The door jangles closed behind you as you move into the shop’s dusty, junk-cluttered aisles. You’re mentally tallying the pitifully few notes left in your wallet after food, rent, bills. The evening’s party looms before you, a menacing imposition, but you’re here now and may as well find a cheap gift. Necessarily cheap – this month you’ve skipped four days of the grey grind with no excuse save the usual uncaring haze, and you’ll be out of a job soon.

The junk isn’t interesting. Old books, battered furniture, threadbare clothes. A tray on a painted dresser holds medals, a tangle of jewellery, a meaningless muddle of useless things – just what the birthday girl deserves. Behind them stand coloured glass bottles in stupid, fanciful shapes. You pick one up idly, thinking of bath salts, and in its green and purple depths something moves.

You look more closely. The bottle is tightly sealed with wax, and full of whirling cloud. Vivid mists roil in the confined space, flexing energetically against the ornate stopper: the smooth curves of the flask vibrate in your hands, somehow tinglingly alive.

You know what this is, how it goes. The inhabitant of the bottle, his gratitude at his freedom, the wishes. Whatever you want. Yours, if you remove the stopper. Money, friends, success, happiness. Everything you don’t have.  Everything you are not. You read the tag around the bottle’s slender neck: it demands only the few coins at the bottom of your purse.

You place the bottle carefully back on the dresser and move to the door. You’ve changed your mind about the party, anyway. You never go to parties. Nothing ever comes of them: you’re still alone.

The door jangles as you step out of the dusty interior into the dreary street.

11 thoughts on “Stopper”

  1. Ah, the return of the second person. I wonder if you had a reason or if it just felt right? As it is, it works very well, making me feel extra anguished about facing that choice and being channelled down a particular, passive, route.

    A really interesting take on the theme – the bottle stopper being the obvious interpretation, but the main character is the real “stopper” – the non-doer, the avoider, the self-suppressant. Very alike to the nature of depression – something can be within your reach but you find yourself unable to take that route.

    grey grind was a very good 2 word summation of a big picture.

    I thought there were too many adverbs for my taste, but nothing particularly bothered.

    The personality, the resignation, of the main character come through beautifully, and I wallow in their self-imposed misery. Gulp!

  2. Oh, hooray, I’m so glad you responded in these terms – I wasn’t quite sure this one worked, it felt too over-simplified. I did, indeed, mean exactly that, the character as stopper to her own life, and the whole story was sparked, very simply, by me wondering what it would actually take for someone to turn down a genie’s wishes, which is of course that there’s nothing they could possibly wish for. A person who has everything they want in their life is functional enough that they’d be able to used the wish for other people. Depression is the only possible answer – that horrible depressive state where the depressed person is unable to conceive of things being different or better.

    The second person ended up being by default, I wrote this as third person and then as first person, and neither worked – first person too suggestive of actual agency, third person too distanced from that hopeless internal state.

    I bow my head to your criticism on grounds of adverbs :>. There are too many in the bottle paragraph, but it ended up being the only way to inject the necessary life/colour/energy into that paragraph to contrast with the greyness of the rest. I may do a rewrite to de-adverberate it.

  3. Lovely idea – I find the concept of not caring enough to fix your life both appealing and horrible.
    I really like the attitude about getting fired – it sets up the character perfectly – someone who could keep their job but just doesn’t care enough (and is in essence a complete fore-shadowing of the ideas in the piece).

    The second person really worked for (on?) me and drew me in – I’m not sure it will as well for others who are less familiar with dark lethargy.

    Other phrases that enhanced the theme for me: meaningless muddle of useless things; grey grind with no excuse save the usual uncaring haze.

    I think the ‘You look more closely..’ paragraph could be slightly tighter (adverb-wise) and that wouldn’t lessen it at all. I don’t think it needs too much brightening up – to the depressed ‘you’ it isn’t really all that exciting to find the Genie.

    The second last paragraph jarred me slightly – the conflict between i) not choosing the bottle even though you believe it would solve your problems and ii) not going to the party because you *don’t* believe it would solve your problems.

    I love the very last sentence – quite unhappy closure.

  4. I’m very happy you enjoyed the piece, it’s been one of the ones I’ve been most unsure about, so am relieved and gratified that it seems to be working.

    It’s interesting you think that she believes opening the bottle would solve her problems. The thing is that she doesn’t believe it’ll help her. My word choice here was very careful: (1) everything you don’t have, everything you are not, and (2) whatever you want. The problem is that she doesn’t want any of (1). She’s actually incapable of wanting anything. The quick switch to not going to the party anyway is because to her the bottle is just as grey and pointless and meaningless as the party. She’s basically blanked out the bottle even before she puts it down. Both the bottle and the party are terrifying because they hold out the possibility of change, and there’s that horrible thing depressives do where the depression becomes a part of their sense of self and they can’t face the possibility of letting it go. But if that isn’t coming across, I need to tweak the way I’ve written that paragraph.

    And it’s interesting to realise that I think of the protagonist as female, even though (a) I deliberately wrote the piece without gender cues, and (b) the example of depression in my personal experience is male. The “you” form should sneakily encourage the reader to project themselves into the piece. Apparently it’s working on the writer, too.

    1. I think the hopeless sense of despair associated with depression comes through very well. And I understood the party vs bottle much as you describe it. When I said ‘could fix her problems’ I meant pretty much what you said – because it could help her she must ignore it because ‘depression has become part of her sense of self’ as you put it.

      For me, anyway, at the centre of depression is an unwillingness to help yourself.

  5. Our Hero walks into a shop in search of a gift for a birthday party that they’re attending. Amidst the junk they find a genie’s bottle, but instead of buying it as a gift, or even using it themselves, they appear to decide that nothing will come of it. They leave the bottle and walk out of the store.

    I thought that bits of this captured depression neatly. For instance:

    > this month you’ve skipped four days of the grey grind with no excuse
    > save the usual uncaring haze, and you’ll be out of a job soon.
    I like the descriptiveness here. It felt that while Our Hero knows that their job is in danger, they don’t really care. Interesting sense of that depressive numbness.

    Also, I thought that:
    > You never go to parties. Nothing ever comes of them: you’re still
    > alone.
    captures the odd rationalisations that one can go through.

    I was left wondering if a free wish is something that someone depressed would walk away from. A wish, by its nature, can circumvent (unless the genie is being tricksy, or constraining it in some way) almost any argument against not taking it.

    But that’s a small niggle on my part: I enjoyed how the genie / wish was used to explore the subject. Very cool.

    1. A wish, by its nature, can circumvent … almost any argument against not taking it.

      Yes, absolutely, that’s the crux of the matter. The only thing that might prompt you not to take it is because you literally can’t think of anything to wish for. Which would have to mean you’re in a pretty dysfunctional mental space. The problem is not “it’s going to trick me when I wish”, the problem is “there’s nothing I can wish for which would possibly make my life better.” Which means you’re not only hopeless, you’re completely self-absorbed.

      Writing about depressed people who you don’t like is surprisingly hard :>.

  6. I loved the hopelessness of this. I liked the way she truly didn’t care, there was no last moment of hope or even a flicker of hope. She is completely encased and accepts it without remorse. Fantastic!

  7. I found this beautifully descriptive, with a sad grey heaviness to it which was compelling. It was enhanced by the second person voice. I could almost feel the energy being drained out of me.

    I find it difficult to imagine being depressed to that extent and not suicidal (which a genie could help solve very well) as the feeling is completely alien to me, but I know it rings true for others.

  8. How terribly depressing and lovely.
    The second person really drew me in and made me sad and grumpy.

    I dug “meaningless muddle of useless things.”
    Very much “Stuff. Whatever.”
    You’ve painted the (grey!) picture of the shop and Our Hero really well.
    I could also go for a little de-adverbiation, but didn’t find it too distracting.

    Great take(s) on the theme!

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