A Ghost of Gnats

1. The People’s presence had been tolerable for a bit, but it soon caused Harmony On Land to corrode, threatening General Harmony. The Pod wanted Harmony On Land back!

The air in the gym that morning felt thick, and Reef would wonder later if that mattered. He would wonder later about every aspect of the occasion. Did it matter what he was wearing? What he’d eaten before? How much he’d slept? Everything Reef brought with him to the local middle school basketball court — the T-shirt and shorts on his body, the chewed banana and water in his belly, his health and mood — all struck him as ordinary, no matter how many times he closed his eyes and took inventory.

Insomnia dogged Reef the rest of that summer. On sleepless nights, he’d reach for the notepad he kept beside his bed and jot questions in the dark.

Did it matter that Danny and August were present at the time? Danny had brought a ball, thankfully, and the three friends shot around as they waited for a fourth player to play two-on-two. They shuffled on the dusty floor to chase rebounds, lofted tip-toe turnaround jumpers, dumped no-look passes for each other’s lay-ins, sweated. James never showed up, and Reef had wondered if that mattered, too.

Eventually, it no longer mattered what mattered. Wonder deserted him.

2. The Pod examined The People. The Pod quickly determined The People’s Insight had changed from its original condition, in which The People’s Insight formed suitable Land complement to The Pod’s Insight.

Reef couldn’t dunk. That’s how he would have put it if you’d asked him that day.

Can you dunk?

“No, I can’t. Why?”

Reef would have wondered why you’d even asked.

Sometimes after, the notions of “can” and “could” refracted to light his whole mind. Did he know what he could and could not do? How? He knew he was 5’8, maybe 5’9 on a tall day, around 160 pounds. Probably in peak physical condition, though everything’s relative.

Most of all, Reef knew he had never dunked a basketball. What better way was there to assume his capabilities than to appraise his past? He hadn’t dunked as a child in his driveway unless he lowered the rim. He hadn’t dunked as a teenager taking running starts with one hand holding up his jeans. He hadn’t dunked as an adult, though after resolving to jog regularly and lift the occasional weights, and actually doing so, and feeling more lithe than ever before, he’d tried to grab rim a few times, alone in the gym or killing time between pickup games.

Reef was a layup guy. He was a guy! A regular-ass guy! Not an athlete. A 30-ish, ground-dwelling, sturdy enough, well-I’ve-bounced-around-a-bit-but-these-days-I-do-copywriting-ass guy who played ball to stay in shape. Getting a few shots up with friends from college.

And the shot before it was an airball, which Reef found funny in reflection, at least sometimes. There were definitely times when he wouldn’t laugh at that.

3. The Pod resolved as usual to adjust The People’s Insight with coded electroacoustic stimulus applied to The People’s body (Direct Pulse) in hope of returning Harmony On Land.

August was kneeling to Reef’s left, tying his shoe or adjusting his ankle brace or something — not looking, he insisted. Danny was under the basket, awaiting a rebound.

Reef short-armed a jumper from the top of the key. It barely grazed net. Danny anticipated the whiff enough to pivot, bunch his toes inside the baseline like an NBA player, then hop outward with his back to Reef. In one motion, Danny plucked the spinless, arcing basketball from the air and tossed it blindly over his shoulder.

Reef went through the motions, didn’t even really think, as he spotted Danny chasing his shot and bolted toward the rim. Reef was in full stride when he caught the pass at chest-level, planted his left foot, and leaped.

The next half-second somehow felt faster than that. Faster and faster, the more he reflected on it. That half-second returned to Reef in flickers that seemed to project inside his skull when his eyes closed.

He viewed the net straight-on.

His arm extended too near the backboard to bounce the ball off it.

His fingers released their grasp on the rim.

Upon landing, Reef experienced not pain so much as shock, as if his feet felt surprised. For a while after, he wondered if that feeling somehow signaled an injury, a new condition.

4. Direct Pulse quickly failed. Direct Pulse proved too intense and too localized to achieve appropriate effect on The People, corroding some part of The People.

Low from a crouch, August’s eyes met Reef’s as Reef dropped to his knees and began pressing on the floor with his hands to test it. That, apparently, was his instinct — that the hardwood somehow concealed a trampoline or something. Reef was the first to speak, lifting his head as if to search the room, and again locking eyes with August, who had risen.

“Did you see that?”

“Huh? Did you drop something?

“No, did you see what I did?

August claimed he didn’t. Danny didn’t. His back had been turned.

The two of them watched patiently, if maybe with a little too much delight, as Reef tried to recreate the dunk. Only after several attempts — including one in which he intentionally airballed a jumper and demanded Danny perform an identical rebound-and-pass — did Reef collect himself. His friends’ delight soured into concern, or maybe just annoyance.

Reef gave up, stopped mentioning it. He even stopped thinking about it while the three of them played a game of 21.

But the dunk took a seat in Reef’s head when he got home, and while he dripped at the far end of a long shower. It sat in his head past dark, as he gnawed wings and watched baseball. It crowded out any guilt he might have felt about thumbing past social media headlines of a woman falling on the train tracks nearby. The fresh memory seemed to swell, filling his skull, while he rolled in bed. He didn’t remember his dreams that night, or any night after, but he often awoke with the same sped-up feeling; like he’d had a full night’s sleep in seconds.

The day after the dunk, Reef Googled “dunk exactly once,” then “dunked only one time weird,” then “i dunked once and never again,” retrieving only men’s magazine “Learn To Dunk A Basketball In 8 Steps” articles and useless forum threads.

Reef at times chastised himself for even thinking phrases like “I dunked” and “after the dunk;” for accepting the dunk as fact. Later he’d slacken, allowing himself to think … whatever, really.

5. In examination of Direct Pulse’s failure, The Pod discovered minuscule subdivision of The People: Person. Person occurs repeatedly yet simultaneously within The People, holding independent Insight in each occurrence.

6. The Pod’s examination detected that Person’s Insight is impoverished; minuscule in proportion with Person’s physical size relative to The People. Person’s Insight does not consider The People as whole organ.

A week after the dunk, Reef met Danny at the gym just to shoot a bit. After 20 minutes, with no announcement, Reef attempted the dunk again. Backed up beyond the arc, he tossed the ball ahead with backspin, then bound forth to meet it. He caught the ball and cradled it, not dribbling through long, loping steps: left, then right, at which point he knew for certain he wasn’t going to come close, then left and up, barely reaching the bottom of the net. Danny pretended not to notice.

Two weeks after the dunk, James texted Reef, and in the middle of their conversation, Reef caught him up on the dunk and his confusion since. James seemed unmoved — he often did over text — but credulous. He said “maybe you just had the bounce that day,” then mentioned something else. That notion calmed Reef for a moment — maybe he really did just have the bounce that day — but it got chased away by the idea that James was too tall to understand. And anyway, why that day? Why just that moment?

After months passed, Reef no longer bothered to attempt dunks, even when he had the opportunity. August brought the occasion up one time while they were changing shoes after a pickup run, his voice a controlled chuckle. Reef noticed Danny glaring at August while James changed the subject. August’s smirk hung in the air.

Reef shrugged the conversation off, but at night found sleep so elusive that he broke a personal rule and cracked his laptop in bed. There wasn’t really a purpose, just a hum in his head that he hoped idle scrolling might soothe. Reef paused at some high school classmate’s post about “The Haunted Arby’s,” then clicked a related link about the history of supernatural events. When he reopened his laptop in the morning, the screen was packed with a dozen or so tabs — the subreddit for UFO sightings, a terribly formatted blog about ghosts, and lists of inexplicable human feats, all more impressive and less feasible than his own.

7. Person favored Person’s Insight to The People’s Insight to such degree that The People’s Insight did not practically exist.

In the winter, Reef lost his job. He’d seen it coming and resolved to spend the duration of his severance pay writing something for himself. Maybe a book. That time instead poured into subreddits and blogs he knew to be sketchy, but couldn’t resist. Within one conspiracy thread, a conversation between weightlifters drew Reef’s attention, leading him to a network of health- and exercise-focused forums. He read about anti-aging regimens, “fitness maximization” and diets that sounded impossible. In one thread, users shared headless mirror selfies of their rippling bodies. Stirred by a poster lamenting his “chicken legs,” Reef began to eye his own thinnish legs in the mirror, comparing their knobbliness to his soft trunk.

Reef experimented with intermittent fasting and learned new body weight exercises. He splurged on a leg press, and found an “untold history” podcast to play through his earbuds while he pushed heavier and heavier plates every other day.

One Thursday, Reef realized he hadn’t been on a date in months and reflexively poked through his phone to set one up, then concluded at the bar the next night that he was no longer interested in dating. Reef bought his date three drinks but drank none himself. She sat stiffly and clutched the glass tighter with each round. When they parted ways, Reef alternated jogging and sprinting each block on his way home, his ears nipped by frigid wind.

8. In examination of Person’s Insight, The Pod detected that Person’s Insight had been corrupted repeatedly by diffuse electric source.

In the spring, Reef considered pitching his dunk story to a few websites, but ended up selling a vague essay about exercise and human potential, along with a series of lists on fitness topics he didn’t need to research. They didn’t pay him until summer, by which point he’d already purchased wraparound ankle weights for jumping exercises, restricted his diet to various bean-grain mounds, and prescribed himself a regimen of several supplements a day: capsules, a soluble powder, one subcutaneous injection, and one more needle straight into either thigh muscle. It no longer hurt him.

Reef stopped playing pickup. Stopped returning texts with anything other than an excuse for his absence. He had to save money while he looked for a job, anyway.

He didn’t look for a job.

Reef used the freelancing income, plus most of what remained in his savings, to see a vaguely Baltic surgeon whose ads had attracted Reef on the train. He was surprised by how little they questioned him, not even flinching when he proposed operations on his calves and knees. They insisted their procedures made more of a cosmetic difference than a physiological one, and recommended another doctor, “Dr. I”, who would pay Reef to undergo experimental muscle-building procedures if he’d sign a non-disclosure agreement and come back to the lab for testing.

Reef visited Dr. I that same afternoon for a consultation. Crude Olympic rings adorned Dr. I’s office wall. Just huge rings made of spray-painted plastic. The colors weren’t even in the right order.

Dr. I confirmed the train doctor’s assertions. He fondled a veiny rubber anatomy doll and spoke fast about the suite of available operations, each requiring pages of signatures, each with a payout for Reef’s participation.

That night, Reef saw August had gotten engaged. He tapped a congratulatory text, then deleted it.

Reef underwent all of Dr. I’s operations, then did some of them again. Envelopes of cash piled beside his bed as the months passed. So many new scars crossed Reef’s legs and lower torso that he stopped bothering to treat them with ointment. When Dr. I’s prescription for pills ran out, he wrote Reef a new one. Visiting the lab for tests required a long train ride with two transfers, so the lab let Reef bring the handheld testing equipment home. He Skyped with them once a week to report results and to answer questions, rarely asking any of his own. Dr. I would appear on screen with more and different colleagues each time. They’d chatter among themselves whenever Reef answered one of Dr. I’s questions. Reef no longer needed the pharmacy for pills; Dr. I provided them directly in a tall paper bag.

Reef never mentioned the dunk to Dr. I. The dunk hardly visited his inner monologue anymore, but seemed to hum underneath it. Images of it arrived first thing upon awakening from another split-second night of sleep.

Reef’s friends never heard about Dr. I. Contact thinned to a trickle. Reef put one of Dr. I’s checks toward a shiny toaster on August’s wedding registry, but skipped the wedding because he was “recovering from surgery” for a “muscular condition.” August knew better than to bother inviting Reef to the bachelor party.

Danny called on two occasions to check in, and Reef explained the situation with enough science-y half-truths to keep Danny’s concern at arm’s length.

One clear-headed day, Reef went back through the calendar in his phone to determine the date of the dunk. He then scrolled exactly two years ahead of it, only to find he’d already at some point marked that date “D DAY.”

9. The Pod’s examination further detected that Person’s Insight of The Pod considered The Pod, too, not as whole organ, but in subdivisions, parallel to The People and Person. As The People consists of repeated Person, so The Pod consists of repeated Whale. The Pod’s Insight had never considered The Pod as comprising Whale. How strange, to be Whale!

Reef ordered his own basketball, unpacked it, inflated it with a bicycle bump, then sat it by the door like a guard dog. He bought a lot of stuff online, maybe just to pass the time. Flattened cardboard covered the floor near the entryway. Some boxes sat unopened. Reef’s exercise regimen ramped back up as his surgery scars faded. Only weights, no cardio.

Reef stopped wearing sleeves and pants. He ran errands in a faded red Luol Deng shirsey and a stretched pair of gym shorts, even on cold days. At home, he shed the shorts and exercised nude below the waist, like a muscly Winnie the Pooh. The first time that thought found him, he cackled, but now the image visited him regularly. Pooh with thick, glistening quadriceps met Reef in the mirror each morning like a guru.

Reef stopped shaving anything above his throat. His hair grew, more in fluff than in length. On one occasion he slept for over 20 hours. It felt like a blink.

There had been days of doubt, and of guilt, but not recently. One of the surgery wounds tracing the contour of his calf didn’t knit as cleanly as the others, becoming infected. Dr. I recommended additional pills and two weeks of bedrest. After three days, Reef choked down a handful of his old pills and returned to the leg press. He paused halfway, swaddling his shin in bandages to contain the oozing.

On the rare occasions Reef rode the train, he’d limp to the end of the platform, swiveling to challenge any gawker with direct eye contact. Crowds scattered in polite slow-motion to avoid him. Sitting alone on a train bench, Reef gazed at the bearded reflection he saw in flashes across the window. It scowled back. He couldn’t smell himself, but assumed he stank.

Reef fished the notepad from the pile beside his bed one day and found a page of questions, few of them legible: What can I do? What CAN’T I do? WHAT IS CONTROL? He spiked the whole pad into the trash can, retrieved it to shred the pages, then snowed the scraps back into the trash.

He stopped listening to podcasts. He’d grown averse to the sound of voices. He was polite to the cashier at the health food store where he bought groceries, a man whose name Reef didn’t know, but who went by Bean Man in his head. Bean Man was always silent. One hot and buggy afternoon, Reef paid for his groceries, then looked the cashier in the eye and, to his own surprise, croaked “I can dunk a basketball.” Bean Man smiled.

On a whim, Reef ripped through one of the unopened packages in the entryway to reveal a steel chin-up bar. He had neither the tools nor the will to install the bar, so he swung it around like a sword, then used it to bash a hole in the drywall. Reef’s leg suddenly throbbed with pain. He wept, and awoke the next day with two pills stuck to his chin.

10. The Pod resolved to adjust Person’s Insight with coded electroacoustic stimulus applied to diffuse electric source (Indirect Pulse) in hope of reestablishing The People’s Insight, thus reinstating Harmony On Land.

The morning when Reef’s phone chimed with a D DAY notification, he was already awake.

He peeled the top sheet off his sticky leg, stepped into his good gym shorts, then slipped sockless into basketball sneakers.

Reef let the alarm chime until it ceased on its own. The phone remained beside his bed when he stepped out the door, notifications unchecked.

Damp earth wet the air. Reef coughed and shuffled down the stairs. He swatted through a ghost of gnats convened at his face. Wincing, Reef stopped short of the bottom, then climbed back inside to fetch his basketball. Just the ball. Not breakfast or his keys or phone or a fresh bandage for the wound that anyone but him could smell needed redressing.

As Reef expected, the gym sat hot and empty for his arrival. The rafters echoed each squeak of his sneakers against the freshly waxed floor. On Monday, the school custodian would find his body crumpled here in a pool of dark blood.

Reef couldn’t feel his left leg dragging. He tossed the ball ahead of himself with some backspin, then lurched forward. He didn’t care to hear the snaps and pops of tendons surrendering as he galloped toward the rim. Reef’s only cry came when his left foot planted on its side, the ankle bone skidding. Flesh tore, and everything inside it. Muscle divorced bone. Reef’s free leg swung at the ceiling. His cry came as a wet gasp, and it rang the still room for a moment after he shattered.

11. Indirect Pulse quickly succeeded, facilitating Harmony On Land. Problem solved!