“I’m lost. I don’t know where I am. Or how I got here.”
I stare at the ground between my feet and squeeze my hands together. I only occasionally glance up. He’s a typical young man. Reminds me of walking in a garden patch, looking for a watermelon that I would’ve never noticed had I not glanced in the same place twice. Medium height, medium looks, a red baseball cap with a little black picture of a man holding a basketball and jumping into the splits, a shirt with some type of sports quote, shoes and a jacket adorning a black check mark, an unnecessary sagging backpack, and an oversized smartphone posed and ready to take pictures. He watches me with an expression that does a bad job at masking his confusion. He glances behind me, probably at the peeling on the dark bricks, then he smiles.
So he’s a college student, and he’s not with a group. He’s here to look at the church. Exploring. His name is Mike.
Mike invites me to go on this tour with him. He gives me a half smile. My heartbeat quickens until it’s rattling like a tambourine in my chest, and I glance at him several times and smile. His eyes are dark but soft. Honey mixed with molasses. They glitter like the bottom of a well under moonlight.
The entry doors are heavy and red, but we don’t have to touch them. The people before us hold it open. A woman dressed all in black with silver hair leads us up and around the stairs. Voices echo off the stone walls and tumble down between us. Chills emerge down my arms, and I squeeze my hands together until they turn white. Mike watches me for a while, then gives me his jacket. I smile.
The woman keeps talking, describing the stones and the windows and the darkness and the damp air. Mike only occasionally looks at her. His eyes have dulled and are constantly wandering over the windows and dark cherry furniture. He turns to me and smiles, then whispers that this church is where Edgar Allan Poe is buried. I smile. My fingers are itching for him to grab them. I keep tapping them against my side, waiting for him to pull me away from the group and down that side corridor with only one light where he has been glancing for the past ten minutes. My ears tickle until I’m coughing, waiting for him to lean in close and nuzzle the side of my face with his giggles and pointless small talk.
But he doesn’t.
The tour ends, and we sit in a café. Mike stares across the table at me. His eyes sparkle like pieces of gold dipped in garnet, and the tambourine in my chest starts to rattle again.
“You don’t have a place to go?”
“I don’t know where I am.”
“Oh yeah… sorry. And you don’t have a phone? Wait! What was your last name? My mom works with–”
“I don’t know.”
“So weird… Uh, sorry. Um, is this amnesia? Does this, like, happen to you a lot? Should I call the police?”
“What can they do?”
He looks at the menu, but he’s chewing on the inside of his lips. He tugs his ear then traces his jaw and down his neck. I follow his hand with my eyes and count his taps against the gray, smoothened wood.
“Well…” he mutters, then looks at me. “Jake, my roommate – he’s out of town. You can stay the night at my place if you want… if you don’t want to go to the police. Not yet anyway. I think amnesia wears off.” I fidget my hands, and he watches me then leans in closer. “Are you in trouble? Is someone after you?” His glittering eyes glance back and forth between mine. “How old are you? You look about my age, but… I don’t know. Are you in college? Or… That’s not something you would know, is it…”
His phone rings, and I tap my fingers on the table, only glancing up at him once or twice.
“Hi mom.” He turns the stool to his right, away from me. The red, fake leather is peeling along the crumpled sides. I look down. My stool is the same way, only with more cracks revealing the mushy yellow insides. “Yeah, things are fine… It was good.” His voice quietens, and I chip away a few pieces of red plastic with my nails. “No, I won’t be alone tonight.” He glances at me. “No – yeah, Jake is with his brother… Yeah… Alex.” I look at him, but he turns away before our eyes meet. “Well enough… What? No! No.” His eyebrows furrow, and his mouth hangs agape. I smile. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Mom,” he growls. “I’ll be careful. I know… I know you’d feel safer… I know… Yep… I’m twenty-one years old… Yes… Harmless.” He glances at me again. I’m staring at my fingers. “And you always want us to help people, don’t you? Wait, what? Well, I’m going to do it anyway… Yes, I’m sure… Ok. Love you, too. Bye.”
He sighs and tells me about his mom. Her overprotectiveness and cringe-worthy embarrassing habits. Then he asks me if I watch the news. He tells me about all the things that have been happening in Baltimore lately and why his mom calls him twice a day to make sure he’s not dead in a ditch somewhere. Then he tells me about the Johns Hopkins University, the awesome Professor Hilliard and the Professor Hag, Calculus, and The Awful Tale of Gengi. Then he asks if I want something to eat. It would be foolish to have any money for food if I don’t know where I am. Mike smiles and buys me a turkey sandwich with some Lay’s and a Coke.
His apartment is beside the road with brownish bricks and a white door. The floors are hardwood and scratched, and the furniture doesn’t match but isn’t stained or ripped. The four windows make the living room and connected kitchen bright. On the tables are pictures. One is of Mike with his arm around a girl. He isn’t wearing a hat, but his hair is much shorter. Her hair is dark with blue eyes and a smile slightly broader than his. I smile.
It’s his sister. Her name is Callie, and she’s two years older than him. She’s engaged and has already graduated nursing school and moved to Rochester, Minnesota to work at the Mayo Clinic. Beside her picture is Mike and a boy with light brown hair, a chubby face, red cheeks, and squinted eyes that could be blue. The two are laughing with their arms around each other. I smile again.
“Oh, that’s my roommate Jake. Known him since kindergarten. We’re basically brothers.”
I nod, and the tambourine rattles.
“Uh, that – that over there – that’s Jake’s room.” He points, and the loose pieces bounding around in my chest harden. He walks to the room and opens the door. “You can stay here.” He peeps in, twists his head, and inhales. “It’s clean.” He glances at me. “Or in my room.” His cheeks redden. “I don’t care to stay in Jake’s room. Or on the couch. But I figured you would like this bed, or my bed more… than sleeping on the couch. And you’re welcome to anything in the fridge. Maybe tomorrow we can figure something out. But you probably just want to sleep now. Don’t you, Alex?” He smiles. And I smile.
It’s already late, and we don’t talk much before he disappears into his room. There’s no clock in Jake’s room, so I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I stare up at Jake’s ceiling. It’s rough, like the mountainous places on first grade geography maps. I think it’s white, but in this darkness, it’s gray. I look at the window and its cream, almost translucent curtain. Shadows dance on the part of the wall that isn’t hidden behind books, or a shelf, or a bike. I return to examining at the ceiling. I could close the blinds, but the pale light helps the city noises make more sense. I keep waiting for the soft click of the door, and for Mike to quietly enter and look down at me with his glittering eyes and a half smile that makes my heart rattle.
But he doesn’t.
I get up and go back to the living room. The kitchen isn’t even separated by a wall. Only an island counter. I turn the stove light on and rest my fingers on the caps. They’re the outdated spirally types that remind me of snail shells. I trace the shell and imagine the heat melting their soft, slow bodies until they’re squelching and sizzling.
I run my fingers over everything, touching the tops of the knife handles that are half-buried in a wooden block. I open all of the drawers and peer inside. I open the dishwasher and stare into its pale whiteness and inhale its clean soapy smell. I open the fridge and breathe in the cold freshness. Two percent milk, salted butter, spinach leaves, baby carrots, leftover lasagna, an almost empty crusty bag of shredded mozzarella, two Pillsbury biscuit cans, and nine eggs. I close the door and run my fingers down the handle. It’s older – a faded white with a bumpy texture. I turn off the stove light.
I go to Mike’s room and stand at the door. At first, I’m only tracing the patterns on the wood, but I hear something. The tambourine inside of me starts shaking, but I try to seal it away. I open the door, and Mike is sitting in bed with the only light coming from the screen in front of him, illuminating his damp, swollen cheeks. He jolts and stares at me then manages a half smile and some laughter amidst the sniffles. He pulls his earmuff headphones off and wipes his eyes.
“Was I that loud?”
I sit beside him and stare at the screen while he explains the story of a girl who committed suicide then left behind tapes of explanations to all the people she blamed. He pulls out the skinny cord connected to his earmuff headphones and presses the middle space bar. Music fills Mike’s tiny bedroom while the frozen people on the screen start to move. If I squint, I can see the yellow, red, and blue tiny dots that make up the moving pictures. He explains the characters as they appear, and tries to explain their reason for being on one of Hannah’s tapes. I nod and smile, and I wipe my eyes when Mike wipes his eyes. I sniffle almost every time he sniffles.
Mike’s head has fallen over away from me. The computer screen has stopped. No more movements. No more noise. His hair is curved like a charcoal drawing of ocean waves, curving around his ears and down his neck. His neck has two freckles that are almost the same size, one at the start of his shoulder and the other right under his hairline. He’s wearing a different shirt than earlier. This one’s gray and worn, with little balls of fabric gathered around the neckline. It’s older than the shirt he’d given me.
I can tell by his cheeks that he’s warm. He’s under that computer and those blankets, but he’s warm anyways, though only if someone can get close enough. He’s a huggable lantern covered in felt skin that make people want to trust him, that makes him want to trust people. His trusting warmness is why girls or boys like him. Maybe both. They probably like to curl up around him, searching for some soft secrets in his protective hardened frame. He’s probably got gold on the inside. That’s what makes his eyes sparkle. There’s gold buried at the bottom of those wells. It’s what makes them show how warm he is on the inside. But it’s disappearing gold, like the goose and her eggs. If someone were to rip him open, cut out his eyes, slice apart his heart, dig through his brain, or examine every thread in his muscles, they wouldn’t find the gold. It can’t be found by looking inside of him. He would be red with blood and life. But not gold. It isn’t buried in a storehouse inside of him. He gives the golden eggs away freely, like all the warmth his little lantern can muster. But break it, and the light goes out. The goose wasn’t golden on the inside.
The screen has dimmed. I stare straight ahead at the corner of Mike’s desk. There’s the hat he wore earlier. The screen blackens, and the room is dark. I blink several times, and the darkness adjusts like a blanket falling down to wrap everything up in its embrace. I still don’t know the time. I stare at the black and gray shapes that seem to bend under my eyes, trying to understand them. One looks like a snake, but I think it’s just his jacket sleeve.
I get up and feel for the door, then I crack it open and slip through. When I open the front door, the cold air whips my face and hair. I walk down the concrete steps and onto the sidewalk, headed for the church. The streets are empty, and my breath disappears into the haze after a few seconds of my exhale.
I hear a car and turn to watch it pass.
But it doesn’t.
It slows to a stop beside me, and the window rolls down. There are two men. The one driving has a broad forehead and a broader grin. The man beside him talks too loudly, and he pulls a lighter out of his shirt pocket and holds the wispy flame to a cigarette he’s been rolling between his lips. They wear dark clothes with shadows and grime, and they smell like smoke. These men are probably full of ash. Their lungs are black and would crumble between my fingers. Their hearts would be dark and cold, and their brains would be gray. Their blood would be black and greasy like the life fuel in their cars. They ask me where I’m headed.
The tambourine rattles in my chest, but I look down and stare at the ground between my feet.
“I’m lost. I don’t know where I am. Or how I got here.”