(Work in progress)
Chapter I: Commute
The fluorescent lights from the news channel introduction on the television shone through the apartment’s kitchen like lightning bolts in an evening sky. Rafael sat hunched and aloof on his phone in the chair most distant from his parents, at the long and oversized wooden table, placed rather haphazardly in the kitchen.
“For a room owned by someone who works in the construction business, that table is placed really stupidly.” Rafael always thought to himself with sly confusion.
In the background, Rafael’s mother, Sofia, was heating up pre-made breakfast meals in their rather outdated microwave. Rafael’s father, Luis, sat with his hands clenched together while leaning slightly forward, his body and chair facing away from the table in the direction of the television. On the television, displays Leon Sanchez, current Governor of Texas, announcing the public release of robots now assigned to government contracted blue-collar jobs across the state on January 1st, 2050.
“Two thousand and fifty. Two thousand, and god, damned, fifty.” Luis said with a frustrated expression. “I remember just thirty-two years ago when I was forced into the construction business when people had to work with their hands, with pride, with vigor. I don’t know what the hell these tech companies are thinking, supplying these new robots to the government, putting these machines into the public. Controlled by some kid in an air conditioned office space with their little chismes from their anime and video games. It’s a shame you’re gonna end up just like those lazy bums if you keep doing what you’re doing, Rafael.” Luis said without turning his head, gripping his grape-flavored carbonated energy drink.
Rafael, without looking up from his phone, but slightly annoyed “Yeah sure, whatever.” Then, halfway looking up towards the back of his head, “Like not doing that is working wonders for you right now, huh.” he said sarcastically under his breath, before putting his head back down facing his screen.
“He’s doing great in school Luis, one of those, “fancy bum jobs” is what’s gonna get us out of this mess. That is maybe once he gets off that damn screen, and starts picking his damn room up.” Sofia said sternly.
“Well what the hell am I supposed to do then Sofia? My business is going under from all these damn robots, again, the government is screwing us. They screwed me, they screwed our son, and I’m pretty damn shocked they haven’t gotten to you yet. Hell, we were screwed less before when we first made it over here.” Luis frustratingly responded.
For as little as the number of things that can distract Rafael’s interest away from his phone at the family dinner table are, Rafael did so that morning. He remembered for another time why the topic of anti establishmentarianism rhetoric on behalf of his aging father, why the ideas of vulnerability and inability of action as a result of an almost omniscient entity to him struck him the way it does. Little of a thought these days, but nonetheless a striking reminder of the origin of his offensiveness and lack of trust in those around him, and not a fun one for the teenager.
Rafael, however, knowing another grating, annoying argument was impending on behalf of his parents, started to pack his things for his classes today, in preparation to leave that apartment as soon as he could. He switched from his athletic shorts to his ripped, white-washed, blue jeans, keeping on his oversized and wrinkled white tee shirt he frequently wears around at home for comfort. Rafael lost his interest in appropriate and presentational dress in high school, knowing in the grand scheme of his life, it wasn’t practical to him what a few people may possibly think, especially at the cost of personal comfort.
Rafael’s daily commute to his university’s campus includes a mile walk to the nearest bus stop that will take him to campus for free, which has become more than routine to him. Living in an above average lower-class area of residence at best, he walks past run down slums of Austin, one of which is especially known for its high violent crime rate. Rafael, though always very aware of his immediate environment, learned to be especially wary of such on his commute to school. This morning, however, he would spend an unusual amount of time thinking to himself about his life, balancing his focus on his surroundings and inner monologuing. Today, he thought about his future, specifically after he finished university. Rafael thought about his survival, he thought about if his viewpoints on life would be useful and if it would be worth it for himself. He thought about if his father had seen the world the same way he did in his time, and wondered how disappointing the future is, compared to his vision of self-advancement at his age thirty-so odd years ago. He kept thinking this single point over, staying stringent on possibilities, trying to keep his thinking realistic. He pondered this until his focus was broken via the sound of the cutting screeches of bus tires in front of him.
Rafael quickly snapped out of his wandering head, walking up the steep steps of the advertisement-covered bus, gripping to the railing next to his graffiti tattered, plastic, uncomfortable, blue seat, where for the next fifteen minutes, he would sit observing the new batches of other daily commuters while listening to music, and clutching his black, Nike-brand, backpack cradled between his thighs.
Rafael watched in apathy as an elderly man was getting pickpocketed by another rider, covered in tattoos and piercings with a black hoodie. While continuing to clutch his bag, Rafael snickered quietly to himself, seeing the old man get robbed so easily to him. He thought to himself how preventable a case like that was, and imagined the things he would do to that hooded man if he caught him doing the same to him. Rafael always thought of himself highly for someone who didn’t see much point in over achieving, nor had much under his belt in terms of personal motivation, but he knew he was smart, and he knew he was a survivor, which was more than enough for him. Upon further thinking to himself, he quickly lost interest in his earlier musings.
“Hell, what am I thinking, I’m gonna be stuck around here forever. Might as well just keep goin’, so I don’t end up some defenseless loser like him.” Rafael muttered to himself, before catching the disapproving gaze of an elderly woman across from him.
“Shit, she heard that? Is it my music?” he thought to himself. Though upon meeting her unforgivingly harsh stare, he assumed it must’ve been the former, and his slightly sly demeanor shifted back to a neutral and unexpressive one, facing back down at his phone afterwards.
“Puta.” Rafael said to himself in regards to the elderly women, before turning his music back up for the remainder of his daily commute to his campus.
Chapter II: Michael
Rafael walked off the bus onto his campus with a baggy face and sporting a dragging, almost zombie-like walk, with only one of his backpack straps resting on his shoulder while the rest hung by his side.
Today marked the Monday of the last week of school until winter break started, the campus population seemingly halved as all formal classes had come to an end to make space for finals testing. Rafael always ignored the crowds around him on campus, with earbuds in his ears and a downward facing head is how he would unenthusiastically make his way around campus.
Rafael was surprisingly fond of his time at university, despite what it may seem on the outside, though partially seeing it as just another necessary speed bump in his life to keep himself and his future one more step away from his miserable father’s, he saw it as more than that. A straight-A student since enrollment, Rafael rarely saw his chemical engineering classes as a challenge, but a fortress of solitude he knew he stood out in, a place where he knew he was at the top of the food chain. For one of the first and only times in his life, Rafael did not feel inferior, he was not jealous of those around him, nor he did not feel uncomfortable in his own skin.
After a ten minute walk from the bus stop to his designated laboratory building, Rafael made his way to the desk and chair in the lobby furthest from all of the chatter and localized study sessions, just how he liked it. He opened his laptop and reviewed an online organic chemistry review his professor had assigned a week prior. None of the knowledge was new to him, but it was therapeutic, the light yet bassy tapping noises from the tip of his electronic stylus touching the screen of his foldable laptop, like notes in an avant-garde piano ballad, or the kicks off an electronic melody, note after note, tapping and playing away, he could feel the vibrations inside his skin, though most of the noise was drowned in the flood of music pouring into his ears from his earbuds. This was, until Rafael was rudely interrupted by a sight he doesn’t normally see every day, a group of what looked like almost two dozen students all simultaneously leaving the nearby auditorium, very much less than quietly.
Slightly disgruntled, Rafael dropped his stylus on the metal desk with frustration, ripping out his earbuds from his ears, borderline throwing his earbuds back into his Bluetooth charging pouch in his backpack, before getting out of his chair to examine the commotion. Fueled with annoyance, yet curiosity, Rafael swiftly walked across the empty, tall, concrete, echoing hall, to the other side of the building’s lobby, next to the auditorium. He saw and began to read the text on the electronic sign next to the large metal doors. “Project Orange.”
“The hell is this?” Raphael whispered to himself quietly, a moment after reading the sign.
Being out of the loop on most of the student organizations and other miscellaneous things “college,” Rafael had no clue what this “project” was, but decided to gander a peek into the auditorium out of curiosity, after the crowd of chatty students had left. The auditorium was left empty, almost, with only one person remaining inside. On the stage next to the podium, was a tall, pale, young man with messy blonde hair, sporting a flannel and loose cargo pants. He was busy placing a stack of indiscernible papers into a large binder, a sight Rafael rarely even saw anymore, let alone performed. Rafael stood almost frozen in thought as to what could be the reasoning behind this person binding all those pages together by hand, let alone in a generation like his. Rafael’s eyes became fixated on the binder, hypnotized by the metallic snapping of the binder rings clipping, unclipping, clipping, and unclipping again, until his train of thought was completely derailed in a flash, derailed by a startling noise of another person’s voice.
“Uh, hey dude.” The blonde binder-assorter said in a nonchalant tone, sporting a slightly deep-southern American accent, the words echoing across the auditorium like a sonic boom to Rafael, shocking him awake from his gaze onto the binder.
“Oh shit-“ Rafael quietly whispered to himself before almost instinctively stepping and bolting away from the door.
“Oh uh, hey.” Rafael awkwardly replied back. “What’s, uh, what’s been going on in here? I just, uh, just got here a couple minutes ago, saw some people heading out of here.” Rafael asked scatter-brained and even more awkward than before.
“Oh yeah, Project Orange! We’re a new student organization on campus, I just started it this semester. Ya’ heard of us by chance?” The blonde young man chipperly responded.
“Um, no. No I haven’t.” Rafael responded inquiringly, yet still awkwardly.
“Ah, yea no worries dude. It’s still new and we only, like, just got here, so.” The blonde young man responded squally whilst shifting his focus from Rafael to sorting his binder and pens away into his large, leather, strapped briefcase.
“Uh, cool. So what do you guys actually do around here?” Rafael responded.
“Well, I started this movement in hopes to get more people my age on board with influencing their community. Ya’ know, making changes and stuff for our betterment. I take this kind of stuff real seriously ya’ know?” The blond young man responded, now making full eye contact with Rafael from across the auditorium.
Rafael, stricken by the increased, yet calmly existent vigor in the young man’s voice, and the sudden, consistent eye contact from the young man’s big, bright cerulean eyes, “What kind of stuff?”
“Mostly just local politics and activism on the behalf of students here. We got guys here for all kinds of stuff, ya’ know. We got minority and slightly impoverished students who deal with systemic issues, a couple girls who dealt with harassment, hell, even got a guy in here for the same thing, don’t see that every day do ya’? A guy who sticks up for his own body like that-“ The young man said enthusiastically before getting interrupted by Rafael.
“Sorry, don’t mean to be a dick or rude or anything, but can you get to the point?” Rafael said, slightly annoyed with the ramblings of the young man.
The young man looked back at Rafael, resuming the eye contact, with the previous grin briefly returning to a neutral stare, before taking a quick deep breath, and bringing his initial half-smile back. “Basically, I named this joint ‘Project Orange’ for a reason, well two actually kinda’. For one, well, orange is the color of sunrise, the dawn of a new day, a new start, a future of which is impossible to predict, but possible to pave. We want a brighter sunrise for tomorrow, a prettier world tomorrow, physically and metaphorically. I want this organization to be an echo chamber of shared and utilized knowledge, on behalf of all members, so we can advance with the knowledge that may come in handy someday. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in a week, hell, maybe not ever. But, there’s a mysticism and beauty behind it, ya’ know?”
Rafael squinted his eyes towards the floor for a brief moment, trying to process most of what the young man had just told him. It took Rafael off guard how someone who gave off an image of a pretentious hippie, actually had some kind of substance behind him and his words, words of which Rafael didn’t disagree with either. Still, not fully convinced, Rafael asks the blonde young man another question. “Alright, so what’s the second reason?”
The young man began to walk down the side of the stage, and down the center row of the auditorium directly towards Rafael, with his bag, and his half-smile slowly becoming a complete, sly, mischievous grin. “Ya’ know what the opposite color of orange is?”
Internally, taken aback by the shift in demeanor, yet visibly unshaken, “What?” Rafael responds, with his brow now slightly furrowed.
“It’s the opposite of blue. Between you and me, let’s just say I don’t like the ‘blue,’ but I don’t want people we’re some mindless, anarchist crusade or nothin’, so I just hold off on most of the second part, ya’ know, just some P.R. stuff.”
For perhaps the first time in the entire conversation, Rafael knew exactly what the young, blonde, man in front of him was talking about. The skeptical and investigative gaze on Rafael’s face turned into a large smirk, and began to chuckle a little bit. “So that’s what this is really about, huh?”
“Well, a bit more than that, but sure, I won’t say you’re wrong I guess.” The young man responded.
The young man then extended his hand outwards towards Rafael. “Name’s Michael. Michael Koehler, you can call me Mike though. Or Mikey, or whatever really, you get the idea.” Michael said nonchalantly, yet oddly much calmer and reserved than his previous inflection.
After a second of processing the change in demeanor, Rafael reached out his hand back to shake Michael’s. “Rafael Bigotes.” He responds casually.
While giving Rafael a firm handshake, Michael looked Rafael in the eyes with a look Rafael could only describe to himself as “mall Santa-like.”
“I see potential in you Ralph, I can tell-“ Michael gleefully began to tell Rafael before getting cut off.
“It’s Rafael, not Ral-“ Rafael interrupts.
“Yea Ralph, Rafael, whatever. But like I was sayin’, I can tell you’re new here. Hey, you might be surprised by the kind of people we got around here though. Clearly, I can also tell you’re not the social type, but hey man, give it a chance, trust.” Michael said in return with that same friendly vigor as before.
Rafael pauses himself for a moment. “It’s not Ralph dude, it’s-“
Michael butts in again, “here’s my number, I’ll drop you the details for our next meeting Friday night, right after we all finish these finals. It’ll be at my place, last time before we go on standby for the winter break. We got people from outta' town, ya’ know? Family stuff and whatnot.”
Michael then wirelessly transmitted his contact information into Rafael’s phone after quickly tapping it, while still in Rafael’s clenched hands by his side, briefly startling him.
“I got a guy bringing some drinks, and got some pizzas, on me. So hey, you wanna hang out with a few of us, drink a couple beers, seltzers, whatever, and drop a box of pizza or two while talking about politics, school, or the uh, ya’ know, guys we don’t like, drop me a text will ya’?” Michael enthusiastically, yet casually apprises Rafael, before quickly patting his shoulder twice and walking past him towards the exit.
“See ya’ Friday Ralph.” Michael exclaims before haphazardly shutting the auditorium door behind him half-way.
Rafael pauses for a moment, and takes a seat in a nearby red, folding, auditorium chair. “It’s Rafael, damn it.” He whispers to himself, before sitting with his hands clenched together, hanging off the edge of his knees, just like his father tends to.
Outside the auditorium doors, Michael stands leaning against the wall, propping himself up with one leg pushing up against the wall. Michael takes a deep breath, and afterwards inhales from a small, pink, watermelon-flavored, electronic vapor pen. Upon exhaling a small cloud of pinkish-gray vapor, Michael stares at the floor for a brief moment, before beginning to walk towards the exit of the building.
“Man, swear to God man, just doesn’t get any easier does it? Acting smooth around people, so draining after a while.” Michael quietly tells himself before reaching the exit and walking outside.
“Eh, whatever, at least he’ll be there. I’ll bet on it.” Michael quietly tells himself with a familiar half-smile.