I get up with my shirt twisted around my torso and my eyes all narrow and full of sleep, and I stagger down the hallway to the bathroom. I just stand there, bracing myself, one hand on either side of the sink, staring at my hair as it turns from blue to blonde. Almost right in front of me, it's fading, and as always, I'm left with my imperfections and my black eye to prove I'm still alive.
The boy in the mirror is just that. A boy. He isn't even a man. He's a scared, alienated boy in an adult's body with fading blue hair and a bruise under one eye, and he's just as lost as I am.
I stare at myself and I smile, but my reflection doesn't smile, and I can't blame him anymore.
Everything is internal. Some days, it's an act, this outside world. Other days, it's just as real as the inside world.
I'm sitting in my car in the work parking lot with the doors still locked, staring at my steering wheel, and over the pressurized ringing in my ears I can hear Martha's little muffled cries of distress and the sounds of her pulling at the door handle.
I close my eyes and sigh, because I've got a headache starting behind my eyes.
The sounds of Martha grow more and more quiet until I can barely feel the movement of the car from her efforts to get in. After a second or two, I open my eyes, and it all rushes in like water: the car rocking back and forth, Martha talking excitedly, her hand yanking at my door handle.
I motion for her to get back, and then I unlock my door. She opens it and says, “Your doors are tricky.”
I would say I've been in the office about ten minutes when chaos breaks out. Martha's knocking at the door, then she's coming in without waiting for an answer, and I'm fantasizing about slamming the door on her neck.
“Old people!” she says, out of breath, and she bends down and puts her hands on her knees, exhausted, then she continues, “We got a guy won't let Rita finish taking his order.”
I lean back in the office chair and imagine putting all the pens and pencils in a cannon and firing them at her. “What?” I ask her.
“Old people,” she says again, gasping for breath.
“Martha sit down. It can't be that bad.”
“It's not, but I ran all the way to the office,” she says.
We sit in the office, staring at each other for a few minutes, and I can hear the old man at the counter already saying, “I didn't say no onions, god damn you!”
Finally, I say, as I get up to leave the office, “Martha, you're a ridiculous person.”
Her eyes are huge and she's still puffing. “Yeah,” she says.
“It ought to be illegal,” I tell her quietly as I leave the room.
I round the corner by fryers and I see him at the counter, hunched over the register, his face inches from the face of my newest employee, Rita, who is backing away, hands still on the keypad.
“And I didn't say nothing about no god damned mustard!” He's yelling at her, and I can almost see spit from his mouth saturating her eyeball.
He backs off when he sees me, looking at me with his mouth still open, then he says, “You the manager of this dive?”
“I manage this dive,” I tell him, coming up to the register.
His eyebrows went up onto his forehead and he said, “Boy I don't know what, but your employees are some real pieces of work.” He looks over at Rita and back to me and says, “This dummy can't even ring up an order right.”
“Rita,” I say to her quietly, “Go get me a bag of shake mix.”
She stares at me for a second, and Danny says from the kitchen, “Do it!”
She runs to the back of the store, and I take over the register. And it's some kind of showdown, he and I. Our eyes lock.
“Whopper,” he says after a full minute of silence. “No onion.”
“Whopper no onion,” I say back to him as I punch the order into the keypad.
He makes a noise of disgust. “I didn't say nothing about no god damned onion!”
I look directly at him, and he looks at me. He leans over the register to look down at the keypad.
“Whopper,” he says again, looking up at me but not backing away.
“Whopper,” I repeat.
His eyes narrow, and I'm waiting.
“No onion,” he says, slowly and deliberately.
“No onion,” I say back to him.
His eyes gets really big behind his glasses. “Motherfucker!” He yells, and all the other guests turn to look at us.
“Listen to me when I'm ordering!” he yells.
His wife is coming up behind him now, looking just as pissed off as he is.
“Can't you hear?” she says to me, practically a hiss.
I smile at her.
“You gonna just stand there?” the old man says.
“Get out,” I tell them quietly, my stomach turning into acid.
He opens his mouth to say something else, and his wife says, “We're paying customers!”
I close my eyes and imagine them both on fire.
“I can't take your order if you're purposely screwing around with it for fun,” I say, opening my eyes.
“What?” the old woman asks incredulously, taking a step forward.
“Don't come any closer,” I tell her quickly. Then I say to her husband, “If you want to order a sandwich, order a sandwich. Do not come in here and play with the heads of my employees. They're paid minimum wage. They can only care so much.”
“Oh my goodness!” the old woman says, putting a hand on her chest, then she points at me, her eyes angry, “What bad service!” She turns to the dining room, still pointing at me and says, “Are you hearing this?”
“Just leave,” I tell them, sighing. “Don't come in here again. You're banned.”
“You can't ban us!” the old man says.
I pick the manager book up off the counter and laugh, turning away. “It's my Burger King,” I tell him. “And this isn't 1954. You might consider some common courtesy when dealing with service people.”
And I go back around the corner of the fryers with their mouths gaping, and the old man calls after me, “I'm reporting you! I'm reporting all of you!”
I slam the office door behind me.
I've had my head on the desk for no more than ten seconds when the phone rings.
I let it ring, the sound echoing through my head, the pressure building in my ears.
I stop counting after the fourth ring, and then it stops, leaving only pure, clean silence.
After a few minutes, I hear Martha knocking, then the door opening. I don't look up, because Martha doesn't need my approval to begin speaking.
“District manager says he'll be in tomorrow to talk to you,” she says behind me.
I close my eyes and nod against the table.
I feel a wet little hand on my shoulder, soaking the fabric of my uniform shirt.
“I still got some Xanex if you need it,” she says to me.
“Xanex,” I repeat, barely aware of having spoken at all.
It's one of those days. I follow an impulse to leave the store with Martha, and she's more than happy to become the Burger King martyr. Her happy, round face smiling over the counter as I leave.
Let her have it.
As I'm pulling into the driveway at home, I hear my phone vibrating in the cup holder between the seats. It might be anyone. It might be Martha relinquishing her throne.
I put the car in park and look up at the house. It stares down at my car with black-shuttered windows like eyes. It looks like the other houses around it. I suppose if I didn't live here I might never have known it existed.
My phone vibrates again, and I grab it from the cup holder.
HARRISON, it says.
I open the message.
Starbucks? Is all the message says.
I sigh, thinking about it, and then I send a reply: Yeah. 20 minutes.
I'm taking the bus. I haven't ridden the bus in a few days. Perhaps it's missed me, too.
People and cars and storefronts fly by through the windows behind the heads of other passengers, and I realize I should have stayed home. Here I am, apparently fearless.
We're very good at hurting ourselves, though. We stretch ourselves across the tracks even as the light and the rumble of the train come closer than ever.
Maybe that's me on those tracks. Maybe I'm off the bus now, on my back, my eyes squeezed shut.
The ground is definitely shaking, and the sound is almost deafening.
Part of me still thinks it won't happen. Maybe someone's coming to pull me out of the way. It'll start small, this rescue. A presence beside me in the chaos, the air full of panic and sound, and when I open my eyes there will be a shadow against the blinding lights and rumbling death that's coming and coming, never stopping.
A hand on mine, sparks igniting against the rails.
It sounds really nice.
So we're sitting at a table now, coffees and napkins and spent sugar packets littering the surface, and he's in the middle of telling me about his day.
This isn't why we're here.
I don't know why we're here, but this isn't it.
I can't pretend it doesn't matter now. “Why are we here?” I ask him.
He stops talking and looks at me. I stir my coffee and look down at my hand stirring it, feeling tiny and angry and sad all at once.
“I wanted to see you,” he says.
We sit in silence for a while. I can practically hear the clock over the cash register ticking at the front of the building.
Finally he adds, “I have to tell you something.”
“Please don't,” I say quietly.
I'm still looking at my hands, so far away, with the coffee and the napkins on the table.
Then I see his hand take mine, and I look up at him, my heart pounding.
“Aaron, I miss you,” he says quietly. “When you aren't with me. I miss you and it hurts.”
This is something nice to hear. I don't know why. It shouldn't matter that he misses me, but my eyes are wet now.
He smiles, sort of a half-smile, and he looks away. “I don't know what I'm saying,” he says, his voice quiet and cracking.
I look out the window behind him at the cars going by. They're going somewhere far from this Starbucks. Some of them will never be back.
“Don't worry about it,” I say to him. “I think it's best this way.”
His hand tightens on mine, and my heart is beating me to death, and then he lets go. We're almost strangers now, sitting across from each in a Starbucks.
There are always dishes to be done. Warren's home, and I can hear the small sounds of aliens dying onscreen in the basement. I've got the lights off in the kitchen so I can see the siding of the house next door.
I'm not really looking at it, though. I'm not really paying attention to the dishes, either.
I'm thinking of the bus ride back to University Strip, my hand mingling with Harrison's between us on the seats, skin cells uniting in the cold fluorescent bus lights.
It's ridiculous to think like this, but here I am, thinking it.
Nothing is like it was.
Even the walls are alive with change, now.
About midnight, I decide that I'm going to make a cake. I have no idea why or where this idea came from, but I'm doing it.
I've got a sink full of discarded mixing bowls and utensils when Warren comes upstairs and asks why I'm baking.
“I wanted to make a cake,” I tell him, leaning against the counter.
He flips the light on and I blink.
“You made a cake in the dark,” he informs me, closing the basement door behind him.
“I did,” tell him, smiling at him.
He laughs from in front of the door and says, “In the dark” again.
“In the dark. I could see just fine,” I say to him, starting to feel a little defensive about the whole thing.
He goes into the living room after a minute, and I hear him say, “Alright. I'll have some when it's done.”
I turn to the sink, once again full of dishes, these ones covered in cake batter and eggs and flour.
“What kind of icing?” he calls to me from the Living room over the sound of laughter from the TV.
“Fuck icing,” I say, quietly.
I start filling the sink with water again.
We eat cake in the Living Room, with plastic forks and paper towels.
“This isn't too bad,” Warren says with his mouth full.
“I told you I could see just fine,” I tell him.
The TV audience roars with laughter.
I've got the storage room clean now. It looks like an actual room, instead of a pile of unused crap. I've even got my clothes in here, in a pile on the chair.
I can hear Warren on the stairs, and then he's standing in the doorway to my room. I hear his uncomfortable little movements against the door frame, and then he says, “I love you, Aaron.”
I guess it isn't so bad. I think of my hand on Harrison's again, our skin burning, and I say, “I love you, too.”
A few seconds later, the door to the bedroom down the hall closes behind him.
Who knows where we go from here? It's a good question. No one knows, I guess. It's probably better that way.
I'm on a bed right now. That much is evident. But where I go from here is not. The one thing I do know, is that everything is different. The walls and the windows and my reflection in the mirror look the same, but they aren't.
About 6AM, before the sun comes up, I get out of bed.
I've decided to pack a suitcase. After that, I don't know. My brain is full of ideas, but they're mostly nonsense.
A suitcase, though. That's a good idea.
So I sneak into the hallway and open the closet and I get a suitcase from my old luggage set. I start to pack clothes and whatever else I'd want to take with me if I left for good.
It's disheartening how little fits into one bag.
My phone vibrates as I'm standing there, staring at my heap of clothes in the chair.
I pick my phone up off the table by the bed.
HARRISON, it says.
The message is simple enough. I guess it's the last thing I'm expecting. I love you, it says.
In my dreams, I stayed on the path after high school. I stayed in college. In my dreams, the world I inhabit is free of dishes ill feelings and regret. I don't know. I guess that's stupid. I don't talk about it much. But I always end up on the train tracks, waiting to be run over.
This time, though, through the dark and the sound and the blinding light of the train, I see a form block the light and kneel beside me. The ground is shaking, and I can feel a hand on mine, the roar of the train so close I can smell the metal of the wheels against the rails.
“Who are you?” I want to ask this person.
But right then, I can feel the cake and dinner and everything I ever ate coming up my esophagus, and I wake up cold and sweaty, a lump forming in my throat.
There are words, but I can't say them. I can only sit and gasp and wait for my breathing to slow down. I look at my phone, then out the window, then I sigh and lie back down. I grab my phone and I text Harrison back. I'm leaving soon, my message says, and I put the phone back on the table.
Then I turn over and close my eyes and think of all the places I could have been by now. All those places are still there, continuing without me.
The places I might have lived have found other people to inhabit them.
Houses on streets I've never seen.
The world is full of freeways leading to distant towns.
Bus stations and buildings sit silent in the night, knowing that someone will come in the morning, even if I never materialize.
I've got a suitcase waiting by the door, just in case.