I was standing in a forest, the trunks of the slender trees wrapped in a blue-green twilight that fell quickly from the East. I was alone except for the fireflies that darted about in the pine-scented air above my head. My body felt odd and slightly feverish, my limbs went from cold and goose- pimply to hot and sweat-sheened in cycles. I wasn’t sure where I was, maybe by the river where I had walked earlier in the day, but further away from the roar of the currents.
I couldn’t remember how I got here, or why I was in my sleeping attire, but I wasn’t worried and I wasn’t afraid.
For once, in a very long time, I was not afraid.
I heard my name on the wind as it brushed my hair off my shoulders and swirled the aqua light away from me. I followed it, my feet quick and quiet on the damp grass.
I cleared back the branches of the trees, hearing strange voices emerging from the dark places around me.
They sounded so far away. I heard someone crying. She sounded like my sister.
I continued through the glade, my pace quickening as the darkness dropped even faster. Finally I saw him, the one who had been calling for me.
He sat on a log with his back to me, a camera placed beside him, the light from it illuminating the trees and adding extra sparkle to the fireflies.
I glided toward him, drawn forth like a magnet. I couldn’t keep away.
He didn’t stir until I was standing right behind him. He raised his head without looking at me. Another breeze wafted past and tossed his black hair delicately. The scent of Old Spice and Nicorette filled my nose.
I hated that smell.
“Perry,” he said, his voice unmistakably Dex. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
“And you still won’t,” I replied.
I reached down with my hands, placed them on both sides of his cold, rough face and with one quick motion I broke his neck, the SNAP of his vertebrae shattering through the still forest.
Dex slumped to the ground, motionless.
I smiled to myself and walked away.
A giant shudder ran through me, almost causing the coffee I was handling to spill out over the sides. Sorry, not coffee, but an extra-hot, no-foam, triple-shot, gold-dusted, magic- whipped, unicorn-blessed mother of all cappuccinos.
I quickly glanced up at Larry, the regular who waited impatiently for his daily creation of pomp and circumstance in a paper cup. His lips were squeezed tightly together, his eyes on the beverage, more concerned for it than the deathly shiver that had just rolled through his barista.
I composed myself – that was the last time I’d let myself think about my disturbing dreams at work – and handed him his coffee with a smile.
“Have a great day!” I exclaimed. You nitpicking twat.
Larry took the drink from my hands as if I were seconds from dumping it on his head (he wasn’t too far off), shot me a barely perceptible look of disdain, and left the coffee shop.
I let out a sigh of relief and closed my eyes, a migraine threatening to appear.
“Hey, Perry, you doing OK?” Ash asked.
I looked up and gave my colleague a tight smile. I could keep up the cheery pretenses with the customers, but not with Ash.
“Just feeling a bit under the weather again,” I said sheepishly. I had only been working at Port-Town coffee for six weeks and it seemed like every other day I was suffering from killer cramps, a terrible migraine, dizzy spells, painful bloating or plain old pissyness. Oh, and a broken heart. I tried to keep my complaints at a minimum because I didn’t want the manager, Shay, to regret hiring me but sometimes it was hard to hide.
Ash was extremely observant, too. He was a few years younger than me and had aspirations of being a criminal investigator but his dirt-poor upbringing forced him to be a barista for way longer than he ought. I wasn’t much better.
There I was, a failed internet host, who, despite having a degree in advertising, had found herself unable to get any kind of respectful employment aside from shoving coffee down Portland’s throat. Not that being a barista was anything to look down upon, but I wondered if all my sudden ailments were related to the nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing what I should be doing.
That said, things weren’t all bad. Ash was a cute kid and I’d hung out with him quite a bit, as I did with Shay, Steve, Mikeala and a few other coffee pushers. We had fun at work, and when I wasn’t being bombarded with people like Larry, who demanded the most ridiculous drinks, or Marge, the old lady who paid with pennies, the job was fairly low- stress and it all owed me to continue living at my parents’ house without being guilt-tripped about it. It also ended the “I told you sos,” which had lasted for at least a few weeks after I returned from Seattle.
Oh yes, Seattle.
I don’t like to talk about that time, let alone think about that time. It’s probably why I’d been having so many icky dreams lately – my subconscious was pushing them up through the ground, like bones through a fresh grave.
To put it mildly, December had been a hell of a month. I was in a very black place, one I feared I would never crawl out of. But I did eventually crawl out that hole, dragging myself out of the depression by my fingernails. My younger sister Ada helped; she was a great shoulder to cry on. And by cry, I mean slobber. I was an ugly, hysterical mess more often than not. I never knew that kind of agony before.
Perhaps I had been lucky that so many boys ignored me for most of my life.
Finally, getting this job helped, too. It forced me to go somewhere every day and put on my best face. Put on my best face and try to forget the pain that stil ricocheted through me from time to time, pain that intensified when certain songs came on the radio, a pain that left you with a tear-soaked pil ow in the morning.
I never spoke to Dex again. He tried, though, but I’l give him no credit for it. I got cal s from him right after he twisted that pin in my heart, a mil ion voicemails that I deleted (before I smashed my phone in a fit of rage). I got a new number, changed my email and total y withdrew from the little life I had attempted, which meant no contact with Jimmy, Rebecca or anyone at the Shownet office. Nothing against them – personal y – but it was just too hard. I needed to move on.
By the time February rolled around, I was in a better place. Of course, it’s not fun to feel sick all the time. I gained that pre-bootcamp weight back, and I felt pretty disappointed in myself for taking the risk on Experiment in Terror in the first place. For putting my heart on the line.
But I learned, and I will live.
“Do you stil want to come out tomorrow tonight?” Ash asked, his eyes staying on me and not on the customer who just walked in the shop. He had very nice, bright hazel eyes. They didn’t appeal to me in a romantic way but they reminded me of a brother I never had.
“Definitely,” I told him. I pointed to the washrooms. “I’m fine. I think I just need to splash cold water on my face.”
He nodded and took care of the customer as I escaped to the safety of the washroom. I was lucky to have someone like Ash. I was only working part-time, but I desperately wanted to move onto ful -time and then hopeful y shift supervisor. As you can imagine, I made minimum wage and if I were to ever get out of my parents’ house, I needed a lot more dough. Feeling sick and occasional y trying to fight back tears when Bil y Joel comes on the stereo doesn’t make me look like the best employee, someone Shay would want to eventually promote, but Ash has been the only one who has caught on that not all is right with me and he’s been doing a pretty good job of covering up.
Of course, everyone else knows I’m not entirely normal – hence my nickname “Scary Perry.” They all know about the Experiment in Terror show (as does the occasional customer who comes in) and they love to tease me about it.
Shay believes in ghosts, so at least my manager doesn’t think I’m crazy, but I can tel the others don’t know what to do with me sometimes. Stil , they invite me out to the bars after work and to local band showcases (which is where I was planning to go with Ash tomorrow night), so I’m slowly feeling like a regular girl.
I locked the bathroom door behind me and scrunched up my nose at the smel . I knew it was up to me to clean the bathrooms most of the time, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of this foul, rank odor that emanated from the wal s. It wasn’t that it smel ed like piss and shit or anything like a normal washroom. Rather, it smel ed like something was rotting away. Sharp and acrid, almost tangy in a revolting way, like spoiled meat.
I stopped breathing through my nose and ran the tap until it was cold enough and began dabbing a wad of paper towels on my forehead, cheeks and eyelids, careful not to smudge my makeup. I was wearing a lot of it these days, feeling uglier than normal thanks to the purple rings under my eyes and a strangely grey complexion. Though. I wondered how much of it was actual y a manifestation of how I felt. Did I look like crap because I felt like crap, or did I feel like crap because I looked like crap? Ah, the mysteries of life.
I took in a deep breath through my mouth, the smel penetrating slightly, and I tossed the paper towels into the wastebasket behind me. I leaned forward and looked closer at myself in the mirror. I felt like I had changed so much in the past few months, Iike I’d gotten older or something. I had faint crow’s lines now. Wrinkles at the corner of my eyes! I was only 23 - what the hel !
A breeze blew at me from the side, tickling my bare arms and flipping up the bottom of my apron. I looked behind me at the closed door, not sure where the wind was coming from. It was chil y and moving fast enough to make the paper towels wave back and forth from the dispenser.
I frowned, confused. But we were in a drafty old building in downtown Portland. Too bad the breeze wasn’t clearing the terrible smel away.
I looked back at myself in the mirror, strands of my hair flying in my face. I pushed them behind my ears, just in time to hear a small poof from behind me.
I spun around.
The garbage can was on fire.
Yel ow flames were rising out of the mound of crumpled paper towels, moving in the wind, reaching for the ceiling with mesmerizing fingers.
I was stunned but not for long.
I let out a small , awkward cry and looked around me for the closest thing to put it out. There was nothing, just me, the paper towels, the sink and the toilet.
I didn’t want to run out of the washroom and cause an alarm, though. The last thing I needed was a coffee shop ful of panicked people.
Think, Perry, think.
I had an idea.
I turned on the tap, took off my right shoe and fil ed it with water.
It wasn’t my first choice, but in the name of saving face, it was my only choice.
It only took two refil s before the fire was out and the garbage can was reduced to a wet, smoldering pile. I peered down at it, afraid to touch the mess, wondering how the hel the fire got started in the first place. It’s not like I threw a cigarette into the bin. It had been a paper towel, and a wet one at that.
It was beyond weird but I couldn’t devote too much time to worrying about it. There was a knock at the door and I was holding a toilet-water soaked shoe in my hand. I had bigger issues here.