Featured image by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash
Rooted in warm asphalt at rush hour, I waited for a car to drive through me. A thin surgical mask couldn’t conceal my reddening eyes as I silently prayed for an easy way out. Earlier in March, it would have been a short wait for the inevitable in that bustling intersection, but by then most people had taken shelter. Fifteen minutes and the only person who crossed my path was a man and his dog. Instead of asking what I was doing in the middle of the street, he pulled up his shirt collar and looked away. After his footsteps faded from earshot, I was left with only the sound of the wind desperately masking a distant ambulance siren.
The sun rested in a painful position just above the Bank of America on Springfield as the time crept to six-thirty. I couldn’t see what lay ahead, but deep down, I knew there was nobody coming. Nothing was going to relieve me of hard choices, of unyielding anxiety. Another night was in store and I couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it.
I had always felt that my time on earth was borrowed. Immunocompromised, kept alive with someone else’s antibodies, life felt like a party that I wasn’t invited to. How I wish it had stayed that way. Being invited to an actual party only complicated my calculated, fragile routine. I couldn’t tell anyone about it, least of all my parents. That night, they were by my grandmother’s bedside, trusting me to stay safe while they were putting themselves at risk. Instead, I was taking a death march to Andrew Wosniak’s house because spending the night alone sounded worse.
Walking to the liquor store, I checked my pockets three different times to be sure that I had everything I needed. Inside was a baggy full of Clorox wipes, a small bottle of homemade hand sanitizer, my phone, and my wallet, which contained twenty dollars in cash and a fake ID that had been supplied to me. The purchase I was to make was tied in with my invitation. The only thing my host feared, evidently, was a night in jail. Must be nice.
As the sun slowly set behind me, streetlamps illuminated empty sidewalks sprouting with dandelions. I thought about a crowded living room crawling with sickness and sought to delay the inevitable. Kneeling down to pluck a dandelion from the ground, I saw its weak rubbery stem and suddenly felt less alone in the world. We had so much in common.
“The hell are you doing, weirdo?”
A kid from my homeroom stood over me on his bike. His name didn’t come to mind and still hasn’t. “I’m just enjoying my walk. Not a lot else to do.”
His phone vibrated, reflexively forcing him to look down to it. “Are you going to the, uh, you know.”
“When I have a second.”
He looked down at me sharing a moment with a dandelion and shook his head. “You do you, man.” Then he pedaled away without another word.
I breathed a deep, satisfying inhalation of the nothingness around me, drinking in my personal space. But there was that sound again. Somewhere in the distance, an EMT loaded a lifeless body into the back of an ambulance. I quickened my pace as if running away would do a damn thing. Soon, as I continued my sprint, the liquor store sign shone brightly in the amber afterglow of evening. My first step to completing the herculean task ahead was nearly complete. That is, until I landed face-first in a pile of gravel.
A momentary blackout. I couldn’t tell if I was bleeding, because I refused to touch my face, but I probably looked as bad as I felt.
“Yikes,” a stranger said, overhead. “Let me help you up.” The man reached down and touched my wrist; I slapped his hand away before offering an explanation.
“Sorry, sorry,” I blurted, which was a half-truth. For my own sake, I couldn’t be touched by anyone’s dirty hands, but he didn’t know any better.
“What the hell?” He took a moment to collect himself while I stood up. “I’m not even sick!” Then he turned around and walked away without another word. Once I knew I was alone, I took out my sanitizing supplies and cleaned myself with catlike conscientiousness. The wipes were streaked with crimson.
I gazed up. The grimy neon of the liquor store sign told me I was at the right place, but it wasn’t welcoming. I opened the door with my elbow and ran through the doorway as quickly as possible, praying the metal wouldn’t graze the open cut on my cheek. The cashier was shielded by a thick sheet of transparent plastic, and he wore a fabric face mask with a flame on the front, but I could feel his accusatory eyes through his coverings.
Examining the wares, I checked for certain items to gauge the state of the world. Paper goods, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies were sold out, but there was a can of Spam sitting by itself. I almost bought it but realized it would serve more as a trophy than food.
Having briefly escaped the eagle eyes of the cashier, I went to the fridge, opened the door with my left hand cloaked in a Clorox wipe and pulled out a six-pack of Heineken with my right. Letting the door fall back to its original position, I counted my remaining wipes while a young woman entered the store. She was lovely, but her haggard features told a story of insomnia and depression. I waited patiently for any signs of respiratory distress before I crossed her path.
Finally walking toward the register, I gathered up my cash and fake ID. The cashier’s eyes shifted from my clean-shaven baby face to my alcohol purchase and back again. He made a come-over-here motion, but my mouth was so dry that I couldn’t tell him that I wasn’t ready, to please stop staring, to kindly put a bullet in my head.
“Hey.” The warm breath of the haggard woman gently brushed my neck. “Do you want me to take care of this?”
Anxiety. Relief. Desire. I don’t know what my dominant emotion was, but I was glad she couldn’t see the tent in my jeans. “I’m not sure,” I stammered.
“Do you have cash?” she muttered.
“Are you robbing me?”
“I’m buying that six-pack for you, dumbass. Don’t you go outside?”
“I’m not supposed to.”
There was a pause, then a playful change in her tone. “So you’re doing something bad, are ya?”
This exchange was taking too long and I could feel the spittle from her whispers spraying onto my ear, so I passed her the money. “Now what?”
“Go over to the fridge, put this pisswater back and walk out the door. I’ll get you some real beer.”
I did precisely as the woman asked and waited outside impatiently as I sanitized myself, the cool night air heightening the burning sensation of alcohol on my chapped hands. She walked out of the liquor store with a Slim Jim in her mouth and two paper bags under her arm.
“Here you go, kid.”
Hearing her refer to me as a kid made my stomach hurt. “Thanks. You can keep the change.” It sounded like a magnanimous gesture, but I really just didn’t want to touch the money again.
“You didn’t get any back. I told you I was getting you some real beer.”
I opened the bag to find six black bottles with gold trouts printed on each label. “Thanks, but I’m not going to drink it.”
She ripped off a large mouthful of jerky. “Then who is?”
I had to stop myself before I said too much. “My friends, whenever I see them again.”
“Do they know a lot about beer?”
“Not really. They’re just dumb high school kids.”
“Should have told me. You don’t shotgun caviar.”
I glanced into the bag one more time but didn’t touch the bottles. “Is that why there’s a fish on the label?”
The woman started walking in the direction of Andrew’s house and motioned me along. “No, it’s because fish look cool when they’re drawn a certain way. Like the nerdy high school boys in anime.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” I lied, smelling like the third day of Comic-Con.
She looked back at me, a lonesome puppy, trailing six feet behind her. “Where are you going?”
“The same direction you’re going.” I paused to think. “That’s not a pickup line!”
“I’ll take good news where I can get it,” she smirked.
We walked along at a steady, wordless pace for a couple of minutes. Evening shadows cloaked the empty bottles, used surgical masks, and soiled rubber gloves strewn across the sidewalk, but I couldn’t ignore them. Nothing could make me feel clean or calm the agitation. I had to say something, just to stop thinking.
“Hey, thanks for buying that for me. I don’t think I said thanks.”
She flipped her hair out behind her and fixed her bangs, touching all over her face. “The mayor said that we need to look out for each other, right? I couldn’t let the prison system get even more clogged up.”
“Well, maybe I would have gotten through it without your help.”
She stopped walking and laughed a mocking, affected laugh, as if the idea was too absurd to be legitimately funny. “Okay. Let’s hear your deep man voice.”
I straightened up my posture and puffed out my chest. “Hello, sir. May I purchase your finest b—” The forced rasp irritated my throat, provoking a sharp cough. Anxious chills rippled across my back like a boulder crashing into a pond.
“Sorry, sorry!” I spat. “I should have covered my mouth.”
The woman walked over to me and rubbed my back gently. “It’s fine, really! I don’t care if you cough.”
Even now, I don’t believe she was being honest with me. “Really? Why not?”
She surveyed the area and threw her hands up. “I should be afraid of dying and missing all this? I went to the store to get some cheap wine that I could drink alone in my childhood bedroom. Of course I don’t care.”
As we kept on walking, I noticed us veering away from Andrew’s house and towards Taylor Park. She lit a cigarette. “You mind if we swing by the park? I’m not ready to settle in for the night with Mr. Fuzzy and Bunny Num Num.”
“Sure,” I said, ducking away from the cloud of aerosols blown from her cigarette.
The park would ordinarily be lit brightly with the coldest of CFL bulbs, but it had been closed down for weeks. We weren’t supposed to be there, and neither were the two figures making an illicit exchange by the teeter-totter. The woman sat down on the swings and I did the same, only I didn’t grasp the chains. There was a long pause. I anxiously pushed through it.
“So, what do you do—”
“What do you do, Abby?” I blushed.
She threw her cigarette in the dirt and stomped it out. “Well—”
“Well, Nathan, I mostly watch YouTube videos and drink. I was a waitress a couple weeks ago though. They didn’t need me once customers stopped eating in.”
“That’s cool, that you had a job.”
A distant siren. Another set of collapsed lungs. The two figures behind us scattered. “It’s cooler than what I’m doing now, but not as cool as walking dogs or recycling garbage. You could get in on that, you know.”
“May have to. I wonder if I’ll ever graduate.”
“Dumbass kids around here are acting like it’s the best thing in the world, not being in school.”
“You noticed that too, huh?”
“School is trash, but idleness is worse. Not having a purpose is worse. Some of these kids, the only purpose they serve is being a tax break for their parents.” Abby pulled a box of wine out of her bag and drank from the spigot. I wondered if that’s what it took to make a conversation with me interesting.
The longer I sat on those swings, the less I wanted to go to the party. Everything I cared about felt less significant. I felt less significant. Society was going to hell and I was going to an underground rager. “Abby, I’m really . . . tense right now.”
“Why’s that?” she asked, wiping the wine from her mouth.
“I don’t want to tell you my life story—”
“Good thing I didn’t ask for it.” Abby stood up, took off her shoes and reclined in the grass. She might as well have been rolling around in a Chernobyl landfill.
“There are a lot of ants in the anthill and I’m just, you know, the one that can’t pick up five thousand times its own body weight. I can barely pick my ass out of bed every day.”
“Oh, depression. I know all about that.” She uncrossed her legs and gave me a darkened view of her panties. I took a moment to squint, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
“No, Abby, I am not depressed.”
“You do still care about sex,” she winked.
I put my head down so she wouldn’t see my embarrassment. “It’s just hard for me to do anything. Everything is hard. The injections, the check-ups, the fear that one mistake could be the end of my life. I’m always sick.”
“Oh, you’re sick, alright,” she said, laughing and fixing her sundress. “I’m sorry, Nathan, that things suck for you. You have every right to feel bad.”
Suddenly, I felt my whole body quiver. It wasn’t the cold. It wasn’t a fever. My eyes tried to dam the rush, but it was no use. Abby watched helplessly and curiously, as if I was patient zero dying on a cold, sterile table. She said nothing, knowing that she had no advice to offer me. After the tears had poured freely, untouched by my contaminated fingers, I looked up to her.
“I slapped someone. For just—trying to help me off the ground. They wanted to make sure I was okay, but they touched my wrist. How dare they, right? I’m trash. They should have picked me up and thrown me in the dumpster.”
Abby shrugged. “I’ve slapped strange men for less.” She got up and sat on the swing next to me. “Hell, let me tell you about my last boss.” Then she pushed herself forward and back, slowly picking up momentum. Words came from her mouth. Some were reflective ones, but I only heard half of them. It was like having confession on a carousel. Eventually, I lost track of what she was saying and stared off into the middle distance, wondering how many people had died since she started talking.
Once she was finished with her anecdote, I didn’t know how to respond, so I said nothing until the silence grew uncomfortable. “Hey, Abby. Thanks for not telling me that I’m okay.”
She slowed her momentum and gently returned to earth. “Well, you obviously aren’t okay. Nobody likes feeling patronized.” It was clear to me that boxed wine and swing sets did not mix well for her as she attempted to stand. “I’d hug you, Nathan, but I don’t think you want that.”
I shook my head, but part of me wanted that human contact more than anything. Anxiety and loneliness are close friends. “I’m sick of being told that I’m young and healthy and that I’ll bounce back from anything. No, I won’t! I need to inject myself eight times a month so I won’t die from a stiff breeze.”
“Oh, so you’re not a heroin addict?”
I turned to her, surprised. “You noticed the marks?”
“Yes. And I noticed the ones on your face. Acne was hard on me too, but I learned not to scratch at it.”
Evidently, the fall had been worse than I assumed.
I checked my phone to discover that it was after eight. The party had already started and everyone was counting on the beer in my paper bag to have a good time. Six bottles. All the anxiety, all the self-doubt, all the lost hours watching a thermometer inevitably tick up to 98.6—for six bottles of alcohol that I wouldn’t drink. I looked into the bag and laughed. “What the hell am I doing?”
Abby got up and started walking away, knowing that I would follow her wherever she went. “Looks like you’re wasting some really good beer on a really lame high school party.”
My face blanched phosphorescent in the bright gibbous moonlight. “I’m not going to a party. There are no parties anymore. I’m just . . . walking along.”
“Sure. And I’ve totally got better things to do than hang out with an insecure high school kid on a Friday night.”
We kept walking together for a few minutes until I could see the lights of Andrew’s house in the distance. My breathing quickened, which made me worry about my breathing, which quickened my breathing more intensely.
“Hey, Nathan, you know I didn’t mean that. What I said. I’m just bantering.”
I looked at the house and then I looked at her. “Why are you here with me?”
She took a few steps towards me and adjusted my collar without sanitizing her hands. This was fine because fabric traps viruses before they can replicate. “Lots of reasons, Nathan. Good reasons.”
“No, I mean—why are you at the same house I was supposed to go to tonight?”
Abby tousled my hair roughly, which I was less okay with. “I thought you were a little quicker on the uptake than that.”
I shook myself in desperation, like a soggy dog crawling out of a river. “Thanks?”
“I shared my bed with Andy growing up and he repaid me by pissing in it twice a week.”
Her frankness forced me to drop my guard. “What would you say if I came all the way out here and turned around, wasting this great beer you picked out for me?”
She rested her hand on my arm and squeezed. “I would respect your reticence and tell you to enjoy the beer yourself.”
The relief I felt from this was enough to make the trip worthwhile. If I had stayed at home from the start and played video games, I would have felt like I had been beaten by fear. Instead, my manager had thrown in the towel for me. “I don’t know what I should do.”
“You should do what makes you happy. You only live once and your life might be especially short.” She paused to think about what she said. Once it had sunk in, she put her hand to her mouth as if to keep the words from coming out. “I am so sorry! What the hell is wrong with me?”
“I don’t think going home or staying here would make me happy. It’s like that Clash song, Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Both options make me anxious and depressed.”
“Yeah, but going was always the better option. There would be double the trouble if he stayed. It’s basic math.”
I smiled in the dark, but I didn’t think she could see me, so I laughed just once for her. We walked up to her front door and looked at each other awkwardly one last time, our shivering bodies bathed in amber porch light.
She snapped her fingers and broke the tension. “I’ve got it! The ultimate test. Foolproof. Maybe hanging out with a gaggle of high school idiots isn’t enough of an incentive to break through your worries. Fine. I wouldn’t hang out with them if I hadn’t been sick a day in my life. But,” she leaned in, “what if I invited you upstairs? What would you say to that?”
“Abby, I’m seventeen.”
“And this is a hypothetical situation. Would it be worth it to you? What can you really handle?”
I thought for a moment about what would happen if we had sex. The heat of our thrusting bodies in her bedroom, the sweat, the saliva, every bodily fluid being exchanged as a signal of unadulterated lust. I would take a shower so hot that my skin turned pink and still wouldn’t feel clean and my fear would make her feel dirty, even though she’s no more filthy than anyone else off the street who could have come to my aid that Friday night.
“I don’t think it would be the best idea, Abby.”
She brushed her hair out of her eyes and smiled. I could see her acne scars in the light. “I think you’re probably right.”
I looked away from her, unwilling to be the one that ended our meeting. My eyes caught the sight of a dandelion on the lawn and I plucked one out for her. “Something to remember me by.”
“That’s so great, but—it’ll be dead by morning. Here, have my number and give me a call.” She tore off a piece of the paper bag, pulled out a pen and gave me ten digits. “Go home, drink your beer and live to see another day.”
We looked at each other for a second and neither of us could decide whether or not to go in for a hug. Before we could make a decision, the door swung open and Evan Baker threw up right in front of us. I jumped backward to avoid it, but I felt a droplet of his vomit splash my cheek and sprinted into the night before Abby could protest.
Off in the distance, I could hear her yelling at Evan. “The bathroom is upstairs on the right, you stupid prick! Stop after the first bottle if you can’t handle it!”
Once I could no longer see the lights of Andrew’s house, I realized just how dark Millburn had become. Everyone was at home. Some had been laid off for so long that they couldn’t pay their electric bills. Stop lights changed from green to red with a mindless automaticity, but there were no cars on the road. When I got back home, there was no car in our driveway either. At that moment, I felt like the last man on earth.
But I wasn’t alone. Not on earth and not in the universe. Above me lay a blanket dotted with the icicle lights and interstellar islands of distant burning gases that I admired fearfully. For a long while, I sat on the grass and waited for a shooting star to wish upon. I would have wished for safety, that my family’s red door would be enough to spare us from the Angel of Death. My star never arrived.
Reclining in a lawn chair, face pointed at the sky, I called the number Abby gave me, expecting a pizza place or massage parlor on the other end. Instead, I heard a familiar voice.
“You know you’re supposed to wait three days to call a girl’s number, right?”
“I wanted to ask you something.”
“Are you drunk yet?”
I looked over to the neglected bag of booze and felt guilty, even though Abby bought it with my money. “Not yet.”
“Well, I’m not going to drink alone. Not tonight, anyway.”
After pulling a bottle out, I was unable to make any progress on the cap. “No way to open it.”
“Check the bottom of the bag.”
Fishing around, I felt something metal next to the six-pack. It was shaped like the Statue of Liberty. “Oh, a bottle opener! Thank you.”
“I’m more thoughtful than I look.” A quiet whimper came from the other end. “I’m actually a really decent person, you know.” Her sniffles grew louder and I didn’t know how to make them stop, other than to affirm what she was saying.
I took a sip of the beer and winced, unprepared for a mouthful of hoppy tree sap. “You’re better than really decent, Abby. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be drinking with a friend. I wouldn’t be drinking at all!”
“I’ll let my den mother know about my good deed.”
It was impossible to see her face, so I couldn’t tell from the silence if our conversation was making her feel better. I wanted to make her laugh.
“So. What are you wearing?”
It worked. “I’m wearing the same thing I was wearing when you last saw me an hour ago, only now my shoes are on the floor. You want me to describe my feet?”
“Well, I’m not—I don’t think so. No, not really.”
“That’s probably for the best.” She trailed off. “What are you doing right now?”
I was sitting on my lawn, staring up at an endless, uncaring sky, pretending to enjoy a beer to impress a grown woman who had exposed me to all manner of illness. If my parents were to return in the midst of this scene, I would be homeschooled through college.
“Just talking to a friend.”
There was a pause on the other end. I figured Abby was processing my compliment. Then I heard a steady, high-pitched whine and a door opening abruptly. There was a shout. And her heavy breathing. “Do you want to know what you’re missing out on?”
“I’m gonna put you on speaker.” The curious sounds were amplified tenfold. Screaming, crying, pleading. Tables were overturned. A lamp was shattered. Someone called out desperately for their mother. I could hear Abby conversing with an adult who seemed to be interrogating her. Then there was the voice of Andrew.
“Abby, I can’t believe you!”
“We didn’t lose mom for nothing! Nobody cares about your stupid friends!”
“Fuck you, Abby! I need this! I can’t live like this anymore!”
“I hope you get sick in juvie, you self-centered prick!”
Suddenly, I felt very cold. I wanted nothing more than to be caught drinking by my parents. But that wasn’t going to happen. That night was my pathetic attempt to blow off steam with my cohort. That was always the plan. The adults had others.
“I’m back,” Abby muttered cooly.
I said nothing.
“Are you okay, Nathan?”
“Abby. Did you get in trouble?”
“Nah. Millburn police love snitches. Anything to make their job easier.”
I could only imagine what Abby thought of me at that moment. My feelings about her were still in development. “Are you mad at me for being one of those stupid kids your brother wanted to impress?”
“Are you mad at me for not giving you a warning?”
I could have been thrown in the back of a police car that night at her behest. A spot on my record, a night in a petri dish, the worst terror my parents ever experienced. I should have been angry. “I’m just a little confused.”
I heard wine rushing down her throat. “We all need the illusion of choice. It’s not easy to choose crippling loneliness, but here you are.”
“I don’t feel lonely at all.”
“My brother is gonna find out if you can be lonely in a packed drunk tank.”
Hard as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about the vacant space in our driveway. “You can definitely feel lonely in a packed hospital.”
“What made you think of that?”
I hastily finished the rest of my beer and set it down victoriously, courage coursing through my bladder. “I’m really sorry about your mom.”
Abby said she cried over the way she viewed herself, she cried over boredom and idleness, but she didn’t cry over her mother. “I hated that woman. But some of the kids at that party had good moms. They don’t deserve the same miserable, suffocating death that mine did for slapping me every day and cheating on my dad.”
“I can’t argue with that.”
“Trust your elders.”
Those were the last words we exchanged that night. We embraced each other with silence, drifting until our phones died. There was no plan to reconnect, no clear future for us. There never should have been an “us,” even for one night, but that hardly matters. A good number of things should not be, and yet they are.
Hours passed and no one drove by. There were no parents or ambulance sirens or police raids. Perhaps the human race made its last gasp on a placid morning in May. Mother Earth let out a sigh of relief and exhaled another seven thousand souls. There was only the rising sun, the gentle din of rhapsodizing crickets, and the crackle of unwanted weeds climbing through concrete. Life hadn’t ended—it was growing beneath our feet.
Travis Wittman is a prolific fiction writer and English teacher from Los Angeles, California. His work is inspired by a search for sublime moments in the mundanities of life, as well as the importance of open-minded conversation. Travis studied creative writing at California State University, Northridge and has been published in journals such as Valparaiso University’s The Torch.