Carbon
by Ruebert


The last bite of the sandwich was stale and dry in his mouth, and he had to swallow several times, working up saliva until the last remnants slid down his throat.

He glanced down at the watch on his wrist, and found himself startled at the numbers displayed on the cheap digital face; forty-five minutes had passed without his noticing. He was late, again, but that was starting to be expected of him, so it didn't really matter if he stood now or later. He wiped his mouth and fingers with a paper napkin pulled from a holder whose mirrored surfaces held myriad overlapping, oily fingerprints, then pushed himself off of the stool with a slide of denim against torn vinyl.

The words that the man behind the counter said to him -- thank you, have a nice day? -- registered only as an uneasy babble of background noise, and he stared vacantly until the man turned away, dismissing him at last. He turned on his heel and weaved his way towards the door, avoiding the waitress who met his disinterested gaze with hard eyes and lips pressed together in a smile that was more of a grimace; his steps faltered once when the sole of his left shoe skidded on a spot of grease on the floor.

Eyes upon his back; he paused in his escape, looked around, but no one met his gaze. Salarymen perusing their papers, old women who talked together, and apathetic students like himself interested only in a quick bite before moving on to their next destination were all that he found. Cigarette smoke caught in his lungs, and he coughed violently for a moment, the acrid bitterness making his eyes water before he opened the door, hearing the cheery jingle of bells as he stepped outside and leaned against the wall while he caught his breath.

The glass beneath his hand was cold; he pulled it away, the peeling edges of the decal catching his fingertips. He stared at the words which made up the small restaurant's name, and tried to piece them together in his head until they made sense, mouthing them silently. Twice, three times; a roll of white caught his attention, and he saw a face in the space between the first word and the second, an amused smile aimed at him from beneath dark eyes, raised brows, and smooth hair. He peeled away from the window, finding the scornful attention distasteful.

He didn't care what the watcher thought of him; he simply didn't want those eyes focused upon him, drawing attention to him. There were more entertaining shows to watch, he was sure, and depriving an observer of their momentary amusement did not disturb him.

He let the incident preoccupy him for a moment or two as he walked along the sidewalk, eyes down and focused upon the concrete, watching for cracks. A shiver traveled down his spine, and he realized, looking up to avoid another pedestrian who gave him a sharp glare of annoyance before passing him and forgetting the near miss entirely, that it was rather cold for late spring, and he was underdressed. Gooseflesh had risen on his forearms, and the sky was gray with clouds.

It was going to rain, he realized, and he had no umbrella. He halted, staring up at the sky; it had been hazy all day, he remembered suddenly, but he'd not bothered to put on the coat his roommate had pushed upon him, finding the attitude of concern irritating. He didn't need interference in his life, he thought, murmuring beneath his breath as his gaze traced rain gutters and windows with blinds drawn closed like eyelids shutting out a denied world. He read the signs which projected from the corner of the building without comprehending the meanings in the characters marked in faded colors on yellowed plastic.

Stumbling to the side as a shoulder brushed against his, he flinched when a voice harsh with phlegm admonished him sharply -- don't stand in the middle of the fucking sidewalk, kid! -- and began to move forward again. Six more blocks, he thought distractedly, eyes caught by a sign glowing in neon green that pulled his attention towards the street and the flow of traffic, cars rushing past with no deference to speed limits or each other, bicycles taking their chances with helmets strapped to backpacks rather than to heads.

Sharp laughter passed behind him, and he turned to see a small group of teenaged girls walking past, their bright clothing and high-pitched chatter unnerving him, pancake makeup and too-short skirts above legs made long with colored hose and platform sandals. Long painted nails clutched pastel cell phones with cute cartoon characters dangling from silver cords, and rings and plastic bangles clicked together as hands moved animatedly in conversation. The bright jangle of their voices faded, and he felt himself disoriented, staring down at his shoes and breathing deeply for a moment to recenter himself.

He looked up again when his gaze met slacks above polished loafers, and then rose up to a jacketed back, oiled hair combed neatly and parted on the left with the precision of a ruler. His gaze rose higher, and he realized that the man had stopped for a red light; he also held his place, shivered slightly when the cool breeze crept up the sleeves of his t-shirt.

The pedestrian light turned green.

Four more blocks, he thought as he crossed the newly tarred surface of the road, the white lines beneath his feet sharp and unnaturally bright. He continued walking, and he thought the day grew darker, the colors of the cars and people passing by a bit more dull, a bit more drab. It was going to rain, soon; the corners of his lips rose in mockery of a smile.

Another half a block; something seemed strange, out of place with the world. He looked to his left, and he wasn't surprised to see a person sitting on the stoop of the closed convenience store, wasn't surprised to note that the person sitting there was dressed raggedly, clothing as unsuitable for the coming storm as his own. He looked up, behind him, to the left and right. The person behind him simply moved around him where he stood, and so he looked down at the old man who sat on the concrete, leaning against the boarded-up door of the closed store.

He licked his lips, considered opening them, but he knew that no sound would come out even if he did. You shouldn't be sitting there. It's going to rain. You'll be cold.

He doubted his words would have been heard anyway; the man's eyes were closed, his fingers upon the guitar still and silent. Asleep? Who could sleep in a wind that intruded even upon this shallow sheltered nook? His skin was already tinted with blue from the cold. You shouldn't stay there. It's going to rain. You'll get sick. Die, maybe.

Footsteps passed behind him, from the left and the right, and no one else stopped or even noticed. There was no guitar case for coins or bills, and so he did not reach into his pocket. Someone should wake the old man. Tell him to go home, if he had one. Call his family -- call the police. An ambulance, maybe; he looked sick already. No music from stilled strings, no chords upon a chilling breeze.

Whatever.

Two more blocks, one more block -- he stared at the nameplate on the mailbox, and for a moment the characters blurred and he could not read his own surname. Stairs creaked beneath his feet, and it took several tries to fit the key into the lock, to turn it and stumble into the apartment. Shoes were kicked off and left against the wall as the door shut, and he nearly tripped over the step up into the apartment proper.

Moving into the main room, he heard words -- a voice, familiar and low, words that did not concern him -- Ohtori? You're late. You said you would be back right after class. Shishido called. Why didn't you answer your cell phone?

He ignored the words, moved towards a window instead, staring out at gray clouds in a gray sky over a gray city. Something pricked at him, a touch on his shoulder that he jerked away from. More uneasy words to fill the silence.

I left your dinner in the refrigerator. Beef casserole. Your mother gave me the recipe. I don't know if I got it right. It tastes good. What's that in your hand?

There wasn't anything in his hand, he thought, and when he brought his closed fists together before his face and uncurled his fingers, he stared at the balled-up napkin, soiled paper marked by translucent orange oil spots transferred from his fingertips.

Look. It's starting to rain.




The End

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