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Packing Foam

Saturday afternoon crashed, leaving each brick of the asylum stuck like a frozen pixel. Likely the rain, Eben figured. Rendering the complex ripples, the splashing drops--not to mention the fraying edges of the mist--were too demanding for his obsolete brain. During the rainy season, such malfunctions were common, especially in the early afternoon when, as Eben imagined it, the day's onslaught of data finally overran the buffer limits and the whole system tipped into the bucket. During such down times, when his motor functions seized, Eben used to stare at the blank walls and bide his time waiting for reality to reboot. Recently however, Eben was far less patient with these immobilizing crashes. Eben had acquired a tool and now had a new purpose in life.
Earlier in the week, Eben Murphy finally stole a spoon from the commissary. He'd tried to sneak one past the inspectors on at least seventeen previous occasions. Once, he tucked a soup spoon up his sleeve along the outer bone of his forearm, but the weird bulge attracted attention. Another time he wedged one into his shoe, but the handle poked out near his toe. After Tuesday's lunch, however, Eben attempted his most absurd stunt yet. It worked. Eben balanced the bowl of the spoon on the tip of his nose as he exited. The guards made him turn out his pockets but evidently never bothered to look at his face.
After his triumphant heist on Tuesday, Eben hurried to his room and began sculpting the hard foam walls of his cell. The material made a satisfying crunch as he scooped it out, but the blunt edge of the spoon left ragged edges. Eben sharpened the tip against the floor until the curved blade could excavate perfect ovals. The shape reminded him of elm leaves, so he spent the afternoon remaking his prison into a treehouse.
After carving for well over an hour, Eben stepped back to take in his work and nearly tripped as his boots crunched ankle-deep in foam chips. His tiny cell was engulfed by a pale avalanche. The larger chunks covered the floor but the finer bits clung to every surface like fake snow. Eben scooped up the shavings. They coated his hands like a glove, sticking to his skin through static attraction. Without considering the consequences, Eben licked his fingers clean and swallowed hard. When no ill effects seemed to follow, Eben shoveled the white powder into his mouth. The foam was not entirely flavorless. The largest pieces he crunched down like deep-fried snacks. My philosophy tutor would call this internalized repression. Eben amused himself between mouthfuls; swallowing the walls of your own prison or something. He devoured all evidence of his vandalism and still had a healthy appetite for dinner.
Eben's mother popped in for a visit late Wednesday as Eben was adding texture to the main branch of his treehouse. She sat on the bunk and they tried to converse, awkwardly, like two clumsy oafs playing catch with a ball slightly larger than either could grasp. Eben tried to show off his new bas-relief but his mom wasn't impressed. She couldn't see his sculpture because she didn't see his walls.
Her response was that familiar wrinkled grimace and that same Old Question: "Why, Eben, why? What did you do to end up here?"
There is no answer Eben can give. Eben suspects he's here, packed in foam, because of something he is, not because of something he's done, but he can't figure out how to tell that to the person who literally made him who he is.
Eben shrugged, "It's not why, Mom. It just is."
After that, their conversation crashed completely. Their words simply ceased to work and after a few minutes of painful silence, his mom departed.
Despite almost daily restarts, Eben's treehouse progressed satisfactorily until Friday's crash. The system performed a hard reset and the wall re-formed itself flat, an inviolate sheet of protective foam. Eben gasped when he discovered his old hell had returned, but after a moment he started to sketch out a brand new design. This time, he'd make his cell an ancient Greek temple.
Ionic or Doric? he asked himself, since he knew Corinthian capitals on the embedded columns would be too complex for his outmoded I/O to achieve.
Compromise was a way of life for Eben, though occasionally he'd dream of an upgrade. A better graphics chip might make his actions seem more fluid, perhaps more purposeful. A faster processor could eliminate the hesitation he experienced, the waffling lack of confidence when initiating a task. For that matter, a fully adequate neural framework might eliminate system crashes altogether. But such a dream was unimaginable. He might as well try to imagine a life outside of his cell.
The spoon however, that magical wand, at least made his prison slightly more congenial to his taste.
During Saturday's crash, Eben stared for hours, rigid and fixed, at a fleck of foam, locked into place mid-fall, halfway between wall and floor. Can't be much longer now, Eben consoled himself. From the corner of his eye, he surveyed his handiwork. There was something wrong about the top of that new column.
Late into Saturday night, when Eben's world finally rebooted, he was thankful it was a warm reset because his temple remained. He sprang into action and placed one foot on the edge of his bunk, drawn toward the imperfection he noted during the crash. Eben needed to shave a slightly better curve on the supporting column nearest the corner. He probably should have moved the chair right next to the wall, but instead, he stood on the hard cotton sleeping pad and leaned out, slightly overextending his reach. One stroke should correct the flaw, but Eben lost his balance and toppled hard against the wall. The spoon crashed entirely through the foam, and the impact of Eben's hand cracked open a hole as large as his head. When Eben's shoulder hit the surface with his full weight, the blow dislodged an even larger chunk from the top of the Ionic column and it too disappeared through the wall. Eben cautiously adjusted himself but his every motion made the sheet of foam, weakened by his carving, creak as if ready to give way.
Eben dangled barely half inside his cell and had little choice but to look at what lay beyond. He was amazed and rather terrified by what he didn't see. Beyond the wall, Eben didn't see just another room in the asylum, nor did he see a street, still slick from the recent rain. Nor was there an office cubicle or a park or a cityscape. Eben could only see the broken sections of wall, as well as his precious spoon, floating away into a vast, dead emptiness. Eben swooned, awestruck, by their lazy motion. No gravity compelled their motion and no friction apparently inhibited their slow slide into infinity.
The void called to an empty pit deep inside Eben's gut. Only a fragile crust of foam protected him from these obsidian depths. Eben carefully placed his palms against the remaining wall and attempted to right himself. He couldn't move, could barely breathe, without hearing the walls squeal as if ready to crumble. It wouldn't hold long enough for another hard reset.
But the walls are just in my head, Eben thought, remembering the sentiment his mother asserted on every visit.
He blinked and blinked as he stared through the hole, unable to make out any form or color other than the pale chunks of foam and his beloved utensil that toppled aimlessly away. Eben was accustomed to situations where his brain came up short, where he couldn't crunch the data presented, where his processor lacked the power to make sense. But staring at this absolute absence, Eben realized his brain wasn't so inferior or obsolete after all. It was a precision instrument, optimized for exactly this situation.
Just as when he looked at a blank wall and saw a treehouse or a temple, Eben stared into this yawning gulf beyond the wall. He saw that his cell was a shipping box, protecting him en route but delivering him to this specific destination. His walls were just packing foam and Eben had arrived.
Without another thought, Eben slipped through the hole like an ice fisherman chasing a lost trout into a frozen lake, one who finds the chilly waters entirely congenial to his taste.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 13th, 2015


I have a diagnosis of bipolar depression, however I work to view it less like a disability and more like a superpower. Sort of. The original idea behind "Packing Foam" emerged from an attempt to explain to my loved ones what this condition feels like. Through the process of writing and revising, I "sculpted" this idea into a tale that really isn't about depression at all, which is rather how I try to live my life.

- James Frederick Leach

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