“No, you’re not. You do this every day. Hundreds of cars are affected over the year. Rage and frustration build up in a row behind you like an electrical charge. Hours lost forever. In your lifetime it has added up to years.”
“Who are you?” he asks as he shrugs off my arm. His resentment is obvious now, teased out by my accusation.
“Me? I’m a concept, really. Another Christmas miracle. A quantum spirit, distilled from all that mutable physics I mentioned, given life and form by the season. I used to be like you, though.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Bertram says.
“No, you don’t,” I say as he steps away from me. Then he stops, staggering a little.
“Do you feel that?” I ask, “That’s the sensation of years slipping away from you. Yes, the spreading ache of all these people’s time you wasted being drained out of your life. It’s a bitch, ain’t it?”
Bertram gasps and leans back against the guardrail. His fear is apparent. I walk around his car and open the passenger door.
“But let’s not jump the gun, we’ve so much more to go.”
While he catches his breath I take the time to get the laptop out of his bag on the seat and open it on the trunk.
“It’s an effective system, don’t you think?” I ask. “Me and my kind are drawn to the perturbations of those who lack basic civility, who think the social contract doesn’t apply to them, and use terror to illustrate their shortcomings. It’s a truly time-honored calling.”
“Don’t touch that!” Bertram yells as I boot up the laptop, “That’s private!”
“No. Not private. Just anonymous. Big difference. Besides, isn’t it true that the innocent have nothing to hide?”
“That’s what you vehemently commented a number of times in regards to new laws and procedures that have taken effect. I’ve done my research. You get quite busy when you get online, don’t you? Look at all these posts and emails. Quite audacious for someone so nondescript. I don’t think there’s a subject or trend you haven’t chimed in on. For example, here’s a chatroom for birdwatchers where you wrote ‘what kind of sad retard goes birdwatching?’”
“It’s my opinion,” he says.
“Yes, your opinion, about people you don’t know doing something you can’t understand. How noble of you to share this wisdom with the world. Look, here’s the site of a well-known author, whom you call ‘a talentless hack pandering to the pathetic fantasies of losers.’”
“She is!”
“And I bet if I dig through here I’ll find notes on a story you never got around to writing. Oh, here’s a memorial page dedicated to a woman who died in a skiing accident a few years back. Right here, under the family’s fondest memories of her, just last night, you wrote ‘that’s the price she paid for having an idiotic hobby. She was a waste of space. Merry Christmas.’”
I look up from the screen at Bertram, who stares back silently.
“Waste of space? That’s rather bold for someone who hasn’t made a positive contribution to human discourse. It’s easy to mock someone when you don’t have to look them in the eye, isn’t it? Easy to make claims without proof or validation, easy to condemn behind a user name.” I hold the laptop up. “You’re on this thing for hours a day, not learning or creating or bettering yourself, but forwarding emails outraged at the state of the world, proclaiming that those you don’t like should be marginalized.”
“You don’t know what it’s like!” he yells.
“Let me guess. You spend your time trying to come up with ways to disrupt things around you, just to feel something. You provoke, abuse, stir the pot, anything to get a reaction out of someone else because then, for a few moments, you can believe you somehow matter. It’s always about you, remember?”
The look on his face is priceless.
“Yes, I know what it’s like,” I say, smiling. “Why do you think I ended up with this job?”
With an icy abruptness, all that harnessed, tormented anger surfaces in him.
“You judge me?” he screams “You appear with your magic powers and bring everything to a stop just to tell me that I’m the problem? Why don’t you fix everything else that’s wrong?”
“What, the world not meeting your expectations?” I snap, before he can continue. “Are you put off by people having the gall to disagree with you? Grow up. Why don’t you try actually doing something for once? The worst part is that despite your constant insults and denigration, you consider yourself oppressed. You claim it all drives you to despair. You subject yourself to this endless winter of a life and deem everything else as the source of your misery. You want despair? I’ll give you despair. Let me show you what’s going on right now, this very moment!”
One instant Bertram is staring at me, taken aback by my rage, starting to shake his head.
And the next instant he is—
– a man standing on the back porch of a rehab center, realizing he doesn’t know where his sisters live anymore.
– a girl leaving of an OB/GYN office alone, arms wrapped tight about herself, fighting off tears.
– a couple locking the front door of their shop for the last time.
– a man walking across the upper deck of a mall parking garage, pulling the Santa beard from his face and wondering what the hell he’s going to do now.
– a woman thinking “if only…” and not having the heart to finish the thought.
– a runaway by the docks, remembering the gumbo her dad always made.
– a man signing another check to the advertising agency, ensuring that the billboard offering a reward for his missing son will stay up for another three months.
– a woman driving aimlessly, wishing she hadn't gone to the company holiday party.
– a girl in a wheelchair watching through the window as her friends put the finishing touches on a snowman.
– a man hanging a tattered stocking beneath the urn of his wife’s ashes.
– a woman laying a wreath on her husband’s grave.
– a boy wondering if Mommy will ever get better.
Bertram snaps back with a shudder. I don’t give him a moment before I lean close. “That’s despair, baby. That gnawing void swallowing your capacity for joy. That feeling like barbed wire wrapped around your soul. You dare count yourself among them! They have to struggle at going forward, fraught with the unendurable weight of their burdens. But I’ll tell you a secret, pal: every one of them has something that you don’t. Sometime during this season they are going to smile. It might be a hug from a loved one or a gift from a family member. It could be a raised glass, a stranger’s ‘hello,’ or maybe just a recalled memory. Amidst the lights and the song there will be countless tiny acts of kindness, sweet sparks of love and generosity that they thought they’d never feel again. They will know that while the years ahead may appear dark, that’s just because they are unknown. As laughter tumbles once more into their lives, they’ll realize that no pain can survive the holidays intact when it is happiness itself being celebrated. That’s one immutable constant that cannot be bent or broken.”
Bertram stands shivering in the silent stillness, red eyes cast downward. I take a deep breath, chastising myself for losing my patience again, then step up to him.
“You live in a time when wasting your life is easy. That doesn’t make it right. You want to dismiss yourself from the comedy and drama of being human? Fine. That’s your business.” I point to the line of cars behind him. “Just don’t make the rest of the world wait while you’re doing so.”
I toss his laptop back in the car and gesture for him to get in. He stares at the open door, then down the stretch of highway in front of us. After long moments he looks at me and opens his mouth to speak. I raise my eyebrows. He closes his mouth, blinks a few times, and gets in the car. I bring time up to speed again, slowly, so he can get his wheels straightened out. I step to the guardrail as the noise of the highway increases. Bertram drives away, and within a couple hundred yards he changes lanes. I can feel a quantity of frustration drain from traffic behind him as it rushes past me.
I look up at the sky. The night is young. Maybe I’ll get some downtime after all. I really need to work on my patience.
On the edge of my awareness a new target appears: a woman, prone to unkind gossip and cruel criticism. As her hybrid comes into view a huge mass of snow sails from its roof and bursts into misty whiteness, blinding the drivers in her wake.
Fixing the world, one person at a time.
It never ends.
That’s okay. I’ve got time.

Jeff’s Notes

With the Bad Day Holiday Card turning sweet sixteen this year, this one harkened back to my old formula of taking a few long-percolating ideas and building something out of them in a rush.

The stories from the past two years dealt with being part of something bigger on a vast scale. I consciously decided to dial it back this year, and consider the role we play in the lives of those around us. We all have so many small effects on each other on a daily basis, I thought it might be appropos to draw some poignant magic from them.

However, I was in a foul mood.

I have a long commute to work and back, and I am confronted with left lane slow pokes daily. In my considered opinion they are perhaps the biggest danger on the road. I’m not the only one. Out of all the driver idiocy I’ve seen, this is perhaps the most inexplicable. The level of selective dismissiveness and recklessness it takes to risk yourself, others, and the unwavering pace of the commuter traffic around you was something I wanted to explore. Then one day I chanced across a guy doing 40 in the left lane. When the opportunity arose I passed him on the right. This, of course, led to his reaction of flashing his continuously for the next mile, then tailgating me. Once he realized I was unfazed by this, he drove over half a mile in the breakdown lane just to get ahead of me again so he could attempt signaling me to pull over. Right. No chance he was crazy or anything. At that point I decided that some kind of karmic justice need to be meted out against these cretins, in the most terrifying way possible.

As for the internet, I am of the opinion that discussions on comments boards should have the same rules as discussions in meatspace: If I invite someone to a party, and they immediately start insulting me, my woman, my guests, etc. I will, at best, kick them out or, at worst, savagely beat them. Same rules should apply online. This isn’t censorship, it is responsible moderation. Failure to do so implies apathy or laziness, neither of which is an acceptable defense. I’ve broken ties with a few groups and forums because they cannot be bothered to cull their troll population.

There was an episode of the show Louie this year where Louis CK confronts a heckler and tells her the detrimental effect she has on his performance. When she defends herself by claiming she is a good person, Louie unequivocally tells her “No, you’re not,” and explains that a good person would not behave the way she did. It was my favorite moment on TV this year. Christmas stories seem to hinge on goodness being rewarded (at least many of mine have!) I decided that in this year’s card, naughtiness needed to be punished.

There was obviously a lot of Dickens going through my head. The trope of gaining empathy with those who have it rough was pronounced this year. There is a rehab center and an OB/GYN office within a mile of where I live, and I pass both daily on the way to work. Seeing the people coming in and out and trying to guess their stories can be interesting. When I took the train to work I was often confronted with faces that belied some great burden or pain. This all had a very potent effect on me. Any apprehension I had about doing a psychological horror story for a holiday card, was nixed by the idea of balancing it with empathy.

After the extreme photoshoppery of last year I decided I wanted some actual pencils in this year's illustration. Also unlike last year, I whipped this up in one day. The narrator's Scrooge-like visage didn't become apparent to me until late into the drawing, but it adds a level to the story I hadn't thought of. The shot of the car was a combination of stock photos, Google Sketchup, and digital illustration, all mounted over Freddie Williams wonderful perspective path.
The layout was inspired by the old A&P advertisements by McClelland Barclay that were featured in Illustration magazine. I found all that white space compelling. I loved how he always had his women in solid, flat colors. A promotional poster for James Gurney's Color & Light which was included in an issue of ImagineFX was referenced a few times. A few of the specialized brushes from the free discs that come with ImagineFX were also utilized.

Strangely enough, the highlights in the eyes were probably the bit I redid the most. A talk with John Picacio at Boskone about pupil and highlight size had me really analyzing that one little detail.

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