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NYC Midnight Challenge 2020 1st Round Winner
TRUST FALL, by Christy Swift
The pod shimmied, and Max grabbed the corners of the desk and held on tight. The red and blue pens rolled off and hit the thinly carpeted floor. The pod heaved again, and the black pen fell, too.
He lay his cheek against the smooth, cool surface of the desk and whispered, “this is exciting,” hoping to trick his heart, which was currently running in circles, screaming. He sniffed the ylang ylang and citrus essential oils on his lava rock bracelet.
This was always the worst part of these conventions.
The corrugated aluminum walls of the pod were thin, and Max could hear muffled voices outside, masculine laughter, then a woman’s sharp words. “Watch it, that’s a person inside, not an orangutan!” More deep muffles and then her voice again. “You’re orangutans. Both of you! Actually, you’re not evolved enough to be orangutans! You’re… marmosets!”
The pod was still now, and after a minute or so had passed, Max accepted that it was going to stay that way. He lifted his head.
The pens lay together in a clump like survivors, hung up on a wrinkle in the commercial-grade carpet. Even though the pod had been installed as an add-on to his home years ago, it was little details like this that reminded Max that he was not, in fact, home.
“I am safe. I am safe,” he mumbled to himself. No, “safe” wasn’t a strong enough word. “I am a warrior. I am… Jason Momoa!”
That felt better. Slightly.
He settled the camera upright in its spot on the desk, the eye looking down at the desktop. Then he reached down for the pens and lined them up on the desk just so. With one sock-clad foot he stamped out the wrinkles in the carpet.
The same female voice was speaking to him through the access slot. He turned the camera on, a black and white picture flickering to life on the monitor in front of the desk. He could see her now, an extreme close-up of her nose and cheek as she attempted to peer into the slot’s opening.
Maybe if he ignored her, she would go away.
But she didn’t go away. In fact, three fingers shoved into the slot as she pressed her mouth near (too near!) the slot’s opening.
Max made an unhappy, gargly noise and yelled, “No fingers! No fingers!” He scrambled to the far corner of the pod where the cleaning supplies lived in a firmly-closing drawer and pulled out the can of Lysol. He sprayed the slot with three generous passes. From the other side, he heard coughing and spluttering.
“What the heck? What was that? Pepper spray?”
“Don’t touch the slot!” he yelled through the hole. “Who are you?”
The spluttering stopped. “I’m Norah. They sent me to set up your booth. That was Lysol, wasn’t it? Gah!” She hacked some more. “Next time give people some warning before you crop dust them with Lysol.”
Max adjusted the camera eye so he could get a better look at her. The monitor was black and white because looking at the world in color was too much. She had on a dark T-shirt with bright lettering that read BOREDY BOARD GAMEFEST 2020, a cotton-looking knee-length skirt and slouchy, lacy leggings. Her hair was a mix of straight and wavy and was short enough that she had to tuck it repeatedly behind one ear or the other when she bent forward.
Here is something he noticed: she was about his age, and she was pretty.
Here is something else he noticed: his heart rate was declining from Nascar to Audubon.
“Why don’t you give me the tour, Norah?” Max said. He glanced at the wall where his daily affirmation was mounted on copy paper with double-sided tape.
I can do this!
He mouthed the words silently. Then, frowning, he picked up the blue pen and added a carat between “can” and “do” and wrote “so” in capital letters with five exclamation points.
I can SO!!!!! do this!
He replaced the blue pen and adjusted all three so their caps were facing the same way and their heights matched up.
Why had he even brought the other pens? Blue was his favorite. Blue was calming.
“Okay, Mr. Partee.”
“You can call me Max,” Max said, feeling additionally magnanimous. He could already tell from the camera feed that she had done her best to follow his instructions. The signage was placed appropriately, featuring his new board game, Overlords. A copy of the game itself was set up on a table that Norah began to slowly drag over to the pod as she chattered. Max’s eye fell to his own copy, still in its box on the floor next to the desk. He would set his copy up in precisely the same fashion, and then he could play Overlords with his fans, as he’d been contracted to, without ever having to come out of the pod.
“Does it look okay?” Norah asked. “Do you want me to change anything?”
Here is what Max Partee thought: The banner is hanging too low on the left side. The table needs to move a quarter inch to your left. There is a nasty old piece of tape from a previous convention on the floor at two o’clock. We need two more LED bulbs’ worth of light.
Here is what Max Partee said: “It looks fine.”
As long as he only had to look at the offenses in black and white, he could handle them. Plus, he didn’t want to make Norah feel bad. He liked her singsongy voice, her small mouth and her purposeful walk. Her fingers, he’d noticed before he’d sprayed them, had blue nailpolish on them.
He picked up the blue pen and scribbled a second affirmation underneath the first one.
I am AMAZING!
Then he crossed out AMAZING! and wrote THE FREAKING BEST EVER!!! Then he crossed out THE FREAKING BEST EVER!!! and wrote JASON MOMOA!
He replaced the blue pen and adjusted all three so their caps were facing the same way and their heights matched up.
Max looked at his watch. It was seven thirteen. The convention started at eight. “You can go now,” he said to Norah. “I’ve got it from here.”
“Oh,” she said, but she didn’t go. She stood in front of the camera in her slouchy, lacy leggings. She tugged at a lock of hair and slid it behind her ear in a way that made his stomach feel funny. “I could stay if you want. I could call people over and explain how the pod works.”
Here is what Max Partee thought: He had done many of these conventions. He didn’t need anybody to draw people to his booth or to explain about his pod. Everybody in the board game community knew him.
Here is what Max Partee said: “All right.”
Then Norah asked, “Can you point the camera at yourself? So I can see what you look like?”
Max Partee said, “All right.”
Using his phone as a mirror, he raked his fingers through his hair. He pushed out his chest and sucked in his stomach so hard he got a little bit of heartburn. He pointed the camera at himself and did his best version of a smolder. On the feed, Norah studied him in a neutral way. “Thanks,” she said. He relaxed and replaced the camera, just so, back into its spot. He lined up the pens again even though they hadn’t moved.
They didn’t talk for a long while after that. Norah sat in the chair in front of the board game. Max did ask her to move the table a quarter of an inch to her left. Max’s camera could not see beyond the edges of his booth, but once in awhile it caught sight of someone walking past the banners, and Max got a woozy, swimming feeling in his head.
“I hate this,” he said out loud without meaning to.
Norah said, “Do you want to come out of there?” She didn’t say it gingerly, like a lot of people when they talked to Max about his fears and phobias. She said it like it was possible.
Max, misunderstanding her, said, “Yes.”
“I’ll be back,” Norah said, and she disappeared from view.
Max set up the board game while he waited for her to come back. She was gone for a long time, longer than it took to go to the bathroom or get a cup of coffee. “Where did you go?” Max asked, when her gray form materialized again on his viewscreen. He tried not to sound annoyed or alarmed or anxious, even though he was all three of those things. While she was gone he had run a total of twenty-five scenarios through his head of what she had been doing, and all of them ended with her dying a horrible death.
Silly, he knew. Irrational. But Max had long since stopped punishing himself for being silly and irrational.
“I let the organizers know that you were coming out of the pod today.”
Clanging bells went off in Max’s mind palace. Then the bells sprouted arms, picked up ice picks and began slashing the walls. His hands and feet started tingling. He had a cardiac event that wasn’t a heart attack but felt like one.
Quickly, Max identified three things he could hear and three things he could smell. He tried therapeutic tapping. He turned on an audio clip of whale songs and moaned along. He gave his inner child a hug. Finally, he was able to yell at her. “Why would you do that?”
Her voice was confused. “Because you said…”
“I meant I would like to come out of here, not that I wanted to! Wanting is for hamburgers or nail clippers or… kissing!”
Here is a word Max did not expect to say in front of Norah, let alone to her: kissing.
“It’ll be okay,” Norah said. “I have a plan. There are some cubicle walls that nobody’s using and a lot of this black material. I was going to make you a little space so you could play with your fans one at a time, but not out in the open. Private-like.”
Max had heard the phrase “mind blown,” but he’d never really understood it until now.
“That’s not happening.”
“Okay, fine,” Norah replied. She sat down in the chair again and swung her legs. “I’ll do it for you.”
Max’s mouth released a supernova of unintelligible words that Norah took to mean “What?”
“I told the organizers you were coming out to play Overlords in person with your fans, and now that’s what they’re expecting. So if you aren’t going to do it, I’ll have to do it for you. You’ll have to teach me your new game.”
“That’s unacceptable!” Max shouted, his mouth way (way!) too close to the slot.
“Well,” Norah said calmly, “then maybe you should come out and do it yourself. I’m going to move the stuff I need over here before somebody else takes it.”
Max’s watch read 7:36. His heart danced like a hummingbird’s wings. He paced inside the pod. He cursed. He did the hero pose. He threw imaginary punches at the anxiety. He laid on the floor and cried a little. The pod moved a tiny bit as Norah bumped the door– the same door that, on a normal day, when he wasn’t at a convention, would lead into his cozy living room.
“Okay,” Norah said. “It’s all ready. Teach me the game. You have, oh, half an hour.”
Max jumped up and yelled through the slot again. “You can’t master Overlords in half an hour! It’s a three-hour game! With… strategy! And… lots of little cubes!”
She shrugged. “Your fans are expecting to meet you, face to face, and play this game with you. It’s already all over Twitter. So if you’re not going to come out here and be Max Partee, I will.”
Max took two swigs of CBD oil and flapped around the pod like a pelican in a styrofoam cooler. “You’re not even a dude! Everyone knows Max Partee is a dude!”
Did they? He’d never made a professional appearance.
Oh God, this was terrible! She was going to impersonate him. He would look like he couldn’t even play his own game. He was helpless. Again, he lied to his rabbit heart, this is exciting, this is exciting…
“Why are you doing this?” he asked her.
“Do you think I want to do this?” Norah’s voice came through the slot sounding miffed. “I’m a game designer, too, you know. I’m new at it, and I didn’t even want to come to this convention because I thought people might make fun of me and my ideas. But I got this offer to volunteer today, and I was going to say no, and then I thought about the trust falls I used to do when I was a kid. Did you ever do trust falls, Max?”
Max was lying on the floor, nose buried in his knees, smelling the chemical smell of the commercial-grade carpet. He didn’t say so, but he did remember trust falls.
“You shouted ‘trust fall!’ and you just fell backwards,” Norah went on in her lullaby voice. “And you expected one of your friends to be there to catch you. Most of the time they were.”
“But not all of the time,” Max whimpered.
Norah’s voice was thoughtful. “No, not all of the time. But even if they didn’t catch you, you didn’t die.”
Here is something Max wanted: to die at this moment.
Here is something Max didn’t want: to die at this moment.
“So, I decided to do a mental trust fall. That’s how I got to the convention. That’s how I got to meet my hero Max Partee– the best game designer in the world. And not bad-looking, either– kind of with a Jason Momoa vibe, but not trying so hard like Jason– and it’s been the best day of my life. So maybe you could try that. A mental trust fall.”
Norah’s fingers came fluttering through the access slot again, their blue tips beckoning. Max was surprised to find himself crawling over to the slot. He peeked through. Around the fingers he saw one infinitely hazel eye and one lock of wavy (blue!) hair. Max felt like his whole body was vibrating with something that might have been anxiety or might have been actual excitement. It might have even been something else entirely.
Whatever it was, it was too big a job for Lysol.
Here is something that happened that Max Partee didn’t see coming: he touched a girl’s fingers.
Here is something else that happened that Max Partee didn’t see coming: he opened the door.