Miserably Ever After
I observed the young lady sprawled on the floor, with what others might call keen interest. She seemed confused. With her dark brown eyes, auburn shoulder-length hair, and freckled cheeks, she seemed like any other sixteen years old in our town.
I watched without blinking my blank green eyes, as she extricated herself from the belt of the sling bag that she was entangled in. Had my mother been around, she would have insisted I help her get up.
Getting up to her feet, the girl looked around in confusion. I decided it was time to introduce myself.
“Hi, I am Melan. Do you need something?”
“Huh?” The furrows in her forehead deepened as she surveyed my bedroom.
I pursed my thin lips as tight as the bun on my head as I waited for the visitor to regain her bearings.
“Where am I?”
“Presently are in my room. Who are you?”
“I’m Mirth Mingle. How did I get here?”
“You walked in through that wall.” I pointed at the wall facing the east. Ordinarily, a person would jump out of their skin because such happenings were unheard of in the world we lived in. I, on the other hand, have never understood why someone has to get all worked up on witnessing such never-before events.
Mirth seemed to have been caught in surprise as well. “I was at the supermarket…reached out for a bag of marshmallows…I tripped over nothing…dashed into the rack…it swiveled …and I’m here!” She mumbled.
“Which supermarket?” I enquired, resting my lanky frame against the backrest of my chair.
“ The one on 12th street…umm…Manhattan,”
“I don’t know where that is.”
“Where are we?” She pouted her pink lips, absently looking at a rectangular device in her hand, that had a lit screen.
“In Doldrumsberg.” I gazed at her device with glassy eyes. Mother would have been suspicious, but I don’t know the feeling. I don’t know any feelings.
Mirth seemed to think a lot of that device in her hand. From her, I now knew it was called a smartphone. It could make you talk to people at a distance, show you stuff called videos and do a host of other things deemed smart in their world. We did not have phones here, our cigars were all we needed. We just rose with the smoke, transporting ourselves wherever needed. And we thought and read and made up in our minds what the videos showed in Mirth’s world. We never called ourselves smart for that.
But Mirth kept fidgeting with the phone, declaring it had died, several times. I wondered how many lives did it have? Everyone in Doldrumsburg had three, and I was on my third one.
“Funny!” Mirth remarked as she looked at the framed fumes on the wall in my room. I thought they were fairly ordinary pictures, left from the sad times I had shared with my family.
One with me riding my bike for the first time. Another was when my mother held her first art exhibition. One more when Dad was declared the President of Doldrumsburg.
“Why are your parents so gloomy in these pictures?” Mirth seemed puzzled.
“Why wouldn’t they be? Is that not the general purpose of existence?” I countered. I was astonished by the alien’s ignorance.
She fidgeted with her phone again. I guess that is a kind of tic these earthlings have. Intermittently glancing at the phone involuntarily.
I had entertained the possibility of meeting an alien in my lifetime, given my background as a science prodigy. But I had never imagined it would look just like one of us. Mirth Mingle stood out from the crowd only because of the frequent smiles she gave every passerby, the cheery squeaks she uttered as I walked her around the park, and the happy lines that danced around her eyes almost all the time. Why would someone do that unless they were voluntarily trying to lose all their wealth and self-respect?
“Listen, Mirth, I don’t know how folks function back in your world, but here, we aspire to stay as sad as we can be. I’m taking you to meet the President. He is the most knowledgeable man around, and will have an answer to a lot of your queries.”
I swiped my ID card at the sensor. She read my name aloud, “Ms. Melan Choly.” Then she had that tic with her phone again.
“And you can walk in to speak to your President, just like that?” Mirth’s eyes widened with what I assumed was a shock.
“ Yes, but only because he is my father.”
I knocked on the cabin with the golden nameplate. It read, Hon. President, Major Gloom.
Initial greetings were exchanged. I saw Dad raise his eyebrows when Mirth did not return his customary scowl. I hurriedly rattled whatever little I knew of the earthling. Dad’s expression softened.
“ Ah, a sorrow seeker! They have been mentioned in our ancient texts, but I have never come across one before.” He placed his hands on his knees. He sat on a high chair, his spine slumped perennially in depression. His green eyes were framed with soft lines of dejection. He continued to speak in a monotonous drawl that was so dear to his citizens.
“I have been governing this extraordinary land for all of my three lives, currently in my hundred and third year of presidency. We follow only one religion, the pursuit of eternal grief. We have the tenets laid down by our founder to guide us. He is the one who showed us, enlightened souls, the path to benightment. Mirth, bow down to our deity, the Pessi-mystic!” Saying thus, Major Gloom unraveled the curtains of the temple over his desk, to display the shimmering fumes of the Master.
“So you guys seek unhappiness in everyday life! Unreal!” Mirth gawked at the deity with inappropriate amusement.
“That is the only truth for you as well. Here, take this.” He placed a golden chip on her tongue, while she stared in open-mouthed horror.
“Ugh, what is it?” Mirth tried to spit out the chip in vain. But it had been internalized by then. I watched the play, glassy-eyed.
“Daughter, that is an emotion tracker. The State governs the emotional balance of all its citizens. We have a very meticulous system of calculating your grief percentage daily. And what is more, each new grief you get earns you instant cash as an incentive. Every bout of depression wins you free coupons to spas, sponsored vacations, and lots more.” Major Gloom’s voice quivered with excitement. He immediately took a deep breath, letting his inherent grief flood his persona again.
“ Did you watch that? That is the level of self-control we must all aspire to. Look how Dad curbed excitement in its nascent stage and smothered it with resentment?” I would have beamed with pride, if I could feel any.
Mirth bit her lip, I presumed, in anger, “I don’t want your citizenship! Just show me the way back home!” She demanded.
“Ah, the ignorant sorrow-seeker! Incredibly rare.” Major Gloom went back to his books, indicating the meeting was over.
He added as an afterthought, “Beware of the urge to flee Doldrumsburg. The chip in your tongue is electromagnetically charged. Try crossing the border and it will repel you akin to the like poles of a magnet. The military personnel might also inflict physical pain.”
“ Let’s go.” I nudged Mirth.
“Please!” She looked at me imploringly, with teary eyes.
“ It is not your choice. This is the only way here. Let me show you.” I led her by the hand.
I could hear her trying to scrape the sensor chip with her teeth. That was a futile exercise. It had already been internalized. Ironically, it would already have led to a cash reward deposit in her state-allocated bank account. Prize money for her first tears in Doldrumsburg.
Had my mother been alive, she would have felt pity for the girl.
Life was in full swing at the marketplace. Vendors were crying out to their clients. The clients were crying back, disappointed at having got a cheap bargain.
I decided to take Mirth to my favourite fast food joint. We ordered a ‘Sad Meal” each. Burger, fries, and cola.
Mirth was staring out of the window. Her eyes widened as she saw the florist prune off a rose and put the thorned stem up for display. What did those earthlings offer each other Mo’Rose Day, I wondered.
Mirth glanced around the room. Folks were having their meal in peace, sobbing in between. Mothers slapped their kids for no reason, making them cry. Friends hurled insults at each other, till their hearts turned averse to the other’s company. Lovers ignored compliments and dissected the tiniest of shortcomings. Really, everyone just trying to create a sad place around themselves. Giving grief, without any expectations for favours in return.
“So how do you manage to be sad about routine things?” Mirth broke into my thoughts.
“There is always something that is not right. You just have to focus on it to make it bigger, more fearful.” I replied.
I pointed to a young couple with their cherubic firstborn, lamenting his first birthday in silence. At the far end was an old couple, cutting cake amidst cries of “Boohoo!”They had managed to exhaust all their savings recently. Now they had won a lottery.
A couple of kid beggars were staring at us, their gay faces plastered to the glass door. Pointing at our meal they called out to us cheerfully. Unexpectedly, Mirth walked up to them and gave them her meal. The kids danced in glee. Mirth smiled as well.
“ How are they allowed to be happy?” She demanded the moment she sat down.
“They chose to be happy. The state only demanded a fine each time they laughed. That’s how their parents became beggars.” I hoped I was driving home a point.
“They have nothing to lose now.” Mirth kept staring at those mongrels, as they ate their fancy meal in bliss.
We were walking towards my house. Dad would be back only after 6 PM. I had promised Mirth she could live in the state quarters close by and visit us anytime. I could tell she was trying to figure a way out to escape. Sadly, there wasn’t any.
“What do you want to do for a living?” I asked her. I wanted to have her set up her life as quickly as possible.
“Back home, I was studying to be a kindergarten teacher. Kids made me so happy.” Her voice trailed off, as a fresh batch of tears made a foray on her cheeks.
At this rate, she was going to be rich soon.
“You can continue studying and become a kindergarten teacher here as well. Just remember to pinch the tiny tots now and then. As long as they keep howling, you are sorted.”
She smiled, probably thinking I was joking. There would be an instant debit from her account. The young lady had a lot to learn.
“So, what do you do? You don’t seem particularly sad to me.” Mirth seemed to be regaining her composure.
“I am a scientist. And I aspire to rule the world.” I said softly.
Mirth turned to meet my eye. We were only a few blocks away from home.
“And yes, I’m not sad. Or happy. Or anything in between. I have alexithymia, the inability to interpret and express emotion.” I motioned her to cross the street with me.
I continued talking, “My Dad will complete his tenure in one year. But the presidential elections are based on the Cumulative Grief Score, and needless to say, I shall never ace the test.” I upped my pace.
“My mother was the only one who knew of my aspirations. I…”
“What happened to her?” Mirth interrupted me.
“She committed suicide last year.”
“No, that is the regular way people die here anyway. The death of honour each one aspires for. It is not considered a crime here, unlike in your world.” For the first time, I allowed a glint in my eyes.
“Do you know about my world?”
“Yes, I do. I have been studying it for over a year. In fact, Mother was the one who gave me the idea. When I said I wanted to be a President, she had remarked it was only possible ‘In another universe.’ That got me on the quest for one.” I gently pried her phone from her hand and slid it into my pocket.
I was almost running now. Mirth ran to keep pace with me.
“So do you know how to get back?” She seemed out of breath.
“ I tried. Several times. But it did not work.” We entered the gates. I fumbled with the keys in excitement, “I have a theory that I want to test, soon.”
“How exciting!” Mirth squealed with joy, “But why do you want to get to my world? I mean, how would that help your dream?”
“Because my apathy would work for me there. Is the lack of emotion not a desirable quality in a ruler, back in your world?” I sprinted up the steps, Mirth at my heels.
“We seek happiness!” She panted.
“You do. But not for long. Have you looked around you? Folks glued on their phones, losing track of reality? Gullible to being exploited by the ones in power? I tell you, your world awaits me!” I fastened my knapsack. The slant of the sunrays told me it was almost time.
“ Where are you going?”
“To your world, hopefully. If the wormhole I designed works fine, again.”
“ How do you think you entered my bedroom? I placed a temporary wormhole with a portal on the rack of the supermarket.”
“I told you I have a theory. It is a stupid balance-between-the-universes thing. If I want to get in, I must pay a price.” I stood facing the east wall.
“What price?” There was panic in Mirth’s eyes.
“ You are the price, dear Mirth. I needed a girl of roughly the same age. You fit the bill. I’m sorry.” I raised my palm to touch the wall, as I counted down the seconds.
“ But you can never leave. The chip wouldn’t let you!” Mirth shrieked.
“ You can’t leave. I can.” I spat the deactivated chip on her face. As my palm touched the wall, it swiveled about an axis. I felt an enormous vacuum pulling me in. As I passed through the portal, I waved to her,
“Wish you bad luck and all the sadness in the world.”