Inside the Glass
by S.H. Mansouri
Issue 1: Grotesque | 4500 words
This Is My Room by Melanie Treuhaft
The bloody mess that had once been the body of a man was hidden in the shadows of an alleyway across from the pawnshop. It didn’t bother us much. We’d learned to accept the senseless violence of it all like we accepted trash clogging up the sewer drains, trembling bodies huddled beneath soggy cardboard shelters, or droves of invincible Glass-clad officers beating back the naked masses. It could have just as easily been me sprawled out and lifeless on the street with a hole in my head. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure… another man’s peace.
“You know him?” Dante whispered, scanning the street nervously.
“Eddie Thorpe. What a waste of brainpower, man.” I crouched beside his body and felt its warmth slowly seeping out. He’d worn the same blue button-up and tan khakis for as long as I could remember, the generic getup of a Glass pusher.
“Don’t touch it, Eric. The cops see you and you’ll end up just like him. Let’s go, we have to open up the shop. This isn’t our business,” he urged, tugging on my shoulder.
He deactivated it. Why? He was invincible, protected from anything the city could throw at him. Why deactivate a miracle? I rolled his body over and detached the Glass from his torso, black straps drooping down from the center of a flashing red octagon, like a spider’s wet legs dangling from its tiny body.
“Are you crazy?”
Two officers strolled toward us, their marred batons scraping across brick and loose mortar and old windowpanes, spitting paint chips to the sidewalk. It looked bad, crouched over Eddie’s body the way I was. We were lucky he’d fallen into the alleyway, tucked away from plain sight. Cardboard shelters set up along the sidewalk kept them busy, while I grabbed the Glass and stood. Finders keepers.
“Let’s go! It’s not worth it.”
Dante was always more afraid of them than I was. He had every right to be. The memory of a busted jaw and three broken ribs must have hit him hard at that moment. He scuttled across the sweltering street to the pawnshop. I followed, Eddie’s Glass swinging from my fist as I did my best to conceal the miracle I’d found.
Radio static flared familiar codes as the cops walked right passed the body, jaded eyes peering at us over tilted sunglasses rimmed in flaking gold paint. Two black men fiddling with the front gates of a pawnshop must have kept them glaring long after we were already inside. Forty acres and a mule, my ass.
“That was stupid,” Dante said as he flipped on the lights. “You’re just giving them a reason to lock you up, or worse. Is it worth your life?”
“Sure is. This thing is going to change my life—yours too. Think about it, Dante. We won’t have to watch our backs so much anymore. Some desperate guy comes slinking in the shop, waving a piece around again, and we don’t have to worry about ending up in a casket.”
Dante peeked inside the bathroom for a second to make sure there was no one hiding from the night before.
“Not worried about getting robbed as much as I am about the boys in blue outside.” He wiggled his jaw from side to side and dropped a new till in the register. “Besides, we watch each other’s backs. You’ve been looking out for me since day one.”
I plopped the Glass on the counter between us.
Guys like Dante and I would never earn enough money to own something like the Glass. Government funding for folks below the poverty line was next to zilch, and handouts, of the kind that kept you safe from crossfire, were about as rare as bulletproof vests. Who needed vests when we had the Glass?
“Looks like I’ll be the one taking bullets for the both of us now. You think it’ll fit?”
He reached under the front counter, pulled out a 9mm, and set it next to the Glass. “Oh, they fit—all twenty-two of them,” he said, counting the clip load. “It doesn’t change anything, though, not really. You think the Glass is going to change the way the world looks at you? Can’t change the fact that you’re broke, where you live, or the color of your skin. Last I checked, the Glass is clear, Eric.”
“Last I checked that gun’s not getting through this Glass.”
He walked around the counter and flipped the welcome sign on the door around.
“You’re not even going to consider it? We’ve been dreaming about this day, Dante. No more hiding in the cracks like roaches when the lights come on. We’re invincible!”
“A lot of good that does me now. I could have used the Glass two months ago when the cops almost put me in the hospital for protesting peacefully. From now on I’m taking this piece with me wherever I go. You can keep the Glass.”
Rays of early morning light shot through finger-smudged glass on the windows of the shop, silhouetting Dante like an Old-Testament prophet come to warn me about the wiles of coveting what the privileged owned by birthright.
“You think that gun’s going to protect you? Baaahhh, baaahhh.”
“You calling me a coward?”
“No, Dante, I’m calling you a sheep. You’re just going to accept it, bow your head like a good little boy and accept the fact that we aren’t human to them? The Glass is an equalizer. They can’t touch us now. Nobody can.”
“It’s illegal, Eric. You can’t just take someone else’s Glass and make it your own. There’s a better way.”
“What way? Malcolm’s way?!” I pounded my fist on the counter. “Petitioning, rallying the people? Protesting out in the streets with nothing but a cardboard sign between you and a billy club? That old geezer Malcolm’s got nothing but hot air and old stories to tell. Your jaw still hurt, Dante? What about your ribs? You can thank Malcolm’s ‘better way’ for that.”
He hung his head low, shifted his jaw a bit, and plodded back behind the counter again. I’d gone too far, dug my selfish claws into old wounds that hadn’t fully healed. Listening to Malcolm’s stories had lit a fire in Dante, dug up old memories better left buried in the past.
“I can’t stand the way you do that, Dante. The way you take it all in like an old sponge soaked in blood and sweat and tears. I’m not about to watch you suffer like that. Like…
“Like what? Pops? Is that what you were going to say?”
“Look, Dante, I didn’t mean to—”
“I know what you meant. Pops died when I was five, Eric. That was twenty years ago, but things are still the same. Two months ago, they almost killed me too. You weren’t there; you didn’t see the looks on their faces when they started cracking skulls, using live rounds to thin out the crowd. I got it easy. It’s like the Glass made them forget we were naked, unarmed… unprotected. They didn’t have a care in the world, Eric. Not a single care but for themselves.”
“I’ll protect you, Dante. Just watch. I’ll get this thing up and running and you’ll see just how normal things can get. I promise.”
“I’ve heard that before,” he sighed. He took inventory of the handguns in the front counter display while I fiddled and twisted with the Glass.
His sensitivity was understandable. Pops had promised to protect us both. He went out to a rally one night when we were kids and came back in a body bag. I should have been there when Dante tried to do the same thing two months ago. He would never let me off the hook for it.
“It’s not like both of us can fit inside that thing,” he said. “What are you going to do, stand in front of me all day long like a shield with cheap sneakers on?”
“If that’s what it takes.” Give me a chance, Dante.
He picked up the 9mm, thumbed the safety off, and tucked it back under the counter. “I’ll take my chances with this.”
The center of the Glass device flared from blue to red.
“It won’t work, you know,” he scoffed, pointing at the Glass. “They run on biometrics. You keep messing with that thing and the police will be here by noon.”
Damn. “Be right back then, before closing time.” I waked to the back door, Glass draped over my shoulder.
“Be careful… and get rid of that thing.”
“Right.” Not a chance, little brother.
Snuggled in the back alley, right next to our pawnshop, was Malcolm’s electronics. I knocked five times on his back door—two slow knocks followed by three in rapid succession. The glimmer of his glass eye swirled like a marble through the peephole. Chains swung loose, dead bolts unlocked, and Malcolm’s back door creaked open.
When he saw the black waist strap, shoulder straps, and the tiny red octagon in the center, he sneered and walked back inside, leaving the door ajar. Cigar smoke wafted from the seams.
“Not doing it,” he echoed back as he made his way over to a pile of spare parts and fiber optic wires.
“I’ll be as old as you by the time I save up enough money for one of these, no offense. Just this once, Malcolm. I need a reboot. Got lives to save.”
“Your own life you mean?” he said like an angry father.
“Dante too, of course.”
I slid the Glass onto a workbench covered with old hoagie wrappers and empty orange Crush cans. “It’s for the both of us.”
“Dante doesn’t want the Glass, Eric. He was in here just the other day asking for ‘special bullets,’ you know the kind.”
“You give ‘em to him?”
“Hell no. Boy’s got an itchy trigger finger as it is. The way they busted him up like that he’s liable to go on a killing spree, punching holes in anyone who even looks like they have the Glass.”
“He’ll get over it, just like he got over Pops.”
“You sure he has?”
“What makes you say that? You been telling stories about Pops again, Malcolm?”
He swiveled around and blew a ring of platinum smoke. His shop reeked of it. “He asked, Eric. I’m not keeping my mouth shut about your Pops anymore. He has a right to know.”
“Know what, that Pops went out in a blaze of glory? That he was just as crazy as Dante is?”
“Don’t you dare disrespect your father’s memory with that nonsense. He was a good man, saved my life more times than I care to remember.”
“Yeah, a lot of good that did us. He left us hanging, naked as the day we were born. I’m the guy who has to watch out for Dante now. Did you tell him about how Pops gave up his Glass?”
“We both gave it up. The military confiscates the Glass when your tour is up.”
“Then you’re both fools. One with a glass eye, the other six feet under—”
He double fisted my shirt and slammed me against the refrigerator, one eye wide as a cue ball while the other stared vacantly at magnets knocked loose by the jostle of my weight. “You think you know it all, don’t you, Eric? You don’t know a damn thing. It wasn’t you out in the desert testing Glass prototypes on IEDs, was it? It wasn’t you who watched men and women get blown to pieces while you stood there without a scratch. Your father risked his life for something better.”
“Let go of me, Malcolm.”
He bit down hard on his cigar and eased off. I let the tension clear before strolling back to the workbench.
“Why’d you give it up?”
“Yeah. I mean, the Glass got you out of the desert in one piece, right? Pops too.”
“It’s not that simple, Eric.”
“Yes, it is. The only reason everyone is so afraid is because we’re killing each other. Guns are useless now, Malcolm. They’re only good for killing Glassless folks. You think the police give a damn about how many guns are out there? Guys like you and Dante, you play right into their hands.”
“You want to be like them, then?”
“No, Malcolm, I want my brother to see his twenty-fifth birthday. I want to feel normal for once. What you and Pops did, testing out the Glass all those years ago, was a good thing. It did make things better. So, why are you telling Dante a different story?”
“Because it’s the truth. Sure, the Glass got us back in one piece, but the things we saw—the things your father saw—left a mark on us. Pops wasn’t crazy, Eric. He was filled with guilt about all the folks who walk these streets naked every day.”
“Guilty, crazy… what’s the difference? He still got himself shot up on these same naked streets, waving his gun around at the police. What kind of peaceful demonstration is that?”
He picked up the Glass and dangled it between us. “You want to feel normal? You think this thing is normal, son?”
“It’s better than eating a bullet.”
“Let me tell you something, Eric. You can’t feel a thing inside the Glass. Trust me, I know. It’s a selfish, mind-numbing cage.”
I didn’t have time to debate with him. I couldn’t have cared less if I never felt anything but the cage. I wanted normalcy, to stand on the same playground as everyone else. I wanted protection, and I wanted Malcolm to stop feeding my brother false hope. Why didn’t they see things for what they were? Did they think God would part the clouds one day and miraculously make everything equal for once? “I appreciate everything you’ve done for us over the years, Malcolm. I really do. But can you get it running, or not? Dante said the police might come looking for it.”
“You steal it?”
“I found it, technically.”
“Yeah. It figures. Pushing Glass isn’t for the faint of heart.”
“Faint of heart? Someone shot him in the head. What’s his heart have to do with it?”
“Never mind,” he sighed, “you wouldn’t understand. Dante see the body?”
“Yeah, he saw it. You’d think it would scare him right into the Glass. He wants everyone to think he’s tough—the angry guy with a 9mm. He’s really just afraid. You saw what they did to him. That’s what protesting gets you these days, a busted jaw and a couple broken ribs. He’s suffered enough.”
“Does he know you’re over here?”
“No, and I don’t want you telling him. You owe me Malcolm. For putting the idea that our voices matter into Dante’s head, you owe me.”
“I was just telling him what he has every right to know. Just giving him options.”
“Well don’t. He worshipped Pops. You keep telling him about the ‘good old days’ and he’s going to show up at the next protest packing heat.”
“Fair enough,” he said.
The old switcheroo was complete by late evening.
I wouldn’t call it a “black market” service, per se. It was just a reboot, a simple exchange of biometrics to ensure the Glass was tuned in to my body and that the police wouldn’t be knocking down our door anytime soon.
He handed it to me and it flashed like an ambulance siren.
I strapped it on and twisted the now blue octagon counterclockwise. A film covered my entire body, like cool water running down crystal. If Pops were still alive, I imagine he’d give me the same kind of look Malcolm was giving me. Like I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.
“Guilt,” he said.
“You asked me if the Glass got us back in one piece. We were fine, physically, but filled with guilt. Maybe that’s why Pops went to that rally packing heat. Maybe he wanted to die.”
“Maybe you should mind your own business, Malcolm. What person in his right mind, with two children to raise, wants to die?”
“A guilty person, Eric. See, I don’t need the Glass anymore. But for everyone else in this city, it’s a godsend. Why should I get to sleep at night without a care in the world? Why should I get to walk around protected while everyone else is naked? It’s not right, Eric. Either we all get the Glass, or none of us gets the Glass. Remember that when you’re the one inside the cage. Pops would agree.”
Tell it to Dante, I thought as I stepped out onto the sidewalk a new man.
Empty platitudes aside, the Glass was the most badass thing since Conan cut the head off that snake-king guy. It didn’t change the way I walked, or the way I talked, or even the way I saw the world through indestructible eyes. It changed the way I felt.
I finally felt protected, just like all the soldiers and officers and bankers must have felt. Walking down the sidewalk in the city of my birth, I felt human for once, like layers of reinforced steel stood between me and the harsh world outside. Let them take a shot at me, or a club to my head, or a boot to the small of my back. I could take it. The Glass was all I needed.
Those boys in blue passed right by me without a second glance. I straightened my back, lengthened my stride, and held my chin up high. That’s right, stay in your lane, keep on walking. No subhuman cockroach here to bat aside when the lights come on. So, this is what it feels like.
“Ten-hut!” I shouted with joy in my heart.
The rumble of my stomach echoed, vibrated a bit, probably from the Glass. There were other “bodily functions” I thought would sound spectacular from inside the Glass. But first, I had to eat.
Taco King was the best place on earth to grab a bite to eat in the city. It was Tuesday, the only day of the week Mr. Gonzalez sold them two for one. It felt strange digging into my own pockets, like when your arm falls asleep from propping your head up for too long on the living room floor while you’re watching TV. Numb. I bet Superman felt like that his entire life.
I passed my credit card to Mr. Gonzalez and he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. In the city, pretty much everyone was broke. I chalked up his unusual enthusiasm for getting my tacos out in a timely fashion to the possibility that he’d seen my Glass straps. Service with a smile for once.
I fumbled with my paper plate and took a seat at a window booth. Not in the back, not out front on the patio, not far away from the windows to hide… right at the window for everyone to see. When I squeezed the plastic hot sauce bottle, way too much came out. I’d have to get used to the right amount of pressure in my hands. By the time I’d gotten it down, my paper plate looked like taco salad. By the time I got used to using a spork to shovel taco salad into my mouth, the sun was going down.
I always loved that time of day; the middle time; the halfway point.
It was when everything settled down—or boiled up, depending on who you talked to. It was the time of day when I’d watch the street lights more carefully, glancing up at them in between downs of touch football, dodging cars returning home from dead-end jobs. When the streetlights came on, it was time to get inside. Time to get back to Dante and our empty tract home where the memory of dead parents haunted us both.
We hadn’t been so fearful back then.
Sure, we still got that queasy feeling in our guts every time a patrol car passed by, or there was a knock at the front door after 10PM, or when we walked into clothing stores owners thought wouldn’t “fit our style” or our “budget.” But we still had each other at the end of the day. We still had hope that, despite our differences, they’d see us as human for once. That’s what that time of day meant to me. Hope.
When I got back to the pawnshop the front gates were already pulled down and Dante was standing in front of the register, frozen.
“We’re closed buddy. Come back tomorrow,” I shouted from the back door. “Dante, you’re never going to believe how awesome this thing feels. Man, were you wrong about the Glass. Malcolm…
That’s when I noticed the guy—that straggling customer with nude pantyhose pulled tight over his head—wasn’t leaving. As I walked a bit closer, I could see his hand was lowered counter level, gripping a Glock 20 tightly, pointing it right at Dante’s stomach.
“You, get your ass over here!” he ordered, waving the piece at me while Dante stuffed an old pillowcase with the day’s till.
I still have no idea how he got inside the shop after Dante pulled the gates down. Dammit, Dante! I told you to check the bathroom every night. But desperation has a way of seeping through the cracks.
“Behind the counter, now! Don’t be a hero, boy.”
Sweat trickled down Dante’s brow as he emptied the rest of our cash into the guy’s pillowcase. His jaw twitched spasmodically. It was my time to shine, to show Dante that he was wrong about the Glass. That sonofabitch could empty the entire clip for all I cared. I won’t say he looked like the type of guy who would do it, or that his hands weren’t shaking just as much as Dante’s were. I had no idea. It didn’t matter, because we were protected. We…
I made my way behind the counter next to Dante, chest puffed-out, ready for my Superman moment.
“Eric,” Dante muttered.
“Who told you to talk?! Now get your hands up—both of you.”
Dante held his hands up high, eyes low, desperately scanning behind the counter.
I say Dante held his hands up high because me, well… I had the Glass. Didn’t this guy realize who he was robbing? Didn’t he see the black straps and the flaring blue light on my chest?
I know it sounds funny, but when you’re protected, like we were then, you get the luxury of thinking about really mundane things during a crisis. I thought about when we used to play cops and robbers together as kids. I was always the cop and when I caught Dante with the loot, which was usually just an old bag of expired cereal, he’d hold his hands up just like he was doing at that moment. Better times.
“I got this, Dante.”
“You got shit!” said the guy. He took a ball-peen hammer from the discount bin and started smashing the glass on the front counter display. He licked his lips, eyes wide as a kid in a candy shop, and began filling the rest of the pillowcase with handguns.
I inched towards Dante.
I was almost in front of him when the guy finished.
He reached down behind the counter, and the guy unloaded on us.
He didn’t aim directly at me, or at Dante, or at anything in particular. He just emptied the clip, grabbed his pillowcase and bolted for the back door. I hoped Malcolm hadn’t heard the shots. He was crazy enough to walk right into the barrel of a submachine gun if it meant saving the people he loved.
The bullets felt strange, like a dozen fingers poking at a piece of raw dough.
“You see that?” I said to Dante, running my hand over the Glass. “Not a scratch.”
Each shot pushed me back a bit. Ten of them must have hit me by the way I ended up on the ground behind the counter. Some of them went through mannequins and TV screens and hanging signs advertising wedding rings.
The rest went right through Dante.
I stood and watched the pain etched into his beautiful face, frozen there like a snapshot in some gruesome family album. He wasn’t sleeping, or sick, or recovering from all the bumps and bruises the boys in blue had given him two months ago. He was dead, seeping out all over the pawnshop floor.
“You’re so stupid, Dante! I told you I’d protect you. Why didn’t you believe me? Why’d you have to reach for that useless thing?” I dragged him out from behind the counter and called for help. I knew it was too late.
Small dents in the Glass pushed their way flush again. I heard the back door swing open. Malcolm put his hand on my shoulder. “Jesus, Eric. What happened?”
“Check the bathroom, god dammit! I told him to check the bathroom every night.”
Malcolm held me as I screamed and pounded on his chest. “It’s not your fault, Eric.”
“It is my fault. I knew he was going to do something stupid like this. I should have seen it coming. All I cared about was this fucking Glass!” I pushed Malcolm away, unlocked the straps, and tossed the Glass next to my brother.
The blue octagon flashed like an ambulance siren.
I could have saved Dante that day. If I hadn’t been so blind, so concerned with feeling “normal,” whatever that means, he’d be alive today, making fun of my cheap sneakers, telling me how much he missed Mom and Pops too. If I’d just stood in front of Dante then, he’d be standing right next to me now.
Dante had said he saw the look in their eyes as they beat back the masses. He saw how feeling invincible could numb you to the nakedness of everyone else. I just hadn’t listened. I was so damned eager to feel protected for once that I forgot to protect the one person I loved most in the world.
I wasn’t wrong about the Glass, though.
If I hadn’t been wearing the Glass there’d have been two dead bodies sprawled out behind the counter. Guns were the problem. Guns cut Pops’s life short before he could teach us to be real, god-fearing men. Guns took Dante’s life before his twenty-fifth birthday. Guns kept us so full of fear that we thought killing each other somehow made things better. Guns were the reason the Glass existed in the first place. But being right won’t bring my brother back.
I’d felt grateful to be alive for about one whole second after Dante was murdered; now, I’d feel guilty and ashamed for the rest of my life.
Malcolm had said I wouldn’t feel a thing inside the Glass. But he hadn’t meant what I thought he did.
The Glass protected anyone lucky enough to afford it—or steal it—but it couldn’t protect us from our own selfish desire to feel invincible. It couldn’t erase a whole lifetime spent begging to feel normal. It couldn’t erase the guilt. Maybe that’s what happened to Eddie Thorpe. Maybe he wasn’t gunned down by some poor schmuck trying to get his hands on the Glass.
Maybe Eddie Thorpe pulled the trigger himself.