Arja Kumar is a writer, wanderer, and nineteen-year-old college student from Illinois. Her work has previously appeared in KAIROS, Sweet Tree Review, Literary Orphans, The Raven Review, Bop Dead City, and other literary magazines.
There are two kinds of people that exist: people who live and people who listen. I wished I were the first. I didn’t know there was a sound to living until I heard his footsteps. I always assumed the sound of life was a baby’s first cry, screaming and yelling during a fight, or the whine of honking cars in traffic. Anything chaotic and loud, evident and clear. But I was very wrong. It didn’t matter to him what he thought of himself as. I think he wanted to run as far away from himself as he could. After all, what person doesn’t want to run away from themself sometimes. I don’t think he ever thought of himself—contemplating the way he smiled in the mirror or if his laugh sounded like the bleat of a goat. Doubt it. He didn’t have the type of spirit most people had. I knew this from the moment I heard his first footsteps—the faintest rustle of a shedding tree in the wind—deathly silent.
The chemistry classroom was cold like a fridge, and we were the food sitting in it—waiting to be modified, packaged neatly, and sent out into the world. There were bottles of chemicals stowed in the back of the room, but every one of them smelled so strong and potent, you knew getting one lone drop on your skin would send it up into a purple sizzle. Everybody was already sitting down and hugging their bare arms, wishing they’d brought a jacket or something even though it was still hot August. The teacher looked like a nice man but had the appearance of a nineties cartoon character. He was lecturing about atomic orbitals and bonding, which translated to me as “time to think about everything else in the world except for this.” I know this class sugared every college fool’s buttflaps to take because it gave them something fancy to complain about to everyone. “Yea ma, yea pa, I’m alright. It’s just so busy here with organic chemistry.” “Heyyyyy baby I can’t come tonight. I have to study for organic chemistry.” “I’m just gonna shut the book cover so everybody in this library can see that I’m studying organic chemistry. Oh shoot, I should paint a really concentrated look on my face too, so they know I’m really smart and gonna be rich when I grow up.” I thought it was all just a big slice of stupid. Everybody was paying keen attention to the lecture and boring powerpoint like it was going to be on their test of life tomorrow. Like God was gonna say if you don’t know molecular orbital theory by tomorrow morning, you ain’t wakin up. But the boy on the other side of the room seemed like he wasn’t a molecule bothered. He was sitting by himself at the table farthest away from the four of us and scribbling something on his hand with a black pen. His hat and backpack had the word ARMY embroidered in neat olive-green stitches, and he wore square glasses that made him look like a computer geek. When the teacher went around the room asking who you were and what you wanted to do with your life, he said he was teaching himself how to code from YouTube videos and wanted to be some sort of engineer. I said I wanted to be carrot farmer, but nobody laughed until I said myself it was a joke. We all left a little more settled that there was going to be a routine to life again, but a little more nervous that we were entering into uncharted territory. --- The rain on the roof of the Microbiology classroom echoed hard against the high ceiling. It was a small lecture hall, and every slight move people made, word they said, or yawn they yawned could be heard if you listened real good. People were playing on their phones in the dark—sufficient enough night vision. The girl behind me was talking about how her boyfriend was from the hood of Chicago and how the three-hour drive to the city sucked, but how she was “hella excited” to jump on him tonight. It was Tuesday. The girl three seats across me was whispering or crying. I don’t know which. She was talking about her boyfriend getting arrested and her kid having strep throat. She didn’t want to put her kid in that dirty daycare that didn’t tell the kids to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before snack time, but that was all she could afford. Her boyfriend would get out of jail in eight months, but it was over between them because she found those kinds of pictures of some girl from her Algebra II class on his phone. Then there was some boy who came into the classroom with a small McDonald’s coffee. Not black like policemen, firefighters, or other people who save people drink. It had three creamers and two sugars—overly sweet, full to the brim with impatience. He didn’t have muscles or anything that would make him the kind of firefighter you’d expect to run out of a burning house, carrying an ashen person like some sort of god or angel. He wasn’t the kind like that. He was skinny and weakish but handsome to the kind of girls whose mothers and fathers went to the country club to eat pasta salad on the weekends. He put down his backpack and pulled out his notebook and a red pen, as if everything he was going to write was going to be a correction. “Hey,” the whisper-cry girl across the room said to the girl beside her, “Got any gum?” “Yeah.” “Gimme some.” “Here.” She rustled around in her backpack and handed her the stick. “Damn, what is this garbage? I only chew sweet gum you idiot.” “I don’t got no pink bubblegum sister,” she said. “Sorry.” There were still ten more minutes until the teacher would come in. The red pen boy looked at the blank page of his notebook, up at the board, at the clock, then back at the girl behind him. He took off his jacket. The back of it said RAFT CITY FIRE DEPT. He put on his reading glasses and fiddled with the gold ring on his left hand. --- The music didn’t fit the day. The radio played a song too sunny and upbeat for the cold rain and fog. It was all muck, and the song was artificial sugar. The parking lot was empty, as usual. It always felt like I was riding horseback into some abandoned ghost town—the tumbleweeds rolling around in the howling wind and all. A black bird soared high overhead, but I pretended that it was an eagle and that I was an old cowboy instead of a nineteen-year-old fool. I opened the car’s glovebox and found a frozen hard granola bar that looked better than appetizing enough for my empty stomach. I had half an hour to kill and I didn’t want to kill it by stoning my mind to death with more mindless reactions about things that existed but couldn’t be seen. Maybe that’s one of the worse things about us humans—we always things proven right in front of our eyes. I stayed in the car for a little longer to finish listening to the new song that released that day. It was catchy, and a luxury car commercial used it for advertisement. I imagined the singer smiling a joker smile and swimming in a deep pool of cash in Vegas. The talk show host had a high-pitched squirrel voice and was talking about coffee like it was the only thing in the world that made her happy. BUY ONE GET ONE CAWWFEEEEEE! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?! UGH I FREAKING LOVE PUMPKIN SPICE LATTES AND I’M GONNA BUY LIKE FOUR OF THEM TONIGHT FOR DINNER. I JUST LOOOOVE TO CONSUME MY CALORIES BY LIQUID. “Yeah you sure sound like it,” I shook my head and muted the radio. “Consume my brain juices too…damn.” When I was younger, I always thought people were magical. I thought they labored hard everyday—churning some big wheel until milk poured out instead of dirty water. Until their bodies ached and they would get up the next day to do it all again because they were honest and they were true. I thought people were like this—always good and good to the bone. I laughed and shook my head again. Maybe some people were like this. But they were hidden in a part of the world where they didn’t have to feel the sting of hurt they felt everyday when they realized that the world was not even a smidge close to the paradise they thought was promised. Wasn’t that how the deal was supposed to be? Paradise in exchange for goodness? But the truth was that the world was a place full of shenanigans and shenanigan people who ran wild around crumbs. People always chased after people or things that made them feel good for a little while. And when these people or things would fall apart, they’d cry and find something or someone new. It was a different kind of promised land—oblivious and carefree—but they sure were happy. It was good anyways that I didn’t know where this Land of No Hurting was because I would’ve run away and sought the refuge of it real quick and too young. --- The boy with the army backpack was sitting at my usual study table. “Hey!” I greeted. It was the first time I talked to him. “Hi,” he greeted back, looking up from his computer. It was an off-brand computer I hadn’t seen people using for years. “How’s it going?” I asked, pulling out my notebook from my backpack. “Eh it’s alright I guess.” “Are you doing the homework?” “No,” he said and looked at me for the first time. At first glance, he reminded me of a block of tofu for some reason. At second glance, he reminded me of watery coffee. “Honestly, it’s a chore,” I sighed. At third glance, I saw that his foggy eyes had a wild but serious look to them—like a crystal waiting to be dug from the deep of the earth. He went back to not doing his homework on the computer. I tried to make out the chemical hieroglyphics in my notebook. “What are you studying?” I asked, curious to know. It was the cheesiest typical first question. “I’m going for something in engineering, I think. Probably like chemical engineering.” “Oh that’s cool! I don’t know any engineering majors. You’re the first one!” “Yeah I like all that kinda stuff. I think chemistry is pretty cool.” “Really?!” “Yeah. Don’t you like chemistry?” “Not really. I mean I like organic so far, but I hated general chem so much. I literally hate anything with math.” “Ah gotcha. I thought gen chem was ok. I took it like three years ago though.” “Really?” “Yeah.” “Did you take it with our same teacher?” “No, our lab teacher taught it the year I took it.” “Ohh ok.” I pulled out my laptop. “How come you took it three years ago?” I asked, curious. “I went into the army then. Like I started college here for a year and then went into the army.” “So you joined the army when you were eighteen and came back when you were twenty-…” I tried to count. “No, I joined when I was twenty-one and now I’m twenty-four.” “Ah I see.” I pretended to click a few keyboard keys to make it seem like I wasn’t trying to pry open the box that held his hidden life story. “So you were in the army for three whole years? That’s wow...” “Yeah it’s not as amazing as people thing it is,” he laughed quickly to hide something else that he wanted to say but didn’t. “I had to leave though after three years.” “Oh, was your service only that long or something?” I really didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. “No,” he hesitated and fiddled with his hands. “Oh.” “I had some um..mental health issues a busted knee patella.” “Oh dang that is really painful,” I raised my eyebrows and looked at his knee. “Yeah that’s why I can’t stand for long amounts of time because it starts to hurt.” “Dang…” “Oh yeah I have TMD too.” “Tempo mandibular jaw dis-“ “Yeah you hear the clicking?” He opened and closed his jaw to show me the sound of the loud click. “That is terrible.” I really didn’t know what else to say than these half empty words that all people said when they tried talking to a person in pain. I was just following the formulaic script, but it didn’t feel right. He sat there for a while, thinking. I looked back at my notes. “Do you like math?” I looked up at him and asked. “Yeah I don’t mind it.” “Ughhh. You’re one of those…” “What? You don’t like math?” He looked genuinely surprised. “Nope. I just need it for my major.” “What’s your major?” “Biology, but I’m in a pre-medicine program.” I said it in a quieter voice to be humble. “Oh, I thought you were a psychology major.” “Really? Everybody says that I look like a teacher!” He laughed. “I think it’s because of my glasses. I wouldn’t be a good psychologist though.” I wiggled my round glasses up and down. “Why?” he asked. I couldn’t think of an answer, so, I said, “I dunno…I guess I just overthink about people…” He nodded and went back to looking out the window. “Do you work?” I asked. “Yeah I work at a gas station now.” “Is it always busy?” “No not really. It’s pretty chill. I just give people lottery tickets and cigarettes and hang around.” “That’s good.” “No, it’s not good,” he said. “Smoking kills and I’m just a murderer selling death.” “That’s an interesti-“ “But you can’t make a living thinking like that. So I just think that it’s work and it’s not too hard.” I nodded in silent agreement. I didn’t know what else to do. He looked at me like I didn’t know what kind of hurting he was talking about. Yes, it was true I didn’t know, but he was wrong that I was clueless about pain. I saw his soul go home and look in the mirror. I saw his soul not recognize its own face. I saw his soul naked, crouched, and helpless—like it was about to go back inside the darkness of his mama and hide there forever. I saw his mama’s womb in the cosmos. Away from it all—the hurting, the reality, the people who it thought didn’t understand. I knew his soul well because it was made up of the same fear as mine. The fear of other souls. The fear of being lifted out of a hole you’d been trapped in for eternities. The fear of change. But his soul was different because his didn’t want any help. “I’m gonna go to class,” he said and slung his army backpack over both arms. I felt the pool of blood below me. The heat rushed to my face. I wiped it quickly and nervously with my black coat and ran to the bathroom. I cleaned up, wrapped my sweatshirt around my waist, and sighed relief. How could I feel a broken man’s pain?How could I feel what it felt to have blood all over your hands? --- I thought about it again—what it meant to be older. Nineteen and twenty-four never looked so different to me before, but now, I saw what each meant. In my head, twenty-four meant Friday dinners after work at the small Italian restaurant across from the kids baseball field. It meant ordering something boozy and the same pasta every time with too much alfredo sauce and parmesan shaved on top. It made you feel fat but happy. You eat and talk about everything—work is garbage, I hate it all, I’m so tired, it’s too cold, oh look at the lightening outside. The waiters would start blowing out the candles on the empty tables and look at you slyly, hoping loudly in their heads that you would hurry up already. You pack up the little bit of leftover food and drive back home, the rain falling so gently on the windshield. You wouldn’t even bother putting the leftovers in the fridge because you two are so drunk and so full and so warm on the inside that you just run straight upstairs and get into bed at 8pm, dreaming about Rodin’s sculptures, preferably The Kiss or something fleshy like that. Nineteen meant sitting in night class at 8pm, waiting for the last fifteen minutes to finish. The topic: psychosocial development. Stage 6: The Crisis of Intimacy vs Isolation. Yawning, writing, Head rested in hand, thinking, thinking, thinking so hard. What am I going to do? What am I going to do with all of this? Class is over. Walk to your cold car in the dark, start it up, turn on the radio, sit on your hands because it’s too damn cold. You have to keep yourself warm to survive. Come home, make dinner—frozen vegetables, leftover rice from the Chinese takeout two days ago. Eat by yourself. Watch a chick flick by yourself. Turn it off after half an hour because you’re too sleepy. Forgot it was Friday. I didn’t know anything about how or why people love or about how to be an adult. But I knew about truth, I knew about suffering, and I knew about art. --- It was Friday night and my parents sent me to get Pizza Hut for my little sister and her friend while they did paperwork. My sister and her friend were only twelve but acted like they were high school sophomores whose life goal was to “look like an Internet baddie” and perfect the dead fish eye roll. They both thought I was ancient as hell because I was nineteen and hadn’t been to a school dance or sports game in two years. They said “I didn’t get it anymore” because I didn’t study memes for a living. It was the type of evening where it was chilly but pleasantly humid, so you wanted to roll down the windows and turn the radio dial to some classic rock station because it was just that kind of day. People cruised around slowly, with their hands out of their windows flicking a cigarette, spitting out wads of pink bubblegum, pouring out the soda in their cupholder that went flat and watery from all the gas station ice, or just drumming on the side of their car. At the turn where the star observatory was, I saw the slow cruise of the red pen boy in his old car with some girl. I could tell they’d been driving around the small town aimlessly for half an hour. They hadn’t been talking much. The girl didn’t look enamored or consumed in awe with him. She looked indifferent but like she liked that he was different from the high school boys from her school. “You can turn on the radio if you want,” he said to her, taking a brief glance into her withdrawn eyes. She smiled. “Why not?” She turned on the radio and let it play to the station it was already on, assuming that he always listened to 97.5—the pop radio station everybody listened to. Woahowoahohhhh I can see the heaven in your eyesss She listened for a minute more and laughed. “You listen to old people music.” He chuckled, “Me?” He looked over at her. “You think I listen to old people music?” “Yeah dummy. The 80’s radio station? Really?” she laughed. “Hey now, don’t make fun of my music taste.” He laughed too but felt a pinch of hurt. Old people music? She thinks I’m old. I’m old, I’m old, I’m old. Their car pulled into the Pizza Hut parking lot. The window was still wide rolled down. “Pizza Hut?” She looked at him like he was joking. “That’s the best you can do?” she scoffed. “Hey, c’mon now! I freaking love Pizza Hut,” he nudged her softly, careful not to hurt her. “You freaking love Pizza Hut.” “I meant everybody freaking loves Pizza Hut!” he tried to laugh. “Pizza Hut is freaking good!” “All my friends went to get sushi today,” she said softly and frowned. “FREAKING SUSHI!” she yelled, and threw up her hands, remembering that they’d made the plan to go during lab. She imagined having dinner with them. They’d order the bento boxes and lick them clean while trash talking about everybody who they found entertainment in talking trash about. That would’ve been more fun than this. They would’ve gone to the football boys’ party and found somebody to makeout with by now. It sure looked like she wasn’t going to makeout with him tonight--he didn’t seem like the type. He laughed softly and looked out at the parking lot. “Let’s go,” she sighed and opened the door, letting more distant air of green pepper, onion, and parmesan into the car.
I stood at the counter waiting for my pizza. It was unusually quiet for a Friday night. There was only an old couple at a table and the red pen boy and high school girl at the booth on the side with the windows. The high school girl ordered a salad for dinner and red pen boy ordered a whole freaking large pizza. The high school girl was scrolling on her phone and laughing to herself. Red pen boy watched her pick each lettuce leaf out of her salad with her fingers and put it in her mouth, entertaining herself with that stupid phone and not even making an ounce of effort to talk to him even though he was alive and right in front of her. “Are you sure you don’t want a slice?” he asked again, patiently. “Yeah,” she nodded at the phone and laughed, “I don’t like pizza.” He massaged the ball stuck in his throat until it unraveled. He sighed and said, “I’ll be right back.” “Yeah,” she nodded at the phone again and laughed.
He came up to the counter and softly rang the bell. “Hi, I was wondering if I could get a coupla wings tacked onto my order. Do you guys have any more lemonade too?” “Yea we can certainly do that for you sir. What table are you sitting at?” the cashier girl replied, punching numbers into the cash register. “No, no. I don’t want em at my table. I’ll-I’ll just take em here. I’ll-I’ll just eat em here. Do you have any more lemonade?” He had a certain stutter when he got nervous or impatient. “Um ok? We can certainly do that too,” she punched in more numbers. “We don’t have any more lemonade, I’m sorry.” “Dammit,” he muttered under his breath, frustrated. “We have Coke, Sprite, Pepsi, Fanta, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper, Ginger Ale, Root Bee-“ “I know I know,” he said. “It’s f-fine.” The cashier lady left him alone.
My back was turned towards him, and I felt like playing the devil. “Lemonade? What are you, twelve or somethin?” I said in a low, dark voice. I heard him turning towards me. “E-excuse me. S-sorry, what did you say?” he asked. “I said, what’re ya doin drinkin lemonade in the dead of winter?” “I-It’s not w-winter.” “Winter? Who said winter? I said, be careful, don’t get a splinter.” “Oh.” “She’s a mighty beautiful animal, but she’s sure stuck at the core of herself…” “S’cuse me?” “Like a rotting apple or some mouse trapped in glue…” “S-sorry do I know you?” “Know me? Why in the world would you want to know me?” I bellowed an old man’s laugh. “Know thyself and that is enough.”
“Miss, your pizza is done.” “Thanks darlin,” I said and went to the door, careful not to show my face to red pen boy. “Sir, your wings are hot and ready.” “T-thank you,” he said and grabbed the box from the lady. He stood at the counter and opened the box, reaching in to eat the first one. Later that night, he would go down to the basement and search for that old red crate. It wasn’t hard to find because he didn’t own many things. He would flip through each CD, looking for the one titled Loverboy Songs. It was his dad’s CD, and he listened to it when he started out as a policeman. Why can’t I be just like dad and do something and just stick with it? he would think. He’d find the CD, hold it up to the dim lightbulb, and buff it gently with his shirt sleeve. He would turn off the light, go upstairs, and play the CD to that one song. Woahowoahohhhh I can see the heaven in your eyesss Old man, old man, old man, he would think.
When I came back home, my sister and her friend threw a potato at me, snatched the pizza box from my hands, and continued banging the kiddie piano singing about macaroni and boys. --- I walked into the science building upset about everything—the cold, the fight last night with my parents about them telling me I wasn’t “social enough”, and the fact that we had a test in two days. The boy was sitting at the table by the door, and a tall fake tree hovered over him. He waved hi. I sat down and sighed hard. “What’s up,” he asked. “Not much,” I said. “I don’t wanna study for this stupid test on Friday.” He laughed, “Yeah same.” “Did you start studying for it?” “Nope.” “There’s just too much to study and so much homework to do.” “Yeah I didn’t even look at the homework yet. I have a speech tomorrow,” he said. “Dang that sounds awful.” I opened my psychology notebook and glossed over the notes on consciousness for the test tomorrow. “It’s not too bad actually.” “Really?” I questioned. He didn’t seem like the type of person who would think speech wasn’t too bad. “Yeah it’s just writing it that sucks and my knee…” he looked up at me, “My knees got busted in the army and they lock up whenever I stand up for too long and it hurts like hell.” I remembered. The knee patella-osis or something like that? “Dang that must be painful.” He looked at me like you don’t get it. “Yeah it sucks.” “Why don’t you ask the teacher if you can sit down and give your speech?” “Nah,” he shook his head and said. “It’s alright.” “Or you could just lean a little against the chalkboard for some support!” “Nah,” he shook his head and looked at me again like no, you don’t know. He went back to work on his computer. I went back to my notebook. Dreams, hypnosis, drugs, altered states of consciousness… “What’s your speech about?” I inquired. “Bach,” he said. “Bok?” “Yeah Bach,” he said. “Ooo what’s that?” I asked half sleepy. He laughed. “The composer guy.” “OH! Like Bach the classical musician?” “Yeah!” “That’s an interesting choice,” I said. “Do you have to make a powerpoint or something?” “It wasn’t a choice,” he said, sternly. “And yeah, just like a slideshow thing.” “Cool,” I nodded and went back to my notes. Human growth and development, childhood, adolescence, adulthood. The older you get, the more your fluid intelligence declines, the better your crystallized intelligence gets. I closed my notebook and looked up aimlessly. I could see he was reading an article in the reflection of his glasses. “Did you finish your slideshow?” “Yeah I’m just double checking one of my facts about him.” He clicked around. “Yeah it’s done now.” “Niceee. Can I see it?” “Yeah.” He scooched over and started the slideshow. The Best of Bach. “Yeah so he was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685 and he learned to play played the violin and harpsichord.” Next slide. “His music is from the Baroque period and he is one of the greatest composers of the Western art musical canon.” “Interesting.” “Yeah his music was harmonically more innovative than other composers in his time.” Next slide. “Some see the musical compositions he created as showing his devout relationship with God.” “Mmhm,” I nodded. “Then I’m gonna show this little clip of one of his compositions.” He clicked on the YouTube link. Fugue in G minor. It was a little too loud and the girl at the table behind us looked up. “Dang. Now that’s what you call music…Bach’s foogoo…” I laughed. He laughed. “I think you say it like phew-gh.” “That’s one good phew-gh then.” “There you go.” “How’d he make music like that if he was deaf?” “I don’t think he was deaf.” “Oh I thought Bach was deaf and cut off his own ear.” “No, Beethoven was deaf. I don’t know if he cut off his ear though.” “Ohhh.” Next slide. “Bach went blind though and got eye surgery by some fraud doctor.” “Sad.” “Yeah then he died in 1750 eventually.” Next slide. THE END. “I found this picture of him sticking his tongue out and making this funny face though.” I laughed hard but as quietly as I could and clapped. “Great presentation. 10/10.” “Thank you thank you.” He was not beautiful and I did not love him or anything. He was not handsome in any way. He was scratched, dented, and folded around in a million different ways like a soda can kicked around in the middle of a city that never stopped to breathe. He looked like a billy goat to me that day—the scruff on his chinny chin chin sticking out in wirey whichways. It was wonderful though because he looked real, real and like himself. That’s the way people should be.
The other boy in the class came in from outside. “It’s daamn cold outside.” He was cross-eyed and smelled like half a gallon of blue bottle Polo cologne. “Did you guys start studying for the test?” “No.” “No,” I repeated. “What about you?” “Oh hell no! I don’t have any time. I had to work this morning from 8-12 and then from 1-2. Do we have another experiment today in lab?” “Yeah I think so,” I said and made a face. “I guess we should head into class.” --- The red pen boy jumped from lab table to lab table each day. Supposedly, he’d gotten kicked out of every group because nobody wanted to work with him. “What’s this one?” he would ask. An amoeba. “What’s this one?” A diatom. “What’s this one?” A paramecium. “What’s this one?” DO YOU NOT PAY ATTENTION IN CLASS? He stopped by my lab table and asked me what kind of fungus I was looking at. My foot fungus, I replied. He looked at me like he believed me for real and blinked a few times. “Oh footfungoficus? That’s a really interesting one. I read about it in the book and it said the only cure for it some cream called like Fungo-.” No way, I thought the only cure was if you ate ground snail shells, you know like escargot or whatever the French call them. Then you have to burn off the fungus a little everyday until your foot turns black and the fungus eventually falls off. He looked at me with a few long blinks again, trying to recall a familiar tomfoolery, but he couldn’t quite put his tongue on it. I turned back to look at the little world through the microscope again. --- I waved hi to him. He shuffled to the table and sat down quickly. “Hey.” He was wearing a Gap hoodie and a purple shirt with sharks on it underneath. He wasn’t wearing his glasses today. “How’s life?” I asked. It always seemed like a better question than a phony “How are you?” “It’s fine,” he answered, “Not the best.” At least he was honest. “How come?” I hated asking “Why?” because it made me feel like I was prying the person for a valid reason. I was not the judge of their world. I was just another person. “I didn’t even start my homework yet.” He giggled and took another sip from his Dunkin Donuts coffee. He looked a little caffeine happy. There was an energy drink in the pocket of his backpack. “Wow so you’re one of those,” I said. “Huh?” “Master procrastinator.” “Oh yeah,” he nodded in agreement and chuckled, “That’s who I am I guess.” “It’s ok,” I said, “I used to be like that too. I would go to bed at like twelve and then get up at four to finish my homework. I’d finish it in the car while my dad drove me to school. It was pretty terrible, and I barely got four hours of sleep every night.” “Damn,” he said. “I just try to do everything earlier now,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I used to procrastinate because I spent the whole day listening to music, watching movies, reading—chasing a half-etched romantic dream. I didn’t tell him I had to give up that kind of dreaming to survive. He nodded and took another sip of coffee. He made a face like it’d gone cold. “Damn that doesn’t sound fun,” he said quietly. He knew exactly what I was talking about, but he didn’t say anything. He quickly switched the subject in his mind and pulled out his laptop from his backpack. “Did you get these problems?” I frowned inside. “Yeah, I think so,” I said in a better voice, trying to give him hope that he could do it. “Number thirty-nine?” He showed me his blank box. Draw (S)-2-methoxyheptane with dash-wedge notation. “Yeah I got it! It looks like this.” I turned the computer towards him, but he was already looking across my shoulder. “Cool. How about um forty-two?” Draw (3R, 4R)-2,3,4-trimethylhexane. “Yep! Here you go.” He typed and clicked quickly, as if he were being chased by some ghost. “Thanks.” “Do you have thirty-one?” I asked. It was my nineteenth try on the problem. Draw the organic compound corresponding to the following IUPAC name. “Yeah,” he said, and showed me his computer screen. “Thanks!” “Mmhm.” “Wait! It didn’t work!” “Oh shoot one sec,” he showed me the computer screen again. I tried again. Wrong again. “What the heck!” “Here let me see,” he examined both of our screens side by side. “Huh? They’re the same?” He clicked around on my computer trying to figure it out. “It doesn’t work.” I laughed. “I’m sorry,” he said. There are some people who when they say certain words, draw out their truth the way a poem or a good song does. He was one of those people. He did it with sorry. “It’s alright don’t worry,” I laughed over the haunting echo of his soul in my head. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He got up quickly and looped his camouflage backpack across both arms like he was about to go on a long march through the wilderness. “I’m gonna go to class,” he said with his back turned toward me. He sneaked out the vape from the pocket of his jeans and went to the boys’ bathroom. “Yeah me too,” I said to the nothingness. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. --- My hand hurt after taking eight pages of notes on Microbial Metabolism. Red pen boy rambled on jitterishly about the article he was showing the professor on his phone. Last night, he had a fever, but he still came to class because he wanted to talk to the teacher. “We can grab a burger and something to drink,” he said in a quiet low mumble to her. She looked up at the ceiling to think about it, but quickly looked back at him to automatically say, “That’s very kind of you, but I have to decline.” It sounded nice. It would be the best part of fall—crisp and just a pinch of cold in the air. She would wear that new burgundy cardigan, brown boots, and a flowy floral top underneath. She’d curl her hair lightly, wear her favorite silver hoops, and do her eye makeup all pretty, maybe even a dab of lipstick, spritz of perfume. It’d been so long since she did any of that. She wore army green Keds that showed off her little ankle tattoo, khaki pants, and a school polo everyday. No, she was too far away from all these things now. She was older now, more mature. “That’s a great article though. I’m really glad you’re taking interest in all this.” He smiled a little sad. “Yeah…those prions are really nasty,” she said and tapped to straighten the stack of papers in her hand. --- “Did you get number thirty-seven?” he asked. “Yep, I think so.” I turned the computer towards him. He moved to the chair right next to me and copied down the answer. “Thanks.” “Yep.” “Did you get number forty-one?” “Yep.” He moved a little closer, pretending to look at my screen. He looked at the molecule then at me with the side of his eye. He looked at me like I could fix him. I was torn. I couldn’t be dishonest and move closer, and I couldn’t be cruel and cut his only thin thread of hope. I could not shatter another human’s hope and I could not give a false promise. No, that was not who I was. So I gave him the most earnest look a human could give another human and I prayed in my head that he would find his path in the right way. I gave him that look, moved back very slightly, and said, “Yep so that bond moves over there and the lone pair electrons go here. At least, I think so.” “Thanks,” he said. I felt him frown on the inside. I felt a pang of guilt, but it quickly faded into that echo. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. --- That night I dreamt of Pieta. We were marble, The Soldier and I. We were frozen in time, still for centuries—he was in my arms and I wept wet tears that refused to drop from my face. It was all false though. It was all my stupid art. I knew I couldn’t save him. Nobody can save anybody except for themselves. He and I knew this well. I could not hold him in my arms and wipe away his tears with my hands like Mary. I could not let him crumble in my arms down to his core. I was not her. I was no seraph who could nurse the holes in his soul. I could only tell him that I knew about hurting and I knew suffering. I was only human and there was nothing magical about me other than the fact that I could give him hope and the kind of love that the universe gives to all of its creation. But that’s all I could give him. I could not give him salvation. I could not save him. --- “Thanks for your service.” I saw a flyer leftover from Veteran’s day tacked onto the STUDENT REMINDER BOARD that read “Be sure to thank your veterans!”. We were both at the vending machine, spending our pocket dollars. Me on Goldfish, him on an energy drink and a chocolate bar. “Don’t thank me,” he mumbled in an inaudible buzz. “How come?” I laughed. “I mean you fought for the country, and that’s something to say thank you for.” “I didn’t do anything.” He was talking to his hands instead of me. I was dumb. I didn’t get the message. “You were a soldier after all! That’s a big deal I mean.” “Stop,” he said, “Just stop.” “Oh,” I stumbled for words, “I’m s-sorry. I didn’t mea-“ “It’s fine. It’s fine. I’m gonna head to class.” Don’t you get it, he was thinking. You really don’t know. You really really don’t know. He didn’t look at me, just kept looking at those hands of his like they were covered in blood. He walked fast and nervously to the bathroom, stumbling over the pain that came from his knees. I heard him shut the door loud and drop his vape on the floor. He was looking at himself in the mirror and muttering dammit dammit dammit. Dammit dammit dammit. Dammit dammit dammit. --- That night I dreamt I was fifteen again. I dreamt I came back from school and went straight to my bathroom. I remember that I had to pee so bad, but I didn’t care. I opened up my backpack impatiently and pulled out four packs of cigarettes, one of those long kitchen grill lighters, and sat on the countertop with my feet in the sink. I lit them up ten at a time and sucked the smoke from each one as fast as I could, moving on to the next one and the next one until I got to the last ten and just lit them all up and stuck them all in my mouth. When I was all done, I washed all them down the drain—ash, dust, cancer, and lust and washed my hands and wiped the water on my plaid school skirt. There was one that fell on the floor, and I picked it up like a hungry animal. I couldn’t find the lighter to light it and felt paranoid, so I ran it ever so gently under the water until it caught on fire. I fanned out the flame and stuck it in my mouth and sat on the sink countertop and coughed and choked and watched myself doing it all in the mirror with a smug smile. And I kept on smiling that smug smile and watching myself and watching the enticing trail of smoke blow from my mouth like it was beautiful or something. Then my conscience appeared behind me and laid both of its hands on my shoulders softly and taunted in a whisper, “How could I fix the holes now?” then shook me by the shoulders, “TELL ME!” When I woke up, my pillow was damp from crying and I felt the tobacco still fresh and wet in my lungs and worried that I destroyed them for good. I never smoked before, but in this dream, I dreamt so loud I could taste it all. -- It was getting to be the melancholy part of fall. The sun went down at four, the air was more cold than pleasant, and people began to have that sleepy look on their face that didn’t go away until spring. I thought these were all myths before, and that time was always the same no matter what season. But I noticed that day, my skin was cracked, dry, and chalky like an old woman’s. I looked at it in the light, out of the light, and the little bit of sunlight that was left of the day, questioning my cells for an answer they couldn’t give. Why are you getting old? Can’t you pick up the pace and work better? Sorry ma’am, there’s nothing we can do but to serve you until we’re gone. It’s only natural in the course of time. Shut up, shut up all of you.
I had a hunch for going out on these kinds of evenings—when the town was empty because everybody was getting ready to go to some party or out to the city. I cruised through the road slowly, listening to nothing but the silence of the evening.
I was on the way to Walgreens to get a photo taken for my passport. I saw a familiar car following behind and then making a U turn to go to the gas station. I parked in the empty Walgreens parking lot and ambled lazily inside.
I went to the photo counter and waited for the employee photographer. Nobody came. The store was empty except for a high school hooligan buying store brand cheddar chips and sour candy, a lady looking for purple lipstick to match the sky outside, and a man insisting that the employee “check in the back” for a fishing pole. “IT’S THE GODDAMN LAST FISH OF THE SEASON AND YER TELLIN ME THAT THERE AIN’T NO FISHING POLES LEFT?! BULLSHITE!” The florescent lights overhead seared too brightly. It didn’t seem natural that they burned like this while the sun setting outside burned like the last flickerings of dying lantern. “Hi how can I help you?” It was a girl with blue hair and a lip piercing. “Hi..yeah I need a passport picture please.” “Ohhkay,” she said and keyed open a drawer under the counter. “Just step right over there by that backdrop.” She was holding the kind of shiny silver camera you haven’t seen since 2007. I took off my glasses and rubbed under my eyes in hopes that they wouldn’t look tired and baggy. CLICK. “Oops! My bad! Sorry, I’ll count down from three.” She deleted the last picture. “One, two, three!” CLICK. She took out the camera’s memory card and fed it to the computer. “Hmm…It says your smile is too wide.” “Well dang.” “Let’s try it again.” “One, two, three!” CLICK. She took out the card and fed it again. “Ahh…It says your smile is still too wide…aaand your head is tilted too.” “One, two, three!” CLICK. “Ok it just says your head is tilted this time.” “One, two, three!” CLICK. “It’s just saying that your smile is too wide now.” The man waiting for his fishing pole was watching the drama and eating from a bag of barbeque chips off the shelf. “Now if I were you I ain’t lettin no stoopid compooter tellin me what to do.” He wagged his pointer finger at me and then licked the seasoning off of it. “One, two, three!” CLICK. “Finally! Your picture is good to go now,” she said and printed two neat little copies of pixelated faces. “Compooters are stoopid,” he said, munching. He was wearing flip flops, a stars and stripes bucket hat, cargo shorts, and a now barbeque chip-stained white t-shirt.
When I got back into the car, I watched groups of laughing people going into the Mexican restaurant. They would order drinks and eat quesadillas happily until they were full and drunk. They might even feel the urge to sing a karaoke song and dance with tortilla chips still stuffed in their mouth. If they choked, the others would laugh and have a cheers to it because it was too funny. The radio blurted. IHOPEYOURGUYS’FRIDAYNIGHTISGETTINGHOTBECAUSEI’MABOUTTOPLAYTHEHOTTESTSONGOFTHEYEARFORYOUGUYS. Stoopid squirrel radio lady. The car was almost out of gas. I squinted at the lights coming from the gas station, trying to make out the watery blur of the people through the window. I couldn’t see a thing.
I was at pump nine again. It was the number between the teetering point to all or nothing—the jump to something greater or the fall to zero. When the price was done running, I took the nozzle out and went to go pay. A shadow with a hood pulled over its head was sitting on the concrete step and blowing smoke at the sliver of the moon. The inside of the gas station smelled like pine tree air freshener, rotating hot dogs, and tobacco. Two men who worked at the graveyard were shuffling scoops of nacho cheese onto their buckets of fried chicken. They filled up more off-brand cola into their 44 oz styrofoam cups and continued talking about how rich swimsuit models were and the wrestling game that was going to be on TV tonight. They would watch it on one of their phones later that night, sitting on the cold earth in the quiet dark in the middle of the graveyard. It was lucky for the hooligan kids who vandalized tombstones with etches of things they saw on Internet memes. They wouldn’t get in trouble tonight. I felt the urge to roam around and buy something too, just because. I went back by the refrigerators and saw the row of energy drinks and beer almost gone. The row of orange juice and sweet tea looked untouched for weeks. I paced around the candy aisle, chips, and Famer’s Almanacs that predicted the winter for the entire country to be SNOWY, ICEY, and ICKY. I settled on a pack of sunflower seeds and set them on the counter.
A familiar figure of a body turned around. “Oh hey!” It was him. “Hey! I didn’t know you worked here!” “Yep, this is where I work.” He scanned the pack of sunflower seeds. “You like bird food?” “Huh?” “Sunflower seeds?” he smiled and held up the packet like a question. “Oh, yeah..I peck at those delightfully.” “Sounds about right,” he laughed. I looked behind to see if I was holding up the line. There was nobody. “How long do you have to work?” I asked. “Until about 2,” he said. “2 PM?” “No! 2 AM.” “Dang..that’s a long time. Night shift…” He leaned against the counter, “Yeah, it’s whatever.” I nodded my head. “You going anywhere fun?” he asked. “Me?” I shook my head. “Nope. Just wandering around until I think it’s time to go home.” “Sounds fun to me. It’s better than being stuck in here.” “If I were a genie, I’d free you,” I said. He looked at me like I said something weird. “I mean c’mon, everybody deserves freedom on a Friday!” He laughed again and smiled for the first time that I’d ever fully noticed. “You’re right. If I were free, I’d be at home on my couch, playing my game, drin-“ “Oh, what game?” “Oh, just Dungeons and Dragons.” “I heard these two nerds in the Arts Building talking about Dungeons and Dragons for an entire half hour today!” “That’s hilarious.” “It was crazy!” He looked out the window and out at the darkening sky. “I’m sorry by the way about Wednesday,” I said. “What?” “I didn’t mean to make you upset! I mean, I just saw this flyer that sai-“ He turned his back towards me again. “You don’t need to say sorry,” he mumbled. “No! It’s my fault! I shouldn’t hav-“ “No, it’s not,” he mumbled, back still turned. “It’s my fault beca-“ “Stop it! It’s not your fault!” he yelled. “It’s my fault only!” He turned to face me—glassy eyes turning red and watery. “It’s not your fault! I know you-“ He gave me that look again, the one that said you don’t know anything, and I backed down. “How many gallons,” he asked, coldly. The men who worked at the graveyard left, leaving the gas station empty except for us and the cold air that blew in from outside. I slid over the money and the receipt from the pump silently. He punched some buttons on the cash register and waited for the new receipt to print. “It’s jammed,” he said, and banged his hand on the side of the register in hopes it would work. “It’s ok. I just throw them all away anyways.” “Have a good night,” he said. “You too,” I echoed. Outside, the sun was nearly down. I ripped open the packet of sunflower seeds and spilled them onto the pavement. I went into the car and sighed, turning on the radio for a companion, for somebody to be there. I could tell he was crying and watching me drive away. A flock of black birds came down to feed on the sunflower seeds, cawing and cawing for the others to come over. --- It was lab day and we were making some chemical that could kill us if we got a tiny crystal of it on our skin, or at least that’s what the Internet said. The two boys were off in their little corner mixing and pouring chemicals into the round bottom flask. A high-pitched crack of glass echoed. They began frantically wiping up the spill in the fume hood with a mound of paper towels, hoping the professor wouldn’t notice their little accident. “Everything ok back there, guys?” the professor asked. “Yeah, we just had a little spill,” the boy who smelled like a bath of blue polo cologne said. He was the kind of person who was a little too honest. “A little spill?” the professor mumbled to himself and walked quickly to where the boys were. “THIS IS NO LITTLE SPILL, YOU GUYS!” The professor threw his hands up and quickly began tearing more paper towels. Once it was cleaned up, the boys giggled, and the professor stepped back. “That. Was. PURE ACID right there.” The boys stopped laughing. “YOU COULD’VE KILLED YOURSELVES.” The professor threw his hands up again and walked out the door to take a long drink of water from the fountain.
I walked over to the boys’ station to see what their end product looked like. “Hi friends!” I said, peering over their shoulders at the flask. It was still mixing and heating on the hot plate. “Wow! It’s yellow!” “Isn’t yours?” the cologne boy asked. “No, ours is still poop black.” “That’s strange,” he said, and returned to watch the liquid mix. He turned to the other boy. “Wait, poop is black?” “I dunno man. It depends.” He looked at me, and I looked away, remembering our encounter at the gas station. The other girls hollered for me to get a thermometer. --- After lab ended, we all walked down the corridor and to the parking lot together. “I wish he would just give us some more extra credit,” one of the girls said. “Honestly!” the other girl said. A lost boy was wandering the corridor. The girls started whispering to each other about how he dumped a girl that they knew. “He’s just crazy.” “So stupid.” They were whispering about some party last weekend at the abandoned cornfield by their neighborhood. The boy lit a pile of leaves or something on fire and then threw all the empty beer bottles into it. It was one of those high fires that you had to stand 10 feet away from. He kept on throwing and throwing bottle after bottle into it, laughing like some sort of madman, until his buddies dragged him back to the smaller campfire. When everybody left the party, he went back to that big fire and stuck his hand in it, trying to reach for the goopy, shattered glass, until a sheriff saw him and shook him awake, asking him what kind of devil’s dream he was swimming in. His hand was now plastered in some kind of wrapping, but nobody knew if it would ever get better or if he would ever regain feeling back in his hand. “He shouldn’tve stuck it in the fire in the first place!” “I dunno…” the other one shrugged. “He’s just crazy.” “And he dumped her right after that?” “I’m kinda glad he did…She’s better off without somebody crazy. She’s already crazy enough.” “Yeah…” “Alright, see ya later!” One girl went off to her car. “See ya!” everybody replied.
The boys looked unusually happy, humming to themselves and slapping each other’s backs like two old chums in a nursing home. Maybe they each had a date that night or something. Or maybe they were just excited to watch some TV. The other girl and both boys went off to their cars. I started my car and waited for it to warm up. The gas station boy or the soldier was sitting in his car, right in front of me. He had a big white car that looked more like a snowmobile, and he was fumbling around for something. He pulled out a chocolate stick or a cigarillo and stuck it in his mouth. I couldn’t tell if he was eating or smoking it. He looked up too and saw me watching. I quickly looked back down, pretending to mess with my radio. I looked back up. He was laughing at something like it was really funny and was bobbing his head to some silent beat. It made me curious, nervous, and angry watching him. It was as if he was waving that cigarillo in my face, taunting me about that bad smoke dream or about the fact that he didn’t need any help, anybody, or anything. He was the bad side of my conscience, thinking it could survive without people, without love, without anything. Thinking it could isolate from everybody and everything and live in a secluded wilderness until its final hour. But I saw how broken his soul was, and I felt the tug of my own conscience at my skirt, begging me not to do what he was doing. I wanted so badly to get out of my car, walk those nineteen steps to his car, and get in the passenger seat. I wanted to sit there waiting for an answer, waiting to get through to something so stubborn and set in its ways. I wanted to hold court in that car and ask what good reason his conscience had to be like that. I wanted to shake his conscience by the shoulders and ask, “SOLDIER, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” I wanted to wait there for him to speak, to listen, to change. But it is so hard to tell a mound of ice to melt when it’s been sitting in the cold for so long or tell a pile of bricks to get up and move. We were just two stubborn consciences fighting like two bulls, horn to horn—grunting, kicking up the dust. Only the skies knew who would win or if both of us would end up losing. --- Why are soldiers so lonely, I googled. Answer: Because they wanna be. Because they don’t wanna be honest about their loneliness and boredom. Answer: Transitioning back to civilian life is difficult. Answer: In the civilian world, no one cares what you do. Answer: They’re stuck in the cycle of self-isolation. Answer: Maybe they’re the reason they’re lonely. Blame yourself instead of other people. Answer: One in four from the military community feel lonely. Answer: Continuing the soldier’s fight at home—against loneliness. Answer: Social withdrawal and isolation. Call this number if you need help. Why do people not appreciate soldiers more? No answers. A forum. Answer: I don’t think soldiers deserve all the respect and praise they get. It’s illogical, old-fashioned, and celebrates committing crimes. Why are so many soldiers broken? Answer: The Army is notorious for breaking soldiers’ bodies. But now new improvements are being made to prevent injuries. Answer: New statistics show that soldiers have more broken bones than the average person. Nothing else. Nothing.
I shut the laptop and laid back down on the bed. It was the classic blame game. I didn’t know who to side with or who to blame. I didn’t know if there even was anybody to blame. All I saw was a bunch of nameless pixelated faces who were typing faster than they could think—typing answers to questions they didn’t know how to answer. Was it even right to give an answer to something that you had no clue about? My phone rang. It was another sham telemarketer asking for my social security number. --- My car began making noises that didn’t sound so good. I was stuck in a four way with nowhere to stop except for the right turn to the Lassie’s and Lace shop. I got out of my car and smelled the air for a sign of what was going on. It smelled like burnt rubber and a maybe flat tire. I made a round around the car and saw no evidence. I turned on the car again and saw that it was completely out of gas. I sighed and looked around. I had no idea what to do, so I locked the car and went into Lassie’s and Lace, hoping somebody could help me out. Inside, the store smelled like musty candles and perfume from decades ago. There was a VHS tape of a woman in spandex doing butt squats on the left TV and a woman in a leotard doing yoga on the right TV. I went to the front counter and looked around for somebody. “Hello?” I said in the low muffled voice, putting up the hood of my black coat. “Haiiiiiii saweetiee!” a woman from under the counter popped up. “Phew it sure dusty down there! Good thing I finished quick,” she winked at me and stood, dusting off her clothes. She was almost my grandma’s age and had fake hair, fake nails, and too much perfume and blush on. Her earrings were plastic diamond and dangled off her saggy ears in a threat—waiting to slice open the piercing until it became a gash in her skin. “Hi. I was wondering if you guys had any gasoline?” I asked. “Gasoline?” she laughed, “Now saweetiee whah in the world would we have gasoline? We do got tons and tons a Vaseline though, if that’s your kinda stuff.” “Uhhh…” “Relax saweetiee!” she kept on laughing and slapped my shoulder inelegantly from across the counter. “Watchu lookin for? Just tell Miss Shelissa and youz gonna get everything from your woman thatchu ever’d imagined,” she winked and patted her heart patriotically, like she pledged her life to selling underwear and hot yoga VHS. Her name sounded like her parents couldn’t choose between naming her Shelby or Melissa. “Uhhh Miss Shelissa that’s ve-“ “Youz can call me Shell, baby. Just Shell. Imma mermaid younno,” she laughed loudly again. “Miss Seashell, my car just ran out of gas and it’s stuck in your parking lot.” She kept on laughing. I didn’t get what was so funny. “Oh youz so cute baby! Youz just a babydoll!” I sighed. “You see Miss Seashell,” I cleared my throat and made my voice even lower and darker, “It’s my wife’s birthday and I need to get home as soon as possible. She’s expecting a surprise if younno what I mean,” I winked at her. “OOOOO lemme guess lemme guess!!! You got her a chocolate cake n some cute lil flowas!!!” she squealed. I crossed my eyebrows, “Huh?”, then smiled, nodding slowly. “Why yes! Youz guessed it exactlyz rightz Miss Seashell!!” She wouldn’t stop squealing. If she were a squirrel, by now I would have been a centimeter close to running her over. “Aaandd…I will get her this lovely pair of lavender knickers too,” I winked, “Younno, to help out a lovely lady like youz business.” “OOOOO you soundin like one of them rich n hannsumm British gennelmun now!” “That’s whoz I am.” “What size underwear??” She waddled over to the swiveling rack of rainbow lace. “Xtra large...” I coughed, “She has a big butt.” “I understand, I understand. There’z no judgment here baby. We got sizes upta XXXXL.” She put on her reading glasses and sifted through the rack. “Some butts God just made for extra lovin.” She waddled back to the cash register. I coughed hard again. “Yessmaam that’s just the mystery of the Good Lord.” I handed over the twenty-dollar bill. “If only there was some extra gas. Oh it’s hopeless!” I turned my face to the side to fake lament. “I just wish my angel would only forgive me for being so late! Her cake’s meltin, her flower’s wiltin, and this underwear…this beautiful underwear is just waitin…waitin to be thrown in the trash outta her hate for me being so late!” Miss Seashell looked at me like she was almost gonna cry. “Oh you poor baby!” she threw her hands up, “No no no no no! I willz not let annya that happen! I knowz a friend whoz gotz some gas in the back of their restaurant. C’mon,” she grabbed me by the hand. “C’mon!”
We were at Da Boat. It was a small seafood restaurant that nobody in town ever went to except for when they were feeling really greasy and bored. The restaurant had one-star reviews on the Internet. People said the fish is raw and gave them diarrhea for days, but that it still tasted pretty damn good. “Here’s da oil.” “Ah I need gasoline.” “This is da gasoline.” “Are you sure?” “Do you think I fry my fish in gasoline?” She looked at me seriously. The chef’s forehead was shiny from all the sweat and heat of the kitchen, and her hairnet was glued to her head by grease. There was either rust or fish blood on her yellowed apron. She looked like a fisherman, with one stern bugged eye and all. All she was missing was a peg leg. “Eh?!” “No ma’am.” “Good because the FDA don’t come here anyways.” “Uhh…” “Take that filthy gasoline outta my kitchen!” “Thank you!” I said and ran out as fast as I could. A family eating watery coleslaw and underdone fishsticks glared at me.
I sighed, pulled the hood off of my head and put my hair back into a ponytail. I really needed a haircut. I put the underwear over the top of my head and banged it on the steering wheel until the car honked back at the busy four way. I hit the radio by accident and the beginning of Sister Christian played. --- I was driving down the road that passed the gas station. I didn’t see his car parked at the side of the station, which meant he wasn’t working. I don’t ever think he worked mornings. Too many people, too much small talk. When I got out of the car, the chill of the eerie air crawled up my back and across my arms. I brushed it off and went inside to pay. There was a man with an orange beard and furry eyebrows working the cash register. I slid him the receipt. “Gimme one of those lottery tickets too,” I said. “These?” he asked, pointing to the ones with the fruit. “No, those ones,” I said, pointing to the ones of monkeys with sunglasses. “It’s prolly gonna lose anyways.” “Whatever,” the man said, “You just gotta keep trying. That’s the whole point of it all.” All of a sudden, I heard the distant echo of man’s cry. I turned around to see where it was coming from. I looked at the man with the orange beard to see if he had heard it too. He was busy punching numbers into the cash register. I heard the quiet ghostly voice again. I turned around and saw a faint blue blur of something sitting on the milk crate at the back of the room. When I joined, my girlfriend and ma and pa were so proud of me. They made me my favorite roast chicken for dinner the night before I left and my girlfriend put that stupid cross necklace around my neck and then put her arms around my neck and said, “You’re gonna look so handsome in uniform.” No…she got it all wrong. I was not one of those guys who came home with fat biceps saying, “Hi honey I’m home!” No. I came back broken into a million pieces. “Here you are! Have a great rest of your day.” The orange beard man handed me the receipt. I still heard the echoing sob. I shuffled fast to my car. I was out of breath. I squinted again to look for the blue blur on the milk crate but saw nothing but the emptiness of the store. --- “Have you guys seen him?” the professor asked. All of us shook our heads no. “It’s been almost three weeks since we saw him,” the cologne boy said. “Yeah, I was just waiting to see if he shows up to take his test. Because next week is another test,” the professor said. “That’s weird,” one of the girls said, rubbing her chin. “Yeah, I don’t know where he went,” the other girl said. “Oh well,” the professor shrugged his shoulders and took out his heavy textbook. --- The cologne boy sat down at my table. “What’s up?” he asked. “Not much, just studying,” I said. He nodded his head. “I didn’t even start studying. I had to work for like the whole day yesterday and today.” “Dang,” I said. “Have you heard from our classmate?” he asked me. I shook my head no. “Dang,” he said. “Don’t you have his number?” I asked, remembering how chummy the two of them were in lab. “No,” he shook his head. He looked at the wall for a good minute. “I could try to find him on Facebook.” He took out his phone and tapped around. “Yeah! Here he is!” “You found him?” “Yeah!” he said, showing me the phone. It was a picture of him holding up the American flag. “Wow,” I said, “The power of the Internet.” “Should I message him?” he asked. “Yeah! Be like, where the heck are you, man?” He tapped around. “Damn! He’s already typing.” “What’d he say?” “I asked, “How are you, man?” He said, “I’m doing ok.” He typed another message. “He said, he’s not coming back.” He squinted at the screen. “Ask him why.” He typed again. “He said, “Something happened to me.”
I prayed for him again that night. I did not know why I was praying for him. It was something mystical and beyond my control. I was not his lover, his doctor, or his savior. There was some pair of hands that wove the stars into stories and dust into breath pulling at the strings of my conscience. It was hard to blindly trust in this hand, but that faith was necessary for survival. That night, I had a dream of two angels turning the wheel of destiny. It would not stop spinning and there was a man tacked to the center of the wheel screaming bloody help. Across the wheel was a judge asking us for our truths. A long twisting and turning line of souls waited to show him fear and a handful of dust. Were we balls of cells or stars? I did not know. I do not know anything. --- He adjusted his square glasses. In the tent next door, his friends were watching some 70’s movie. “So, you got glasses today?” the army psychiatrist asked. “Yeah.” “How does that make you feel?” He got his pen ready to write in the notepad. “Fine, I guess.” Got glasses. Feels “fine,” he noted. “Miss your family?” “Yeah, I mean who doesn’t?” Misses family. “You got a woman back home?” “Yeah, my girlfriend.” “How long you guys been together?” “I dunno. Like two years.” Has girlfriend. Together for 2 yrs. “Love her?” “Yeah.” Supposedly loves her. “Wouldja do anything for her?” “Huh?” “Would you get bitten by a rabid dog for her?” “I mean..yeah?” “Gonna get married when you go back home?” “Hope so.” “Love your country?” “Yeah.” “Do anything for your country?” “Yeah.” “Suffer for your country?” “I can,” he said. “Don’t want others to feel the pain.” Seems patriotic.
The army psychiatrist took off his round glasses and looked at him for a good long second. “Tell me, what’s really bothering you today?” “I guess I just wanted somebody to talk to.” “And?” “I just feel like I’m stuck.” “Stuck where?” “Nowhere. I mean I just feel stuck.” Feels stuck. “So, you feel like you’re stuck in the army?” “No, not that.” He looked around the tent. The picture of a horse hanging on one of the walls turned upside down. “I just feel stuck…like I just feel stuck in time.” “That’s interesting.” Feels stuck in time. “But time is always moving. So, how could you feel stuck in time?” He shook his head like he wasn’t getting it. “It just feels like every day is the same. I just-I just miss the way things used to be.” Stuck in the past. “So you’re feeling…sad or low you think?” “No.” “You’re feeling…anxious or nervous?” “No.” “You’re feeling…paranoid or like something’s after you?” “No.” “You’re not feeling anything at all?” “Kind of? I don’t know doc, it’s hard to explain.” “No, no, I completely understand.” Diagnosis, he wrote, apathetic. The army psychiatrist shuffled around the cloth drawers, looking for a tiny vial of miniature white pills with the label PLACEBO SUGAR PILLS. “Your problem will be solved in a jiff, sonny,” he said. He ripped a piece of newspaper and folded it into a pocket shape, then poured seven of the pills into it. He tore off a piece of tape and sealed it shut. “Take one of these a day, and all the pain will go away.” He handed him the packet. “You’ll be as good as gold in a week…No more hurtin for you.” “That’s it?” “Yes! It’s as easy as that.” “Don’t I have to come in again to talk to you or something?” “Oh, God no! These pills got you covered. One week of these and you don’t need anything else!”
The army psychiatrist didn’t understand. Doctors don’t fix broken souls. --- I remembered the day he left, I drove home listening to the same old repetitive pop radio station. It was one of those days when I didn’t want to listen to a song that was too good or had too much meaning. Those songs were saved for a different feeling. Nobody was at home. It was one of those days where it was almost winter, but it felt like spring. It started pouring hard. Nature always proves its point. The heat was left up too high and I panted when I reached the top of the stairs. All the lights in the house were off, and I left it that way. My window blinds were still left open and the neighborhood looked like a blur from all the pouring rain. I couldn’t stop feeling the heat of the fake spring, so I went to the bathroom and went into the shower, turning the water to a lukewarm cold. When I got out, I stood in front of the mirror and dropped the towel, looking at myself and contemplating my nakedness. There was no shame, no hurtin, no nothin here. I picked up the towel again and wrapped it around my body loosely like a drape. I posed like an ancient Greek sculpture and then saw it all. I saw my conscience behind me posing like a masterpiece then disappear back into the womb of creation, mother cosmos, everything, everything. I felt the cold silent air of the space that suspended all of the stars and planets brush my bare skin in a whisper. And I felt the uncontrollable urge to stand in front of the open window, naked, in front of the wilderness and all of nature, and pose like some timeless sculpture in pudica pose. --- “Doc, I’m not feelin so good,” he said, adjusting his glasses over and over. His legs were shaking, and it was hard to stand up. The army psychiatrist put down his dinner tray and went to open the door of the tent. “Hey boy. What’s the matter?” “Please, doctor, I just don’t feel good.” “God, you sure don’t look good. Get in here.” The army psychiatrist motioned for the boy to sit on the small cot. “Seems like those pills didn’t treat you right.” “I-I just feel like I’m going to explode.” The psychiatrist looked at the boy, watching him quiver and shake and blink rapidly. “Something happen to you?” He stepped closer to examine the boy, shining his pen light on each of the boy’s glassy orbs. “You can tell me anything, sonny. I’ve seen and heard it all.” “D-doctor p-please. I just need some h-help.” The boy was sweating profusely, and his throat sounded like it was going through a drought. He was silently panting for breath like a dog. The army psychiatrist felt the boy’s forehead, then his pulse and wet hands. Panicking. He went to the cloth drawers again and rustled around for an instant ice pack and more PLACEBO SUGAR PILLS. “Nothing’s wrong with you, sonny,” he said, coldly. “You just need to take a breather.” He placed the activated ice pack on his forehead and stuck a sugar pill on his tongue. “W-why i-is this happening to me?” “No reason,” the army psychiatrist said, and went back to sit in his seat. “Remember, you’re an animal.” He resumed eating his dinner. “Your systems just got a little overheated.” The boy sat up and held his limp head in his hands. “You’re good as gold, sonny! Now, go out there and hunt!” he motioned to the door with his mashed potato-covered fork. The boy got up and walked out slowly, feeling the coarse sugar crystals of the pill chafe his tongue and teeth. --- Every year we celebrate the same holidays year after year until we get real old. We put up the tree, carve the turkey, the pumpkin, each other’s heart on the 14th. We are people and this is what we do. We were on a family car ride to an early Thanksgiving lunch party in the next town. We were taking my car, the smallest of all of our cars, and I was squished in the middle of the backseat between my sister, grandma, and grandpa. On one hand, there was the prayer hymns playing on the speaker and my mother and father talking over it about how the soup we were bringing was too spicy to serve other people. On the other hand, there was the blare of my sister’s headphones playing Today’s Top Hits and my grandmother and grandfather talking about the air of manure that was leaking into the car. On the third hand that didn’t exist, there was me, stuck in the middle—listening hard for the secrets of the universe supposedly hidden in silence, but it was hard, it was so hard to hear. It was one of those paradoxes of life I was utterly confused by. Some people sought truth in noise, others, silence. I didn’t know which one was right, which one was better, or even just which one to pick. It was hard to stay quiet anywhere you went. There is always that something that disturbs the stillness. --- They wandered around the town like mosquitoes around a piece of half-eaten fruit in the summer. They were laughing and smacking bubblegum and lip gloss, taking Snapchats and videos of them looking like they were having the time of their lives. The top of their Jeep was down even though it snowed last night and despite there being a wind chill warning for the entire county. It was 11:30 at night, and I picked up the keys in desperation to get away from the home. I felt choked in the almost 80 degree heat that circulated the house and everybody was yelling at each other because we were all stressed about traveling for the holidays. I sat in the car for a while, just watching the people come and go. It was mostly kids who just came home from college and couples that were going to get married in the next month or so. I could always tell because the women made sure to wag their ring finger in all 360 degrees and four directions. They walked so confidently in knee high black suede boots, no stockings, and a “cutesy” dress. You could tell they were smug about themselves feeling “sexy.” When I was hungry enough, I turned off the car and went in. The restaurant was quiet because it was a Thursday. “How many?” the hostess asked. “One,” I answered. She seated me at the booth behind the table where the group of girls sat. They were already gnawing on their wings and mozzarella stick appetizers. They all ordered cola or something else that was sugary and fun to sip over gossip. “I’m SO glad I finally get to see you guys!” “Oh my gosh, me too! I honestly was SO excited to finally get together.” “This is SO great…SO great.” They giggled. “Mmm! First, we should take a picture! GUYS, get in!” One of the girls motioned for the others to scooch closer for the Snapchat. They all smiled or stuck their tongue out. “Gorgeous.” She added the caption, “So happy” and three yellow heart emojis.
“Hiii my name’s Alisha. I’ll be your server tonight.” She set down a lone coaster. “What drinks are we thinking of tonight?” “Just water,” I answered. “And appetizers?” “Just a bowl of soup.” “Ok! I’ll be right back with that for ya.”
“So, how’s your boyfriend, Tasha?” “He’s a sweetheart,” she said. “I miss him so much.” She looked up at everyone with a pouty face and puppy dog eyes. “That’s so cute. You’ve only been away for like two days though!” “Yeah, but I just miss him so much!” “Ugh, I wish I could say the same about my boyfriend,” another girl rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Mia, what’s up with you and your boyfriend?” “He was just partying a lot and I dunno…He just seems like he’s happier when he’s not around me.” She looked up at the girls and made a sad face. “Awww! I’m 100% sure that’s not true! He totally loves you!” “I don’t know…” “Oh my gosh Mia, you’re gonna make me CRY! I shipped you two SO HARD.” The girls beside her squeezed her in a hug.
“Your water and your soup.” “Thanks.” One of the girls from the group caught a glimpse of me.
“Didn’t she go to our school?” she whispered to the other girls. “Who?” She pointed with her eyes at me. I began eating my soup, pretending like I didn’t know they were watching me. “Yeah I think so. I don’t remember her name though.” “She looks old now.” “Look at those grandma glasses,” one of them snickered in a whisper. They all laughed. “And grandma dinner! Look at that soup and water…Now that’s frikin sad.” They laughed again. I glanced up at them after they were done laughing. I looked out of the window and smiled one of those smiles you see old people smiling when they’re looking at the sky or a tree. --- While the whole rest of the town was getting ready to go home, all cozy in their cars with the heat turned up all the way and humming along with the Christmas radio station merry and jolly, I fed the car an old CD from a garage sale with no label. There it came, the familiar bow chicka wow wow licks, so sweet and gold. Baby Come Back and other sad disco songs, read the imaginary label in my mind. The skeleton trees kept dancing slow in the dark fog. I stared out at the empty road, watching more crows fly overhead instead of a disco ball. It was nearly 1:00 in the middle of the night and I did not want to go back home. Even though there was love and there was warmth, light, and heat for days there, my conscience was too stubborn. My conscience was an old wanderer, born to stroll the empty parts of the universe, charting the evening sky. I stopped at the motel. I couldn’t see any areas designated for parking, so I circled around the building three times until realizing that the cars were parked in front of their rooms. Some of the rooms had the blinds open, exposing all the confidences of the people inside. In one room, there was a farmer on the bed, watching TV on max volume, eating pizza from the place next door in his dirty overalls. The sheets were stained with dirt and mud from the shoes he refused to take off. In another room, there was a couple fighting over something. The woman was standing in front of the TV, clapping her hands and accusing the angels above with stiletto pink nails. She was wearing sweatpants, a fluffy peach robe, and curlers with a hair cap over them. The man grabbed his phone, keys, and the big bottle of liquor that sat on the nightstand, then came out the door. The woman came out too and started cussing loudly. The man got in the car and started pointing fingers back at the woman, cussing loudly too. He started the car and drove off. The woman sat outside on the step, still cussing loudly, and scrolled through the contacts on her phone to find somebody to tell this whole mess to. In another room, there was a nun pacing in her pajamas, fingering through her rosary quickly and mumbling a fast prayer. In the last room, a group of high schoolers were sitting on the floor, with pizza boxes, soda, liquor bottles, cards, smokes, and phones scattered all over. They were playing spin the bottle quietly. It was startling that there was no loud music playing, no loud laughs being laughed, nothing. They just spun the bottle and kissed each other quietly, thinking about how they were going to set the motel on fire later that night. I wanted to tell the owner about all of these things, so I got out of the car and went up the three tiny steps to the little blue OFFICE building. The door was locked, so I knocked. “Hello what do you want?” the owner asked, peeking his face through the door. His eyes were red and slightly bloodshot. “Um hi…I was just going to ask you…” I hesitated, looking back at the people, then at him. “Yes what is the problem? Don’t think I can’t see your car going around my motel. What you really here for?” He demanded an answer. “Oh I was j-just lost.” He loosened up a little. “Oh I see.” He looked around the vicinity. “You not here with some gang right?” I shook my head no. “No.” “Where you need direction to?” “I-I need to go to…” I looked behind me. “Staples.” “Oh, that is right on next block. Make right turn.” “Thank you sir.” He shut the door. There was a little stand of books outside of the door with a note attached to it saying TAKE ONE. FREE. They were copies of the Bhagavad Gita. I took one, shoved it in my pocket, and went back to the car.
I parked in the empty Staples parking lot, staring at the black nothingness of the night. I was tired. I turned off the car and the radio and got out. I looked at the stars suspended in the cold air and yelled, “DON’T YOU LISTEN?” “CAN’T YOU HEAR US?” “DO YOU EVER SAY ANYTHING?” “DO YOU EVER DO ANYTHING?” “TELL ME!” I melted down the side of the car and onto the cold black pavement. “WHY DO YOU JUST LISTEN?” “YOU COULD TALK OR DO SOMETHING BUT YOU DON’T.” I wept. “What is all of this?” The brilliant stars did not answer or talk to me. They just kept on gleaming in the high air and I kept on begging the earth for truth.
I went back into the car. OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. I saw the shadow of the blue blur creep up behind me like a phantom. I turned around quickly to look. Nothing. I looked into the mirror again, inching closer and closer to the mirror until a hand reached out, broke through the mirror, and grasped me by the throat. Wandering again?I thought we already had this talk. I saw the faint face of it twist 180 degrees like some sort of devil. I already told you, go back, GO BACK HOME. I took out the bag of cough drops. ANESTHETIC, it read. I unwrapped one, stuck it on my tongue and waited for it to numb me—numb my conscience to a dumb and sleepy existence, where it couldn’t interrupt me, control me, or talk to me. I threw my head back against the car headrest and waited for the numb. It didn’t come. I yelled and beat the car horn with my fists, revving up the engine to go back home. --- I had a dream that night that The Soldier and I were both in thin gypsy rags looking out some window where we could not see anything but a white fog and a shadow. It was a shadow of a lone tree with a wooden swing tied to its most delicate branch with rope. He opened the door to go outside and walked around the tree in slow circles. He reached out to touch the swing but pulled back quick in a nervous jolt and looked at me. I nodded like it was the right answer and then took him by the hand to see over the edge of the steep moor where the white sun was rising to show him vast of it all and say, “This is what you are looking for.” There it was—his promised land. I could not love him in the way most people loved. I was not his lover. I was not his doctor. I was not his savior. But I loved him in the way any human should love another human—just because they are part of the same universe as you. ---