I had good dreams last night. I dreamt that my apartment building had burned down with myself and my stepdad in it. Although being burned alive isn’t exactly my first choice on the list of ways to die, at least I’d be taking Dan down with me.
“Ethan!” a voice called, cutting into my dark thoughts of what the best way to die might be.
“Yeah? Whaddya want?” I grouched, irritated that I couldn’t be allowed to be caught in my wonderful dream for longer.
“Can you go sweep the floors? People’ve been tracking mud in all day, and it’s starting to show.” Alex, my boss, was constantly interrupting me by asking me to go clean something or other, and it was really starting to get on my nerves. In his defense, cleaning was kind of in my job description, since I was an employee of Corner Beans coffee shop. I guess I’m just lazy.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m on it,” I replied very unenthusiastically. Alex frowned, but said nothing and ducked back into the kitchen to go check on his precious pastries, tying his green apron around his waist as he went. Ignoring his clear disapproval, I grabbed the plastic broom off of its stand and got to work.
Which would be better, slitting my wrists or jumping out of the window, I wondered. Oh, better yet, I could hang myself in the living room. I bet that’d give Dan a good laugh. My stepfather, Dan, had never really liked me. Of course, the feeling was perfectly mutual. When my dad had died when I was in fifth grade, my mother had wasted absolutely no time in getting remarried. Unfortunately, the guy who she picked was a total douchebag and also one of the major reasons why I wanted to end my life.
I had started humming happily, thinking that my shift was almost over, when the little bell on the door rang and a blurry shape sprinted past me and booked it straight towards the restrooms.
“Weird,” I muttered to myself, glancing up at the clock for probably about the fifth time in the past three minutes. Did you know that how quickly time goes by isn’t actually inversely related to how many times you check the clock?
“Ah, much better!” said a rather chipper voice. It was the blur that had sprinted past me a few minutes ago. Now that I could get a good look, I saw that he was a small-framed boy with short hair dyed a light violet color and shaved on the sides. His eyes were bright green, framed by a pair of black-rimmed glasses and surrounded by a smattering of freckles, stark against this pale skin. Every single part of him looked so soft and comforting that I self-consciously ran a hand through my own tangled black hair.
“Ethan, you got it covered out there? I heard someone come in the door,” Alex called across the room, poking his head through the doorway leading to the kitchen.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I yelled back, heading behind the mahogany counter and leaning the broom against it. “What would you like today?” I asked, glancing up at the boy. He shot me a bewildered look, a bit like a deer in headlights. Not that I’d ever seen that, seeing as I can’t drive. There also is a significant lack of deer in New York City.
“Um, what?” he squeaked. This kid sounded a bit like I did seven years ago when I was going through puberty.
“The restrooms are for customers only,” I replied, nodding in the direction of the sign supporting my claim. “Therefore, you’ve gotta order something.” The boy looked rather dismayed, and immediately began rummaging through his coat pockets, before giving up and searching his backpack instead. After a few moments, he looked back up at me with an expression that seemed to be a mixture between terror and apology.
“I’m really sorry, ah, Ethan, but I don’t have any money with me,” he said nervously, staring at my name tag. I sighed. Just spectacular. I can’t even have my last day of work go well. Typical.
“Whatever. Not much I can-”
“But I’ll definitely be back tomorrow! And this time I’ll bring money, and I’ll make it up to you! I promise!” the boy interrupted.
“I’ll be back tomorrow after my last class to make it up to you!”
“Um, okay? That works, I guess.”
“Great!” he chirped. “I’ll be here at 3:30 on the dot!” With that, this strange boy spun on his heel and sprinted back out the door just as suddenly as he’d entered.
What an oddball, I thought later as I walked down the busy sidewalk, reminiscing about my last day as I tried not to get knocked into the street by other pedestrians at the same time. I wasn’t planning on dying for another few hours, and I was determined that this day wasn’t going to be messed up any more than it already had been. Even Alex had unintentionally messed up my perfect plan when he sent me home early, seeing as it had been a rather slow day. Now I was stuck with a few hours to kill.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!” someone snapped as I was shouldered rather roughly into the glass display window of a clothing store. Not even stopping to glare at the jerk, I simply sent the middle finger in his general direction.
“This is why I hate cities,” I muttered under my breath. Thankfully the apartment building where I lived with Mom (when she was there) and Dan was only a few blocks away from Corner Beans.
“Hello, Ethan,” my landlady called as I walked through the mail room on the bottom floor.
“Hello, Mrs. Thompson,” I replied, albeit a bit unenthusiastically. Of all the people in this dreary, fucked-up world, Mrs. Thompson was one of the most tolerable besides Alex. When we first moved in at the beginning of high school, she’d always be in the mail room when I got home from school and would give me freshly-baked cookies from the bakery around the corner. Of course, the cookie-giving stopped when I dropped out of college halfway through last year when I was a sophomore. I think she was more disappointed in me than my own mother.
I finally made it up the long staircase to the fifth floor and was about to pull out my keys when I remembered that Dan had been the last one in the house this morning. He’d probably rather that we got robbed, cause then he could figure out some way to blame it on me, and he would finally have a good excuse to kick his twenty-one-year-old stepson out of the apartment.
Bellatrix let out a plaintive “meow” when I slammed open the door. She must have been sleeping right near it, and I was so worked up thinking about how much I hated Dan that I hadn’t even thought about it. Muttering an apology to the little cat, I wove my way through the obstacle course of beer cans and dirty socks, finally reaching the door to my room. The second I opened it, Bellatrix dashed through the opening and leapt onto my bed. She always did love sleeping there. I wonder if she still would when I’m gone.
I flopped down next to her on my back and pulled my phone out of the pocket of my gray hoodie as Bellatrix climbed onto my chest and curled up, purring happily. As usual, there were no notifications on my screen when I turned it on. After all, it’s not like I had any friends to care about me. No one to mourn me when I’m gone and wonder if they could have prevented it. My mom might be sad if she ever bothered to come home. Bellatrix would definitely miss me, and I think Mrs. Thompson probably would too. Maybe Alex.
5:30. The chosen time of my death. 5:30, October seventeenth, 2021. I’d been planning this for months, and finally the greatest moment of my life had arrived. I reached around the little tuxedo cat on my chest and underneath my pillow, fingers grasping the small knife concealed there. I pulled it out and held the sharp edge of the blade against my wrist, right above the artery. Let me think, is there anything that I’d regret at this moment? I wondered. I was just about to break the skin, believing that there could be nothing that I would regret enough to to stop me when something in my little brain clicked. I’ll never find out whether or not that guy from earlier kept his promise. I think that some sort of survival instinct buried deep within my core was telling me to live, because it was just that tiny, insignificant realization that stayed my hand. I wanted to know. For no reason whatsoever, I wanted to know if this complete stranger had kept his promise. Fine, I told that survival instinct of mine. October eighteenth then. Just then, the door slammed open once again, startling Bellatrix from my lap.
“Evening, dipshit,” Dan called in his low, gruff voice as he dropped his briefcase onto the couch with a muffled thud and stomped down the hallway to my room. His gaze immediately landed on the small blade, still clutched in my hand. “Trying to off yourself?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I replied carefully.
“Well, keep up the good work. Just make sure your mother doesn’t see.”
And there it was. Another reason to stay alive. Just for the sole purpose of pissing Dan off. “Well, you’re out of luck,” I snapped back. “I decided that I want to live for another day.” I shoved the blade back under my pillow, and stared into Dan’s frowning face.
“Fine, do whatever you want. Just stay out of my way.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“Good night, dipshit.”
“Enjoy your drunken sleep, fuckhead.” This was our nightly routine, which always commenced at 6:00 on the dot. I know that that sounds really early to go to bed, but it’s because that’s around the time he falls into a drunken stupor and doesn’t wake up again until his alarm tells him it’s time to get his drunk ass off of the couch and go to the office. My usual routine was to go and watch tv after he fell asleep, but tonight, I was both physically and mentally tired. Not bothering to change out of my clothes, I fell asleep on top of the covers. That night, I dreamed of nothing.
The next day was basically the same as every other. I served a lot of preppy teenage girls coffee, and a lot of old ladies tea. I know it sounds stereotypical, but it’s true. There were also a few army veterans who came in around lunch for pastries and our famous egg sandwiches on croissants, cooked by moi. As usual, I looked up at the clock every few minutes. Today, though, I wasn’t waiting until 5:00, the time when my shift ended. Today, I was waiting until 3:30. Like I said, I was curious.
“You waiting for someone in particular?” Alex asked around 3:20.
“Not really. Just waiting to see if someone will keep his promise.”
“Who on earth is it that has you looking so lifelike for once?” Alex inquired, suddenly interested.
“The guy who came in towards the end of my shift yesterday. It doesn’t look like he’s coming though. It’s almost 3:30.”
“Well, carry on then. Don’t let me stop you,” the older man chuckled. Not to say that Alex was old. I think he was twenty-seven or something. It’s just that he’s a good six years older than me.
3:29. I sighed, surprisingly disappointed. I guess that inner survival instinct really was hoping that that boy would show up. I guess I kind of was too. He had such an upbeat aura to him, it almost made me want to not die. With only twenty seconds remaining until the determined time of arrival, I’d given up hope. Guess I’m alive for nothing then.
1...Right in that final instant before the clock struck 3:30, the door of Corner Beans slammed open, giving way to a small person light violet hair, a heavy-looking backpack, and the most adorable freckles I’ve ever seen.
“I’m not late, am I?” the boy asked breathlessly, a panicked look on his face. Is he wearing eyeliner? I wondered. He was, in fact, wearing eyeliner today. And a knitted beige beanie to match his coat. Couple that with his skinny jeans, brown leather boots, and black pullover sweater, he looked eerily like one of the teenage girls panicking over whether or not we had their favorite type of fancy milk in stock. Who knew you could milk a bean?
“No, you made it just in time I’m actually surprised you came,” I replied, meaning every word.
“Oh thank the stars!” he exclaimed, collapsing forward onto the polished counter. The corners of my mouth quirked up. Then I started to snicker, before finally I couldn’t hold it in anymore.
For the first time in eleven years, Ethan Goldsworth laughed a genuine, heartfelt laugh. And damn, it felt good.