by Matt Rowan
Instead of being cautious, Joey Turnstable made a suit of bubble wrap to wear whenever he’d bike around town. Which was weird but not too weird.
Then he started wearing it all the time. That was when it started to get too weird for most people.
For the longest time, Joey had been trying to protect himself in every conceivable way. He’d been broken—heart broken and physically broken—and was rebuilding himself from the ground up. He settled on a bubble wrap suit as the quickest, surest and least painful means of obtaining this form of security.
Joey would rather not remember the way he was broken, that his dad got the whole family wound up thinking about living in caveman times. Joey’s dad explained how if you were alive then, you were just happy about having food.
“You couldn’t care a whit about eating junk. It didn’t exist! No Cheetos, no Coca-Colas, no McDonald’s. People in the time of the caves simply didn’t know about snack foods. As a cave person, you’d be standing there by a tree, spear in hand, crunching on an apple like it was the best food there ever was or ever could be,” Joey’s dad explained.
Joey’s dad was especially partial to salty corn chips, and said the salty chips had ruined, ruined his chance at foraging in nature, on account of the highly salty carbohydrates he found he now craved. His dad tried standing near their tree in the front yard , eating an apple, holding his version of a spear, a pocket knife tied to an old broom handle, but he knew it wasn’t going to get him in touch with his cave-dwelling ancestors.
After that, Joey’s dad tried to get everyone in the family eating healthy and organic. He’d started a small garden in their backyard. He served a lot of home-canned vegetables, some of which had turned, and everyone got botulism, and not everyone survived. Joey was the only one who survived, really. Unless you counted their mastiff, Spark. Spark died that winter, of old age. Joey’s body was ravaged by the disease, but that was, to him, the least of his pains.
The weight of Joey’s grief hounded him, haunted him. When anyone tried to talk to him about it, he just receded further inside of himself.
He was of the mind that if he wore his bubble wrap suit nothing could ever harm him. It was a pretty reckless idea but he had glommed onto it and was not going to be de-glommed so easily.
At the convenience store, where Joey purchased a package of vanilla Zingers from time to time, he cried. He wasn’t sure why he was compelled to let everything out in the convenience store—probably the abundance of snack foods reminded him of his dad and therefore of his personal tragedy—but whatever the cause, his emotions would become untethered and he’d begin torrentially sobbing. He seemed to think his bubble wrap suit protected others from his crying, as he imagined it protected him from all things, not unlike how the bullet-resistant plexiglass barrier was meant to shield the cashier from bullets. He seemed to believe the bubble wrap would somehow absorb the sounds of his tears, unaware of the gentle “tap, tap” of the tears hitting plastic.
He cried until he was done, or until the cashier politely but gruffly urged him to leave. The cashier was the same man every time. Where once they’d been on friendly terms, the cashier now avoided speaking directly to Joey. It was exactly this aloofness that allowed Joey to imagine himself invisible to others.
In reality, of course, everyone was now extremely worried about Joey and sometimes a little scared of him. They didn’t know what to do about it, so they did nothing. The suit itself was jarring, as was his other, more reckless behavior. It made him unapproachable, they all told themselves, as they tried to move on with their lives. They had responsibilities. Joey had to figure out how to take care of himself.
Joey, for his part, now walked wherever he wanted without regard, imagining he would always be spared physical injury and pretending that there existed no abstract injury inside him, as well.
Joey—as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of his newfound carelessness—was hit by a semi truck. He almost died at the scene of the accident. Quick thinking by the trucker, who had stepped out of his vehicle to help, prevented Joey’s immediate death, however.
Friends and family visited him at the hospital. They had been very close to taking him off of life support when he miraculously regained consciousness. Like so many miracles, it didn’t last. He declared he wanted to be buried in his bubble wrap suit, then expired shortly thereafter.
All who had known and loved him wanted to satisfy his dying request (it would help to expunge some of their guilt for doing little else while he was alive, too, though no one wanted to admit to that part). His suit had been destroyed in the accident, so they found him the finest bubble wrap in all the land, and they wrapped him tightly in it.
The wake was a somber affair in large part. At least at first.
At some point, a child reached into his coffin and popped one of the bubbles of his bubble wrap suit, unable to ignore the temptation.
Then another child did.
A crowd of people swarmed Joey’s casket, eagerly popping his wrap.
Shnp, Shnp, Shmp, and so on.
There were practically no more bubbles left to pop, certainly not enough left to provide any cushion.
Suddenly, Joey’s spirit floated down and glowed among them.
“Yes!” Joey shouted. “You care! You really care! You have all passed the test, and, therefore, I am finally free!”
All anyone who witnessed this uncanniness could think was, what test?
Then there was one final pop, by a stunned relative who had done so reflexively.
“Even freer!” Joey again shouted, as his ectoplasmic tears rained down upon those in the viewing room.
Everyone stood with their mouths open wide, bodies covered in a highly viscous, paranormal goo.
They were all too stunned to continue mourning, at first. But slowly they began to laugh, which Joey thought was weird but not too weird.
Then they all ignored him and began writhing around on the floor in the pooled goo that had dripped from him. That was when it was too weird for Joey.
He escaped into a light.
Matt Rowan lives in Los Angeles. He edits Untoward and is author of the collections, Big Venerable, Why God Why, and How the Moon Works (Cobalt Press, 2021). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, TRNSFR, HAD and Necessary Fiction, among others.