Jess let out a muffled groan as the incessant buzzing of her phone continued. She rolled over onto her stomach, her face buried in her pillow, as she blindly reached out her hand towards her bedside table, trying to locate her phone. Her fingers knocked into the side and she let out a small hiss from the pain. When the pain ebbed, she uncurled her fingers and continued her blind search. Her hand slid across the tabletop until it came in contact with her phone. Whoever it was thought this call urgent; she had been ignored the last two calls, hoping they’d give up, but they never did. Instead, they called again, keeping her from her dream state.
Taking the phone, Jess brought the device to her ear, pressing the answer button on the touchscreen without looking.
“What?” she asked, forgetting her face was buried in her pillow, leaving her voice muffled and likely incomprehensible.
“Hello?” Someone said.
Jess lifted her head from the pillow, propping herself up on her free arm as she repeated, “What?” Her voice was clear, but sounded scratchy from sleep.
“Jess?” A hesitant voice asked.
“Yeah, what?” She repeated again, more irritated this time. She had already been woken up and she now had a feeling she knew exactly who was calling.
“Jesus,” he laughed, “I thought you were a guy.”
“Shut up, Anthony,” Jess barked, not sounding as menacing as she wanted to. It was hard to sound intimidating when your voice was thick with sleep. “Can you tell me exactly why you decided to call me three times in the middle of the night? You never call me three times.”
“I know, I know. Call twice and if you don’t answer, leave it alone, I know. But this time, I had a feeling, you know, that you’d pick up this time,” He explained.
“But what’s it that’s so important you decided to keep calling me?” She asked, exasperated. If this phone call ended quickly, she’d still be tired enough to fall right back asleep.
“Same reason as usual, I suppose,” Anthony replied shortly, his voice sounding a bit distant. “Why else would I call you at three in the morning? Can’t sleep. I tried that whole yoga thing my sister suggested and I just cannot clear my mind, no matter how empty everyone always says it is.”
Jess rubbed her eyes and glanced over at the clock sitting on her bedside table. The green little numbers read 3:01 and it only made her want to curl up into her bed even more. She ignored the urge though, turning her mind back towards the conversation.
“I have work in the morning, you know,” Jess informed him, though any bite she originally had in her voice was gone. Now she just sounded tired. “What do you need?”
“Oh right. You have that job thing. What are you, a vet’s assistant?” Anthony inquired, completely ignoring her question. She already knew what the answer would be anyway, having been through these calls numerous times before. He just wanted something to take his mind of the fact that he couldn’t sleep and sometimes, he did that by bothering her.
“I haven’t been a vet’s assistant in two years,” Jess reminded him. “I got my degree, remember? I’m just a vet now.”
Anthony chuckled. “That’s right. I keep forgetting, don’t I? Well, I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll go now.”
“Wait,” Jess said before Anthony had the chance to hang up, though she didn’t know why. She just had a feeling she didn’t want to let him go, not just yet. “I can call in sick tomorrow or something. What’s more important than you anyway?”
Anthony sighed and she could almost picture him tugging on his ear like he did when he felt he had done something regrettable. “I don’t want to bother you.”
“It’s fine,” Jess waved off, hoping he wouldn’t insist on letting her sleep. It was the farthest thing from her mind right now. “I’m sorry if I sounded a bit irritated earlier. I’m always like that when I wake up; you know that.”
Anthony laughed, “Oh, don’t I?”
“Do you want to come over?” Jess asked quietly. “Seeing as you can’t sleep and I’m awake now.”
“Oh no, it’s alright. You get your sleep,” he said. “I can just go for a, uh, drive or something. That usually helps me into a calm state.”
Jess threw the covers off of her and walked over to her window. She looked down at the icy roads and snow-covered store awnings. “I’d rather you not,” she admitted. “Just walk over to my place, okay? We can talk. I’ll make tea or something.”
“What? Weather making you all nervous?” Anthony teased.
She shrugged, even though he couldn’t see it. “I’d just rather have tea with you right now.”
There was a long pause and she held her breath as she waited for him to answer. “Alright,” he finally agreed. “Tea it is then. See you in five?”
Jess smiled, knowing that he was smiling as well. “Yeah, see you in five.”
She said good-bye to Anthony, dropping her phone to her bed. She left the darkness of her room for the darkness of her kitchen. When she flicked the switch on her wall, she squinted under the bright fluorescent light from overhead. The light blinked once, twice before staying on. It took some time for her eyes to adjust, but when they did, she located her kettle in her top cupboard and set the water to boil.
Her wall clock’s fingers both pointed towards the three when she heard a knock on her door. She walked across her living room to lift the latch and open the door. The tired, smiling face that greeted her made a slight smile spread across her own face as well.
“You said five minutes,” Jess told him. “It’s now 3:15.”
“Well, morning to you too,” he greeted, tipping an invisible hat.
Jess leaned against the door, swaying slightly. “Too early for morning,” she told him in a soft tone.
“But too late for ‘good night,’” he replied, walking into her apartment. He dropped his scarf and jacket on her couch, although she had a perfectly good set of hangars by the door. He kept his boots on though, striding across the floor to take a seat at her table. He leaned towards the window and let out a breath, creating condensation. He then took his finger and drew a smiley face. He looked over at Jess, where she stood putting his jacket and scarf up.
“Sure is cold outside,” He noted, tapping the frosted window pane as his smiley face vanished. For some odd, reason, she felt her heartbeat pick up at the thought of the smiley face disappearing, even though she knew that was ridiculous. She knew that due to the oil from his fingers, if he breathed over it again, it would reappear.
“Strange, considering it’s snowing,” she commented, poking fun at him. She finished hanging up his things and walked over to join him at the table, sitting down across from him.
“It’s why I was late,” he informed her. “Some kids built a snowman and well, I just had to, you know?”
“You’re terrible,” she remarked, although she was grinning. “What are those kids going to feel when they see their snowman in ruins later today?”
Anthony shrugged. “Would’ve been better if I was driving. Then I could plow right into it. Hit and run, you know?”
Jess rolled her eyes, standing up when she heard the kettle begin to whistle. “You know I don’t like it when you drive. It’s bad enough any other time of the year, but when it’s all icy from the cold weather? Imagine if you had a black-out—or whatever they’re called—when you were driving?”
Anthony laughed, dismissing her concern with a wave of his hand. “You worry too much, Jess. I’ve never had a black-out before.”
She pulled two mugs out of the cupboard, letting out a long sigh as she did. “But I’ve done some reading,” she explained, “and some side effects of insomnia are things like having black outs. Your brain is so tired it just goes to sleep right when you’re awake.”
Anthony leaned back in her chair, throwing one arm over the back and rolling his eyes. “I haven’t had one yet, have I?”
Jess bit back her response, pouring the tea into the mugs. It was quiet, save for the rhythmic ticking of her wall clock hanging above Anthony’s head.
“Got any green tea?” Anthony finally asked, his voice cutting through the silence of the apartment.
“That had caffeine in it,” Jess told him, coming to sit down at the table. “We want you to fall asleep, not jump off the walls. You’ll have chamomile.” She slid the mug across the table into his waiting hand.
“Think that’ll help me?” Anthony asked, lifting the cup up in a way of saying thanks.
“We can try,” Jess sighed, pulling on the string of her own tea bag. Earl Grey, though she probably needed something to calm her down too. She felt like her skin was too tight and although she knew she could remedy it with some sleep, she didn’t want to say good-bye to Anthony. It seemed too final.
They sat in silence for a few moments, Jess fiddling with her tea bag and Anthony slowly tapping his foot.
“So,” Anthony finally started, “how have you been? I feel like it’s been years since I last saw you.”
Jess nodded in agreement. “Yes, it has been awhile, hasn’t it? I’ve been so busy with work, I guess.”
“You’re always welcome to come by for a visit,” Anthony told her, a soft smile on his face.
Jess looked up at him, matching his smile. “How is work, anyway?”
Anthony dipped his head, chuckling. “Same as always, you know. Boss always gets on my case about my stacking. Apparently I don’t put labels first.”
Jess made a soft humming sound. “You plan on working at the grocery shop for the rest of your life?”
“Hey, I haven’t been here that long,” Anthony defended. “I think I’m working my way up to assistant manager can stacker.”
“You’ve worked there for years,” Jess retorted, ignoring the lame attempt at a joke. They both knew it was a dead end job. His manager hated him, although not enough to fire him. “I’ve already switched jobs. You should too.”
“What and finally get my career as a deejay?” Anthony asked sarcastically, tapping his finger against the ceramic of his mug. “Let’s face it; the store’s the best I’ve got right now.”
“If you say so,” Jess mumbled. She looked at his slouched position in his chair, his lips turned down in a frown. She wanted to correct him on his posture, but bit her tongue. It would only waste her time with him if she started a fight.
“Look, I’ll get a better job when one comes along, all right?” Anthony promised finally.
Jess nodded. “You really could do better. I know you, Anthony. You’re worth a lot more than a can-stacker.”
Anthony grinned. “That’s my title. It’s on my nametag and everything. So, how’s the new job and all?” he asked her.
Jess shook her head. “Two years isn’t new,” she reminded him, but went on to say, “I really like it. Going to through all that school was worth it, even if I’m living in a cheap apartment so I can pay off my student loans.”
“You were always the one that was going to go far,” he noted. “Even my mom thought I was going to end up a deadbeat. Have you put any dogs down?”
Jess grimaced at Anthony’s grin. “Why would you want to know about that?”
“Just wondering if it gets to you. It’ll eventually give you a heart of steel, you know that? Dealing with that constant grief? Soon you’ll be at funerals stony-faced. You won’t even cry at mine and I’m like your best friend.”
Jess rolled her eyes at the ridiculous thought. “A dog is very different from a person,” she reminded him.
He nodded, looking very solemn. “So I guess you’ll miss me some then, huh?”
“Of course,” she replied indignantly. “I don’t want to talk about this anyway. I don’t want to think about your funeral.” Jess took a long sip of her tea, whatever nice mood they had going gone now under Anthony’s turn of conversation.
The two didn’t speak for a few moments, Jess sipping her tea and Anthony only running his finger along the rim of the mug. She didn’t know why he wouldn’t just drink it already. A moment too long though, and he broke the silence.
“We really should talk more often,” Anthony said.
Jess pursed her lips. “Yeah, but you’re never around. At least not when I am. I even got an apartment closer to you, even though I could have lived at a place closer to my job.”
“All you got to do is make time for me,” Anthony told her. “You’re always so busy with that job.”
Jess rolled her eyes, feeling irritated once more. “It’s not that easy, Anthony. I’m trying to make a career here. I can’t just take time off. Besides, like I said, you’re never around.”
“Dammit Jess,” Anthony snapped. “Of course I’m around. I’m always around. You just never come and see me. Every time I want to talk to you, be around you, you blow me off. I’m not the problem here.”
“Why are you getting so angry at me?” Jess asked, suddenly defensive. “You’re not one known for having a short temper.”
“It’s you, Jess. You’re making me angry. If you just made time for me once in a while,” He explained, sounding frustrated. He looked frustrated too, as he ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up even more.
“I can’t just drop everything for you anymore,” she explained to him. “You’re not the most important thing in my life anymore, you’ve got to understand that. I’ve got other obligations now and if you can’t work with my schedule, then well—”
“No,” he interrupted, shaking his head and straightening up in his chair. She thought he was going to leave for a moment and a feeling of panic drove through her. She didn’t want him to leave just yet. “Fine, just forget about me then. Go on with your life. I’ll just stay here then, I guess.”
Jess sighed, scrambling for words. She didn’t want to spend their time together fighting and yet this was exactly what they were doing. She tried to backtrack as best she could. “This isn’t okay for me, anymore. I miss you, I really do, Anthony. I try not to, but it’s so hard when you’re not here because I’m so used to you being here. But I am so tired. So, so tired. Every time is snows; I stay awake, trying to keep you safe, Anthony. And then you come around, always at the same time, and I can’t sleep for weeks after. I just want to sleep normally again, Anthony.”
“Jess,” Anthony began in a warning tone, reaching out across the table towards her. She jerked her hand back though, not wanting to break the illusion before she got everything out.
“I know it’s all my fault that you’re not around anymore. If I had just answered that third time,” Jess whispered, looking into her mug of tea, “this wouldn’t be happening. If I hadn’t gone back to sleep that night, it wouldn’t have to be like this.”
Jess looked up, meeting Anthony’s eyes. He looked at her mournfully, unable to find the words Jess wanted to hear. Her mouth curved into a thin, bitter smile. “I always knew a black-out was coming. If only you had.”
The light above the table blinked momentarily and for that small, increment of time, the only light in the room came from the dim street lights below. When the overheard light flickered back on again, there were two cups of tea sat on the table, one untouched and slowly growing colder from the wintery air. Jess sat in her chair, alone, staring listlessly at the empty space across from her as the clock struck half past three.