The Incense Salesman
A dark silhouette with a big round head and hunched up shoulders dominates the camcorder’s viewfinder. Brilliant white light fills in the gaps around its form, and no matter how many times he hits the focus button, the lighting just doesn’t change. Then, he turns so his back is facing the water – that is, away from the sun – and the color fills in like winter turning to spring.
“There we go, good golly!” hums Liam. Then, to all the Little Liams around him, “Well thanks for coming out today, everyone! I finally got it focused, we’re going to start rolling in just a bit!”
Nobody acknowledges Liam. He takes this as a sign of respect and starts the countdown in his head.
‘Ten, nine, eight… five… threetwoone let’s go!’ and hits the record button.
“Hello, my Little Liams! This is your buddy Liam, and you’re watching Being Liam, the best YouTube channel in the whole wide world! Today we’re at the illustrated Monksville Dam,” the word illustrated pronounced as if he was trying to say the word illustrious but took a wrong turn. He turns the camera to the right so it’s facing the sun again and the picture gets completely washed out. “That’s the bridge there, it dams off the Monksville Reservoir over in Treeburg, and as you can see, it’s just so glorious! I can’t believe this beautiful sceneryic place to be is just a short twenty-five-minute drive up the county road from my place in Wanaque!”
Liam does a slow sweep to the left, capturing a streetlight, the high concrete barrier which prevents the sadder folks from easily jumping off and plummeting down the one hundred feet into the lower Wanaque Reservoir on the other side of the dam, another streetlight, then the little grassy patch on the side of the road with a few bushes, a plaque commemorating the Monksville Reservoir and Dam, and a flagpole, and then the parking lot, which currently hosts four motorcycles for every car parked.
There are three cars parked, one of which belongs to Liam’s mom, who locked her doors the moment Liam hopped out.
“As you can see, my Little Liams,” Liam gushes into the lens of his camcorder, spraying only a tiny bit of spittle, “a whole lotta guys and gals came out for the big video shoot today! It means the world to me that so many of my Little Liams support my YouTube channel, that so many support me Being Liam. Let’s say hi!”
Liam turns his camera to face the parking lot, where all the bikers are congregated. He waves at them, though the camcorder doesn’t capture it, and seven of the bikers flip him the bird.
“Wow! Tough crowd!” Liam squeals with glee. He’s happy just to get their attention. “Thanks for the interviews, guys!”
After the interviews, Liam power walks down to the opposite end of the dam and back, the camera capturing each labored huff and puff to escape the mucous-lined passageway that is his throat. He’s a terribly self-conscious dude, our Liam, and he’s sure some viewers are going to think he’s a smoker, but that’s all right. After all, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what Liam thinks about himself, and Liam knows he doesn’t smoke. Liam’s out here Being Liam, and that’s what’s important.
“Well, my Little Liams, thank you for joining me for today’s Being Liam video! I hope you guys enjoyed Being Liam with me, because I sure enjoyed it myself. See you all tomorrow!”
With today’s video shoot wrapped, Liam slaps the viewfinder closed and heads towards the parking lot where his mom is waiting to take him home. Another successful day of Being Liam.
‘Oh no…’ Liam thinks to himself from the back seat as his mom’s car rolls to a stop in the driveway. ‘He’s out there again. He’s not gonna let me keep Being Liam.’
Liam’s dad waves to his wife and son with a smile on his face, then gets right back to work.
“I’mnotgonnahelphim…” Liam mumbles to himself, stroking the camera in his lap as though it is a cat.
“What a great idea, Liam!” whistles Liam’s mom who clearly has cotton swabs stuffed in her earholes. “I’m sure your father will appreciate you helping him.” She gets out of the car before Liam can protest and heads inside to get Liam’s bedding washed. She’s not sure why Liam is still wetting the bed at fourteen years old, but lots of other kids probably do. Their mothers are probably just as mortified about it as she is, that’s why none of them will admit it whenever she brings it up at the weekly book club.
When his mom goes inside, Liam releases a groan the likes of which a mother bison giving birth couldn’t even manage. He gets no sympathy from the interior of the vehicle. Leaving his precious camcorder underneath the back seat (so no hoodlums can steal it while he’s out working), Liam pours himself out of the car and drags his feet over to the edge of their front yard where the grass turns to forest. His dad is working with some five-gallon pails. Liam leaves a clear set of tracks in the grass behind him.
“Hidad…” Liam mumbles, his lips hardly moving at all.
“Well hey there, sport! Come to give your ol’ dad a helping hand?”
“Iguess…” Liam mumbles, wishing he had just kept his big mouth shut so he could get his new video online and play his video games.
“I appreciate that, buddy! So look,” as he gestures to the pails and the stream of river rocks running parallel to the road. “These have been over here since we moved in, and they just drive me and your mother insane. I’m gonna use them to build a pond with a little river and a waterfall in the backyard, but we have to move ‘em all back there first.” He stands up and slaps some of the mud off the knees of his work jeans. “One bucket’s already full, I’m gonna carry it yonder. They’re probably too heavy for you, so you just fill ‘em on up with the smooth rocks – don’t worry about the jagged ones, you can just leave ‘em or toss ‘em off into the woods or somethin’ – and I’ll be the ferry. Does that sound good?”
Liam doesn’t confirm nor deny this, he just starts picking the smooth rocks out of the muddy gully and limply tossing them into the empty pail. It’s hard, but his dad manages to smile.
“Thank you, son. Be right back!”
After thirty seconds, Liam thinks to himself, ‘Wow, it’s a lot harder to move rocks in real life than it is in video games,’ but he keeps on plugging along. Because he’s Liam, because he’s Being Liam, and so he’s gonna give it his best shot, whatever he’s doing. Even though it’s keeping him from uploading today’s video, he’s going to give it his best shot.
Liam and his dad get about ten buckets of rocks moved from the gully in the front yard to the pile in the backyard, then call it quits. It’s about dinner time anyway, they can get the rest of the rocks tomorrow. Or the next day, or the next day – the pond is a side project, nowhere near as important as Liam’s daily upload, so he doesn’t pay it any more thoughts after the work is done. After fishing his camera out of the car, Liam runs inside and stashes it in his room, then washes up for dinner.
Mom’s garlic kale salad and mac’n’chicken casserole are to die for tonight, just like every night she cooks them up – they are her signature dishes, after all – and Liam eats himself two helpings of each to replenish himself after all that hard work. Dad and mom get to washing the dishes and Liam carries his plate and fork to the sink to help, but then he’s right upstairs to finally do his work for the day. He helped his dad, he helped his mom, and now it’s time to help himself.
Liam rips the footage from his camera and uploads it straight to YouTube – why even bother editing it? He’s a genius, plain and simple, and every video he puts together is perfecto from the get-go; besides, it’s getting late – at this point, editing would just be wasting time.
While he’s waiting out the processing process, Liam notices a little red circle next to the bell icon in the top right corner of the screen.
“A notification…?” he wonders out loud, having never gotten one before. He clicks the bell and then, screaming at the top of his lungs, Liam announces, “SOMEONE LEFT ME A COMMENT! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” to his empty bedroom. He doesn’t even read the whole thing, but rather clicks the link and goes straight to his video to read the comment like he was a Little Liam. It’s on his seventy-third video (he keeps track in his head and remembers exactly what he did for every one of his videos, a sign of genius), a clip of him going to a park and watching other kids fly kites. The comment, from a user named Smells, reads:
Kool vidoe! Wanma b3 YouToob frienbs?
“Awh,” Liam says to himself, “he must be a challenged Little Liam who doesn’t know how to spell right. He’s putting himself out there just like I’m doing with my Being Liam videos, that’s so wholesome!” Not knowing how right he is, Liam replies back:
Yeah, let’s be YouTube friends! I’ll send you a message right now!
And so Liam does send this Smells a message, and to his utter and inexpressible ecstasy, he gets a reply in a matter of minutes! Being Liam and Smells go on to message each other back and forth all night, talking about memes and movies and the video games Liam wants to start recording himself playing for his channel. Their conversation continues on into the next day, then the next day, then the next day, they keep in constant communication for days that turn into days that turn into even more days. Liam keeps putting out his really great Being Liam videos every day, and although they never get any views (not even the old kite video had any views, even though Smells had to have watched it in order to comment on it – must be because of YouTube’s broken algorithm or something) Liam and Smells keep on talking about absolutely nothing at all, never getting to know each other, never sharing any information about themselves.
Until, one day, Smells reveals that he’s a salesman. The exact message reads:
Hay, byw, I seIl djincense burneys. Wood yew liek a fr3e sample?
Liam is taken aback by the unbridled kindness and generosity of Smells, so much so that he actually touches a hand to his chest. He replies back:
Definitely! Thank you, Smells! My address is 123 Thisroad Street, Wanaque NJ 07478. When should I expect them?
But Liam doesn’t get an answer, not within the five-minute window all the other messages arrived in. So he sits patiently and waits for five more minutes, but those five minutes turn into ten, into twenty, into a whole hour. Liam decides not to think about it, stressing always makes him pee the bed and he wants to not pee the bed anymore (almost as bad as he wants to keep Being Liam), so he gets back to posting today’s video. Coincidentally enough, today’s clip was a return trip to the Monksville Dam – Liam shot it from the other side of the bridge as last time so he could take his walk in the opposite direction. He still hasn’t gotten any views on any of his videos, but that’s all right, that just means he has to up his game, which he is. Hence the swap in sideage.
Liam sits up at his computer for hours waiting for a reply from Smells, but it never comes. When the clock strikes 9:00 (a very late night for our Liam), he decides he’d better get to bed. Smells probably just fell asleep on the keyboard. ‘That Smells, he’s such a character.’ He’ll probably get back to Liam tomorrow. Besides, Liam needs to get up early so he can set up his camera to do a time-lapse of his dad’s pond. He likes to do one of these every week; they’re Liam’s favorite videos to make because he helped build the pond, so technically it’s his pond too, which he makes sure to mention twice – at the beginning before the time starts lapsing and at the end after the time unlapses – in every one of the time-lapse videos.
After checking his empty inbox one last time, Liam powers off his computer, stashes his video camera in his special lockbox he keeps in his top desk drawer, and then hits the hay. Much to his mom’s surprise (and relief), Liam doesn’t pee the bed that night.
The Free Sample
There’s still no reply when Liam checks his messages first thing in the morning, but that’s okay. He tells himself over and over that it’s okay, that Smells didn’t get murdered by crooks breaking into his house, that Smells is still alive and not sick or dying, that he’ll get back to Liam really, really soon.
Liam checks his messages again after setting up his camera to stare at the pond all day, but there’s still no reply.
Liam checks his messages on his cell phone during study hall (even though he’s not supposed to use his phone in school, but everyone else uses their phones and the teacher doesn’t care so if nobody’s going to enforce the rules then why stress about it? No peeing the bed for Liam, not anymore, plus, it’s almost summer anyway, who cares?), but there’s still no reply.
Liam checks the messages on his way home from the bus stop, but there’s still no reply. There is, however, a package waiting for him on his front steps when he gets to his house at the end of the cul-de-sac. It’s addressed to Liam, Being Liam specifically, and there’s no return address. No label, either, but Liam doesn’t sweat the small stuff, he’s trying to stress less these days, no more peeing the bed for Liam, so he takes his package up to his room and opens it, not even thinking to check on his camera in the back yard.
Inside the package are two wooden disks, each with a piece of soapstone in the middle. The stones are hard to describe as far as the colors go – Liam is color deficient and they just look blueish to him – but one is definitely paler than the other. Both stones have flower petals carved into them, and four little holes equally spaced around a cylindrical depression in the middle of the petals where the seeds would be if they were sunflower petals. Liam takes out the disks and notices a little bundle packed beneath them.
Upon closer inspection, Liam sees that this bundle is actually two boxes of Egyptian Musk incense cones wrapped in a note. The boxes bear the busts of two pharaohs facing each other, one male with gold jewelry around his neck and a blue and golden ornament falling from his head, and the other a lady with a pale blue bird laying on top of her dark blue hair which ends in alternating strips of golden, light blue, and dark blue ornaments. The note reads, in writing that looks like the pen was gripped by a claw:
Surry I cudent answre, my cumpooter broked. Bet tzat’s ohkay, I hupe yew enjoi yeur fr33 djincense s4mpl3z!
“Awh,” Liam says as a sad but accepting smile spreads across his face. “I’m sorry your computer broke too, Smells. I’ll miss ya, buddy.” Then, as little tears fall down his cheek, “Thank you for the free sample.”
Liam runs downstairs and takes the box of matches out of the cabinet where his folks keep the coffee cups and filters and stuff, then runs right back up to his bedroom, excited to burn his free incense samples. When he opens the first box though, there’s only one cone inside.
“Huh, that’s weird.”
What’s weirder: there’s only one cone inside the other box as well. Liam chocks it up to being a free sample and decides not to stress himself out. He takes the paler of the two disks – ‘Incense burners,’ he corrects himself – and pops one of the cones into the depression. It doesn’t stand perfectly straight up – in fact, it almost resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa – but Liam lights it anyway, and the smell is… all right. It’s not amazing, but he can learn to enjoy it like an acquired taste, he guesses… maybe he should open a window.
Liam opens the window facing the back yard, and that’s when he remembers his time-lapse video. He glides down the stairs like a flying squirrel through the air and runs outside, and thankfully his camera is still there. Liam decides he has plenty of footage for the time-lapse and takes the camera back inside.
And that’s when he meets the djinn.
Its lower body has no legs, it simply drifts into form from the smoke of the burning incense cone. Its torso is jacked and cut like a sculpture of granite. Its skin is a dead, pale gray, its hair is black, and it wears a thin gold crown from which falls a blue and gold ornament, just like the male pharaoh on the incense cone box.
“State your name, boy,” bellows the djinn in a voice deeper than a hole dug to China, and Liam almost drops to his knees, but his hold on his camera keeps him upright. If only there was a way to capture an image of this incredible metaphysical being, to share its existence with the world… but nothing comes to Liam’s mind, and so he merely states his name.
“Liam,” repeats the mighty djinn, folding his bulging arms. “Very well. In burning the cone, you have awoken me; in order to return to rest, I must grant you a wish. Choose your words care–”
There is zero hesitation. “I wish to keep Being Liam!”
The djinn pauses. “Ex… excuse me?”
“My YouTube channel, Being Liam! I want to keep posting my videos my whole life, I don’t want anything to stop me. That’s what I wish for, Mister Genie. To keep Being Liam all the way to the end.”
The djinn doesn’t even smile – it’s never been this easy. Then again, the human is never this young, nor is its voice ever this high in pitch. “Very well, Liam.” With a snap of his mighty fingers, the djinn disappears and the incense cone instantaneously burns down to the soapstone. The soapstone – and the rest of the burner – then ignites in a shower of sparks like someone lit the tip of a triple-dipped sparkler, forcing Liam to shield his eyes. The sparks land on Liam’s floor, his bed, his computer and keyboard, they even land on Liam himself, but he is not burned, not even tickled. There is simply a scorch mark on his desk where the burner once sat, a scorch mark that blows away without the need for a gust of wind, leaving not a single trace.
At least, that’s how it seems until Liam remembers he left his window open. Feeling no different at all, Liam closes his window and plugs his camera into the computer to start the brief editing process for his time-lapse video. It doesn’t take much, just a quick speed-up in Windows Movie Maker, and as the final product is being rendered and exported, he thinks of the second burner and box. Liam thinks of all the possibilities, all the different things he could wish for… and then locks the back half of his free sample into the lock box in his drawer. He’s got time to decide yet, and besides, he already wished for the one thing he could ever want: to keep Being Liam.
Liam spends his whole life posting his Being Liam videos, just like he wished for. He graduates high school with Cs and Ds in all of his classes, just barely skating by. He never goes to college like his parents want, nay, implore him to, instead getting himself a job sweeping the floors a couple days a week in one of the warehouses in the Treeburg industrial park down the road from the Monksville Reservoir. The job is part time and it doesn’t pay much, but it gets him by well enough – Liam never accumulates many bills, as his trusty camcorder and desktop computer miraculously stand up to the test of time and pass it with flying colors, which is more than Liam could do on his own tests. He never gets any views on his videos either, not even on the memorial projects he puts together when his parents eventually pass through the veil, and nobody else ever leaves any comments wanting to be Liam’s YouTube friend.
When his parents died, they left Liam the house and a very fat life insurance payout, which Liam used to hire an accountant who remotely takes care of all of his bills for him. Liam shops online, having his groceries, toiletries, clothing, and everything else he might need delivered to his doorstep, and he makes a brand-new Being Liam video every single day.
Until, that is, the day comes when he feels too weak to get out of bed. He makes two videos the next day to compensate.
Never one to get much exercise, Liam’s physical health began to deteriorate in his forties. By the time he was fifty he had to use a cane, and when year fifty-five came around the number of canes doubled. By sixty he was unable to hold himself up, even with the canes, and so he had to resort to a scooter and a stair chair. Liam eventually wound up hiring a hospice nurse named Marty, and the guy stayed with old boy Liam for about two decades longer than he thought he would have to, but he never quit. Liam’s a bit of an eccentric, always making his little videos, but the guy pays well enough. He’s the definition of a minimalist, and so his parents’ life insurance fortune hardly has a dent in it by the time his eighty-fifth birthday rolls around. Liam gives Marty the morning off that day as a birthday gift (Liam and Marty share the same birthday, that’s why Liam picked him), and for the first time in years, he has the strength to get himself out of bed and into his scooter. With the house to himself, Liam scoots over to his desk and wrestles open the top drawer to get his video camera out of the lock box, and that’s when his memory kicks into gear: he still has the other incense cone from all those years ago. He still has a wish left.
Liam sets the camcorder on his lap and takes out the burner and the leftover box. He places the burner on the desk (although drops is more accurate) and, with a hand as still as a chihuahua in the cold, Liam eventually manages to get the cone to stand up in the depression. It’s a lot straighter than the other one; unlike the trout in Liam’s trousers, which never got much use over the course of his life, the cone stands tall and proud, reaching for the ceiling with its rounded, unbroken tip. How it lasted through the years is beyond Liam, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Even though he can’t pee the bed anymore because of the catheter his nurse insisted he get, there’s no reason for Liam to stress, and so with great effort, he strikes a match (he keeps the box in his top drawer now, next to the lockbox, as the old coffee cup cabinet is now full of paper towels and other flammables) and lights the incense.
A few minutes pass and nothing happens, but then Liam bears witness to that which he missed all those years ago when he ran outside to fetch his camcorder from the pond that’s since been filled in and turned into a memorial flower garden for his late mom and dad. The smoke swirls and twirls into itself, the whitish gray haze thickening until it forms a solid pale gray ball. The ball grows in size, morphing into the form of a cut human torso which sprouts a pair of muscular arms out of the side and a smaller pair of stubby, handless arms out of the front (ah, to find oneself Being Liam). From the shoulders grows a head, and from the head flows a sleek torrent of dark blue hair with alternating strips of gold, light blue, and dark blue ornaments capping the ends. A bird with light blue feathers forms on the woman’s head, and when she opens her eyes and stares down at the ancient, scooterbound Liam, he feels things which he has never felt before.
Then, she speaks, her voice a red velvet cake.
“State your name, boy.”
“Liam,” states Liam through toothless gums.
“Liam,” repeats the djinn, folding her strong shoulder arms in front of her stubby chest arms. “Very well. In burning the cone, you have awoken me; in order to return to rest, I must grant you a wish. Choose your words care–”
This time around, Liam just doesn’t have the energy, nor the youthful exuberance, to cut the djinn off.
“–fully, for you shall have your wish granted, your highest desires fulfilled, but it shall cost you the price of your undying soul. And unlike my husband, I mean to collect.”
The eyes of the pale blue bird open. They glow redder than a blood moon, a color Liam has never seen before.
Again, Liam does not hesitate. “I wish for my youth, genie. That is all I have ever lost, and all I could ever want.”
The lady djinn offers a sinister smirk. “Very well, Liam.” She snaps her fingers and Liam closes his eyes, as he wants to avoid the spark show, but when he opens them, the cone is still smoking, the ghoulish djinn is still floating on the incense smoke, and the bird on her head is standing up on two feet. Liam is still ancient, his bones still brittle, his muscles still weak.
“I don’t feel any different, Missus Genie,” he says, looking at his wrinkled, arthritic hands.
The djinn’s smile morphs into an evil grimace, spreading from cheek to cheek like a plague of locusts over Egypt. “You have wished yet again for something you already had, foolish mortal. Age is a mindstate, youth nothing more than an attitude, and as a creative – though a belligerently unsuccessful one, I must say; in your wish for Being Liam, you were cursed to stay the same, never to evolve, nor to change your name – your mind has remained as young as it was the day you were born.”
“N…no…” is all Liam can manage, as his breath is growing short. He didn’t take his pills, his nurse left for his birthday day off before he thought of giving Liam his pills, and it’s all coming crashing down.
The bird on the pharaoh’s head spans its powdery teal wings and bellows a hiss from its beak. It takes flight, and the last thing Liam sees is the bird’s piercing ruby red eyes as the winged fiend dives straight for the center of his forehead.
At the end of a wonderful day off spent mingling with his beloved wife, who was only a girlfriend when he first got hired by Liam, Marty returns to the last house on Thisroad Street – number 123, the one at the end of the cul-de-sac – to find the air inside icy and chilled, as if old boy Liam turned the air conditioner too low. But that’s impossible, Liam can hardly get out of bed (thank God for the winning combo of a catheter and a colostomy bag, thank Him and praise Him), he couldn’t have reached the thermostat.
It’s at this moment that Marty realizes he forgot to give Liam his pills. He nearly trips over the stair chair on his way upstairs.
The door to Liam’s bedroom – the same bedroom with the same bed he slept in as a kid, because that’s what he insisted on, the old kook – is cracked open. Marty busts in with enough force to almost knock the door off its hinges, and he finds exactly what he was afraid he would, that very thing which he’s been expecting for years: Liam somehow managed to get himself into his scooter, probably in an attempt to get out into the bathroom where Marty keeps the pills, possibly so he could make a new video, and passed away on the way there. Then Marty notices the camera on the old man’s lap, and he can’t help but spare a sad smile – even after all these years, Liam was still doing the one thing he loved: Being Liam. Liam got to keep Being Liam all the way until the end.
Letting the camcorder fall to the floor, Marty lifts the eighty-pound cadaver, which is stuck in an awful slump because of the rigor mortis, out of the scooter and carries him downstairs, sitting him down on the dusty living room couch Marty took the liberty of covering with plastic about five years ago. He gets on the phone and calls the myriad of doctors Liam would occasionally see, then the funeral home, and lastly, the accountant. He arranges for a car to come in one hour, which should give him plenty of time to get Liam all cleaned up. After the body’s gone, Marty will pack up his stuff and probably head straight for his own house – after taking a shower, that is – and let the accountant settle the rest.
Marty draws a warm bath in the master bathroom, then goes upstairs to fetch Liam’s camcorder. Liam wasn’t a man of many last wishes; in fact, he only had one: to be buried with the tool of his trade, that which allowed him to keep on Being Liam. It fell under the desk, and as he stands back up, Marty notices a curious scorch mark next to Liam’s keyboard. There’s a box of matches in the top drawer, too… it appears as if Liam had tried to start a fire.
‘Maybe he was trying to make a smoke signal,’ Marty thinks to himself with a slightly guilty smile as he runs a finger through the soot. Curiously enough, it comes up without leaving a trace. ‘Huh, that’s weird.’ Marty brushes the black dust into the garbage (and throws the box of matches in there too, just for the hell of it) and then takes out the trash. By then the bath is full, and as Marty carries Liam in through the door, the white light of the bathroom engulfs their form like sunlight on an old camcorder’s viewfinder.