I'm downstairs today a lot earlier than expected, and I feel tired and disgusting.
I've spent thirty minutes in front of the bathroom sink upstairs, squinting into the mirror and doing all kinds of things with my appearance to try to make myself feel okay. My hair is combed, my teeth are clean, and I've shaved.
Now, getting the cereal down from the top of the fridge, I realize that the snow outside has mostly turned to a thick layer of slush.
Fantastic. I still don't want to drive in it.
“It's awful outside,” Mom says from the kitchen table behind me.
“Coffee,” Warren calls down the stairs.
“Make it yourself,” I tell him, pouring milk over my cereal. I turn to look at Mom, but she's not there. I stare at the spot where she ought to have been sitting.
“Let's get it from that place down on campus,” he says, coming partway down the stairs. I can see him now in his pajamas as I'm putting my bowl on the table. He goes back upstairs, and I can hear him above me, in the bedroom.
I suppose campus isn't a bad idea. The kids are all gone for Christmas. I wonder if the coffee place is open today, being the day before Christmas Eve. I'm in a chair at the table now, looking out the big window that faces the road.
I can hear Warren coming back down the stairs now, partially dressed, pulling a shirt over his head.
“Are they open?” I ask him, turning to watch him jump the last three steps. The floor shakes, and I picture the house caving in.
He comes into the kitchen, stepping into his boots by the doorway, where I wish he wouldn't leave them.
“Who what? The coffee place? Oh, I don't know,” he says. He pulls out his phone.
“I want to get some hair dye before I come home tonight.”
Warren stops dialing his phone and looks at me. “What for?” We stare at each other, and then he says, “Oh, right. You sure that's a good idea?”
“I want to look presentable. My hair's a mess.”
He's on his phone, now. “Hey, are you guys open today?”
We're walking, because it's not that far, and it's not that cold. Not like it has been, anyway.
“I want my hair to be black,” I tell him.
He looks over at me, the snow covered sedans and minivans and trash cans passing on either side of the road behind him.
“Black?” he says, finally, wrinkling his nose.
“Nothing wrong with black. You ought to do it, too.”
He laughs. “I don't look good with black hair,” he says. “Maybe I'll go blonde.”
We walk in silence for a few minutes, our breath forming clouds in front of us, and then I say, “I'm getting something with chocolate in it.”
“Something hot,” Warren says.
“I don't like hot coffee,” I tell him.
“But it's winter. Coffee is supposed to be hot in winter, Aaron.”
“I'm getting mine iced.”
He shakes his head, pulling the glove off of his hand to get his phone out of his coat pocket. “That's nuts. It's cold out.”
I look up at the dead black branches tangling over our heads, and when I look over again, Warren's on his phone.
“Yeah,” he's saying into it. “Yeah, we'll be there. We won't forget.”
I shake my head and speed up my walking so I don't have to hear the rest of the conversation.
“I love you too,” he says, and I hear his phone snap shut. He's trying to catch up, now. “You walk too fast,” he says when he's fallen back into position beside me.
“Don't forget to come to my Christmas party, Warren,” I say to him. “Don't forget to bring me some grandchildren this time.”
He laughs. “Oh, Aaron, come on. She didn't say that.”
“Every day, she finds a way to insert herself into my life,” I tell him.
He's got a latte of some kind. I've ordered an iced mocha, and we're in a booth against the huge windows that face University strip.
“What kind of cake are you making?” He wants to know.
I raise my eyebrows at my drink and sigh. “I don't know. I thought about sticking to chocolate, but then I thought about changing it up.”
“I like chocolate cake,” he says, dropping more sugar into his coffee.
“You're going to put yourself into a sugar coma,” I tell him.
He stirs his coffee and laughs. “I don't believe in sugar comas.”
I look over at the bookstore across the street. A bus rumbles to a stop in front of it, the brakes squealing and hissing in the cold.
“You suppose a cake will be good enough?” I ask him.
He shrugs and drops another sugar cube into his coffee. “They never put enough sugar in. I have to do it myself.”
I pick up a sugar cube and toss it at his latte, but it bounces off the side of the glass.
“I want to do my hair tonight. Did you want me to pick up a blonde kit for you then?”
He nods. “Yeah. Will you do it for me? I don't want to burn my ears again.”
We stop at the bookstore and look around before we start the walk back home.
I'm feeling pretty shitty about tomorrow.
Maybe something will happen. Maybe the world will end. Some unseen asteroid will slam into our house in the middle of the night while we're sleeping.
“Chocolate cake, then,” Warren says to me, and it makes me laugh.
“Chocolate cake. Sure,” I tell him.
He looks over at me and smiles with the houses passing behind him, windows like blind eyes staring at each other across the street.
“Chocolate icing too?” He wants to know.
“What the hell other kind of icing goes on chocolate cake?”
And we laugh.
The bus drops me at work, and I can see that we're dead. There is literally one car on the customer side of the lot.
The houses across from the store look just like the houses on my street, just painted different colors.
I can hear the man at the counter before I even walk into the building. He's got one of those awful, booming angry man voices that make the walls vibrate.
As I'm coming inside, I can hear him above the buzz of the ice machine and the roar of the shake machine.
Martha pokes her head around the corner up front, and she looks so sad. “Aaron we got a situation,” she says.
The man is still yelling, and I can't quite make out what he's saying, but I can definitely hear that he's yelling.
I drop my coat in the office, and I'm coming around the corner to where Martha is just standing there with this guy ripping her a new asshole. He's dropping f-bombs all over my front counter. I'm about to say something to him, something like “you should leave” or “this is a family restaurant” or something else managerial, but I can see a woman, who had been sitting quietly at a booth at the far end of the dining room, on her way up to where he's standing.
Martha's looking over at me, now, like I can stop him from being an asshat by sheer force of will.
“Sir,” I say finally, and he's still yelling, his face red.
“And I paid for a god damned whopper,” he's telling Martha. “I didn't get it. I got everything else, and I don't know how long I've been standing up here, but I'm getting really pissed off.”
The woman is standing beside him now. “Honey,” she says to him.
He keeps yelling, pointing to the sandwich he was given instead of a whopper.
“Darling,” the woman says, a little louder, her face hardening.
He turns to glare at her. “What?”
There's a sound of flesh striking flesh, a loud cracking sound. The man falls against the counter, his cheek glaring red.
My automatic reaction is a single, loud fit of laughter, and I manage to pull myself out of it after a second.
“Bitchslapped!” says one of my employees from the kitchen, and the other two back there erupt into giggles.
The man looks up at me, then Martha, his eyes wide.
“Go sit down,” the woman says, her voice low. “I'll handle this.”
He looks around for a few minutes, rubbing his cheek.
“Sorry,” the woman says to Martha. She approaches the counter, pushing her husband away, and he goes back to the booth and sits down, looking defeated and humiliated.
“Supposed to be a whooper then?” Martha says finally.
This woman, who just sent her awful husband back to their table, smiles at her.
“A whopper, yes.” She sighs. “I really am sorry about that.”
I'm in the office putting together next month's schedules when the door opens and Martha comes in. “We got to cut labor,” she says. “I don't know what to do. Should I send everyone home?”
“Martha,” I say. “Labor is not an issue.”
I turn in my chair to look at her. She's got the manager book in one hand and a pen in the other.
“Just forget about labor.”
“How do I forget about labor?” she wants to know.
I grab the book out of her hands and toss it into the safe, then I slam the safe door shut. “Like that,” I tell her.
There's a long silence, where Martha's looking at the safe like she can't understand where the manager book went.
“But what about tomorrow? Should I tell people not to come to work?”
I turn back to the computer. “Just see what it's like when you get here.”
On my way out of the store, I say goodbye to Martha.
“Where you going for the holidays?” She wants to know.
I laugh as I pass her.
“I'm going to hell, Martha.”
She looks at me with her silly eyes and says, “Oh, okay. Well, be safe.”
I've got to get the hair dye kits. I've got a list forming in my head.
Dye hair, bake cake, dread morning.
The bus drops me at the grocery down the road from our house, the brakes squealing and hissing, and then it drives away, rumbling down the road into the night. I'm the only customer in the parking lot, and the front of the building is lit in patches of white florescence from the streetlights. The sun is gone, now.
I enter the building in a rush of cold air, and the lone girl at the checkout counter smiles, looking tired as hell.
I know right where I'm going. The shampoo and cosmetics aisle. I grab the boxes almost without looking and go back up to where the checkout girl is waiting. She turns the conveyer belt on when I put the boxes on it, even though they're right in front of her.
“Black, huh?” She says, turning the box over in her hand. She picks up the second box. “Black and blonde.” She looks up at me. “Funny combination,” she says, smiling.
“They aren't both for me,” I tell her.
She raises her eyebrows and makes a face. “Gotcha,” she says. “Gotcha, gotcha.”
Warren's right. We know this girl somehow. I can't think of how.
“Forty even,” she tells me, turning off the conveyer belt.
I'll bake the cake tonight, I tell myself on my way home. The plastic sack with the boxes is banging against the side of my leg as I walk, and it's annoying.
I look around, shifting the bag to my other hand. Bake the cake, frost it in the morning, I tell myself.
We'll get to the house, she'll open the door, and then BAM.
Chocolate cake to the face.
I smile at the thought of Mrs. Blake wearing a cake mask.
I hope she likes chocolate.
When I get home, Warren isn't there.
No lights left on, either.
I might send her a bomb, I tell myself.
With the cake cooling on the counter and the boxes of hair dye open and ready to go on the bathroom sink upstairs, I'm sitting on the couch watching awful Christmas movies and happy idiots with Snickers bars and Corvettes.
The living room is alive with sales jingles and Santa Claus's booming awful voice.
“Warren, where are you?” I ask no one in particular.
I know where he is.
I wake up to the sound of the front door opening. I check my phone, and then I sit up on the couch as the door closes. I can hear him taking his boots off.
“Warren I got the hair dye,” I say to him, my speech slow and too loud. I sound drunk.
I can hear him coming into the living room now. “Sorry. Mom needed help with decorating for tomorrow.” He sits down in the chair to my left.
“For god sake,” I tell him. “She has a billion other kids.”
We're in the bathroom upstairs, now, chemicals in our hair and cookies spread out on the floor like treasure.
“I miss college,” I tell him.
He sighs, picking up a cookie. He takes a bite.
“I want to be a student again.” I look over at my phone, where I've got the stop watch app going. “Another minute for you,” I tell him.
“Almost done cooking,” he says.
After a minute, I say, “You suppose she might just cancel the whole thing?”
He rolls his eyes.
“Sorry, I'm just nervous,” I tell him.
“Well, the next day is Dad's Christmas.”
“Oh god,” I tell him. “That's way too much anti-Aaron sentiment for a 48 hour period.”
I suppose it's possible that the world might end between now and tomorrow morning.
I've seen When Worlds Collide. I know all about stuff like that.
Or maybe the atomic war will finally start.
Or maybe Mrs. Blake will realize she's actually from some distant planet where people are assholes all the time and flag down the mother ship.
I don't know.
I guess I'm being dramatic.
A cake in the face would do her good.
We're in bed now, our hair clean and mostly dry. The tub has stains that need to be cleaned tomorrow at some point, but I'll worry about that then.
My hair is so black it hurts to look at it.
“Your hair is dark,” Warren had said as we were getting undressed for our shower.
His hair is almost white now, and I think we may have made some of his scalp peel.
“Worth it,” he had said to me in the shower, working shampoo into his hair. “Let it peel. I look like a badass.”
Now, in bed, I can feel him moving next to me.
“Aaron, what kind of icing are you using?” His voice is sleepy, and I doubt he's going to remember this conversation in the morning.
“Chocolate,” I tell him.
“Chocolate,” he says, and I can hear the smile in his voice.
Maybe the world will end.
Or maybe I'm just being dramatic.
Maybe I'll just go to this stupid thing with Warren and nothing bad will happen.
I've got a list of things forming in my head again, this time of things we need to do in the morning. Frost the cake, clear off the car, clean the tub.
No, I'll leave the tub for when we get home.
I sigh, and I think of all the places I could be right now.
“I love you,” Warren says to me.
I don't open my eyes. I can hear the sound of sirens in the distance.
“I love you too, Warren.”