For Drew Crawford, the day he buried his little brother was the day that Reynolds, Missouri stopped being home. Drew was twelve at the time, and as he watched the box containing the body of Charlie Crawford slowly lower into the ground, each foot down drained the color from the world bit by bit. By the time the funeral was over - after everyone had shaken hands and given hugs and said things that were supposed to make it better but only made it worse - Reynolds was unrecognizable. It wasn't home anymore, just the place where Charlie died. When his father announced that they would be moving away from town a few months after the funeral, he was grateful.
But as Drew aged and the world became a harder place to live in, his memories began to warp Reynolds into a rose-colored version of itself. Into a place where the world was still simple. Where life was still whatever you wanted it to be. Where he had a little brother. Charlie’s death dissociated from the place, reshaping itself into nothing more than the moment where the Universe decided to start kicking him in the ass. And if only he could get back to Reynolds, maybe the ass kicking would finally stop. It still wouldn’t be home – a recurring nightmare about the lowering of Charlie’s coffin made sure of that – but it would beat the alternative. He knew, though, that he would never see Reynolds again, that no matter how hard the Universe kicked him in the ass, nothing would justify an escape back to that place.
But then the Universe decided to strap on a pair of steel-toed boots for Drew’s ass-kicking. Drew worked at PeoplesPost.com, a popular news and entertainment website. It was a job he stumbled into by sheer luck after toiling away in post-collegiate unemployment for the better part of three years. At first, the job was a dream, but it didn’t take long for his boss – Oswald Glasser, a man who had plucked Drew from obscurity, then fast tracked him from junior entertainment reporter to managing entertainment editor in less than a year – decided to show him his true face. It started with private weekly talks about the “expectations of an editor to produce content that crackles,” and made it clear that Drew’s department was lacking said crackle.
“Listen, you’re a new editor, and that’s a tough job, it really is,” His boss said during one such talk. “So I called you in for this meeting today to remind you of your expectations as an employee here at People’s Post. Here at the post we have two sets of rules: there are the rules that you and I and everyone else follow to keep getting our paychecks – and I know you like that paycheck, am I right? You got a little money to play around with now!” Glasser chuckled and rubbed his enormous belly. “But there’s also the unwritten rules.” The man glided out from behind his desk – lithe despite his considerable girth – and sat in the chair next to Drew's. “The rules that we never talk about, that we learn to follow as we go. Following those unwritten rules is an expectation, Drew. It’s one you need to meet if you want to continue your employment here.” Glasser leaned in close to Drew, the intense musk of the man’s cologne filling his nostrils. “Sometimes, to produce content that truly crackles, you need to inform your reporters to do whatever is necessary. Cast a magic spell, pull something out of thin air – I don’t care what you tell them to do. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the stories they turn in need be on fire. Because here’s the thing: I know for a fact that PeoplesPost.com will have the highest readership on the planet. This isn’t wishful thinking, I know this for a fact, Drew. And the way we achieve that is by following those unwritten rules. By doing whatever is necessary to create the sort of story I’m talking about. Do you understand what I’m telling you?” Drew understood.
“What I understand,” Drew said, his face hot, eyes narrowing, nostrils flaring, “Is that I’m here to give people the truth.” He could hear his voice growing louder, could do nothing to stop it. “The best version of it. And the truth is a lot more important than ‘crackle.’” Drew settled himself, somehow managing to say those last words calmly, but he wanted to scream them. He had worked too hard, had endured too much universal ass-kicking, to let some fat-ass executive – who hadn’t touched a keyboard for more years than Drew had been alive – tell him to start publishing fake stories to pump up the site’s hit count.
Glasser nodded, said, “I hope you can keep up with that kind of optimism,” and dismissed him from his office. After that, the weekly talks turned into weekly yelling-sessions, then regular employee write-ups. It was easy to see where this was going: Drew wouldn’t play ball, so Glasser had decided to run him into the ground and then – he had no doubt about this part – he would fire him. Maybe even pin a few fabricated stories on him, just to make sure he would never work again.
Going to work became a nightmare. Every time he turned around, there was a new reason why he was “not performing proficiently.” He was either having a yelling session with Glasser or walking around anxiously, waiting for a yelling session. And no matter how hard he worked, no matter how ground-breaking his department’s stories were the yelling sessions always came, each one worse than the last. His sense of motivation became like a big dead thing inside him, leaking poison thoughts into his bloodstream, gradually turning him into a petty, lazy version of himself. At first, he managed to leave this bizarre personality behind at work, but it wasn’t long before even that became impossible. His relationship with his girlfriend suffered to a point beyond repair so quickly he wasn’t sure when the line had been crossed. Eventually, there was only one thought on his mind, one that bounced and echoed inside of his skull: I have to get out.
It reached a breaking point on a day when he realized that his department had stopped turning in stories to him, bypassing him completely and sending them straight to Glasser. It was then that he knew (or at least convinced himself that he knew) that it was only a matter of time before he would be fired, and replaced with an empty-headed yes-bot. So the next day he went into work and, feeling for the first time that he was about to win the game that Glasser had started playing with him, and resigned his position at PeoplesPost.com.
Glasser merely smiled, and said, “That is a very well-timed decision on your part, Mr. Crawford.” Then he told him to collect his personal items, turn in his ID Badge and company iPad, and leave the building as soon as possible. As he did these things, a strange sort of haze settled over his brain. Was this really happening? It was a moment he had thought about so often, had literally dreamt about. And now here it was. He was free. No more yelling sessions, no more anxiety, no more Glasser.
But now what?
Because now there was no more job, either. No more money. When he got back to his apartment he was surprised to see his girlfriend, Sara, sitting there at home. He had known that she would be there but suddenly confronted with the task of telling someone what he had just done caused his brain to short-circuit. She looked at him, standing there in the doorway with a box full of personal items slung between his arms, and a mask of understanding slowly spread across her face.
“You didn’t,” she said.
“I did,” Drew said.
The conversation that followed didn’t last long. They had had this conversation before, in the middle of many nights when he would panic and proclaim that he would quit his job the next day. She felt betrayed. She was relying on him. They had hopes and dreams that were now null and void. He was selfish and immature. Drew didn’t contribute much to the fight. He knew she was right. The haze around his brain began to thin, and for the first time he perceived what he had just done. True, he had more than likely quit a mere day or two before Glasser fired him. But now he would never know. What do I do now? The thought wormed its way into his head, eating everything else on his mind. Maybe it had all been in his head; maybe the stress inherent in his job drove him to paranoia. If that’s the case, he thought, then they shouldn’t have hired me in the first place. Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly realized he had stopped listening to Sara.
“Are you even listening?” Sara said. Drew shook his head no.
And then there was no more Girlfriend.
Sara kicked him out, reminding him (though he didn’t need reminding) that the apartment had been hers to begin with, that she survived before him, and would figure out how to survive without him. She was calm about the whole ordeal – this had always been Sara’s way, was one of the things he loved about her. She led him out of the door and into the hallway.
“Text me when you figure out where you’re going,” Sara said. “I’ll send all your shit.” She walked back into the apartment and slammed the door behind her – as much of a visual show of anger as she would ever demonstrate.
Again he thought, now what?
The question was heavy inside his head. He couldn’t go back into the apartment to beg forgiveness. Sara said what Sara meant; she didn’t play the kinds of games that other girls did in situations like this. He knew (prayed) that she would forgive him eventually, would take him back (unless she didn’t), but not any time soon, and not until exactly the moment she was ready. Going back into that apartment now would be a stupid idea to top the collective list of humanity’s stupid ideas.
Drew stood there, looking at the door that he knew (hoped) Sara was still leaning against, listening for him, and suddenly realized that against all odds, he had managed to find himself a justifiable excuse to escape back to the place that wasn’t home.
Back to Reynolds, Missouri.