Let me tell you one thing straight off - I'm a coward.
I know that I'm a coward and I like it that way. I have no intentions of changing into some kind of outgoing, crowd-pleasing, extroverted hero. That just isn't me. I actively stay out of the way, I like to blend in. Don't get me wrong, I have good reasons for being a wimp (I have better reasons that a lot of other people anyway), but I'll get to that later.
Just, for the moment, understand that it wasn't out of character for me to point-blank ignore the most handsome man I've ever seen in my life, when he walked into the Starbucks-rip-off where I work. Me and trembling all over don't go well together. Add in a cup of near-boiling liquid and it's a disaster of the multiple-burns variety waiting to happen.
Seriously, it's not as if he noticed me. I was only the barista who managed to get his order wrong, twice. It's not as if he's ever going to think about me again after he's done filing a complaint about poor service. He won't come in here again, and even if he does the statistics on him being gay are seriously not in my favour, and I know my stats. Gay and interested are even lower. I have a better chance of winning the lottery even though I don't buy tickets. See, I have this knack for only ever being attracted to straight guys, like a sick joke I can't escape from.
Besides that, I wouldn't be interested in me either. In fact, I'd probably cross the street to avoid me. You know, if I wasn't me, which I am. I count things - seconds it takes to do small things like swallow, or tap your pencil. I tap my pencil a lot. I know exactly how long the urn takes to boil at 2.55 in the afternoon on a Wednesday in spring if we filled it up at lunch, during term time. Holidays are different - students are big caffeine addicts. I haven't worked out the average time curve for the holidays yet. And to top all that off, I can't make eye contact with anyone for longer than about eight seconds. Ok. There is no about. I know exactly how long I can make eye contact for without feeling like I want to die, and it's 7.25 seconds exactly with people I'm very comfortable with. I only managed 3.8 seconds with the man whose order I got wrong before I had to drop to other less threatening parts of his face (and that was with me really trying). So, yeah, I don't think he noticed me - the barista who kept staring at his nose - in any favourable way at all. I wouldn't have done.
In case you somehow missed it, I'm slightly OCD. See, there's a whole other reason for avoiding me, but wait for it, that's not my major bombshell. I haven't quite done unloading all of my crazies just yet. This is my big one: I see dead people.
Ok, so that's an out and out lie. I've just been itching to use that line ever since a certain film came out a while back. I only see certain dead people. And you know, the fact that they're dead is just coincidental. I also see live ones. Wait. Go back. That sounds wrong. I see… intentions. Bad intentions.
This might sound a little strange - it is, but I'll try to explain anyway. Intentions are what I describe them as because some of the things I see have already happened, and some are yet to come, and the only thing they have in common is an overwhelming bout of vicious intention. Both kinds combine together to make my life a living hell. That's why I started all the counting – to try and distract myself, but then it got a bit out of hand, and well, not many people have bad intentions at a coffee shop and nothing drastic or violent has ever happened here, but I still know exactly how many coffee beans it takes to fill up the grinder to capacity and at 12.42 on a Tuesday in December the water takes 1.52 minutes to boil, assuming it's not raining. You could say that my distractions have got the better of me.
But back to my cursed existence. Right now I wish he'd stop staring at me. Not that he is staring at me – he's just waiting for his coffee here instead of at his table because I'm taking fricking years over it. Filter needed changing and then the coffee machine decided to throw a hissy fit and spurt steam from all possible orifices. Orifice – damn, that's a horrible word. I've finally managed to squeeze a cup of coffee out of the thing and I slide the cardboard cup across the collection table to him. One "Coffee, with milk in it." "Latte?" "What?" "Hot milk?" "Cold. Just coffee, no fancy crap." if I remember rightly, and, you know, I do. This time.
I manage to up the eye contact to nearly four seconds and almost force myself to smile, which is always far more traumatic than it should be.
"It's not tea this time. Sorry about that."
As I said – there are two types of intentions that I see – those that have happened already, and those that have yet to take place. Whenever an exceptionally violent action is carried out with sufficient malice and intent, the emotional punch – all the hate and fear that was involved - clings to the place it happened, like an echo trapped bouncing off the walls, never quite dying into silence. It's as if the walls or the ground, or the sky, in that one spot gets changed by the event. Maybe it's the space-time continuum or something. I wouldn't know. My physics isn't all that hot.
Anyway, for some twisted reason of genetics or fate, I pick up on these places a lot more than other people, who might just get a shudder down the back of the neck or a sprinkle of goose pimples. Where time has folded over on itself and trapped those few moments of humanity at its worst, I can see it like a free-to-view film I can't switch off. It gets in my head, and I know exactly what happened there, just like the place does. In the second type I get a free show of whatever evil schemes the people around me are plotting. Again, the intent, malice and general violence levels have to be pretty high. You'd be surprised how often it happens - enough to make me wish it didn't, anyway. But, I, Adam Grey, lucky bugger that I am, get a free show every single day of my life.
I know that all of this sounds, frankly, a little crazy and the conclusion that you're coming to is that there's something deeply wrong with me, but just hear me out. Way I see it there are three options. I've been turning them over and over in my head ever since all of this started way back when I was eleven. The first option is that I am crazy. That makes a lot of sense, you know, except for the inescapable fact that I'm not. I wish I was crazy. Trouble is, things check out. I see things and I look them up in the newspaper library, and they've happened. Or, my personal favourite – I get an intention off a customer and it's headline news the next day. Trust me, I've been down the "so, you think you're schizophrenic?" self-help route already. It didn't pan out. My accuracy makes me think I should work for the police, but then I'd have to admit this to someone, and well, there's no news of the Devil buying ice skates just yet. If I ever did tell someone I'm pretty sure the words delusional and paranoid would feature heavily. I'm also fairly sure they'd have me drugged up to the eyeballs in about three seconds flat.
My other explanation for this, is that it's some weird genetic flaw – a mutation of some kind that allows me to be more perceptive than most. Seeing as I have no way of verifying that without donating my brain to science to be dissected, I favour my final theory. God is kicked back on his cloud with a beer in one hand and a bag of dry roast peanuts in the other, laughing at me. Well, you know what? I hope he chokes on one of those peanuts. I really do.
The man shrugs at my attempt at apology and doesn't move away instantly. I find myself studying his hands as he takes the cup, checking it is indeed coffee and then God on his cloud flicks a peanut down and it hits me on the head. I must have stopped being entertaining enough. The next customer clears her throat impatiently, and I notice the ominous tapping of her shoe. I wipe my hands desperately on my apron.
"Excuse me? Hi. Are you actually working today? Yes? I want one large macchiato, extra hot, with no foam."
I blink at her, twice, wondering the best way to go about telling her that a macchiato is an espresso with foam – a miniature cappuccino. You can't have it large without foam; something tells me she won't care. On top of that, she wants to murder her husband, or possibly her boss. She's thinking about it quite seriously actually. I can tell because I just got a vision of a middle-aged naked man tied to an office chair with coiling phone cable, having a bottle of pills shoved down his throat. I slightly want to throw up.
The most hated features of these intentions are those pangs of moral conscience that tell me I should actually do something to stop the future intentions from becoming reality. Being the stuttering idiot who somehow gets in between would be victim and raging psycho really doesn't appeal to me. As I said, I'm perfectly happy being a coward, but every now and then I find it happening. Actually, it's more than every now and then. I've been a witness so many times I have my own file down at the police station. They have so many recordings of my voice giving anonymous tip-offs that they could sell the clips to a dubbing company and never pay another voice actor again. And no, I'm not altruistic in any way, shape or form. If the bad things get carried out then I get another glorious slasher re-run I have to ignore, and yet another street, or building, or bus stop, or fricking park I have to avoid. Let me tell you something – if I have to switch dog walking parks one more time because some nutso wanker decided to hack up his crack-whore girlfriend, then I swear it doesn't matter how much I love my dog – he's going to the dog's home.
Let's give the lady some crime points – drama, yes; innovation, not so much; going to win her criminal of the year, highly doubtful, unless she's going for the prime suspect award. Christ. I can see the veins in his neck popping. I swallow and then wimp out of confrontation with her.
"Gabby, can you handle this please? I need a…" I trail off, not bothering to say what it is that I need, because I'm too busy ducking under the counter and pulling my apron off.
"We have a queue Adam! Do you not see the queue?"
I blank her, tripping over myself to get out of the door. I don't give a flying fuck. I'm the supervisor today.
I clutter out of the door and just around the corner to my faithful alley with the wall I can lean against, dark enough that I can throw-up unobserved if I need to, quiet enough that I can rant and kick things without looking crazier than I already am. I stand in front of the wall and let my eyes slide across the brick courses, counting. I know how many there are. I do this every time I get a bump off one of the customers. Yeah, that's what I call it – a bump. It's about as glamorous as being shoved face-down in the mud. Counting the bricks calms me down. I can't focus on anything else when I do it – or rather, I don't have to. I like not having to think. I like it a lot.
"Are you ok? You look like you've seen a ghost." Oh ha-di-fucking-ha. God's throwing peanuts again. I turn towards the voice, with a tight glare on my features and nearly trip over my own feet. It's him – Mr So-Fucking-Perfect that he makes my stomach contract and burns my retinas out. Sorry, that's Mr So-Fucking-Perfectly Straight, because he will be, I know it. So, now I have to get myself together before he twigs that I'm drooling over him and beats me to a pulp for wondering what he looks like naked. Not that I am. It's a turn of phrase, isn't it? I'm eternally grateful that I don't blush unless severely provoked. God cut me a break there.
"I'm fine. Smoke break," I mumble and go back to my counting, wishing he'd just leave me to my misery. In my peripheral vision I see him quirk an eyebrow.
"You're not smoking."
I shake my head. "It's a horrible habit."
He kind of frowns. "Right," he's leaning against the wall, blocking my vision of the row of bricks I was moving my eyes along, and for the first time, I'm forced to actually look at him properly. He's in a suit. It's a cheap every-day kind of suit, and he's worked the tie loose even though it's only just past two o'clock. The jacket fits him well on the shoulders, but the arms are just a centimetre or so too long. There are deep creases at the elbows and the jacket looks like it would be a little looser than is currently fashionable if he did it up. His trousers have matching creases from sitting down, standing up, being worn in the same way for more than a day or so at a time without seeing a washing machine.
I realise he's not fabulously wealthy and that makes me feel better about myself. If he was actually a rich city-type I know he'd only be here to complain, or mock my shitty job.
I realise something else as well. He's not as fantastically handsome as I first thought he was. His hair is a very dull mouse brown – messy as if he's in need of a haircut rather than intentionally so, and he's going grey. It's not that he's old. He can't have many years on me, but he's definitely going grey around the edges. He needs a shave as well as a haircut, and his ears are lopsided – one sticking out more than the other. There's a bump on his nose and it's slightly skewed; he must have had it broken at some point. There's no getting away from it, my initial assessment was wrong. The man isn't handsome at all. He just walks and talks like he should be and something about him had my body fooled the second he walked in the door. That's about twenty times worse than him actually being handsome. It means it's all to do with me. I'm a quivering wreck all by myself.
I track back to his hands in search of safer staring ground and promptly realise why he frowned in the first place. He has a firm grip on a packet of Camels that he'd been tapping against his thigh.
"I should quit anyway," he says, catching me staring at them, and slips the packet back into his pocket. I blanch, feeling just a little more mortified.
"No. It's fine. I mean, you know – we're outside. You can smoke."
His eyebrow quirks again. "I do know. Thanks, but it's your smoke break. I wouldn't want to ruin it for you."
He takes the lid off the cup of coffee I finished serving him five and three quarter minutes ago, and takes a swig. "Hey, this is actually good coffee. You want some?"
I stare at the outstretched cup, frowning slightly.
"I don't drink coffee. Thanks." I decide not to add in the fact that I know it's good because I made it. He smirks slightly with his overly thin lips.
"Let me get this right – you take smoke breaks where you don't smoke, and you work at a coffee shop, but you don't drink coffee?"
I stare at the ground and nod slowly, privately thinking that he doesn't know the half of it. It's starting to annoy me that I only got up to brick number seventy three. I want him to move off my wall. I'm going to have to start from the top again, even though I know exactly which brick I stopped on, because it has to be done all in one go. It just has to be. I look at my watch.
"How long have you got?" he asks, catching my action.
"Four minutes, forty four, no, forty two seconds," I answer before I think to stop myself. This is why I'm not in a relationship - this and my monumental cowardice.
"Strict about breaks, are they?"
I catch his eyes for all of three point seven seconds. He looks tired, and he's laughing at me, unsurprisingly. I hate God with his peanuts. "Something like that."
He heaves himself off the wall, shrugging it away with his shoulder rather than pushing off with his free hand and my eyes sink gratefully onto brick number seventy four. I might be starting from the beginning again, but it's a relief to know it's still there. He yawns.
"I should get going. Nice talking with you Adam."
I freeze, and by the time I summon the balls to turn around he's already walked out of the alley. My fingers flick at the name badge pinned to my aertex, logo-ed polo shirt, very glad that he's not in fact psychic. That would have tipped my weirdness quota for the decade well and truly over the edge. I briefly cover the badge with my hand, gripping it tightly and obscuring the text.
Welcome to my hell. I wouldn't bet on finding a way out.