The aisles bled together. Cereal, cold medicine, diapers, canned food - all things he didn't exactly need but somehow sounded appealing, just because it'd fill the cart, just because it'd get him out of the store. Gabriel grabbed a jug of orange juice, marked down fifty cents in one place and ten in the other. Someone had gotten a little happy with the label maker, it seemed. Whatever. It he made eight dollars an hour to put up with everything, he’d make mistakes too.
Hell, Gabriel made mistakes anyway.
"That'll be two fifty seven and sixty-three cents."
Gabriel squeezed a few crumpled bills in one hand, coins burning cold against his palm. A blank-faced cashier held the paper bags back, like Gabriel was expected to grab them and run at any moment. Did he look that bad? He'd seen himself in the mirror that morning, after all, between brushing his teeth and rubbing stubble with a tired hand.
Yes, he did look that bad.
"Did the - " Gabriel gestured with his head more than his fingers at one of the paper prescription bags. " - did that go up?"
By now the orange juice was leaving a condensation circle on the counter and the elderly man in the back was staring at him, a cord phone tucked between his shoulder and his ear. Gabriel could just see the words forming on his lips.
"Yes, there's a man in the pharmacy, he's got a gun, he - "
Blink. Neon green numbers counted out the total, thirty more dollars than he actually had in his pocket. A debate flared up in the back of his skull. He could put the orange juice back, but three dollars wasn't going to make a difference. Finger crooked, Gabriel pointed again to the bag, eyes squeezed shut for a brief moment with nerves. "Can you put that one back?"
"I've got it."
Gabriel jerked his head to one side, taking in the young woman who'd stepped up beside him with a sour expression. In one hand, she offered up a few crisp bills. At a glance he could tell the clothes hugging her short, almost chubby form were worth more than his entire paycheck in one go. Even the pharmacist, exhausted as he was, could tell they weren't together. The woman brushed ash blonde strands of hair out of her face and scowled with her eyes more than her mouth, holding out the money with an impatient shake of her hand. "I'll cover it."
"I - " There were apologies and phrases of gratitude hugging his tongue but he didn't get any of them out. Instead, Gabriel took two steps back, turned on his heel, and ran.
Sir, like he was someone even remotely important. Gabriel got through the sliding front door, sneakers smacking against the sidewalk. Wouldn't it just be the theme if the duct tape holding his shoes together ended up sticking to the asphalt and yanking him down to the ground? The battered car door took two tries to open, the engine three to actually turn over. Over and over Gabriel raised grey eyes to the front doors, expecting to see security or the pharmacist in the white coat or the girl with peculiar, blue-green eyes there, shaking a jug of orange juice and dumping medication onto the parking lot.
No one came for him.
The grocery store didn’t even have security. What was he thinking?
Miraculously, Gabriel made it all the way home without incident. On the front door of the building was a faded, pink sheet of paper, one Gabriel yanked free and crumpled into the pocket of his coat without reading. It seemed in the time he'd left for work that morning and now another layer of grime had materialized on the peeling wallpaper of the hallway, dirt and dust pressed into the creases of the steps.
Folded up with a cream shawl drawn around her shoulders, Eliza had curled into the corner of the couch, half dozing against the arm. As Gabriel closed and locked the door behind him, her head came up, dark eyes unfocused for several long seconds.
"Where are the groceries?"
"I ... forgot." Gabriel slammed the door, almost streaking past her to the counter. Her voice carried on, ringing in his ears.
"You know it’s a sin to lie."
Teeth tearing at the chapped skin of his lips, Gabriel chanced a wary glance at the couch. Eliza glowered at him from over the back. Opening the fridge, already knowing it verged on empty, Gabriel found a distraction in counting the half dozen water bottles and checking the level on the jar of grape jelly wedged behind an empty jar of pickles. "I'll get them later."
"You get your meds?"
Hadn't she seen him walk in empty-handed? Gabriel shut the door and straightened up to speak only to find her standing in front of him. Automatically he took a step back. "Well."
Eliza raked her braid over one shoulder, pulling at it, fixing him with a cold, black stare. In contrast to the rest of her, the shawl looked like the leftover wisp of a ghost. "Did you get them?"
She was too close. Gabriel stepped back once more, pressing against the kitchen counter. He could feel sweat running down one side of his face, skin crawling with nerves. "No, I just .... I'll get it later."
The rattle of a near empty bottle filed his ears. Eliza shook the orange prescription under his nose, the last pill slamming loudly against the plastic sides. How something so small made such a sound was beyond him. Gabriel lashed out, knocking the bottle out of her hand and to the floor, watching it roll under the counter. Out of sight, out of mind. Eliza didn't look daunted in the slightest. If anything, she looked smug with satisfaction, pushing loose black strands out of her face as she moved back to the couch.
Why was she so concerned? Gabriel stared on in bleary confusion. It wasn’t her medication, it wouldn’t be her who would have to deal when everything sucked down the drain. This was his problem and no one else’s, and while he was prepared to settle up on his own account, he didn’t have the time or the energy to be juggling Eliza’s judgmental self on his inability to function like a normal being.
“Just drop it, okay?” Gabriel left the bottle where it was, returning to digging through the freezer in search of anything that might be mildly helpful for quelling the growling of his stomach. When had he eaten? Marty had shoved what looked like half a slice of pizza at him during break, something Gabriel had declined with a wrinkled nose. It was appreciated – Marty was always concerned about him. About his sleeping habits, about his weight that trickled ever lower, about how rattled Gabriel was by new things.
That Marty had given him a job was a continued awestriking thing to Gabriel. Everyone took one look at his records, his health, and shook their head. A liability, they said. Then again, Marty wasn’t exactly operating under the most legal of terms; maybe he just didn’t have the ability to judge over such things.
On all accounts, Marty was a god send.
Gabriel found half a bag of burritos in the back of the microwave, dropping one onto a Styrofoam plate and hoping the bean paste that made up the insides wouldn’t eat through the plate when it’d gotten hot. Assuming it got that far – Gabriel’s microwave was a hit and miss sort of electronic, sometimes churning out lava in pizza sauce form or a cold brick made from tortilla shells and ground beef. It hummed with the volume of a jet leaving the track as Gabriel set the timer, the dial turning slowly with an irritatingly unsteady clicking sound. If he ever managed to scrape himself out of the financial pit, a new microwave was at the top of his list.
Maybe a fridge as well, Gabriel thought, looking at the water that had puddled on the floor alongside, where the door didn’t quite shut. Perfect. Gabriel scowled, snatching a worn rag from the drawer to mop up the residue. By the time he’d cleaned up the microwave was smelling faintly of cheese and refried beans, a faint touch of scorched plastic perfuming the air as he opened the door. Ugh.
“Do you want some?” Gabriel asked, turning back to the couch. Eliza, dressed all in blue – where had the shawl gone? – merely rolled her eyes at him.
“No, thank you. I’d much rather have orange juice.” She wrinkled her pointed nose at the mess of burst burrito, watching Gabriel peel it off the plate with a fork. Gabriel faltered.
“Why would I have orange juice?” It wasn’t any of his typical groceries – orange juice was a luxury. She ought to have known that, at the very least.
Eliza rapped her fingers on the back of the couch with boredom. “You were getting some today, at the grocery store.”
All the color drained out of his face, an action he could feel even if he couldn’t see it. “You weren’t at the store today,” Gabriel mumbled, forking the first bite into his mouth. It was searing hot, making him wish he’d poured the last dregs of milk into a cup before he’d started eating. Sputtering over it, he listened for Eliza’s response and found nothing – no words, no catty remarks, no Eliza.
She was gone.
Gabriel set the plate down and rubbed his face. That was fine. Fine. Slowly, Gabriel leaned down to pick up the orange plastic bottle that had rolled under the counter, bringing cobwebs and dirt along with it. There was a single pill remaining, one he knocked back without anything to drink. He needed to stop stretching his medication out.
But two hundred dollars was so much easier to scrape together for every other month rather than every single month. Marty didn’t have the funds to give Gabriel a pay raise or give him more hours. Hell, giving Gabriel a job at all was likely burning a hole in his pocket.
Not that he needs more holes, Gabriel thought with a tired smile. As if he had any room to talk. The both of them were a tired mess, and only Marty gave Gabriel a run for his money on the whole thrift shop desperation front.
Gabriel could hear a buzzing going, low and irritating, and at first he thought he’d forgotten to return the microwave timer to zero; no, the vibrations were emitting from his jean pocket. PHARMACY was written in blocky letters across the ID, and Gabriel pinched the bridge of his nose. Of course.
They went to such lengths to be professional, even when they knew the idiot at the other end of the line wore moth-eaten socks and had eaten nothing but microwave disasters for weeks on end. Bless them. Gabriel fiddled with a strand of charcoal hair, tucking it behind his ear. “Yes, this is he.”
“Don’t you sound right educated and proper?” Eliza’s voice was slurred and deliberately of the backwoods variety. Gabriel rolled his eyes and gestured her away with a hand.
“We’re calling to let you know that your medications are available for pick up. The fee has been waived.”
“Excuse me?” Gabriel licked his lips. At some point his heart had jumped up into the back of his throat, becoming a painfully throbbing companion to his tonsils. “What?”
“The fee has been waived.”
That girl. An image of strange teal eyes and short, dirty blonde hair flickered through his mind. Gabriel set his jaw, trying to find polite words to respond with, a way not to sound like a complete incoherent jackass. “T-thank you. I’ll … is she still there?”
“I don’t know who you’re referring to. There is no one at the counter. We close in approximately half an hour if you want to try and make it in, however.” The Pharmacist almost sounded mechanical in his words and Gabriel half wondered if there was a class for that. Did they stand in a little room and figure out the best way to sound like the computers they operated?
Gabriel looked to the battered door of his apartment, to the empty bottle in one hand the burrito turning to cold sludge on the counter. “I’ll … be there before closing.” If only because Eliza was still staring at him, leering. She always knew how to make him feel like absolute garbage.
“All right, see you then. Have a good rest of your evening, Mr. Adams.”
Mister Adams, Gabriel could hear a voice rolling, was my father. Frozen in place with the girl’s face burned against his memory, it was an entire minute before he realized the soft beeping was the dead line. How long had he been listening to an empty place? Slowly, Gabriel set the phone down on the counter, hit the end button, and started towards the door. He’d have to return to the Pharmacy sooner or later, even if he’d been intending to put if off as long as he could. What if she was still there?
He’d leave. There was no way he was stepping into that pharmacy and facing someone who had gone so far to take pity on him. Why? Who just had two hundred dollars to throw around like that? Gabriel could feel his face burning all the way out to the store. As he came to stand back on the asphalt he looked nervously around. She could realistically be in any one of the dozen or so cars littering the parking lot, and already he was a nervous wreck. There were several false starts involved, including one where Gabriel merely stood there and slammed his key in the lock of the front door.
They were closing soon. If he didn’t go inside now he’d have to wait until Monday to get his medication, and he wasn’t even sure the burritos would last that long. The extra money, crumpled bills, seemed to weigh a few hundred pounds in his jacket pocket. He could buy actual groceries, real food, because a total stranger had paid off his medication for seemingly no reason. What if she showed up at his house, expecting him to pay it all back?
She doesn’t know where you live, Gabriel thought, scowling. Unless she followed him home from here … Gabriel spent another minute staring blearily at the darkened windows of a four door a few spaces away, mouth dry. There could be someone there, waiting. She could crawl into the back seat of his car while he was gone. The stupid thing hadn’t actually locked in years, and it wasn’t like he ever had anything worth stealing anyway. Gabriel didn’t listen to the radio and had pried out the stereo on his own accord ages ago to sell off, so it wasn’t like he ever worried about anyone taking something.
Someone getting in for the pure purpose of finding where he lived, however, was something he hadn’t considered before.
The pharmacist behind the counter was someone new, not the older man with the hateful scowl or the awkward young fellow who didn’t know what to say. It was a woman this time, with short red hair and dusky skin.
“How can I help you?”
Gabriel looked her over, eyes lingering on the tag on her chest that read Brandy in neat lettering. It wasn’t until he caught the vague look of annoyance on her face that he realized where it appeared he’d been looking, and Gabriel was quick to correct it. “Uh, Brandy? Someone called, I have medication to pick up .. “
It hadn’t been her voice on the phone, but after pulling Gabriel up in the system she reappeared with the paper bags and what looked like a folded slip of paper. Not the receipt, Gabriel noted. Paling but flushing with embarrassment all at the same time, Gabriel almost tore out of the store all over again.
“This was left for you at the counter,” Brandy said, acting utterly oblivious to Gabriel’s current state of distress. The bags crackled as Gabriel pulled them away from her, hugging them to his chest. He didn’t dare unfold the slip of paper, not here. Curiosity and worry were the only things that kept him from chucking it straight into the trash can. Stuffing the prescription bags into his jacket pockets, Gabriel started down the aisles. There was no sense in blowing all of his cash now that he had spare, but he needed food. At frozen foods there were more burritos, and mini pizzas under a brand he’d never heard of, cheaper than even the store’s generic brand.
The orange juice had been a bad idea altogether. Gabriel picked up a few packets of flavoring for water, thinking he could survive a little longer on sweetened tap water flavored to resemble some sort of citrus. It would be something.
An unfortunate side effect of being human was the need for food, edible or not, as well as water. Marty stressed it constantly, even if the water was drowned through with rust particles from someone’s eighty year old faucet. Dehydration at work was an ordeal that threatened constantly, although if Marty had anything to say about it, it never lasted. Gabriel stared at the twenty-four packs of bottled water and then at the bills in his hand before turning away. He had tap water. Maybe he could pick up a filter somewhere to make the entire thing a little less hazardous, but he definitely didn’t need Pure Mountain Spring Water filtered through Nature Made Crystals or whatever the hell the label boasted. Gabriel picked up a few things, only vaguely aware of footsteps behind him.
“Hey, you’re Gabriel, right?”
He twisted, almost dropping a half gallon of milk onto the tile. Wide teal eyes found his, her tanned face framed with well-brushed hair. A step back nearly took his feet out from under him as he slid, protests bubbling up.
“Look, I know what you did.” She was staring, moving ever close. Gabriel could feel his tongue swelling, as if he’d abruptly become allergic to human interaction. Frantically he searched his mind, his recent memories. What had he done?
She licked her lips and there was blood there, and teeth too sharp to be real. Not real not real not real not – “I know what you did, okay?”
Blood ran down her chin and spattered onto the tile. Gabriel stepped backwards into a display, listening to the clatter of the metal rack smacking the ground, insides churning like live snakes. “S-stop, stop, just – “
Gabriel’s hand tightened into a fist, ready to knock back whoever now stood behind him. The clerk took an automatic step away, slightly alarmed but holding his place for the most part. “Sir, are you all right?”
Breathe. All the air in his lungs had been sucked out. With a jerking motion Gabriel looked back to the girl, finding empty space instead and feeling his heart slam painfully against his chest. “I .. y-yes. I’m sorry. I .. lost my balance.”
Lying is a sin. He didn’t need to look to know that Eliza was glaring at him from somewhere between the shelves. The clerk gave him an uncertain smile and looked to the bags Gabriel had dropped on the ground. “Would you like a cart or a basket, sir?”
Ever professional in the face of madness, Gabriel thought. Too bad there wasn’t a tip jar on the front counter, but then it wasn’t like Gabriel ever had spare cash for such things. Shaking his head a few times too many, Gabriel swallowed hard. “N-no. I’m fine. Thank you. I was just leaving.”
Where the hell was the front counter? Keeping his eyes on the tiled floor, Gabriel scooped up his groceries and started forward, barely hearing the have a good day called out behind him. It wasn’t polite to ignore people, but he couldn’t be bothered to behave right now. He was rattled. At the front counter it was the same clerk, leaving Gabriel red in the face and probably sweating. Ugh.
Gabriel had almost forgotten his earlier paranoia but stepping into the parking lot brought it back. At the very least, the car with the tinted windows was gone, but there were plenty of other places to hide. At his own car, Gabriel peered into the back, even opening the trunk – something impossible to open without the key – to be sure of himself. No unwanted guests had crawled in that he could see, but the drive home remained tense all the same, Gabriel half expecting her to spring out of the glove compartment.
Fortunately, Gabriel arrived home without incident once more. It was a little slower going up the stairs the second round, grocery bags tearing into his fingers, the paper of the prescriptions crackling with every step. Twice he fumbled with his keys, nearly dropping them, before he got the door open.
The couch was blissfully empty.
Letting out a long sigh, Gabriel moved to the refrigerator to put things away, glancing over to find what was left of the burrito still on table. Okay, maybe he ought to clean that up, or at least finish eating it. Microwave burritos didn’t exactly spoil so much as return to the sludge they were made from. Groceries found a home in the fridge, the freezer, and with exhaustion Gabriel flopped down on the couch with a cup full of water and vaguely lemon flavored juice.
On the coffee table, his phone buzzed away. What now?
“Hello?” Gabriel pressed the phone to his ear, holding it between his shoulder and the side of his head. It was a mistake – a loud, cheerful voice called out from the speaker, making Gabriel wince.
“Gabe! What are you doing right now?”
“Uh … “ Gabriel swirled the juice through the water, watching sunshine tendrils bleed down to settle at the bottom of the cup. Maybe he should have grabbed a spoon … “Lunch. Why?”
“Great!” Jamie somehow managed to string one word into too many syllables, and without being able to see him, Gabriel knew Jamie was bouncing away in his seat. Christ. “Me too, you wanna come by? Can you be here in ten?”
“Um.” Gabriel stared at his own reflection in the blank glass of the television set. “What about tomorrow, I’m kind of …” He ran a hand through shaggy charcoal hair, finding split ends between his fingers and making a face. “A wreck.”
“Isn’t that the point of coming in?” Jamie asked.
Jamie had Gabriel there.
“…Give me twenty minutes,” Gabriel hissed through his teeth, getting up and chugging his watered down lemonade with a wrinkled nose.
“Great, great! See you in twenty. I’ve got pizza.”
Of course he had pizza. Jamie always had something. By the time Gabriel had run a comb through his hair and splashed water on his face, pulling on something a little less bum on the streets feeling to wear, Jamie was four slices into a pepperoni pizza. The receptionist had scowled at Gabriel, informing him that Dr. Madison was on his lunch break and not to be disturbed.
Gabriel hadn’t been able to keep the glee off his face at the look on her face when Jamie called him inside. Feet propped up on the massive desk Jamie used to hold up two dozen knick knacks and a few hundred sheets of paper, Jamie offered Gabriel a slice of pizza on a grease soaked napkin. Warily, Gabriel took it, taking a grateful bite. It tasted like spice and fresh bread and it probably had more calories in a single bite alone than Gabriel had managed in his entire weekend.
“You look like shit!”
Choking, Gabriel set the napkin down, beyond caring if the grease soaked through to the wood. Jamie beamed at him.
“Wow. Thanks, you too.” Gabriel gestured at Jamie’s up and down – from his perfectly ironed suit to the polished shoes on his feet, Jamie didn’t look like a doctor. He looked like a lawyer, a politician. Or he would have, if it weren’t for the wild tangles of red hair framing a freckled face. Jamie moaned on and on about his inability to tan, but he’d broken into a white-toothed smile when Gabriel remarked that the freckles looked rather like galaxies across the bridge of his nose.
It’d been entirely unlike Gabriel. Maybe that was why Jamie agreed to see him like this – on his lunch break, even when the cover-up Jamie unabashedly applied failed to hide away the bags under his eyes. They were both exhausted creatures on a broken plane of existence.
“So how’s it been?”
“Um … “ Where should he start? Things had been weird, he knew that much. “Well … Went and got groceries this morning, and I uh. Walked out.”
“I bet that was kind of an inconvenience,” Jamie said, fixated on Gabriel’s face. “Did you at least pay?”
“N-no, I was uh … short. But – “
“Meds went up again?” There was sympathy scrawled in Jamie’s dark brown eyes. Gabriel bobbed his head, and immediately Jamie was on the verge of scolding, of wondering why Gabriel didn’t call him, ask him for help, why didn’t he –
“Someone else paid.”
Jamie paused, cheese stringing from his clenched teeth, eyebrows going up into ginger curls. He was well familiar with Gabriel’s financials, his budget. The medicine wasn’t cheap. “Did you know them?”
Gabriel shook his head, running a hand through his hair out of habit without really thinking about the grease shining on his fingertips. Whatever, he’d shower later. “She uh .. I left, and the um, pharmacy called me. Eliza was so … pissed.”
“What was she mad about?” Jamie’s scolding didn’t come, not yet.
“That I left without my medication.”
“Because your brain knows you need it. Which is kind of interesting, ah, some patients are told not to take their medications. Yours actually has your best interest at heart, kind of wild.” Jamie reached under his desk to the mini-fridge located there, finding a can of diet coke, popping it open with a hiss.
“Do you want one?”
Again, Gabriel shook his head. “Anyway … the pharmacy called, um. Someone had paid.” Not someone. Gabriel thought that if he had any skill in the world of art whatsoever he could have drawn her out on the many blank sheets that littered Jamie’s desk. “So I came back in, and uh. Picked up my stuff.”
“Are you taking it every day?”
The question was a formality more than anything. Jamie knew. He wasn’t stupid. Universities didn’t hand out degrees to people like person Jamie pretended to be. Gabriel felt his cheeks turn red.
“Every other day, still?” Jamie watched Gabriel over the top of his coke can, the carbonation popping against the aluminum, just audible in the silence stretching between them. Slowly, Gabriel nodded. With one hand clasping the coke and another touching the side of his own face, Jamie let out a quiet sigh. Not quite disappointment, but the effect wasn’t much different. “You’ve got to take it every day.”
“I-I know, but … “
Jamie let Gabriel trail off without a real excuse, doing his best to remain friendly. “Are you still working with Marty? How’s that going?”
“It’s okay.” Gabriel shrugged. “Heavy lifting, lot of paint.” He jabbed a finger at his blue jeans, stained thoroughly with primer and paint and oil. No amount of quarters fed into the rickety washing machine at the Mat got it all out.
“And what about Eliza when you’re at work?”
For a moment Gabriel could only stare because he knew what Jamie was asking, what Jamie already knew. “Um … Well. She uh, she’s … not.”
Outside, there was the muffled scream of traffic. “Why not?”
Gabriel furrowed his brow. All at once he felt rather pained, thinking suddenly too much to deal with for this particular situation. What was Jamie implying? “I-I don’t know. I’m busy, I guess? I don’t really think about it.”
There was a nod, Jamie’s hair bouncing, throat pulsing as he swallowed. “So as long as you keep yourself busy it’s okay?”
“For the most part,” Gabriel replied. He felt nervous, skin almost crawling with a fringe of something. “There are … little things. Shadows.” How many times had he felt what he’d thought to be a house spider crawling down his arm while fixing the underside of the steps at Miss Walters’ house only to reach and brush it away and find something else.
“What are you doing when that happens? Are you working, daydreaming a little bit?”
Jamie’s questions felt idle, not rushing. Gabriel appreciated it. Jamie never interrupted the lulls of thought, wasn’t one to push rapid answers, replies without really thinking. No, Jamie was happy to let Gabriel mull over for a moment to find something.
“Sometimes I .. get into the rhythm, hammering nails or painting or something, I uh. Drift off a little.” Gabriel rolled his shoulders in a shrug, trying to find a way to explain where he didn’t just sound like a lazy, slacking off ass. “Let my mind wander while I work. I get everything done but I don’t have to be focused.”
“You need to keep your head busy. Talk, work on something, just – “
“You want me to talk to myself,” Gabriel said, staring blankly at the other man. “Isn’t that what we’re trying to stop?”
Peeling a pepperoni off a slice of pizza, Jamie shook his head. “No, no, we want you to remain grounded in reality. If you talk to yourself and only yourself that’s one thing. Engaging with entities, shadows, things like that, that’s the problem. But if you’re carrying a conversation with yourself and know that you’re talking to yourself, that’s an entirely different thing. It’s rational. You know you’re the only person there.”
Gabriel had spoken to himself before. Not truly, there was always something else there. What Jamie was saying now was more than a little surprising. This wasn’t what he’d been told his entire life. This was something different. It went against everything he’d been taught. “You want me to .. like, about what?” Flabbergasted, Gabriel could only stare. What was he supposed to do?
“Well, let’s see.” Jamie got up, rolling his chair back against the wide window behind him, glass hidden with curtains. Sunlight just bled through the gaps. Without words Jamie just gestured, raising his hands until Gabriel joined him on his feet, grinning. “Okay, I want you to … go get this.”
“Get – “
A small red ball, like one someone would use to play with a dog, shot across the floor. Gabriel didn’t move, staring at the ball and then at Jamie. “I am not your pet.”
“No, just. Go get the ball.”
Scowling, Gabriel took a few steps to where the ball had rolled under the bookshelf, listening to Jamie ramble on behind him.
“Okay, now I want you to tell me what you’re doing, as you’re doing it.”
Gabriel sputtered for a moment, his cheeks turning the same bright red of Jamie’s hair. “Um … “
“It’s just us, go on.” Jamie was grinning, looking smug. Maybe it was Gabriel’s imagination, it was hard to tell, but Jamie was definitely making fun of him.
Agitated, Gabriel merely stared at him, unmoving. Eyebrows raised, Jamie gestured at Gabriel and then the ball, lips pressed into a line, making some sort of encouraging face that left Gabriel all the more unamused.
“I am walking across the room.” Jamie took a few steps, narrating everything he did. “I am looking at Gabriel Adams. And I want him to tell me what he is doing. But he’s not. Because he’s secretly a toddler.”
“I can’t believe they gave you a degree for this.”
“I can’t believe you won’t take the advice of a professional.”
Gabriel sputtered, pushing his bangs out of his face just to give himself something to do. “This isn’t even advice, you’re demanding me to follow childish orders so you can have something to laugh at …”
“Are you gonna keep wasting my lunch hour or are you gonna try this?”
Ugh. Scowling, Gabriel began to lean down, dropping onto his knees. Fetching a ball like a pet dog was humiliating as it was. “I … resent this. I am … leaning down, I am looking under the bookshelf. It’s really dusty. I am wondering why Jamie can afford to charge eighty dollars an hour but not hire a maid.”
“The ball has rolled into a pile of dust bunnies. It’s kind of disgusting.” Gabriel reached for the ball, coming briefly to a stop as one of the shadows shifted and moved. Eyes, beetle black and gleaming with their own inner light, rolled to fixate on his face. His hand shook, drawing back sharply and scraping his knuckles on the underside of the bookshelf. Breathe. One, two, three. One, two, three.
It was almost a minute before he realized he wasn’t just hearing the voice in his head but out loud, and that Jamie was standing at his shoulder.
Gabriel exhaled, shivering. “I … am not going to get the ball.”
“That’s okay.” Jamie offered a hand, one Gabriel seized a little too harshly; but Jamie said nothing, walking him slowly back to the chair and circling the desk. “Here.”
The chill of the water bottle Jamie offered brought him down, at least for a few seconds. Settled back into his chair behind the desk, Jamie’s face was blissfully blank, without sympathy. Good.
“I don’t want to be a charity case,” Gabriel mumbled. The plastic ring cracked as he twisted the cap, taking a few ice cold swallows and drawing his legs against his chest. Water spilled over the top as Gabriel crushed the bottle in one hand, unfocused. “Why did it do that?”
“You were nervous, embarrassed. It was too much, too fast.” Jamie propped his feet up on the desk, scrawling something on a clipboard. Gabriel wasn’t entirely convinced that Jamie’s many notes meant anything at all – maybe he was writing in lost languages. Hell, he could have just been scribbling down dick jokes, for all Gabriel knew. They were illegible, confusing. Gabriel had given up on trying to figure out what Jamie actually did. “But I want you to try that. When you’re home alone, start narrating. Say your thoughts out loud. Try and figure out what you’re feeling when it happens. Okay?”
Home alone might be better. Here there was Jamie, the receptionist, a potential camera hidden somewhere in a corner; because if some nut lost it and threw one of Jamie’s glass figurines out the window, they’d need proof.