I was in my campus office grading a stack of exploratory research papers when the first bubble I ever saw in person drifted down the narrow hallway past my open door. My office walls were bunker bricks painted white—a secure area in case of an emergency. I had situated my dented oak desk to face the threshold, hoping to be more approachable, nestled back in an inviting cove of saggy bookshelves and gray file cabinets, the vintage avocado mini fridge in the corner crammed with my sack lunch and colorful cans of flavored sparkling water for guests. A framed poster of Paul Newman lying across a pool table with a book in his hand—part of an old American Library Association READ campaign—was taped in the corner. Welcome! I wanted my office to say. We can talk! This is a safe space!
The texture of the bubble was not what I expected. Neither glassy nor soapy, it was more like a clear coat of glue floating along, but it never stuck to anything. In size, the bubble was perhaps as big as the kind of puny electric car you can wedge into half a parking spot. After the bubble glided past, I rose and walked to the door to expand my view. The sun was at my favorite point of the afternoon. The rays prodded through the row of windows on the far side of Walton Hall, brightening the whole second floor. Campus buildings can be so dreary. Students attempted to move out of the bubble’s path, but it didn’t matter. It passed right through them, as if they were ghosts, or as if it was a ghost—I’ve never been certain. A young woman at the end of the hall began screaming. In her white Chucks and distressed jeans and red t-shirt with the university’s shrieking mascot across the front, black hair in a tidy ponytail, she collapsed to the ground. At the time, I wondered how she knew the bubble was specifically coming for her.
The orb briefly caved before it enveloped her body, and we watched, dumbfounded, as she drifted back down the hall trapped inside its center. The other students wedged against the walls, most in tears, a communal panic attack. One brave boy attempted to lunge at the bubble, but now it was solid, and he couldn’t get a grip on its round surface. The girl pounded on the diaphanous interior, but the bubble didn’t budge. It didn’t stretch. Her punches didn’t thump or echo. She could not escape. The bubble exited the open double doors out of Walton Hall’s grand entrance and floated above the long expanse of shallow concrete steps.
I forgot to lock my office and followed her outside. It was a sun-soaked afternoon—spring had arrived. Students were everywhere, congregating in little circles on their smartphones and scarfing hot dogs on benches emblazoned with the names of dead faculty and hurrying from place to place on every imaginable manner of scooter and skateboard and bicycle. A football wobbled down the middle of the road, forgotten. The bubble floated upward and away. We didn’t know where it was going, only that we would never see the girl again. It was terrifying. When I returned to my office, my laptop and lunch were gone.
My phone dinged with an emergency alert from the university. A moment later, it dinged a second time. An email from the dean—mandatory emergency faculty meeting that afternoon. More bubbles should be expected, she said. They could show up wherever, anyplace. We needed to remain vigilant. Training was essential. A committee was to be formed. There were protocols to put in place. Again, the phone dinged, following the old rule of three. A personal message from the dean to me. As one of the more junior faculty members, she thought I would be a perfect fit to sit on the committee. My stomach squelched. My hunger dissipated. So much for lunch, I thought. I gently closed the door.
This is embarrassing to write, because I recognize the cliché more than most, but I teach creative writing and literature. I’ve been at the university for four years, building my portfolio for tenure. My publication record would have been outstanding thirty years ago. Today, I’m a blip, underperforming, playing second fiddle to the graduate students in the department. In the fall, I watched in awe as one of my students posted screenshots on Instagram of micro fiction composed in the notes app on his iPhone, deleted the post five minutes later at the behest of a respected editor, and had the piece accepted by a nationally renowned literary journal within the two-hour span of our workshop. It was a system unfamiliar to me. I didn’t understand how to break through. There’s not much to do, I thought, but keep pushing forward. Nonetheless, I can feel your groans, your heads lolling back in anguish—another fucking story about a failing writer. We get it already. The artist’s road is difficult. But I promise, this is nothing more than brief context. What’s important here are the bubbles and who controls them.
I attended the faculty meeting, graded more papers, stopped off at the bar, and returned to my empty apartment. I turned on the evening news, which I watch incessantly. I’ve always been a sucker for the portentous coincidences of television reportage. It’s so easy to tie the world’s events into our individual situations. The bubble story was on every local station. Cue the boilerplate montage of flickering tealights, sobbing students, an empty verdant field surrounded by ivy-covered buildings. A sunset memorial was to be held in the quad the next day. The bubbles popped up elsewhere all the time, but I was naïve enough to think they’d never happen here. They were distant, intangible, abstract.
My phone buzzed and Sheila’s name glowed across the home screen. I picked up without saying anything.
“Are you watching?” Sheila asked, knowing my habits too well.
“The drone footage is eerie,” I said.
“You should come over.”
I tried to make a fast excuse. “I have a date later.”
“I am most certain you’re in your ugly flannel pajamas at this hour.”
“No, I’m serious.” I rubbed my hand on the soft plaid stretched across my thigh.
“One of my graduate students.”
“Now I know you’re fucking with me,” she laughed. “Even if it wasn’t unethical, you would never, just to avoid the platitude.”
“Ha ha,” I said, hoping my desperate need for comfort and support wasn’t apparent on the other end of the line. It had been a tiring and horrible day, but Sheila’s voice soothed me.
Long since tenured, Sheila joined the English Department a decade before I was hired. Even when I first arrived, she was a writer of international renown: splashy book deals, substantial monetary awards, a summer conference circuit—the dream. During my first year on faculty, her mentorship naturally burgeoned into mutual affection, then progressed into something more amorous and complicated, yada yada yada. I would always put things on hold after a few months, but we predictably backslid in the late inebriated hours after every department Christmas party and bacchanalian orientation for the new MFA students. In those days, when all my free time was spent puttering around my undusted, austere apartment, I thought my most notable contribution to the literary canon would be as a footnote in Sheila’s tell-all memoir or a thinly veiled short story. Even behind an alias, some smart reader would burst forth with recognition—Yes! That’s Dr. Oscar Kazarian.
I sighed, “I’m not changing out of my pajamas.”
“Who says you have to?”
Three days later, five more bubbles. A handful of different campuses, different states, far across the country. On the television, half the politicians bellowed for change. The other half were more hesitant. Let’s not be drastic, they said. Maybe these bubbles can also be used for good. I was in the middle of reading an insensitive, egoistic op-ed penned by the Chair of our English Department in a nationally distributed newspaper, when the dean sent yet another email suggesting our enrollment numbers were expected to plummet now that there had been an incident on campus. Budget cuts were imminent. Another email (they never stop!) solely to me. The dean wrote, Please, let us know how we can help you. I’m so sorry you had to witness the bubble. We can put your tenure clock on temporary hold if you need time to process.
By the time I finished the op-ed, my stomach felt full of shale. I opened a lime La Croix from my mini-fridge and tried to calm down. Walton Hall was a ghost town, classes canceled for the remainder of the week. I had slept at Sheila’s for three consecutive nights and had no plans of stopping. Red or white, I texted her, both of us knowing I would pick up an overpriced bottle of wine on the way over. I wanted to ask about her day’s writing production but knew better. Whenever we used to lay in bed together, she would ask me what I’d been working on, even though she would clam up when I flipped the question back at her. We both understood the value system of our artistic relationship. I could speak freely about my work. Any advice or guidance she offered me equaled practiced wisdom. I had not yet earned my place to critique her. At least, that’s how I imagined it. I’m certain she would disagree.
Coconut curry ramen, Sheila responded. This too was a test, whether or not I selected the appropriate wine to pair with the meal. I considered buying a local beer instead. An IPA or Belgian blond. I killed another hour in the office, gawking at the barren stretch of hall outside my door while I tinkered with punctuation in a short story that had been rejected from a dozen magazines. As I was the sole person around, the second floor was silent, and I kid you not the pulsatile, high-pitched ringing in my ears grew in volume until I was convinced I heard a dog barking in the distance.
Outside, a truck backfired. I flinched. I wasn’t sure whether to be more terrified of the bubbles or firearms. The latter was quotidian and unavoidable; the former, somehow more disturbing and unknown.
That evening in bed, a sink full of dirty dishes and half-finished glasses of wine abandoned, Sheila tweaked my nipple while elevated atop me. I yelped.
“Don’t get all squirrely this time,” she said.
A conversation expected, foreseeable, like a routine bank notice arriving in the mail months after switching to paperless. Sheila never understood why I thought there was a problem with our relationship. We were both faculty after all. There was an age difference, sure, but nothing that would cause pause. Nine years. I guess I was aloof.
“Sheila.” I winced. My nipple ached. She tenderly rubbed my chest. “Why do you want to be with a hack like me anyway?”
“Don’t do that.” She bopped my forehead. “You’re too far along in this game not to know half of it’s random and the other half is rigged. Your moment will come.”
“And what if it doesn’t?”
“It will only affect our relationship if you allow it to.”
“You mean if I get jealous? Envious? Moody? All of the writerly emotions we constantly feel when we’re not on top.”
Sheila laughed and buried her head in my chest. She couldn’t stop. Her whole body shook. I don’t know how to properly explain the pleasure I felt, her laugh somehow more exciting than anything else I had experienced in the bedroom. It took all of my concentration to hold myself together.
“See—” She kissed me. “I’d be on my fourth or fifth draft before I thought of that.”
“All I have going for me is cheap humor.”
She sighed affectionately, “You’re worried this whole thing is a cliché, aren’t you?”
I grimaced. She was right. For years, I avoided my inescapable love for Sheila because it felt so uninspired on paper. The optics of our relationship had been on my mind since we first got together. Struggling junior faculty hops in bed with revered, distinguished professor to help his career. Our peers would see us holding hands at conferences and think: Why him? She could do so much better. And I had heard the rumors, the gossip that throughout her career Sheila had declined the marginalia affections of legendary editors and ignored heart-struck odes from Pulitzer winners and MacArthur geniuses and opted out on invites to join the globetrotting superyacht escapades of handsome movie stars leading in film adaptations of her novels. Why settle for me? Yet, I wanted to make her laugh again, for us both to feel that burst of joy through our bodies.
“You’re off in space,” she said, pushing herself upright again, in full control of the situation. “You know how things become cliché, right?”
“Because they work. They get recycled over and over. We continue to fall for them. There’s truth to them. Infinite ways to make them new.”
“How is it you can make even such a calculable moment feel profound?”
“I’m not going to minimize my accomplishments to make you feel better, Os. I have worked incredibly hard. But everything I’ve ever produced is as full of platitudes and formulas as anyone else’s work. Maybe that’s part of why I’m successful. I’ve never claimed to be original. Besides, originality can only do so much to save you from your worst habits on the page. Why worry about what’s out of your control? But you and me? We’re Freytag’s triangle, you dummy.”
“And where are we at in the pyramid now?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked. She paused for dramatic affect. “The climax.”
The following week, one of my students submitted a disturbing story for workshop about a famous writer at a major university being carried away by a bubble. The resemblance to Sheila and our campus nauseated me. Most troubling, the details were stunning and believable. It was as if the student understood exactly how the bubbles worked and where they came from. Eerily mimetic, devoid of societal critique or personal guilt, not quite a manifesto. A psychopath’s studied, clear-minded fantasy.
I emailed everyone in the class except the writer and asked them not to read the story, electing to cancel workshop for the week. I suggested we could all use a mental health break. I also sent a private message to the writer, Benjamin (a pseudonym, of course, though I imagine you could Google his real name), separately, and asked to see him in my office. Following new protocol, I filled out an official form for HR and sent a prompt missive to the dean describing the situation.
An hour later, Benjamin arrived at my door. He was tall and pale and thin with a fresh buzzcut. His eyes were flush and sunken, like he’d consumed nothing but coffee for days. An unironed blue and white gingham dress shirt draped over a pair of dark jeans. A charcoal gray wool cardigan, much too thick for the weather, rested in the crook of his arm. His forehead was glacial with sweat. I knew Sheila was on Benjamin’s thesis committee.
“You wanted to talk,” he said.
“Do you want a drink,” I asked. “Soda? Water?”
I slid my bottom desk drawer open and unveiled a bottle of Blanton’s I usually reserved for publication news. Benjamin was in his second year in the MFA program. I couldn’t calculate a situation in which he was underage. I splashed drams of whiskey into two discolored coffee mugs. From an HR standpoint, it was a murky decision, but I needed some extra gumption to make it through our conversation.
“Tell me,” I began, “how are you thinking about this story?”
“I know it can be triggering,” Benjamin said, “but I’m writing what I know. This is what happens these days. I wanted to tell a story that deals with the fear we face every time we step on campus.”
“Your rendering of the bubbles feels particularly . . . well-informed?”
“Research.” Benjamin smiled. “It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.”
I thought of a recent novel I loved where the characters 3-D printed a functional plastic handgun with information gathered online. Could Benjamin know how to make the bubbles? For nearly a year, online conspiracies abounded that the bubbles were the result of extraterrestrials or cursed spirits or some foreign government technology gone awry, but it occurred to me now that they were likely nothing more than the invention of a pack of lonely, violent men sharing information on the dark web. A new type of terrorism. It all suddenly felt inexorably human.
I tried to remember the mandatory simulation training I took in the fall that walked us through how to recommend a student visit the counseling center. “Since everything happened, have you talked to anyone?”
“You mean since Melanie floated away?”
I struggled to say her name. I had read and heard it countless times in the news. The vision of her screaming and disappearing replayed over and over in my head. My hands juddered. “Did you know her?”
“We dated a couple times.”
My head buzzed. Writers are incessantly lauded for their prescience, but really, we just see patterns and steal. We’re thieves through and through. How had I not connected the dots? I worried Sheila was in real danger.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay.” He grinned, reminiscent. “It didn’t last long. She thought I was creepy.”
I downed the last of my whiskey. I wasn’t trained to deal with this sort of thing. I wanted confrontation, some rash action alarming enough to report, but I didn’t know how to raise it out of him.
“I’m sorry to say we won’t be workshopping your story.”
In a flash, I saw Benjamin lose and collect his temper, that trick of the night where from the right angle a satellite nearly resembles a star. “Forgive me, but don’t you think that’s censorship?”
“People are still grieving.”
“Haven’t you considered this might be part of my grieving process?”
I rubbed my hands over my eyes. “Is there something you want to tell me, Benjamin?”
“No, Dr. Kazarian. I’m only trying to understand the fuss. It’s just fiction, after all.”
After Benjamin left, and against my better judgment, I emailed the story to Sheila. She had a right to know. I pretended to work for another hour and paced my office for a few minutes before calling it a day. Sheila never responded to my note. I arrived at her house much earlier than usual. Curled in a ball on the couch, she was tucked under a quilt with a glass of red wine. An old Gus Van Sant movie was muted on the television.
“Should you be watching this?”
She smiled. “Catharsis.”
I sat down and she dropped her head in my lap. I took her glass and set it atop a marble coaster on the coffee table. In Benjamin’s story, the bubble didn’t come for Sheila on campus. The bubble arrived at her front door and made its way inside while she was enjoying dinner with her lover, a character who obviously resembled me.
I decided we shouldn’t cook and suggested going out to a new sushi restaurant downtown. With some persuasion, Sheila agreed. Neither of us were hungry. We were waiting for Benjamin’s fiction to become a reality. We sat in a miasma of inevitability.
“Another new normal,” I reflected, “another existential threat.”
“There’s always something.”
I didn’t understand her easy dismissal. I waited for more animated panic. I asked, “How are you so calm right now?”
“Forgive the craft lecture, Dr. Kazarian, but, bubble or no bubble, the possibility of death is a ubiquitous source of chronic tension.”
Even in moments of duress, Sheila couldn’t help but goad me about my PhD. I deferentially kissed her. We finished the movie. By habit, I turned on the evening news.
Before either of us had fully registered the channel change, we were exposed to footage of Benjamin being dragged from his university apartment in handcuffs. That morning, his roommate reported a pattern of suspicious behavior to the authorities, enough to obtain a warrant. In Benjamin’s bedroom, they found a closet full of bizarre equipment, a computer loaded with PDF blueprints and an extensive web history related to the bubbles. The FBI had apparently been involved for a long time, but I wasn’t sure why they didn’t act faster on something I figured out in an afternoon. The broadcast didn’t offer much information—everything was classified.
Sheila leaned into my chest. We held one another for a long time while the news shifted to the weather report, a commercial break, and back to sports. After we sat for a while, she laughed again.
“Nothing,” Sheila said, “just promise me you won’t chicken out this time.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Sheila couldn’t stop laughing. “You don’t get many of these in life you know.”
“You mean second chances?” I asked. Her fingers zipped up and down my spine. “Please don’t say you mean happy endings.”
“Well,” Sheila sighed, “I was going to say denouements. You’re a writer, Oscar. Some precision please.”
“I’ve never really felt any loyalty toward dramatic structure.”
Sheila kissed me hard. I thought about making a climax joke and how trite it would be to scamper off to the bedroom hand in hand, but that sense of predictability didn’t bother me anymore. There was nothing original about our happiness. Sheila and I were like so many others, trying to find love amid the unending tragedies of life. Everyone understood the feeling at heart, even if it was all too scarce and difficult to find in the tumultuous realities of our experience. I shifted my weight to rise from the couch, but Sheila beat me to it. She grabbed my hand, and we smiled at one another as she led me along. I didn’t care whether she was guiding me to our bed or to a fire-lit cave in the mountains. An understanding passed between the two of us. We didn’t need to make it new. For a while, at least, we were safe. The end is the beginning, the beginning is the end.
Rumpus original artwork by Ciera Dudley