Written using the prompt from The Last Line, Winter 2018.
I wake up just after dawn.
Slowly, I blink sleep from my bleary eyes and wince at the sun’s glare. I prefer to have the blinds drawn at night, so that the morning light isn’t quite so jarring. Reese, however, is a night owl. He always opens the blinds before going to bed, usually long after I’ve fallen asleep. He professes to be a morning person with insomnia, and that if he wakes up by natural light enough times his inner clock will reset itself. It has been over a year now of waiting for that reset. I tilt my face away from the window and roll over so that we face each other.
His eyes stutter back and forth under the lids, watching a dream. Judging by how deep into REM sleep he is, I guess that he won’t be up for another two hours at least. Even when asleep his face is marred by dark bags under his eyes and the beginning of crow’s feet at their corners. Too young for the tiny cracks, to be certain, but his inability to get on a consistent sleep schedule has already sealed that fate.
Light stubble dots his chin and cheeks, he didn’t shave last night. He probably stumbled home and immediately fell into bed after another late night at work. The restaurant he manages has grown in popularity over the past few years, and so too has his time commitment. Reese wants to own a restaurant one day, and every spare dollar he earns goes into a savings account to that end. That future means the world to him, and from the murmured orders that occasionally slip out of his mouth I have no doubt he’s dreaming about it now.
Scratching breaks through the quiet morning, followed by an insistent mewling outside our bedroom door. Marshmallow can always tell when I am awake and is usually gracious enough to stay quiet until then. I shush him from where I still lay in the bed, and he stops begging for attention. I have maybe another five minutes before he’ll resume, louder and more insistent.
I pull myself up to a sitting position, and as the duvet slips off me I feel the muscles in my shoulders twinge. I slept in an awkward position last night, curled onto my side at the edge of the bed. I gingerly stretch my arms out and upwards, listening to the crackling of the knots releasing in my back. The sensation is painful and satisfying at the same time.
My arms drop to my sides and I swing my legs over the side of the bed, planting my feet on the cold hardwood. The first few morning steps over the freezing floor are the worst, but they wake me up quickly. I’ve tried sleeping in socks or keeping slippers by the bed, but the socks disappear by the time I wake up and Reese compulsively puts my slippers away in the closet. He gets anxious when something is out of place, a neatening habit that he has brought home from managing the restaurant. A shiver travels up my legs and spine, all the way to the nape of my neck where the hairs stand on edge.
The air conditioner hums to life in the window and blasts frigid air over Reese’s sleeping form. A quiet mumble escapes his thin lips and he pulls the duvet tighter around his shoulders, cinching closed the cocoon he nestled into. He needs the cold to fall and stay asleep, yet every morning I wake to see him shivering under a pile of blankets. Still, he’s insistent on keeping the AC on, with extra blankets on the bed to compensate. My knees and hips pop as I stand up and walk over to the humming machine. I turn the dial to the fan icon sans stylized snowflake, and the frigid breeze’s sharpness dulls slightly.
The scratching and mewling at the door resumes impatiently, Marshmallow needs his breakfast. I pad over to the door and slowly turn the knob, muffling the clicking with both hands to not wake Reese. I slip my foot out the door first to nudge Marshmallow’s fat head back. If given half a chance he will bolt into the bedroom and leap onto the bed, solely because he’s not allowed in here. Marshmallow sheds like crazy, and Reese’s black restaurant uniforms are like a fur magnet. He lays them out at night for the next day, but Marshmallow is obsessed with them. Even with Marshmallow now banned from the bedroom, Reese goes over our small apartment daily with his hand vacuum, trying to control the explosion of long white fur that’s on every surface. When he leaves the apartment, though, it is usually with a few reminders of Marshmallow still attached.
I close the door behind me and Marshmallow winds his fat little kitten body around my ankles, purring like a madman. I sweep him up in my arms and bury my face in his impossibly soft fur, and he playfully gnaws at the plain engagement ring on my finger with sharp kitten teeth.
Marshmallow showed up at our door one morning, no mother cat or other kittens in sight. We live on the fourth floor and still aren’t quite sure how he found his way up here, as all our neighbors have either dogs or no pets. Reese had been away at a convention when Marshmallow found me, so I brought him inside despite Reese’s then ‘no pets’ rule. By the time Reese came home a few days later, though, I was too attached to give Marshmallow up. Reese and I compromised that I could keep the kitten if I did all the animal-related chores and paid the vet bills, with the later added condition that Marshmallow isn’t allowed in the bedroom. Marshmallow stayed, and he and Reese coexisted.
Marshmallow squirms out of my arms and jumps to the floor. Padding over to the kitchen he rubs against the child-locked cabinet where I keep his food and sits expectantly. Pushing him aside I retrieve a can of food from the cabinet and scoop some into a bowl, and his tail happily curls behind him as he tucks in.
I rummage through takeout containers piled high in the fridge, searching for the tubs of yogurt I keep stashed in the back. I can smell a rancidity, something in the fridge has turned. I debate finding and tossing the offender but decide to let Reese deal with it, since he is the one constantly bringing them home. I find my yogurt and settle with my back against the counter to eat my breakfast.
Reese has been bringing leftovers home for as long as I’ve known him, we met in our second year of college. He was a business major and worked nights at a local burger joint to pay for textbooks and whatever other miscellany wasn’t covered by student loans. He would return to the dorms in the early morning hours with bags of leftovers and would leave his room’s door cracked open, so friends could grab a greasy breakfast on their way to class. A mutual friend told me about it and I took advantage, even though at the time we didn’t know each other. One morning I tripped over his backpack and woke him up, and that’s how we met.
We were dating within a week, and in a relationship within a month. It’s been just him and me ever since. I started dating him for the free food, and stayed. Reese was kind and friendly to everyone he met, which was attractive. We moved in together after college, and I followed him from job to job until he landed this manager position. I work from home for an insurance company, so the jumping from place to place doesn’t bother me much. He proposed after a year of managing the restaurant, and I said yes. We’re a textbook romance.
As I eat I scroll through the day’s schedule on my phone, I like to map out my days hour by hour. 6:00am, run. 7:30am, wake up Reese. 8:30am, meeting with caterer. 11am, brunch with the future in-laws. After that is chores and catching up on emails, then dinner out with friends. Mine, not his. Our circles don’t have much overlap, and I think we both prefer having our own spaces.
Marshmallow and I finish our breakfast at the same time. I collect his bowl and put it in the sink with my spoon, and he hops onto a kitchen chair and watches me wash away the remnants of our breakfast. I finish and poke his slightly distended belly on my way to the front door, him grumbling in reply.
I left the laundry basket of clean clothes by the door last night, I’d been too lazy to fold and put them away. The cat fur-decorated clothing doesn’t annoy me like it does Reese, and I don’t bother shaking out the clothes before changing. I pull out a basic sports bra, tank top, and capris leggings, with a mismatched pair of cotton socks, dropping my pajamas next to the basket as I change. I sit on the floor to tie on my black running shoes and the dancing laces catch Marshmallow’s attention.
He drops from the chair and pads over to me, meowing inquisitively. Rubbing his little face and gums against my hands, he makes me fumble with the left laces and mess up the knot. I scoop him up and squish him in a bear hug until he mewls in annoyance and squirms out of my arms. In a huff he runs off to the living room, his tail curling around the wall and out of sight.
The pink earbuds I prefer are still in the bedroom, alongside my armband and Reese’s chest binder on the dresser. Not wanting to wake him up, I rummage through the kitchen cabinet of random junk until I find an older off-white pair. They’d once been just-white, but age and use have lent them a muddled yellow tint. I don’t need to test if they still work, that isn’t quite the point of bringing them. I grab my keys from the shallow glass bowl by the door and ease myself out into the hallway. Quietly shutting the door behind me as to not wake the neighbors, I head downstairs.
My muscles warm up as I carefully jog down the steep staircase. I’ve twisted my ankle more than once going down in a rush and am careful to keep a hand on the rail as I descend. The third and second floors are silent save for the muffled steps of my running shoes, but on the first floor I can hear the bright chatter of a children’s television show through one of the doors. I think that family has a kindergarten-aged child, though I’m not too sure. They’re newer arrivals to the building and have no reason to venture up to the fourth floor.
Outside of the building a wet heat settles over me, and the sun’s rays cut through an early-morning fog. A few cars are on the road, but there is no one else on the sidewalk. I’ll probably pass by a few other joggers once the morning goes on.
I plug the earbuds into my phone and snake the wires around the back of my ears, slipping the buds into place. I’ve seen other runners do this to keep them in place, and it does seem to help a bit during the sweaty summer months. I check the time on my phone, it’s just past six. Plenty of time for a good run. Reese jokes that he stresses away the calories of ever-present restaurant leftovers while I run away from them. I often suspect that he doesn’t think I have a real job working from home, though he has no complaints about the real paycheck I receive twice a month.
Clicking off the phone’s display I instinctively reach to tuck it into my armband before I again remember that it’s on the dresser. I can hold the phone for the run, I just need clean it off when I get home. Reese doesn’t have a schedule on his own phone—he can’t figure out how to set appointments and notifications—so he usually checks my phone instead. Sweat grosses him out, once he even dropped my phone after seeing a sweaty palm print marring the screen. The device survived with only a small crack in the glass, and if I press on it just right I can change the color of the surrounding pixels.
Checking both ways, I jog across the road and head north towards Engle Street, my usual route. My feet hit the pavement in a slightly erratic pattern, my pace evening out the further I go down the block. Engle Street is lined with trees and is cooler than the bare pavement, and as I turn east onto it I find my rhythm. I don’t listen to music when I run, the earbuds are more for show than anything else. I like to listen to the city waking up and brief snippets of conversation as I pass open windows, but not actually talk to anyone. With the earbuds, fewer people bother me. Or, worse yet, try to jog alongside me. A few weeks back before I started wearing them, a fellow ‘bare’ jogger had run with me for ten blocks, non-stop talking about the springiness of different paving materials the entire way.
I shudder at the memory and remind myself to head north once Engle Street intersects with Wray Drive. I’m pretty sure that particular jogger stays south of the shopping district and sticks to the residential streets from the few other times I’ve seen him. Sweat beads on my forehead as the sun rises, clearing away the morning fog.
The scent of baking bread wafts over me, and I’m reminded of our early catering appointment. We’d scheduled an afternoon meeting slot weeks ago, but the woman who ran the business called yesterday to reschedule. Some family event came up, and early morning today was the only time she could meet this month. I must remember to bring a travel mug of coffee with extra creamer to get Reese through the meeting, so he won’t be too cranky with her.
A drop of sweat snakes its way down the side of my face and I swipe it away without breaking stride. Reese used to take his coffee black, but over the years had started adding creamer as his job stress built. I remember giggling with him in little cafes right after we graduated, making fun of the college girls who ordered complicated drinks that tasted more of sugar than coffee. He laughed more back then, and so did I. Still, there is a certain comfort in staying with someone for so long. I know his every quirk, and he knows mine. We had our meet-cute, a brief period where we broke up but never dated other people, even a stint living abroad for half a year, with all the excitement of young love. That part of our lives is over, and now we are the story my friends daydream about.
I see the sign for Wray Drive, and my stomach drops. Neon orange construction cones bar the way north, alongside a small piece of construction equipment and a solitary work light. The road is chewed to pieces, awaiting a fresh coat of pavement. I could still technically go that way as there is a thin strip of sidewalk for the buildings lining the road, but even from a distance I can see large chunks of rock scattered about. I don’t trust my weak ankles with an uneven way like that.
My choices are to head south and chance the jogger from hell or keep going straight into the old neighborhoods. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with those neighborhoods, but I’m not familiar with the area. Pausing for a breath, I lean against a skinny tree and pull out my phone. The little icon telling me whether or not I have data service flashes on and off, flickering away to black. Great. The GPS icon blinks and disappears as well, and I hit the phone in frustration. I pay too much for the data plan for it to crap out like this.
The streets in my city don’t follow the normal grid you’d expect, they branch off unexpectedly and in odd directions. This used to be a small port town, that then grew in fits and bursts with no plan in mind. Oftentimes, streets just end with a blank wall, blocked off by awkwardly placed buildings and fences. If I head in an unfamiliar direction, I don’t necessarily trust myself to find my way back home.
Do I really want to chance that annoying jogger, though? With one last, forlorn look up Wray Drive, I head past the cones and into the old neighborhoods. Thankfully the road slowly curves north, and I can hopefully jump back onto my normal route.
The buildings around me seem to age before my eyes. Bricks become cracked and mismatched, while paint on doors fades and chips away. And yet, this is a loving neglect, dereliction betrayed by thriving gardens and brightly colored curtains behind clean windows. The road narrows as I run, the alleyways between buildings disappearing until they lean against one another with no room to spare. Though the heat is still here, the new shade cools the sweat on my face.
The street is lined with trees, though they are spread apart and a little wild. On Engle Street, the planted trees are still spindly and tied into place, a green addition dictated by the city. Here, the trees dictate the city instead. Roots push apart the sidewalk’s concrete slabs and the cracks they create are filled with varying shades of grey rock, forming a patchwork winding in a lazy serpentine path.
I pause, staring at these heavy trees. I’ve never seen this part of the city before, where am I?
I slowly spin, looking for street signs or shop names. This place is wholly unfamiliar to me, like I’m in a different city entirely. Behind me the road splits into multiple directions, I hadn’t even noticed when they merged. How many times has that happened? Looking around I see wrought iron shutters covering most of the storefronts, their display windows emblazoned with generic names like “Sally’s Shoe Stop” and “The Little Gift Store.” Nothing is open yet, and I press the power button on my phone to bring up the time.
The screen stays blank. I try pushing the button harder and repeatedly, holding it in place, even hitting the back with the palm of my hand, but nothing works. I curse under my breath; did I not charge the phone last night? I didn’t think to check the battery when I left the apartment. I give up on the dead phone and slowly spin again, looking for anything to tell me where I am, but nothing strikes a chord.
I turn back the way I think I came and begin running again, faster than before. I don’t know what time it is, and even if I could somehow figure it out from the sun’s position in the sky—a laughable idea in itself—the cramped buildings block it from view. Reese will be pissed if we miss the meeting with the caterer, and I don’t trust him to wake up and head there on his own. Somehow, this street is even less familiar, and I realize I must have taken the wrong way back. I scan every doorway as I run, looking for mailbox numbers, packages, anything to indicate where I am.
My left foot catches on something, and I trip onto my hands and knees. The asphalt rasps against my palms and I wince at the raw sting. Turning, I see my undone shoelace snagged on a protruding tree root. Cursing under my breath, I shift to a seated position and release the lace. Something tightens in my ankle, and I wince again as I feel the muscles stiffen. I definitely twisted it.
I lean back onto my stinging palms and look up at the building to my side, cursing my poor decision-making skills, my insistence on running every morning, my slippery shoelaces, Reese breaking my phone, everything I can think of. Amidst the blame game I’m playing with myself a light breeze kicks up, drawing my attention to a sign swinging above me.
The sign says “BOOKS” in all capital letters with no further detail. I squint at it in surprise. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a book store in this city. They’re a dying breed, killed off by tablets and a general lack of interest. I look down at the advertised storefront. A glass door is set slightly back into the brick building, tight spirals of pastel window paints outlining the word ‘BOOKS,’ also in all capital letters. Below the push bar is an ‘Open’ sign, still swinging back and forth from being flipped by an unseen person inside.
Rising, I dust off my pants and pull out my ear buds, wrapping the cord around my dead phone. A warm yellow light emanates from behind the bookstore door, though I can see no detail through the frosted glass. The window displays hold colorful, old-school hard copies of classics backed by purple curtains obscuring the interior. Hopefully whomever is inside can point me back towards home.
Favoring my left ankle, I walk up the few steps to the door and push it open. A waft of cool air washes over me and a little bell tinkles, far softer than the mechanical rings I’m used to hearing in shops. A few fans spin lazily overhead, not nearly enough to cool the store this much. I can’t hear the telltale hum of an air conditioner, though, and chalk it up to the old bricks of the building.
The shop is stocked with a mishmash of books, knickknacks, and old furniture. Shelves lead back in slightly crooked rows, in materials varying from cheap fake wood to rich old oaks and pines. Small ceramic figurines are scattered across the tops, many precariously close to falling off the edge. Large, cheap alphabet stickers like the kind you can buy in dollar stores are stuck to the end of each shelving unit. While the shelves appear to technically be labeled alphabetically, the letters aren’t in the right order. I look for a clock, but there is none on the flower-patterned walls or atop the shelves.
The books themselves are no better organized. Some stand up in the neat, soldierly fashion of libraries, while others are stacked haphazardly on their sides, with still more randomly dropped atop the shelves. There is no rhyme or reason as to what goes where, neither by author name nor subject matter. They remind me of how I would organize my bookshelves as a child, with a scheme that only I knew and would promptly forget.
An irritated faux-cough breaks me from my examination and draws my attention to the back of the store. There sits a large, ornate wooden desk, with chipped gold filigree highlighting carved wooden vines and flowers. The vines form a grid pattern along either end of the desk, holding carved wooden books in a haphazard fashion similar to the rest of the store. The pattern shrinks as it approaches the center where there appears to be another carved wooden desk with the same pattern, and so on. The design makes my head spin, and I have to look away before I get nauseous.
The young woman sitting behind the beautiful desk is unexpected. She is slight in stature, with narrow, pointed features. Dyed-violet hair with an uneven fringe frames her angled face, and dark makeup highlights a myriad of silver studs in her eyebrows, lips, and nose. Small holes mark where there must have been more metal at some point. Her outfit is typical of a barista or boutique owner, with a plain black t-shirt and thin leather bands around her wrists. Long, pointed nails painted black tap the desk impatiently.
Most striking, however, is the stare she pins me down with. A thick book is open in front of her, of which she pointedly holds a page in her non-tapping hand. Steam rises from a large mug sitting next to her, and the smell of fresh tea mingles with that of old books. She cocks an eyebrow, glaring at me with barely-masked animosity. I awkwardly clear my throat and wipe at the dried sweat on my brow.
“Good morning, are you open?” The question comes out of me louder than anticipated, breaking the calm silence of the store. The young woman stares at me for another long, uncomfortable minute before returning to her book.
“We’re open when we need to be” she replies tersely, stopping the tap-tap-tap of her nails to reach for her mug and take a long, slow sip. I clear my throat again and nod.
“O-kay. Look, I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering, well—um, where am I? And what time it is?” I ask, stepping forward a few paces.
“Aisle D, fourth column in, second row from the top, third from the left” she replies, not looking up from her book. I blink, waiting for any sort of follow-up explanation, but none comes.
“I’m sorry, I meant where in the city? Like what street?” I ask, thinking she misheard me.
“Aisle D. Fourth column in. Second row from the top. Third from the left” she replies again, this time with more emphasis and a longer sip from her mug.
“Okay, but-” She looks up from her book with just her eyes, silencing any further questions I have with the daggers she shoots into me. “Got it. Aisle D, fourth column, second row, third from left.”
Despite the lack of organization, aisle D is easy to find, the alphabet sticker underlined by a dozen little stars drawn in black ink. I follow the woman’s instructions to the second row of the fourth column and find a neat line of cheap romance novels in varying shades of pink and white. The shiny material reminds me of the overpriced shops in airports, selling books to those who forget their own on bedside tables or in hotel bathrooms.
I tug on the third book from the left, and it slides out smoothly. I read the title and can feel my eyes rolling all the way back into my head. The front is a picture of an open door with a young, conventionally pretty girl fake-running through it, bouquet and veil in hand.
The Runaway Bride: The Story of that Chick Who Just Bolted Out the Door
Is this really what she wants me to find? I poke my head out from the aisle, ready to ask what exactly she wants me to do. I am met with one sharp nail pointing down at a new, small plastic placard on her desk which says in large red letters “READING IS ENCOURAGED. SPEAKING IS NOT.”
Bewildered but somewhat chastised, I return to my section and look at the ugly book. At a loss for what else to do I sit on the ground and turn it over in my hands. It looks like the sort of trashy romance novel I felt like an ‘adult’ reading in middle school, and would hide under my pillow whenever my mom walked in the room. The blurb on the back is a bundle of clichés tied up with a cliffhanger, nothing that piques my interest despite the surprisingly snarky title. I debate getting up and leaving the shop, but on cue the clerk’s nails resume their rhythmic tapping. For fear of her glaring at me again, I settle in and open the book to a random page. It falls to a few chapters in, on a page marked by old coffee stains and a stray cat hair that drifts to the floor. I begin to read; Still, there is a certain comfort in staying with someone for so long…
“Hey, lady, it’s nine” the young clerk’s voice calls out from the desk.
“Excuse me?” I call back, shutting the book she’d tasked me with. I rise to my feet and walk to the end of the aisle, poking my head out to see the woman still reading her book.
“It’s nine” she says, turning the page without looking up.
“Nine A.M.” she replies, followed by a sip of her tea. I blink for a moment, not comprehending her meaning. Then, with a jolt, I remember today’s schedule.
“Oh, damn it-” I exclaim. A page slices the pad of my thumb as I drop the book on a shelf labeled M and bolt out the door, forgetting the pain in my ankle. As the door shuts behind me with a tinkling of the bell, the young woman sighs in exasperation.
“Oh no, wait, don’t go, you didn’t finish the story” she half-heartedly calls out, though the door had already shut. She looks to where the book lay abandoned on the shelf and rolls her eyes, muttering to herself, “why do they never just put the damn book away…”
The clerk shakes her head in exasperation and tucks a loose lock of hair behind a studded, pointed ear as she returns to her book.
The door to the shop falls shut behind me as I leap down the stairs to the now-busy sidewalk, nearly colliding with an old woman. I hurriedly apologize and start down the street in what I hope is the right direction, rapidly pressing the power button on my phone.
To my surprise and relief, the phone’s screen blinks on immediately, notifying me to my missed events and five voicemails from Reese. Just as I start to dial his number my phone rings, his name coming up on the caller ID. Taking a deep breath to prepare myself for the inevitable argument, I stand to the side of the walkway and answer it. I can hear Reese’s loud, upset voice before I even bring the phone to my ear.
“Hi… yes… yes, I know… Reese…. Reese…. Reese, if you would just—excuse me? Am I what now?” I stare blankly ahead as Reese tersely repeats his question, angry that we missed our appointment and are going to be late for brunch with the people who are paying for said appointment.
Are you happy?
Reese waits for a response, and I can hear Marshmallow’s concerned yowls in the background.
Am I happy?
The seconds tick by, and Reese impatiently clears his throat.
“Look… I’ll be home soon. We need to talk” I end the call before Reese can reply. I need a moment to think.
I feel a pinch and look down at the blood welling up on my thumb, smearing it with my forefinger before wiping it away on my pants. I pull up ‘Home’ on the now-working GPS, and pause.
Turning around, I can see the small swinging sign on the bookstore door now reads ‘Closed,’ and there are no lights on inside. I take one last look up at the hanging placard that says ‘BOOKS,’ then turn and start walking home.
I will visit again if I am ever back this way.