My alarm clock buzzed raggedly, creating a riot inside my drowsy, half-dreaming mind. Get. Up. It pulsed, a jagged heartbeat. Get. Up.
I don’t want to.
That was my usual mantra, but today was made even worse by the lingering sensations of the dream I’d been having. I’d been running, not as the younger version of myself who might have enjoyed such a thing, but as if I’d already woken up today and decided to go for a jog. I’d felt strong and powerful in the warm sun. Now, as my mind came back into my body, I felt the aches of a late night and fitful sleep burdening me.
It was late morning. I knew because that was my just-in-case alarm, set only to make sure that I didn’t give in to the mystical temptation to sleep until noon.
I opened my eyes slowly, unwillingly. I turned off the alarm and forced myself upright.
Twenty minutes and fresh clothes later, I emerged from my room. It was quiet in the house I shared with my mother and brother. Most likely they had gone out for the day, my mother to work and my brother to spend time with one of his numerous friends. The house was empty, but the light shining into the living room made everything seem stuffy and close. I’d missed the soft light of the early hours; now everything seemed to have a yellow tinge, as if the summer sun was reaching its fingers inside. The thought did not make me happy. I was fed up with summer already, and it hadn’t even technically started. It seemed like a chore to have to leave the house, but I was working today, and I had no choice.
In the kitchen, the remains of a microwave breakfast were scattered over the counter. The coffee pot was on but empty, no doubt drained into my mother’s insulated travel cup. Next to it was a note:
Juliet: Working late. Feel free to order dinner.
That wasn’t a surprise. I didn’t know why my mom even bothered to leave a note anymore. She might as well have new hours she worked late so often.
I sighed, the sound bouncing around the deserted kitchen, and decided to get started on the day.
“Hey, Tommy,” I called when I walked into the small convenience store.
Tommy nodded at me when I walked past her to take my place behind the register. She probably hadn’t even heard my greeting through the blaring of her headphones.
Tommy was my opposite: small, dark, her black hair pulled back in a tight French braid. In short, very pretty. She was the only other person working this shift. The way business was going, we probably could have just one person working. Along with being the only other employee in the small convenience store, Tommy was the only other person at all. No customers. Again.
There was nothing more interesting to do than watch Tommy stock candy bars and energy drinks. Well, rearrange them anyway. Lately, there hadn’t been enough sales to make restocking necessary. We didn’t talk. Mercifully, my cellphone beeped five minutes into my shift. I eagerly dug it out of my pocket and glanced at the screen.
Hey sexy, the text message read.
I grimaced. This guy must be delusional. There was nothing remotely sexy about me. My blonde hair, green eyes combination was plain, seen and seen again. I didn’t even bother to include the state of my body in my assessment. If possible, I tried not to think about my body at all.
Still, that was the benefit of a cyber-guy. I could fake it.
Hey yourself, I keyed back and added a sideways wink for emphasis.
As I hit the send button, I wondered again if maybe I was the delusional one. I didn’t even know this person’s name beyond his screen name “J.” What did that stand for? Jacob? Jeremy? Jackie? I didn’t know. I didn’t much care either. J was the kind of person I liked. Safe.
The phone beeped again.
I hesitated for only a second before keying in, Working. U?
Nuthin’ was the almost immediate reply. Of course not. I had begun to wonder if he ever did anything.
Not watching a movie? It was the one hobby of his I was aware of.
Nah. Pause. What r u wearing?
I groaned. Cyber or not, J was just like any other guy: a slave to hormones.
Then I shrugged internally and decided to play along. I was bored.
Hmm, I wrote, as if I needed to think about it. Shorts and a red tank top.
I never wore red. My eyes were so green that I looked like a Christmas decoration in that color. But my imaginary outfit was much more fun than my real one. One day, I was sure I’d simply pass out in the summer heat since the dress code insisted on making us wear long pants with our heavy, black company vest.
I’d seriously considered cheating today and wearing something close to what I’d told J. But the one time I did that would be the day our manager, Aaron, would decide to do his job and check up on us.
Short shorts? J asked.
Short enough, I replied.
I thought about telling him the truth this time. It was hot, and my hair was pulled up high off of my neck. It was a look that would go well with a summer outfit. But in the only picture J had ever seen of me, my hair was down, and he seemed to like it.
Down, I told him. One more lie wasn’t going to make a difference.
I’d love to muss that hair up.
I’ll bet you would, I thought, and keyed in a noncommittal, Mhmm, followed by a timely, I have to go. It was time to cut him off before he got too excited. I wasn’t bored enough to play those kinds of games.
Oh. Will u be online later?
When wasn’t I online? Even if I wasn’t using the computer, I always turned on my Tagged account and listened for the dinging alert that meant I had a message.
I stared at the phone for another five minutes, but he didn’t return my parting message.
I went back to watching Tommy, who had grabbed the mop and bucket. She was almost dancing, following the beat of her music as she cleaned the floor. It didn’t need much cleaning. It wasn’t exactly a high-traffic area. Still, it was something to do. I envied her.
The tinkling of a bell sounded, and I looked up expectantly.
“Hello,” I called to the person that has just walked in.
He didn’t even give me the courtesy of a glance in my direction. Instead, he walked up behind Tommy and grabbed her around the waist.
Tommy jumped and gave a very girlish shriek before whirling around. She barely took the time to smile when she saw who was behind her. Before he could offer a greeting, Tommy had threaded her fingers through the little hair that he had and locked her lips on his. She didn’t even bother to take out her headphones. They kissed almost violently. I worried that they would fall on the newly wet floor and leave me to clean up the blood.
I stared at them in fascination. It looked more like they were trying to bite each other’s lips off than actually kissing. It wasn’t even embarrassing to watch. There was too much animalism and not enough intimacy in their actions to make the kisses seem like they deserved privacy. There was no sweetness.
One thing was for certain: I didn’t envy Tommy anymore.
At home, I headed straight to my computer to check for messages. Scratch that. When I got home, I stripped out of my ridiculous work clothes and into something summer-appropriate as quickly as I could. Then I checked for messages.
I had two from Tagged. One was from someone I’d never heard of called “to_be_or_not_to_be.” Ominous. The other one was from a “friend” named Ernie. Two days ago, his name had been THE ROCK.
I started with the new one since Ernie’s message was likely to turn into a conversation.
Hey sexy, it said.
I rolled my eyes. Couldn’t they come up with another line? Oh well.
Hey yourself, I replied for the second time that day. Hopefully, the sender wasn’t online anymore. Or at least I thought it was a he. The profile photo was of a cat.
I clicked send and moved on to Ernie.
Hey, Jules, how are you doing? How’s ur summer?
HOT, I responded. Work is driving me crazy.
There was an understatement. Most days I didn’t even know why I bothered; the pay wasn’t worth the mental stagnation.
How about u? I didn’t honestly care how he was, but it was polite. Besides, the question shifted the focus away from me.
In the meantime, J had noticed I was online. He popped up in a messenger window on the side of my computer screen.
J: Hi. Whatcha doin’?
Jewels: Not much, I just got home.
J: Do you have a Magic Mountain near u?
Uh-oh. Dangerous territory. If J’s profile wasn’t lying about location like mine was, he was only in the next town over. I didn’t feel like bringing that to his attention just yet.
Jewels: Two hours, I lied; the real distance was negligible. Once my family had held well-utilized season passes.
J: Oh. I’d really like to meet you. Maybe we could go there and get together someday.
Jewels: I don’t really like Magic Mountain.
J: Oh well, I’ll think of something.
I didn’t doubt it.
A reply from Ernie gave me an excuse to tell J that I’d be right back.
I’m good, Ernie told me. Just using the work computer. The one at home crashed.
I had to wince. A crashed computer was one of my worst nightmares. I had my phone, but I preferred the all-encompassing quality of a desktop.
I continued to ignore J even though he was already asking if I was back. When he asked about it later, I would pretend that the messenger had gotten stuck. I threw myself into Ernie’s computer problems with what I vaguely recognized as too much enthusiasm. It didn’t matter one way or the other. The computer world was so much easier to juggle than the real one.