Thing a Week 7: The Not Shady Agency

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The world has discovered that the NSA has been spying on literally everyone on the planet except for one man, who is so profoundly boring that they quite simply decided they couldn’t be bothered to watch. They decided, rather, it would be best not to subject their employees to, quote, “something so breathtakingly and mindblowingly dull” — and so they hired an intern to do it for them.

I’m that intern.

The gig is pretty sweet, of course, if you like working from home with a hilarious amount of pay and lenience at only the cost of your social life, the ability to let anyone emotionally close, or — or, and — some say, your soul. I don’t have much of the above, so I was perfect — they told me — for the NSA. Excited to make a difference for my country, I happily signed myself away. I believe I’ve made a terrible mistake.

No, not because I’m forfeiting so much of my life, nor because I don’t like my job, my coworkers, or my work. I don’t mind those things any more than I mind anything else in life, which, unsurprisingly in the context of this prose, is very (very) little. In fact, in some ways the Loss Of Life makes life easier. Focus on one thing and really knock it out, you know?

No, it’s not for any of those totally reasonable reasons I believe I’ve made this terrible, awful mistake. It’s John, the man I’ve been assigned—no, compelled? trapped? volunteered—to watch. He is just as you would imagine someone with his delightful reputation: incredibly bland, normal, and banal even, at times. He dresses in plain white shirts and wears the same pair of cloth pants every day, which he washes every other day at exactly seven o’clock in the evening, after a filling lunch of loaded baked potatoes, occasionally with an extra sprinkle of bacon or wallop of whipped cream. Today is not laundry day.

John woke up every morning to a shrill alarm that sounded at the crack of dawn, and ate two pancakes—without syrup or butter—for breakfast before strolling out to his Prius and driving to work. This morning was no exception: he arrived with nearly fifteen minutes to spare.

At work he enters data for a six-year-old telecommunications company that has historically neither grown nor shrunk, and just continues operations day to day with a smile and a quickly antiquating office environment. A fax comes in at what seems like random times, and I’ve begun making mental bets with myself on how long I will have to endure until another fax arrives, prompting some kind—any kind—of movement from the otherwise stone statue with deft typing fingers I’ve been assigned to watch. I don’t usually guess long enough, almost raising an eyebrow in surprise when I horrifyingly realize that perhaps another fax will never come, and that I might die here waiting. Metaphorically, of course, but occasionally when my head is exploding from meticulously documenting hours of absolute stillness, I wish otherwise.

But that’s all totally okay, I don’t even care about it. It’s a sucky job; nobody likes their jobs, that’s fine. I can get behind that, toss it over my shoulder, put my knee to the grind, whatever. I can deal with forfeiting my nights to overtime that consists of literally—literally literally—the exact same thing for hours with no break, I can get over that. I really can.

What I can’t get over is that John is the spitting image of me.

And the worst of it is that I think I’m the only one that sees it. I finally straight up asked ██████ and ████—well, it’s probably best I don’t identify my coworkers, I’ll redact that later—after hinting at it for a week if they thought we looked at least similar and they looked like I’d asked them something hilariously nonsensical, only barely holding back chortles and giggles that forcefully erode at my already nervous state. My boss had an identical reaction, and only when I started teasing out similarities—he has high cheekbones, I have identically high cheekbones; he has a scar on his neck, probably from chickenpox when he was three, because that’s how I got mine that’s coincidentally identical and located in the same exact point beneath our ears—did my boss begrudgingly start to admit parallels.

Sometimes when John’s at home watching Wheel of Fortune, I get completely engrossed in the show with him and forget to catalog his minute by minute updates. I assume it’s just something about watching a TV in a TV, especially with these new virtual reality headsets they’ve got us doing home surveillance with. While they do pretty convincingly convince me I’m somewhere I’m not, I’m not entirely convinced they’re leading to any deeper connection with or well of sympathy for this boring, insipid man. I will admit he’s got a great taste in television, though. I’m kind of glad he doesn’t seem to listen to music either, as I’ve never really been a fan of it and probably wouldn’t know where to start identifying it to record.

The time I most look forward to these days is when I am asleep, mind fully detached from the visual hell I live every day. I don’t regret agreeing to overtime, because by nine John’s usually relaxing on either his couch, recliner, or bed, and taking a tablet with the video stream and a notebook to bed rarely results in more than a half-page of activity to retranscribe the next day. He is reliably boring, which is kind of growing on me; or, I suppose, I can definitely see its downsides and upsides.

On the nights I stay up, sleep-deprived, watching John stay up, sleep-deprived, I occasionally wonder if it’d be worth changing up the layout in my bedroom so it wouldn’t look so perfectly identical to John’s room probably thousands of miles away—yet always just a few feet away from my eyes. According to my room’s current state, it’s apparently not worth it yet, but probably one of these days. I just want to sleep instead, and on rare occasions, I actually do.

At times during the days it’s like I’m there with John, watching as he monotonously completes the most mundane tasks, over and over, every day. In the morning a room should be swept, and in the evening he meticulously folds his laundry the next time—get this—the next time he’s free within a thirty-minute timespan after the dryer ends, otherwise he starts the dryer for another ten minutes. Always. At night, he dreams of tomorrow’s breakfast.

Just once I’d want him to accidentally burn his toast, or have to pay a few cents extra for the gas he budgets to the nickel on, or, you know what, something more emphatic: how about a tree falls on his car, or he gets mugged, or the bank he spends so much time inquiring about account information gets robbed while he’s there. Does that make me an awful person, to wish excitement into another man’s life? I could certainly use some excitement in mine, and I’m just the guy paid to watch the most boring man on the planet. Apparently not quite as boring, but definitely certainly way down there.

Or maybe he could get fired, or perhaps a raise I guess, or his computer could explode, shattering into a million pieces that render him mostly blind and he has to go to physical and emotional therapy to reach a point in his life when he could ever even possibly get so boring again. Or he could be laying in bed when a home invader finds him, maybe even offering him the chance at a dance off he literally could not win if his life depended on it—but what I wonder most is whether he’d actually try, when his life depended on it, or if he’d continue on being so ho hum right to the end, accepting his fate, and sighing.

There’s a large window next to his bed that’d be good, or the kitchen window is never locked, I suppose, and John never thought he had the physical possessions to warrant a security system, so his meaningless, tedious life would be easy pickings for someone so inclined.

He’s still just staring at the ceiling, as if that’s the secret key to falling asleep (hint: it’s not). My eyes are heavy, and I bite my lip for a burst of adrenaline and instant eyelid weight loss. This is the third night in a row he hasn’t slept well, (probably) stubbornly refusing to toss and turn in the night, resolving instead to stare fixated at the ceiling, silence but for summer’s cicadas outside.

And then this night turned into anything but typical.

I’m pretty sure I saw it before he did. The window across the room, previously just letting in the night’s shadows began to glow an eerie off-white brilliance, radiating in through the window and illuminating the transparent curtains now flowing inside on a sudden breeze.

The light began to get brighter, and the walls began to glow softly, as if someone had applied some kind of photoshop filter over real life. I swapped my tablet’s video feeds to his work momentarily to make sure the glow wasn’t just bugs acting up and making things blurry and oversaturated. But it wasn’t, and my awesome curiosity brought me immediately back to John’s bedroom, which is now emanating brilliance through every orifice.

And John does not look concerned.

Very slowly, John sat up in bed and glanced at the window, almost immediately breathing in for a deep sigh. As he raised a fatigued hand and amicably shook it, his body disintegrated into an infinite number of brown and black particles that gushed outwards as if a gas had been expelled from where a man’s body had been moments prior, settled in the air, and then got caught as dust in the wind when another breeze rushed in.

Confused and disoriented, I reached out my hand to close the digital window and trap the particles of John inside and was genuinely surprised (though not relieved, by any measure) that I was still in my own room, with a tablet streaming a video of somewhere else in my lap, and my window absolutely closed—and locked, from the looks of it here. There were no particles in the air and therefore there were no particles escaping, except for in John’s world, where the night was now completely still.

The light had gone away, replaced instead with a deep blackness of the night the area had never seen before in its short history here on Earth. In John’s home, nothing moved; nothing was there to move: John was gone.

I’m still shaking, though. I don’t know why it affected me so much. I mean, other than it being incredibly weird. He might look like me, but I know he’s just a data pusher at a telecommunications company in Ohio. I just, well, feel like a little part of me flew out my window too, even though I know it’s stupid.

It’s my job to watch him and this is something I’d better document, so I should probably get to it immediately while it’s still fresh in my mind. I have no idea what could have happened to him or whether anything’s going to happen for the rest of the night, but it’s unfortunately—or fortunately, if you like bad news—looking like it’ll be quite the long one. I’ve never seen anything like this and will push it upward to the proper people tomorrow, but in the meantime I’ll keep an eye on things and update you if I figure anything out. Who knows, maybe this journal will become famous or something if it turns out to be something really weird. Here’s to hoping!

John Campbell
2/23/2016

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