chapter one of Beyond The Pale...
The voice floats past my ears, the words moving over my skin like fog over water. I’m supposed to respond to the girl behind the counter, the one with the tattoo of a robot on her forearm.
Tell her you want the almond milk caramel latte.
Normally I wouldn’t order such an expensive drink, but the five-dollar gift card I received in the office Christmas exchange has afforded me this luxury. I work full-time, and I’m broke. I watch every penny with the rapt attention of an elderly person watching the neighborhood for petty crime.
Here I am, finally in a position to order something besides black coffee, and I can’t make my mouth form the words.
If I hadn’t pulled out my phone and checked my email, my order would be effortlessly flowing from my lips. You know whose fault this is? All the people standing in the mile-long line. That’s who. If it wasn’t for the length of this line, I wouldn’t have grown bored and looked at my phone. I never would’ve read the email.
But I can’t blame these strangers. The fault is my own. I’m the one who sent the calls with the Agua Mesa area code to voicemail all day yesterday and then didn’t listen to the voicemails. I’m the one who forced the person on the other end of the phone to resort to writing me an email.
I open my mouth to answer the girl whose eyes have now grown wary, but I can’t. My heart wallops against my chest like a prizefighter fending off an angry bull.
Thump thump thump.
I squeeze the phone in my hand, the damn email floating through my mind as my fingernails dig into the rubber case. The words are inanimate, stuck behind the screen, but to me, they have a pulse, a heartbeat, like they’d escape and attack me if it were possible.
“Excuse me?” The guy behind me nudges my elbow. I turn and see one hairy-knuckled finger pointing at the barista. “She’s waiting on you. We’re all waiting on you.”
His voice is kind but tight, like he’s holding his irritation in check but the pot is precariously close to boiling over.
“Sorry,” I mutter, stepping up to the counter. I order hastily and hand over my gift card, my gaze floating down to the tip canister with the handwritten sign that reads Why lie? This is for beer.
I attempt a smile at the girl, but I honestly don’t know if it’s a smile or a growl. My insides don’t feel like my own right now. She hands me back a gift card that now holds fifty-two cents and turns her attention away elsewhere.
Stepping to the side, I find an open seat and sink down into it. The man behind me in line has finished his order, and he offers me a perfunctory smile paired with a polite head nod as he passes.
“My mom died yesterday,” I blurt out. Why did I say that? The shock I suppose. I just... I just need to say it out loud. To make it real. This new reality has been mine for fewer than ten minutes.
His eyes grow wide and he turns so his body is slightly angled toward me. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he offers.
I shake my head, and my long hair tickles my jawbone. “Don’t be. She was a terrible person.”
His eyes widen with horror. “Uh, okay.” His hands go into his pockets and he hurries away.
Inside, I’m laughing in that maniacal, ridiculous way. I never talk about my mom. Never. But I just told a complete stranger the essential truth about someone most people revere. Maybe I should have kept going and truth-vomited all over his shoes. Guess what, hairy-knuckled man? My first thought after hearing my mom died was not about her at all. It was about them.
I look out, past the line of people with their necks bent as they stare at their phones while they wait to order. That was how I looked too, until I tapped on my email app. I wonder what I looked like after that?
“Lennon,” a barista calls out my name in a loud voice, her Texas accent coloring all six letters of my name. I’d love to have an accent like her, but I didn’t move here until I was eighteen, and the only change to my speech in the eight years I’ve lived here has been y’all.
I stand and move to the counter, mumbling my thanks. She grins and zips away, her waist-length ponytail swinging like a pendulum. I stare at it; it’s not often I meet someone with hair longer than mine.
On a normal day, I’d linger in the coffee shop, enjoying the exposed piping in the ceiling and the glass light fixtures with their bright Edison bulbs, the sound of fingers tapping on keyboards and the sweet smell of flavored syrup. Today I don’t have time for that. Today I have to go back to the apartment I’m beyond lucky to live in and pack.
I’m going home to Arizona.
To bury a woman I’d rather not see ever again, even in death.
To face the boys who are now men, the ones who rescued me and ruined me at the same time.