Bourbon Penn 1


by Joseph Auslander Jr.

Thomas woke on Sunday to find he was still in the cylinder. After two days inside it, he had decided that this was either an inane virtual reality experiment or... well he wasn’t sure what the other option was; beyond that the possibilities became superstitious, leaning towards terrifying. As far as he could tell, outside the cylinder was his bedroom and beyond that, he guessed the rest of the connected world lay in wait.

Inside his cylinder was a stretched projection of his bedroom ceiling. As he moved his head from side to side, the view of the ceiling, and ultimately his room, changed with the angle of his head inside. As he lay in the cylinder, he knew he lay outside of it as well. Over the last few days, he had come to accept that there were two of him now; one version interacted on his behalf with the outside world, but the other, his inside self, seemed to be the aspect in control.

Sprawled out, he wiggled his toes, his outside self in his bed, his inside-self straining to touch the walls of the round chamber. Without another object in the cylinder for reference, Thomas found it hard to guess if the walls had been expanding away from him, or if he had begun shrinking within them. Which ever it was, he knew that two days ago the smooth, concave surface of the walls had been a cramped fit.

At first, sensations from outside the cylinder had made their way to him through contact with the walls and in their own muted timbre, allowed him to feel connected. Now, with the walls out of reach, the concept of feeling anything in the outside world seemed as foreign as the surface that enclosed him.

Thomas raised his left arm to look at the time. A large image of his silver, Swiss Army wristwatch filled the view inside the drum. It was seven AM, exactly. Thomas sighed.

He decided he should get up, and as he did so, the view of the ceiling tilted forward, revealing the white, particleboard bookshelf just past the foot of his bed. Next to it were cream curtains smothering the morning light, spools of wire with a cricket bat on top, and his outside-legs in the foreground under the green duvet. The whole scene bent inward with the curvature of the cylinder.

He turned his outside-head left and there was Eva, bunched up under the covers trying to keep warm. Inside, Thomas held his hand out towards the walls, and the temperature dropped slightly as his hand neared the border. If the outside was cooling the air inside the cylinder, then it was probably near-freezing. He brought his hand back to his side, and the cool mist at the edge dropped away as well.

The outside-Thomas got out from under the covers and placed his bare feet on the hardwood below. Inside, Thomas observed the walls of the cylinder of the outside-him looking down at his feet. Every morning before the day he’d found himself in the cylinder, he would run for his slippers to fight off the chilled floor. Now that impulse was a memory. In the center of his mysterious prison, his body’s outside complaints and pains couldn’t reach him, not even through the soles of his feet.

The whining of his mattress springs as they re-expanded broke the quiet of the morning. Eva stirred and pulled the covers over her head as a last-ditch effort to hold off consciousness.

Thomas tiptoed to the foot of the bed and tried again to make sense of his situation. Inside, no matter which way he turned to walk, he always remained in the center of the cylinder. To test the circumference once more, he sprawled out on the floor.

He found that the best way to come to terms with the floor inside was to use the term “less than solid but more than there”. He didn’t connect with the surface at the bottom any more than he did with the surface at the top. It was as if gravity pulled him in two directions equally and simultaneously. There was no solid plane, but there was no lack of support either. He wasn’t floating; he was simply existing between the floor and the ceiling, if they could be called that.

Laid out, Thomas stretched himself, pointing his toes and raising his hands above his head. At full length, the tips of his digits were centimeters from the wall’s surface. He could feel the hint of cool radiation from the outside making its way through the wall and quickly fading away a hand’s length from the edge. His hands and feet felt nipped by frigid air, but as his observation turned towards his center, it became neutral again.

On the outside of the container, he was stretched out only wearing his boxer briefs, on the wood floor. He knew his back must have been losing its heat to the icy floor as he felt his outside-limbs grow goose pimples and start to shiver, though he could not sense the cold directly.

Thomas stood up inside of the cylinder. Perhaps, he thought, if he leaned forward and pushed his hips back, he could force the center of the cylinder to bring the wall to his hands. Whatever force guiding the cylinder seemed to know better and shifted the center to between his fingertips and his rear. When he tried to kick back his right leg, the cylinder adjusted itself once again, and the walls remained out of reach.

“What are you doing?” Eva mumbled from the bed.

Thomas looked over at the wall of the cylinder that faced his bed and saw Eva sitting up with the covers wrapped around her. Only her head was exposed.

“Just thought I’d stretch a bit.” Thomas lied.

He knew from experience that she couldn’t see him in the cylinder. As far as he could tell, Eva and everyone else in the world saw Thomas as a complete and normal-looking human being.

“Aren’t your muscles supposed to be warm when you stretch?” Eva asked as she tightened her grip on the covers, “You must be freezing.”

Through the cylinder, her voice sounded muffled, as if she was talking to him through a thin, plaster wall. Thomas noticed his outside-view was still shaking slightly.

Goose pimples littered the pale skin on his legs as he looked down. He stood up straight and felt the relief of neutrality again, ignoring the thought that the morning temperature was tormenting his outside-body.

“Yeah, a bit” he lied.

• • •

Thomas had asked Eva to drive on their way to meet their friends for lunch. Despite not caring too much about the consequences, Thomas suspected that he probably should not operate heavy machinery in his condition. Eva agreed, having noticed at breakfast that he was not “all there,” as she put it.

It was a nice day, excepting the temperature. The sky was clear, and the sun was bright over the green hills of Wellington. Houses littered the mountainsides like white mushrooms in thick moss, and bits of mist from the morning clung to the shadows in the valleys.

“Nothing beats Wellington on good day, huh?” Eva said.

To Thomas, the morning affected him about as much as looking at a nice postcard. He could see the landscape stretched out over the inner walls of his container, but he didn’t feel like it applied to his world. At best, he thought it would have been nice to wrap it up and send it to one of his friends, to someone who would be able to appreciate it.

“Yup,” Thomas responded.

Not liking his answer, Eva dug. “Are you feeling okay? You’re not still mad about Josh’s party, are you?”

Thomas tried to think back to last Thursday. An image of the party appeared for a second inside the cylinder and then disappeared. He had had a bit too much to drink so Eva had taken him home early. He hadn’t remembered a whole lot from the party. The following day, however, he had found himself tightly packed into what was then more of a pipe than a chamber.

“I’m not mad about anything.” Thomas told the truth.

“Are you sure?” Eva reached over and stroked the back of his head.

The outside Thomas pulled away from her hand and scowled. Inside, Thomas found it curious, as he hadn’t asked his outside-self to react like that. It must have been a reflex.

The car began slowing down. Eva pulled into the first open parking spot she could find on the side of the road. Thomas looked at her loosely knit, navy-blue cardigan. It opened up in the front with three large, white buttons. Eva had been wearing it a year ago when they had met for the first time in the public library.

She had been wandering around the crowded cafe of the library for five minutes looking for a place to sit as he sat at a small table with a book on string theory and a flat-white. He would never have noticed Eva, had it not been for that blue cardigan. Amidst the lax, woven strings of blue yarn were thin, reflective threads which, when Eva walked though light at the correct angle, emitted a small blue flare.

Each time Eva had paced up and down the isles looking for a spare place to rest, a single flash of blue appeared and disappeared in Thomas’s peripherals. By Eva’s third pass, Thomas glanced up and took note of Eva looking over his head with a tray in her hands and a frustrated scowl on her face. He quickly gathered his book and coffee and offered Eva a place at his table. She sat down, they began talking, and now, a year later, they were living together.

Eva turned off the car and seemed to be talking to Thomas. Her voice was just a murmur inside the cylinder. He heard dull formations of words like “fault”, “heard”, “assumptions”, “drunk”, and “listening” tangled up in the gunk of the rest of what she was saying.

As his outside-self stared at her, his inside-self focused on her sweater. What had he liked so much about that cardigan? As he looked at it, he failed to see what the attraction had been. It was just a ratty garment, probably ten years old. The white buttons on the front were too large to be sensible. Hadn’t he thought they were cute, once? Thomas looked for the reflective threads woven into the yarn. They were not shining this morning.

He put his head close to the sweater, and on the inside of the cylinder he saw huge knots of blue yarn snarled with each other. Thomas moved his head to the side and changed the angle of the image on the wall. A tiny glint of the thread refracted a sliver of light.

Quickly, the blue yarn was pulled back from the scene, it rapidly became a cardigan again, and then it was Eva wearing the cardigan. She was reaching forward and holding his outside-self’s shoulders. She had just pushed him back.

“What are you doing?” she asked, annoyed.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You were sniffing my sweater.” Eva half-laughed when she said this. Over the last year, Thomas had learned that this did not mean she thought it was funny. She thought it was absurd.

“I wasn’t sniffing your sweater.” Thomas corrected, “I was looking at it.”

Eva stared at the steering wheel and sat back. Thomas recognized her deep breathing as an effort to keep her emotions under control. She had learnt it from some monks on Cuba Street a few months ago. Lately, she had been practicing it a lot.

“Why are you trying to upset me?” Eva asked with her eyes closed. “You know I hate it when you don’t listen to me.”

“I wasn’t trying to upset you,” Thomas explained. “I was trying to remember what I used to like about your cardigan.”

From inside the cylinder, Thomas watched Eva look down at her sweater and then look up into his eyes.

“I thought you liked this cardigan. What’s wrong with it?” Eva looked down and pulled at the loose threads.

“I did like it,” Thomas answered. “I just feel indifferent towards it today. I wanted to see if I could figure out what I liked about it in the first place.”

“Well, the first time we met, I was wearing it.” Eva raised her right eyebrow as if what she said was a trump card.

“Yeah,” Thomas said flatly. “I know.”

Eva frowned at his response and leaned close to his outside face. Her visage engulfed the inside of the cylinder. She looked like she was trying to look through his eyes to see him inside. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

Eva frowned at his response and leaned close to his outside face. Her visage engulfed the inside of the cylinder. She looked like she was trying to look through his eyes to see him inside. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“You seemed like you were looking for me,” Thomas answered honestly, “so I was waving to help you see me better.”

Eva laughed through her nose and sat back fully in her seat. She thought he was joking.

“Ok, smart ass.” She put her hand on the steering wheel. “You’re being extra weird this morning. Are you sure you want to go to brunch? If you don’t want to go, I can call Tammy and cancel it.”

Thomas didn’t want to do anything, but he didn’t not want to do anything either. He was completely indifferent. Since he had no stake in the afternoon either way, he figured they should go along with the original plan.

“I want to go,” he said. “We should go.”

• • •

Tammy and Josh were Eva’s friends. Eva had known Tammy since primary school, and Josh had been with Tammy for four years. Eva always told Thomas they were ‘their friends’ but he knew that it was only out of politeness to keep him from feeling excluded. He never referred to his friends as ‘their friends’. But then again, she never wanted to hang out with his friends. She thought they were boring.

Thomas never spent time with either Tammy or Josh without Eva being present, and they had developed a tradition over the last year. When the four of them got together, Eva and Tammy would go off into their conversations, and Josh and Thomas were expected to talk about whatever they could come up with until the girls were satisfied with their time together.

It wasn’t that Thomas disliked Josh. He just didn’t have anything in common with the building contractor. As far as Thomas could tell, Josh’s interests crowded around rugby, football, beer, and “good-looking women”.

Thomas could see the merits in these things as well, but he was devoted to his physics doctorate. He only had one year left and couldn’t afford to focus on anything outside of science. There was so much information and so many perspectives to take into account. He had to stay focused at all costs.

Since, Thomas didn’t have interests outside of academia, and Josh had a gentle disregard for higher learning, they had been forced to find some common ground. At first meeting, it took a few hours of trial and error until they discovered a phenomenon that regularly gave them something to talk about. Neither of them actually kept up with current events, but they could both remember the past week’s news headlines from glancing at newspapers, overhearing conversations, and passing by television broadcasts. And with a plethora of opinions, they could comfortably discuss the Israel/Palestine situation, Japanese whaling, or global warming without knowing anything about the real culture or politics involved. When their girlfriends told them it was time to go home, they both left feeling they could run the world better than those silly people who had devoted their entire lives to solving something so obviously simple. Everything was under control.

• • •

Eva and Thomas had gotten to the restaurant early. Given the exceptional winter weather, the few tables the restaurant had placed outside had become sought-after by patrons willing to don an overcoat and wool hat to enjoy the sun and a meal. A server told Eva and Thomas they would have to wait thirty minutes for a table.

While they stood with their hands in their pockets, Josh and Tammy came around the corner, faces flushed from the chill.

Inside the cylinder, Thomas saw the image of Josh moving closer with his hand out to greet him. “A bit nippy this morning, eh?” Josh said.

Thomas stood there letting Josh shake his hand. Josh looked back at Tammy or Eva but they had already entered into their girl world. Josh was on his own with Thomas.

“Ummm…” Josh avoided Thomas’ stare, “Can you believe they may allow more mining up north? I mean, I would be alright with it if New Zealand was keeping the profits from it, but Australia?”

As Thomas remembered this as the start of the traditional exchange between them, he began listing all of the headlines he had seen in the past week.

“Gang member learns ballet. Springbocks lose again to All Blacks. Is your child too young to ride a bike? Lost cat saves cancer victim...” and so on, all while Thomas held firmly on to Josh’s hand and rhythmically shook it.

At first Josh laughed, thinking Thomas was joking. Then he noticed Thomas’ lack of expression, which added a waft of septic to the moment. Josh yanked his hand back and maintained an uncomfortably silence while they stood in wait for their table.

At the table with their menus in front of their faces, Josh and Thomas did not talk. The girls were a giggly duet of gossip. Banter filled the inside of the busy restaurant while the tables outside emanated a polite murmur. People on the street talked on their cell phones, chatted with friends, or had discussions with themselves. A quiet tension gripped Josh as he held his menu up, shielding himself from conversation. Thomas was observing his menu from the inside walls of the cylinder.

He admired the large image of his hands holding the menu; his skin looked reptilian up close. His hands were white with a brush of rose. The two months of winter had chapped them, giving them a slightly frosted look.

• • •

Red hands flashed into Thomas’ memory, along with a sense of last Thursday. The cylinder shook.

• • •

He and Eva had gone over to Tammy and Josh’s place for Josh’s birthday. There had been close to twenty people there. Everyone was out on the back deck, huddled around the patio heater, drinking wine and beer. Having just handed in the rough draft of his thesis, Thomas had decided to let loose. One night of revelry wouldn’t set him back too far.

• • •

The cylinder walls began to clench and slowly approach Thomas. They no longer showed his hands holding the menu; instead, he saw himself on the Thursday before, leaving the deck at Josh’s party. The cold weather and alcohol made him need to take a leak every fifteen minutes.

He pulled open the sliding door. It stuck a little, so he had to shake it to get it open. He tripped over the door’s track as he made his way inside. He stopped to laugh at himself.

• • •

The cylinder encroached centimeters from Thomas’ body. It was hot with his memory. Thomas tried to push the walls back, but they burned him.

• • •

As Thomas pissed into the toilet, he played with his stream, making circles around the inside of the bowl. He was pretending he was a firefighter putting out fires. From behind him, he heard rhythmic banging and moaning. Thomas chuckled. Someone was getting lucky.

• • •

The cylinder lost its structure and began wrapping around the contours of Thomas’ body. The pressure was excruciating; the heat was burning away all of his air. He couldn’t breathe.

• • •

After cleaning up, Thomas stumbled out into the hallway. As he leaned against the far wall, he eyed the closed door of the room next to the bathroom. He wondered if the couple was still making noise inside. He bent down to put his ear to the door when the knob turned and the door swung open. Thomas straightened up quickly, embarrassed.

• • •

The cylinder swallowed Thomas.

• • •

Eva and Josh walked out of the room and saw Thomas straightening up. A heaviness in his chest made Thomas unable to speak, uncertain about what he was witnessing. Josh looked shocked at first, but after seeing Thomas’s face, he slapped him on the arm, asked, “Are you hav’n a good time, Thomas?” and walked away.

“What were you two doing in there?” Thomas managed to ask Eva.

“Tammy and Josh are having some problems, and since I’ve known her since we were in grade school…”

“I heard banging and moaning.” Thomas asserted.

“We were just talking.” Eva retorted and then scrutinized Thomas with her eyes. “Were you listening through the door?”

“What difference does it make if I was listening or not!” Thomas bellowed.

Eva backed away from Thomas’ breath. “Jesus, you reek of booze.”

• • •

The cylinder was gone. Thomas was sitting at the table with Eva, Josh, and Tammy. His hands were red, and his grip was bending the menu. He existed in the moment. He felt the cold air die as it hit his hot skin. He felt blood scream through his body. Everything was so clear.

• • •

Eva dragged Thomas out of the party immediately, claiming he was creating a scene. She insisted he had gotten too drunk. On the ride home, Thomas clenched his fists and stared at them. They were bright red from the pressure as he tried to contain himself.

• • •

Thomas slammed down his menu. The smack made everyone at the table jump and flip down their own. As soon as Thomas saw Josh’s eyes, he punched him squarely in the nose. Josh fell straight back in his chair, his arms hitting other diners on his way down. Thomas kicked back his seat and stood over Josh.

Curled on the ground, Josh held his nose with one hand and stared in disbelief at the slick of blood on the other. Thomas began stomping as hard as he could on Josh’s head.

The first few times Josh tightened up and tried to protect himself with his arms, but then his head caught a diner’s chair leg and he went limp. With Josh defenseless, Thomas kicked and stomped harder.

Eva’s calm voice snuck up from behind. “Thomas?” There was the soft touch of her hand on his.

• • •

Neutrality filled the cylinder chamber like cool water. Thomas saw the cylinder walls again. Felt calm, centered, nothing. He looked at the image of his huge, red hands crinkling the menu. Had the cylinder walls gotten farther away?

“Thomas, you’re bending the menu. Are you feeling okay?” Eva asked as she slowly pulled his menu down.

“Yeah,” Thomas said, “I’m fine.”

“Your face is really red.” Josh added. His menu was down as well; he looked concerned. “Just a second ago you looked like you were in a lot of pain.”

Thomas looked around the table. Tammy, Josh and Eva were all staring at him.

“Do I still look in pain?” Thomas asked.

“Except for being a bit red, you look fine . . .” Eva began.

“Sorry, it was just a bit of gas.” Thomas lied.

“Oh, sorry.” Eva smirked. “Are you ready to order?”

Thomas looked at the walls of the cylinder; they had definitely gotten farther away. He didn’t care. What was there to care about?

“Yes, I want the eggs Benedict.” Thomas lied again. He didn’t want anything.

Joseph Auslander, Jr. is a U.S. citizen currently living in Wellington, New Zealand. He has spent the last six years traveling around the world on boats, but has recently given it up to pursue a love affair with the written word. You can follow his adventures at