Our freedom was snatched away in an instant.
All morning we’d been free as roaming grizzlies, bounding about our local park, gazing at the blooming Double Delight roses, kicking footballs, and sniffing the pollen out of the air. We’d settled on an itchy tartan blanket under cover of a red-speckled poinciana, cracked frosty beers and lounged about like Kings and Queens of old. We’d tapped our feet to the nifty grooves of Mr. Stevie Wonder, and grinned as the cool Queensland breeze lighted on our skins before moving on to gladden some other baked soul.
It was a Saturday, and there were three of us—myself, Tommy, and Gemma. We were all close friends; the kind of friends who colour each other’s lives with dazzling luminosity; the people usually included in your most entertaining stories. They were also the kind of friends who got you into trouble. But I wouldn’t change anything about them. They were made for clinking and drinking with under the shade of a thousand leaves, with the planes roaring overhead and the magpies swaggering all around us. As we sank crisp lagers and revelled in our eternal bliss, none of us suspected that something terrible was about to happen.
The trouble began when a group of strangers entered the park, carrying marquees for a birthday party. They seemed innocent enough: middle-aged women with small children, with the odd bloke thrown in. They erected their marquees with expert speed and settled themselves.
All was calm, until suddenly, the air was filled with a sound that arrested the steady thump of our hearts—a shrill cackle that pierced our skulls like shrapnel and tore our brains to shreds. We inhaled every atom of oxygen in a 2-meter radius, and shrank away from the noise, terrified. What could have made such a sound? A recently-thawed pterodactyl come to feast on the guests of New Farm Park? Perhaps a pack of starved hyenas converging on our position?
We peeked through our fingers at the source. It was a forty-something, bleach blonde female with colossal breasts, bouncing her way towards our new neighbours and alerting them of her arrival. We sighed as though just pardoned from a noose. She clearly wasn’t a threat. But that sound! We looked at each other in disbelief, wondering why we’d frightened so easily.
We were calm again, but things were a bit edgy now. We laughed and joked as before, but a seriousness had gripped us. The Cure came on the radio, and we quickly changed it. Every magpie in the area seemed to be looking at us, and even though it wasn’t swooping season, we saw murder in their hellish black eyes. The sun had settled itself over a gap in our tree, almost intentionally, forming beads of anxious sweat on our foreheads.
We heard a distant thump, and in the sky appeared a dark circular mass, plunging towards us like a cannonball shot by a ragged force of pitiless pirates. We clutched each other and squealed like helpless toddlers, as the orb of metal smashed into our Esky, sending it hurtling across the park like a punted shih tzu. We expected to be descended upon by hoards of bow-legged scallywags, daggers in hands and hate in hearts, but all that appeared was a spindly teenager, come to retrieve his football.
What was wrong with us? Why were we envisioning scurvied sea criminals when we were an hour away from the ocean? Why did our heavily-mammoried neighbour screech like a long-dead dinosaur that wanted to consume us?
“Shall we go?” I asked, praying that Tommy and Gemma would agree. They leapt up as though electrified. But first, we had to gather our things. Tommy had brought most of what was spread before us: blanket, UE Boom, Coles chocolate chip cookies, Burger Rings, and assorted nuts. I expected him to jump into action, but instead of packing, he was standing incredibly still, looking at his bag with desperate intensity.
“Just put your things in your bag, Tommy” I said. But it wasn’t that simple.
“How do I do that?” he replied, chin rested on his fist. What do you mean how do you do that? Just pick up your things and put them in! But even as the words came out of my mouth, I understood his turmoil. How would that work, action-by-action? What if he did something wrong—folded an item incorrectly, or positioned it at an incorrect angle? Would he have to unpack the bag, and start over? What if he was never able to pack the bag properly, and we were stuck in the park for eternity? Packing…unpacking…packing…unpacking…packing…unpacking, as the pirates and dinosaurs closed in? If we couldn’t figure out how to pack the bag properly, how would we ever leave the park?
I looked at Tommy’s face, and knew that he was thinking the same thing.
“I don’t know how to do this” he said. He looked on the verge of tears, immobilised by the immensity of the task. I turned to Gemma and asked her to pack the bag. She invited me to look at the size of the bag and then compare it to everything that was spread out before us. It would be like trying to stuff an Alsatian into a bum bag.
“But it was in there to begin with!” I protested, and they both agreed—it didn’t make any sense. Nothing made sense anymore. As I looked up at the sky in desperation, a fluffy cloud rearranged itself into something sharp.
I filled every inch of my lungs with air, and tried to be logical about our situation. I considered every item that we had, and how they might be positioned in the bag. I folded the blanket in my mind a hundred ways; I visualised the cookies going in top first, bottom first, side first; I examined every Burger Ring left in the packet, and how we might stack them atop one another to save space; I decided that a side pocket is always the best place for a UE Boom, but the bag didn’t have a side pocket. I went through a thousand considerations, and every one of them was a failure.
It was at that moment I knew we were trapped. The Problem of the Bag had snatched our freedom from us. We couldn’t pack it, and we couldn’t leave it. So what could we do?
As the three of us stood motionless, looking down at the canvas backpack that was creating such crippling strife, I started to feel people’s eyes on me. There was a distinct guffaw, and I hated whoever made it. How could they be so cruel in the face of our paralysing dilemma? Were they so arrogant to think that they could just waltz over to us and solve The Problem of the Bag whenever they wanted? We’d been robbed of our independence, and people were laughing about it!
Gemma and Tommy were standing still with their chins rested on their fists, contemplating the bag. In any other situation they might have looked like noble philosophers, wrestling with problems of existence. Instead they looked as though they’d just tunneled their way out of the local nuthouse, and were considering consuming the bag in order to avoid packing it.
As our desperation reached its peak, and at least one of us was about to start weeping, I had a spark of insight.
“What were we doing before this?” I asked. Gemma and Tommy’s faces contorted as they tried to grasp my question. Then Tommy’s eyes widened, as his face went from bewilderment to realisation.
“Oh my god,” he said, as it hit him. “We dropped acid a few hours ago.”
We had dropped acid a few hours ago! That little slice of truth was all he needed. He went from a confused invalid to a qualified hero, packing everything into the bag with such ease that we laughed and hugged and slapped each other’s backs. The Problem of the Bag was nothing but a nightmare created by a mind-bending chemical that we’d consumed and then forgotten about, submerging us in an ocean of confusion. The towering walls of the park crashed down into a clouded rubble, and our freedom was restored. We could finally leave the park.
We tiptoed away shyly, like gibbons walking over hot coals, and in the few minutes it took to reach the road, the acid running through our brains played the same trick on us, and we quickly forgot ourselves.
We needed to call an Uber, but for some reason, nobody could figure out how.