Warnings for language and mentions of abuse.
Written for my first college creative writing tutorial. It's long and timey-wimey and ridiculous, but the characters slowly grew to mean a lot to me. I hope you enjoy!
Later, when the tremors flee from her fingertips and sirens stop echoing in her ears, Daisy goes home and puts in the DVD.
She grabs a bottle of nail polish at random from the top of her dresser and sits at her desk, patiently giving each nail clean, expert strokes. Monochrome voices trade lines behind her, pouring from the small television propped on her bookshelf, distorted slightly with the quaint recording equipment of the late thirties. Remastered, remade, but always with that sharp bite of the old and overdone. She's watched this movie with her father. They had laughed at Dorothy's childish, pouting voice and decided that she was trying too hard. It was almost as funny at the time as the bad effects and cheesy acting of the witch.
Daisy overshoots on the pointer finger of her left hand. Pearly purple spills out onto her skin, gleaming up at her with a thick, sickly-sweet texture that somehow makes her stomach queasy all over again, and she wipes the entire nail clean. She'll do it over. And maybe the other ones, too; they could always be better.
Behind her, Dorothy argues with Aunt Em about Toto. A silly little girl, but how old was Judy Garland at the time? Old enough to know better. She and her dad have called it a sick pervert's fantasy before. The book isn't much better. Not that she would have known before last week.
She stops that train of thought and holds her nails up to the light. No, not good enough. The overlapping strokes are visible on the ring finger and there's too much gloop on the pinkie. She'd be better off starting from the beginning.
One week, two days, and nine hours before the event, Paul is not arguing with a customer.
"I put 'em both in there," he says, tacking on a "ma'am" as an afterthought. Two hours into his shift and he's ready to go home, and this bitch isn't making it any easier. The woman glares up though glasses filmed with filth at the menu of chicken buckets, chicken sandwiches, popcorn chicken, and thinly disguised chicken substitute. "Yes, it says right there. I get three sides. Two were mac and cheese. I only got one in the bag." Paul has never wanted to punch a middle-aged lady more.
"Ma'am," he forces out, "I don't think you counted right." He's not sure this is safe to say to a customer, but fuck it. He's not really sure he didn't forget the mac and cheese, but he's already miscounted two people's change today and Molly has been looking at him with those shape-up-stupid-or-you're-out eyes so he'd really prefer if this wasn't his fault for once.
"No. What kind of service is this? I deserve a refund. Where's your supervisor, I need-"
"Can I help you, ma'am?" Daisy looks as listless and unconcerned as ever. She's obviously unhappy to have been dragged out of her place in the prep area; Daisy seems to hate the front where she has to actually interact with human beings.
"Are you his supervisor?"
"No, but I can help you with whatever problem you're-" She is immediately cut off by an angry tirade about the state of service at this establishment and the rights of the customer. At no point while enduring this does Daisy change her flat expression or bother to look at Paul. She pushes past him to the register. Before the woman has finished her story she's mechanically counted and doled out the correct amount of money and handed her a refund form. Paul snorts.
Daisy finally gives him an annoyed look. She helps to get the line moving then retreats to her cave in the kitchens.
Well it's not Paul's fucking fault. Not everyone can be freakishly good at math. Sometimes the numbers just don't add up, and orders pour out of his head like sand in a sieve and that is not his fault.
"C'n I help you?" he says to the next customer.
Fucking Asians. If Daisy's so smart, what the hell is she doing here?
By the time Daisy's nails are drying, as perfect as she can make them, the scene she's looking for is coming up. She doesn't turn to watch the screen, not yet; she's actually not sure she wants to but now it doesn't feel as though she has a choice. She sees his face, over and over again, eyes wide and scared. She hears the words and the bang. As much as she'd rather just shut it out and pretend not to see, she doesn't think she can this time. She has to make sure she remembers correctly, just in case she has to testify.
She feels like it should be funny that she might have to testify about The Wizard of Oz. It isn't.
She waits until she hears the witch's cackle, then twists her neck to see.
Black smoke spirals over Technicolor blue. The witch paints her threat on the sky.
Three days after the event, Kenny finally answers her phone calls.
"How is he?" are the first words out of his mouth.
"Fine. I guess. I don't know."
There is a brief, static-filled silence. Daisy can hear people in the background, and she isn't surprised. Somehow she can't imagine Kenny sitting alone at home. She envisions him in a park, or at the mall with the other three, singing to their hearts' content to unsuspecting passersby.
"You're not…you haven't checked up yet?" His voice is cautiously accusatory.
"How am I supposed to do that?" she says, voice louder than she had meant. "I'm sorry. It's just not my…I can't be this involved."
"Who else will?" Deceptively neutral.
"His – I don't know, doesn't he have anyone else?"
"He has you!" She clams up, afraid that she's jumped to conclusions. They don't know Kenny, really. None of them do. She decides to go ahead anyway: "Couldn't you do it? He respects you, he likes you."
"I can't," he says, and he sighs in a rush of cheap static. His words are careful. "Listen, I'm not…I'm only human. I tried to help him before, but I helped to ruin things instead. I was becoming so preoccupied with trying to be some sort of saving grace that I didn't think anymore. I tried to be some sort of wizard, or miracle worker, something, but all I did was…"
"What are you talking about?"
"I have to go."
A rustle and then sudden silence. Daisy never hears from Kenny again.
Three days and twenty minutes before the event, Paul doesn't understand Inception.
"But the gay guy is still downstairs."
"With the lips."
"How is he – whatever. The uncle is a projection now, not a guy in disguise."
"A proj – you know what, never mind. I give up." Daisy reclines her seat, putting her bare feet up on the dashboard. The drive-in theater is never very crowded, and the light from the movie screen makes the dark look more lonesome.
"Screw you," Paul says, but there isn't much malice in it this time. "Alright back there, Aaron?"
The sixteen-year-old in the back seat hums. He sounds happier than usual. "I love this movie."
"You love everything. Everything that's fucked up and weird as shit."
Daisy rolls her eyes. This movie is too long and this car is too small. "You're just mad you don't get it."
"I never get it," Paul grumbles, and Daisy snorts. "It's okay, we know you're special."
Paul doesn't answer. She scans his profile in the sharp relief of the shadows. His nose looks a bit squashed from this angle, and his square shoulders look even stiffer than usual. He seems too big, somehow, for the seat of his beat up old Alero. His big hand rests heavy on the wheel.
When he turns to look at her, she notices the pretty shallow blue of his eyes.
"Let's get popcorn," Aaron says.
Five days and three hours before the event, a kid throws up at the table and the family leaves without telling anyone about it. By the time Daisy's ordered out to deal with it, the smell is terrible. She doesn't bother to complain.
Three tables down, Aaron is on break. He's sitting with Kenny, from yesterday. Daisy scans the restaurant for his three friends but doesn't find them.
"Oh, there you are. Daisy, right?" Kenny says as she approaches, as if he is entirely unaware that there is a heaping pile of baby upchuck poisoning the air. Daisy nods tersely.
"Aaron and I have a kinda philosophical question for you." He's slightly chubby, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, with signs of early balding in his dark brown hair. His warm smile sits on his face without any effort.
Aaron doesn't lift his acne-dotted face to meet her eyes. It isn't as though they normally talk to each other. Aaron keeps to himself far too much for that, clumsily prepping the food with his long, fluttery hands. Now those hands rest on a thin paperback book in the center of the table.
Kenny continues, "Which would you wanna go without if you had to pick: A heart, a brain, or your courage?"
She stares blankly at the two of them for a moment, and Aaron seems to be going red around the ears. The employee training manual forbids engaging in long conversations with chatty customers. "I have to clean a spill."
"Oh that's okay, we can talk while you work."
She doesn't answer, dipping her mop into its bucket and running it through the strainer.
"It's just that we've been talking about books – you have no idea how much this kid has read."
"Yeah I do," she says without thinking as she slops the mop onto the tile. Every day it seems Aaron's got a new paperback with him, all filled with glowering dragons and men in hobbit capes.
"Yeah, he's on The Wizard of Oz now, actually. It's kid-ish, but it's got its good parts. I've always wondered about that; personally I'd go without the brain. At least you'd still be happy."
Aaron surprises her by speaking up. "I said I'd pick anything but the courage. To give up, I mean."
Daisy looks up from pushing the mop across the floor.
"What about you?" Kenny says conversationally.
She ignores him and gives Aaron a level look until he fidgets, then shoves the mop back in the bucket. "If you pick anything but the courage, you lose a vital organ and die."
She rolls the bucket away.
Two days and eleven hours before the event, Daisy refuses to enroll at the community college.
She and her father are quite peacefully mocking Singin' in the Rain and all of its overdone tap numbers, following their Saturday afternoon tradition, when her mother starts in.
"With your grades, you could get into a good school." The Korean is terse, just barely above the volume of Gene Kelly's solo. "And you won't even register for the easy one. You could get into-"
"Mom. I said I'd get around to it."
"When? You've had your year. An entire year off, isn't that what you wanted?" She feels the hand on her shoulder now, the brown eyes boring into her.
"Dad," she appeals.
"You know…Mom might be right," he says, not taking his eyes from the screen, keeping his voice light. It's easier for him to deal with arguments this way; he lets her mother take the lead.
"When are you going to take some responsibility for your life, Daisy?" She moves to the front of the screen now, arms crossed over her pastille sweater. "Are you going to work in fast food forever? I don't understand, you're intelligent, you're - "
"I'm working on it! Dad, would you tell her to-"
"What is it? Are you afraid? Because the world isn't that scary, you can-"
Daisy stands up. She's half a foot taller than her mother now, and it shows when she's standing so close to her face.
"I'm not scared. Would you just – just get off of me? I don't care."
She storms to her room and slams the door in a pathetic echo of teenage tantrums gone by. She drops to her bed, pressing her face to her pillow. She almost screams before she loses the will entirely and just lies there, inhaling the scent of clean sheets.
It isn't that she's afraid. She was telling the truth. She doesn't think she can explain that if she's afraid of anything, it's her complete lack of fear. She's come to terms with this oddity, though she can feel its poison numbing her mind and her goals and any thoughts of escape.
Daisy, simply and honestly, does not care.
After a few minute she sits up and begins haphazardly painting her nails, sky blue staining her fingertips.
Two days and eleven hours before the event, Paul refuses to enroll at the community college.
"You can't be completely retarded," his sister says from her perch on the kitchen island.
He grunts and rummages through the refrigerator. There must be some leftover pirogues in here somewhere. Anything but fucking chicken.
"You could actually get a real job," she continues. "Not like a brain surgeon or whatever, but something that doesn't make the whole house smell like grease when you get home."
Maybe the mayonnaise in the back isn't expired yet. He could make a decent dagwood.
"I mean, you need to go to college nowadays."
He sighs and straightens up. "Okay, first of all. Jules, mind your own fucking business. Second, I don't even have a fuckin' high school diploma. I couldn't understand what they were fucking talking about half the time."
"You could do that GED thingie. God, don't you care at all?"
"'Course I care¸ who doesn't care? Don't matter, though. I'm not friggin Einstein or something, but I'm gonna get a real job. Not with college shit, either."
"You're a moron."
He carries his ingredients to the island. "And you're in the way. This sandwich is gonna be boss."
Two days and eleven hours before the event, Aaron refuses to let go of the dark elf Anathesk's wrist.
"I offer you courage," he breathes, drawing a small rounded blue bottle from his pouch. "Molten down to its purest form, captured and tamed and absolute. With this, you will fear nothing. No man can stand against you when you know you cannot fall."
Anathesk's vivid green eyes flash up at him from under his hood. "Too much courage can kill a man."
"I know you." Pulse racing, he unstoppers the bottle. "I know what you are capable of."
They lock eyes for one second, two. Then Anathesk takes the flask, cautiously lifting it to his lips. He tilts his head back.
He coughs and splutters, spitting back into the bottle. "Oh. God. Time out. What the hell did you put in here?"
Aaron is ripped out of his world. Dark, haunted forest reverts to a low basement with Cheeto crumbs speckling the rug. The eyes under the hood are no longer quite as green. "Are you trying to poison me?"
"Christ, Jason!"Aaron turns to the wall, running a shaking hand through his hair. Not now,why does he have to ruin things now?
"And seriously? Bottle of courage? You yoinked that straight from Oz."
"No," he says through gritted teeth. "The wizard never actually gave them courage. The sorcerer of Eirmor can."
Jason flops onto a beanbag chair, sprawling lazily. "Figured it was more Mortel's kinda thing."
"No, no, Mortel would never help Anathesk and Charal," he said firmly. "The politics of Eirmor are perfect for it. That is, they could have been." He levels a glare at his best friend, who shrugs in a way that makes Aaron's teeth clench.
"We can do it again."
Aaron throws up his hands. "We can't just redo it, unless we have a Time Star I forgot about."
Jason is silent for a moment, looking at Aaron strangely.
"It's just…you know this is just a game, Aaron."
Something unpleasant drops in Aaron's stomach. "We've worked really hard on this world," he says, forcing himself to be calm. "I just want it to be as realistic as possible." But Jason is shaking his head, still giving him that odd look, fringed with something that Aaron has been dreading. "What are you thinking?" he asks. It's not easy.
"I'm thinking we should stop this for awhile."
"I am calm."
"No, you're not. I think you're taking this too seriously. I'm just looking out for you, man." He struggles with the tie of the cape around his neck. "It's just…sometimes I think you're scared to face the real world. Sorry."
Aaron feels a coldness gripping his heart, a smashing of something precious and suddenly he doesn't want to be in this room anymore.
"Yeah. I'll just…I've got work tonight." He begins to back towards the stairs, and Jason looks at him as though he's some sort of frightened animal.
"Do you want this back?" he says, offering up the courage.
Aaron swallows and nods.
Six days and nine hours before the event, Paul is working on drive-thru when he hears men singing out front. The song is loud and quaint and tinny, about a girl named Liza Rose or something like that, and it's going to drive him up the wall because he can't focus on whatever the customer is buzzing in his ear. He puts her on hold and wanders to the front to see what the hell is going on.
Everyone is standing behind the front counter, even Molly, who usually spends her time holed up doing "figures" in her office. Everyone, workers and customers alike, is staring at four men who stand in the middle of the lobby in a semi-circle. Their faces are comically expressive, eyebrows flailing wildly with each profession of love. Their hands dance along, or sit on each other's shoulders, or rise and fall with the volume of their tightly-woven harmonies. They seem imbued with a mad sort of old-fashioned, tip-of-the-hat zany energy, despite being dressed in normal street clothes. The man in the center-right with the converse shoes stands out in particular, sporting a grin so cheesy Paul can't even look at him.
They finish the song with a grand crescendo, arms reaching up to the ceiling as if saluting some invisible balcony. Then one of them mimes grabbing something out of the air, and the song ends. The bewildered audience applauds.
To Paul's horror, Molly claps loudly and laughs in near-hysteria. "You guys are just too much! You know, my grandpa was in a barbershop quartet. Oh, God bless you."
"Thank you kindly," says the tall one on the left in a deep mock-southern voice, and the sheer over-the-top charm nearly makes Paul physically sick. "We thought we'd thank you properly for our meal."
Paul notices Daisy trying to ignore everything and everyone and get the register moving again. When Molly asks for an encore he can see her seething.
The quartet politely and bashfully insists that they couldn't take up more of everyone's time, but when Molly keeps pleading Converse Man appears to reconsider. "Well. I suppose if you insist; whattaya say, boys?" The "boys," most of whom seem to be well into middle age, give hearty responses. Paul returns to the bewildered woman on his headset.
He manages to get her order out of the way before he hears something entirely new: Daisy protesting. Loudly.
"No! I've got work, there are people-"
"Daisy," Molly says chidingly, "I'll get the register. It'll be fun."
"I can't sing."
Curiosity getting the best of him, Paul goes back to the front.
"But you know the song," Converse Man says winningly, leaning right up against the counter next to the register, apparently totally at ease. "You said so yourself, and there's a female solo."
"No thank you, sir," she says very clearly, anger nearly bubbling through her neutral façade. "I don't sing. I don't like the song, either."
"What? Don't like Lida Rose? Aw, come on. Ya know I was a psychology major in school. I think you could use a bit of creative expression. Have a heart."
"Excuse me," she says, slamming the register drawer shut. "That's none of your business. Molly, I'm going to the back." There is enough venom in her voice that Molly doesn't argue.
Paul whistles, low and quiet.
Converse Man shakes his head at Molly's stuttering apology. "It's not important. It's just, I like giving people chances to be spontaneous. It's alright though, really. She wasn't comfortable."
The "boys" sing three or four more songs in total. Afterwards, Paul sees Converse Man chatting with Aaron when he goes on his lunch break, after the other three have left. The first thing he thinks is that this guy is moving past unbelievably obnoxious and getting into the territory of creepy. The second thing he thinks about this is that after a few minutes, despite all logic, Aaron seems to relax. It looks like they're talking about a book he brought to the table with him, and his awkward smile is something Paul isn't sure he's ever seen before.
Later, Paul learns from Molly that Converse Man is the baritone of the group. His name is Kenny.
Twelve hours before the event, Aaron can't think straight. He hears muffled noises coming from downstairs, shouts maybe, but they seem so detached from him that he doesn't care anymore. He opens his parents' closet reverently, like stepping into church, and finds the crate in the back left-hand corner. The case sits propped inside, and he takes it with calm fingers, feeling the smooth edges, the cold clasps.
He pulls the bottle of courage out of his hoodie pocket.
"Sometimes you gotta stand up for yourself" beats a pattern on his skull.
He opens the case and fingers the cool metal inside. He takes a long swig out of the bottle, feeling the force of madcap wizardry rushing through his veins.
The day after the event, Paul calls Daisy for the first time.
"I have his phone," he says, sounding cautious and solemn and hopeful all at once.
"Whose?" Daisy says, but her fingers clutch at her duvet and she already knows.
"It's got – hell, it don't got much, but it's got these texts from his mom…you should see them. And Kenny's number, maybe he could help. Testify or somethin', I dunno. I think he knew."
Daisy rolls to stare up at the pink ceiling of her bedroom. "So?"
"So," Paul says, and he sounds almost angry now, "We can show this to somebody, right? We can let them know."
"Why?" Daisy says, and instantly she feels like her stomach has started eating itself.
There is a long silence.
"Because I like the kid," Paul says simply. "Thought you did too."
"I'm gonna text you Kenny's number. Do what you want with it."
The sound goes dead against her ear.
Daisy waits thirty seconds before she feels her phone buzzing in her hand, and a good part of her wants to throw it against the wall. What should it matter to her, what Kenny knows or says? Why should she be the one to fix everything? She doesn't have the ability or the energy, she never has.
Again and again, she sees the man fall to the ground, smashing the side of his head against the counter. She sees the gun clatter to the floor.
She opens the text.
Four days and eight hours before the event, Aaron can't get his mother to pick him up from work. He stands on the curb outside the back door, phone pressed tight to his ear, waiting to get a word in edgewise so that he can point out that at least he didn't have a closing shift today. It's risky to contradict her, but he doesn't know how else he could get home.
All she gives him is an angry string of cusswords and the promise of a rocky night.
He slumps all the way down to sitting. He could walk, probably. Of course, then she'd be upset with him for being so late, and it's just so hot out.
He'd better start moving.
He hasn't motivated himself to stand up yet when he finds himself looking at a pair of converse sneakers.
"Hey, you look down." Kenny sloshes the ice around in his soda before taking a sip.
Aaron smiles wanly. Kenny had come in for lunch again today – apparently he works for a clinic down the road, according to his conversation with Molly. He had been friendly, and asked if Aaron had finished his book yet. "I guess a little. Just learned I've gotta walk home."
Kenny groans sympathetically. "Parents not home?"
"No, she's just being…yeah, she's at work today," he finishes awkwardly as he stands back up.
Aaron definitely didn't do it on purpose, but he assumes that it's the pointless change in the story midway through his sentence that causes Kenny to study his face like he's looking for something. Stupid, stupid. "A-anyway…" he says, clutching the sides of his pants to stop his fingers from fluttering nervously. "I should probably get going."
"Sure. But I was thinking, since our conversation yesterday at lunch – now this is gonna sound a bit out of the blue, I'm sorry – but why were you reading Wizard?"
Aaron looks at him blankly. This is getting ridiculously awkward. "It seemed interesting, I guess? There are, um. Base elements that're really useful for a fantasy story." It's always hard, talking like this for any length of time, but Kenny lets him work on familiar ground. "I mean, the idea of missing one of those three components of…what people consider being human, I guess. I liked it."
Kenny smiles at him, biting down on his plastic straw. He claps him on the shoulder in that hearty, old-fashioned way of his that is nearly enough on its own to get Lida Rose stuck back in Aaron's head.
"The wizard sets 'em straight, though. Everyone's fixed up by the end. You need a ride?"
Aaron hesitantly smiles back. "No. I'll be fine. Thanks, though."
Four days and eight hours before the event, Daisy sees Aaron sitting on the curb outside of the restaurant's rear door. His phone is pressed to his ear. He is visibly distressed as he listens to whoever is on the other end, occasionally trying to get a word in edgewise and then giving up, flinching as if from a blow. Usually his mother, a tall and severe-looking woman, has picked him up by now.
Daisy pretends she doesn't see him and drives away.
Two hours less than three days before the event, the moon looks huge from the park swings, high in the sky and full to bursting. The night air is not cold this time of year, and they're far enough from the drive-in that they can't hear the sounds of the next feature over the gentle creak of the swing set.
"Good thing I don't work 'til evening tomorrow," Aaron says almost nervously, then conscientiously places another kernel of over-buttered popcorn in his mouth. Paul moves his swing in a slow circle with small pushes from his foot, occasionally taking another handful from his bag, while Daisy sits heavily on her swing as if it were a chair. Aaron catches Paul looking at her while she's texting.
"Yeah," he says, slowly looking away, "Yeah, I got a shift, but hell if I care. Might not go."
"Stupid idea," Daisy mutters and snaps her phone shut.
Paul's expression doesn't change, but the circle he toes gets tighter and more concise.
"Well, I'm glad we came out," Aaron says hurriedly. He doesn't want this to end in the uncomfortable, unwelcome feeling that permeates the air behind the counter at work. He finds it difficult to connect with people in general, but there, with tensions running high and petty jealousies and prejudices rampant, it's almost unbearable. Tonight has been a nice change, though he doesn't know quite what brought it on, and he wants to keep this as a good memory. He finds that he likes Daisy's razor-sharp honesty, and there is something about Paul that's worth admiring, though he could fit right in with the football players whose bulk takes up a large percentage of the hallways at school.
"Yeah, I guess me too," says Paul.
"Why did we?" says Daisy. She puts her phone away and looks at Paul, away from Aaron, and he can't tell by her tone whether she's annoyed or not.
Paul shrugs. "Dunno. It's like…okay, you know that singer guy."
"Elton John." Daisy's tone is perfectly flat and Aaron stifles a snigger. Paul just looks bewildered until she sighs and tells him to clarify.
"The – the dude who keeps coming into work for no reason at all."
"Kenny," Aaron supplies, curious.
"Yeah, whatever. You ever get the feeling that he's like. Preaching at you? Like he thinks he knows better 'n you about your own life?" He kicks up a patch of woodchips, glaring intently at the ground. "I mean, who the hell is this guy? He just comes in one day and then all of the sudden he's here all the damn time, trying to…like…"
"Fix you," Daisy says quietly.
Paul looks up at her. After a long pause, he nods.
Aaron is beginning to feel lost. "I've never…he's never given me that impression. He's kind of a weird guy, yeah, but he's friendly. I think he just likes talking to people."
Paul gives him a skeptical look. "Yeah, but how hetalks to people ain't normal. Like just this morning, he was all over me askin' if I was saving for college. And he kept looking at me, like…" He tilts his head back, absently searching the sky for the words he needs. "I dunno. Like if I don't go, he doesn't just think I'm stupid, he thinks it's…sad. You know?"
"Like he pities you," Daisy says. She's still looking towards Paul, and Aaron wants to see her face. Her voice betrays nothing.
"I don't know," Aaron says. He doesn't feel that he can voice his opinion to these two; they're still a bit intimidating to him and he doesn't know if he could find the right way to phrase his thoughts anyway.
Maybe it's odd how deeply Kenny is invested in getting to know apparently random employees at a fast food restaurant, but stranger things have happened, and he can't see how this could be a bad thing. Maybe Kenny knows things that others don't, or he's been places in his life that most people haven't, but Aaron genuinely thinks that there is reason for what he does. Maybe it's a bit overzealous or misguided, but Aaron thinks that sometimes the world could use a bit more of that.
Kenny makes Aaron feel understood, and it makes him queasy to think of what he does as strange.
"But it's like he thinks…" Paul looks at them now, eyes wider than Aaron remembers seeing them before, like he's trying to show them something in the dark. He opens his mouth and makes a vague sound, but he can't seem to find adequate words to express himself.
"That you think there's something wrong with you," Daisy says. "Like you want to be different than you are, and you would be stupid to want anything else."
Paul lets out a long breath, and some hidden tension in his shoulders seems to release. "Yeah. Yeah, it's…like that."
They sit in silence for a long time after that. Aaron feels the urge to swing, like he hasn't done since middle school, but he's afraid it'll make him look even more like a kid than he already is to them. Instead he scrapes around in the bottom of his bag for a few last tiny kernels and tries not to think.
"You know what," Paul says, and it sounds like a decision. "You know what, we're alright. Me, I'm a dumbass and hell if I care. You," he nods at Daisy, "you're a heartless bitch, and Aaron over here – hell, I guess he's kinda twitchy." The tone sounds vaguely affectionate.
Watching Paul catalogue each of them, Aaron is reminded of Oz. They do each slot neatly into certain roles, kept safe by a solid, anchoring piece of themselves that the rest of the world can grab onto and define them by. Once it's common knowledge it may as well be set in stone, and that might even be okay.
Daisy, to his shock and surprise, produces a sound that could be mistaken for a giggle. "You can't make me sing," she says, and begins to swing.
Paul just stares at her for a moment before breaking out into a grin.
"I'm gonna get a real job, y'know," Paul says as they're driving back to Aaron's house. It's later than they intended; they wouldn't have thought anything of it if Aaron hadn't happened to glance at the time.
Daisy makes a skeptical noise, but Paul talks over her. "No, really. I've looked all this shit up. You can be an air traffic control guy without any college or anything. That's what I'm gonna do. You just have to prove that you can work and then you're set."
Daisy looks back at Aaron in the rearview mirror. He's quiet now, streetlights painting slow stripes on his face as he looks out the window. His hands are balled into tense fists.
"Will you be in trouble?" she asks quietly. Aaron jolts a bit, then gives a shallow smile. "Maybe. I dunno, probably. But it was worth it," he says. He sounds like he might be trying to convince himself.
Two days and two hours before the event, Kenny sits with Aaron on his dinner break. He's looking at him in that respectful, curious way he has, and Aaron wonders why the man keeps coming back. Aaron isn't very receptive now; he can't look up, and his smile is halfhearted. He feels disoriented and a bit sick. The bottle of courage presses against his pocket, a reminder of what he's lost. His best friend thinks he's fanatical and now an entire world has died and Jason doesn't even realize it. An entire population of wizards, elves, and ghostly kings, gone to the wind. There is nothing to hold him up now, and no reason to meet anyone's eyes.
He keeps seeing goblin shadows in the kitchens.
Kenny isn't talking about anything in particular, going on about some gig with his quartet and then all of a sudden he's grabbing at Aaron's wrist.
Aaron pulls back in panic, but Kenny traps his hand between his own, flipping Aaron's arm to show the soft, white skin beneath, the five cruel half-moon shapes boring into him. Mementos, from his night out with Daisy and Paul. Nails dug harshly into soft skin; screaming, slapping, pulling, every reason not to come home late anymore.
Panic overwhelms him, and he tries to stand. Kenny's grip on his hand traps him at an awkward knee-bent angle between the table and the booth.
"This can't keep going," Kenny says softly, trying to catch his eyes. Aaron looks at his hand, at the ceiling, anywhere but that friendly, pitying face. Kenny leans in. "Sometimes you gotta stand up for yourself, Aaron. You need to get out."
Aaron feels panic welling up into him through the tile floor. He starts to struggle, tugging back his arm in quick, frantic bursts.
"What are you doing?" floods from his mouth before he can think, and then both of them stop moving.
Kenny looks at him with wide eyes as though his concentration has been broken. He blinks and stares down at his own hand. He's wearing a gold class ring, and the metal digs into Aaron's knuckle mercilessly.
He lets go.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't…" He shifts in the squeaking chair, and his hand has not come to rest yet, like he isn't comfortable putting it anywhere anymore. Finally he stands, and just barely glancing at Aaron's face he attempts a smile. "It was nice talking to you, Aaron. I…hope everything works out for you. Really." His expression is a mixture of embarrassment and confusion, and Aaron doesn't know what to say.
The welcome bell tinkles when Kenny opens the door to leave. Aaron feels sick to his stomach as he watches him hurry past the window towards the parking lot.
About ten seconds pass while Aaron stands adrift in the middle of the lobby, then he scrambles to the bathroom and locks himself in, locks the pixies out, breath shallow and frantic. He clutches at his arms, his hair, the grimy porcelain sink. He fumbles with the bottle, holding it in front of his eyes, then takes a swig.
He feels his breath calming.
Anathesk puts a firm hand on his shoulder. We are warriors, brother, and we have a sacred quest. We must take heart and travel onwards.
Yes, but everyone is gone. Gone gone gone.
The world may betray and abandon you, but we are brothers in blood and bond. My sword is yours to command, Charal. My power is your own.
Charal takes a deep, steadying breath and examines his face in the mirror.
Mortel laughs like thunder in the distance.
Three hours less than three days before the event, Paul watches Aaron run back into his house, long shadow streaking across his damp front yard. The darkened building is grandiose, with an unsettlingly few number of windows.
"Think he'll be alright?" he feels the need to ask. Something isn't setting right in his stomach. He's reluctant to call it instinct. "'Mean, his old lady might be pissed," he finishes lamely.
Daisy doesn't look up at him from her phone. "You don't strike me as the type to be worrying about old ladies."
Paul shakes his head. "I just mean, I wouldn't, but Aaron is kinda…small." The kid is actually a head taller than Daisy, but that's not quite what he meant and he hopes Daisy reads that in his clumsy words.
Daisy looks up at the house, then further up to the stars beyond. "I think he'll be alright."
But she doesn't sound convinced. She sounds worried, and for that Paul is grateful. Just knowing that she can be.
They sit and watch the house until the silhouette goes jagged and Paul feels it prickling down his spine. No lights turn on, and taking that as a good sign, he finally backs out and drives away.
The silence infects them for another mile. Paul considers trying to take Daisy's hand, but in the end he doesn't.
One minute before the event, a desperate man opens the restaurant door. He wears a ski mask, because he's never done this before but he's seen a few movies. One trembling hand is shoved into the pocket of his oversized hoodie, gripping something tightly.
Five hours before the event, Aaron runs to work. His cheap uniform is hot, pressing the sun into his skin, but he barely feels the sweat running down his face.
He remembers leaving the house with a bang, though some of the specifics elude him.
He remembers her grabbing, pulling hands, shouts, slithering words. He is a disappointment, coward, failure, or a multitude of other charges that have long since stopped registering. Things he does not need. He remembers pulling out the secret weapon he's found, her stunned silence. He may have shouted something dramatic like "You have no power over me" or "I fear you no longer" because for the life of him all he can see in the place of his mother's soaring-tall form is an ugly, green enchantress and there is courage in him now, the almost-empty bottle pressed firm against his skin. Kenny told him he needs to get out.
He remembers the delicious fall of her face, the tight line of her dark stained lips. He remembers backing towards the door and his threat that he would never return to her ensorcelled domain.
And now, running to work, he knows that this is true. He is not coming back, one way or the other.
The funny thing is, he can't quite remember if at any point the gun went off.
Enough is enough. He doesn't need this. He doesn't know if he wants to laugh or to scream, but he will not be coming home anymore.
Five minutes to close. The bell tinkles as a man walks in the front door.
Daisy doesn't notice, holed up as she is in Molly's office doing figures for her, until she hears Molly shriek. Feeling her breath quick start, she leans back in her chair to see, and then abruptly pulls her head back out of view.
The man is wearing an oversized hoodie, and a ski mask.
Daisy swallows, then slowly leans her head out again. The panic button with the automatic police call is under the front register. She can't see Molly's face from here, but she isn't touching the panic button. Her hands are in the air, up as high as she can possibly hold them.
The man shouts: "Everyone out here where I can see them!" Her eyes wince closed. This happens sometimes, she tells herself. No one gets hurt. She gives herself five seconds of inaction, then stares down, hard, at her fingers. She should paint her nails when she gets home. A nice lavender color. Calming. She wills her hands to stop shaking, and they do.
She stands and leaves the office, standing as far back behind Molly as she dares. She can see Paul, coming up to the front from the direction of the drive-thru register. The new kid whose name she can never remember is hidden around the corner in the kitchens, trembling all over. She can't see Aaron.
She has never been in a hold-up before, though she hears about them. Sometimes on the local news, or by word-of-mouth from other employees, some of whom have gone through it themselves. The way Molly is blubbering, she definitely isn't one of them.
"Please, I don't have the k-key…I mean, I don't have…"
"Shut up," the man says. His own voice is far from steady. He looks bulky under the hoodie, though not much of it seems to be muscle. From her angle Daisy cannot see if he is holding a gun. She's heard about desperate people pretending to be armed, pushing up revolver shapes under their jackets. "Shut up. I know that's a lie. Get the – for – for God's sake woman!"
Molly is sobbing incoherently.
"She's telling the truth," Paul's voice cuts in. Rough, confrontational.
Daisy locates her voice and finds herself adding, smoothly and almost naturally, "The safe is electronically locked. The code doesn't work after eleven o'clock at night."
The man's large gray eyes flicker between the three of them. "Nice try. I worked at a place like this for years, I know that's just what they tell you to say. Fuck you, open the safe. Now."
Daisy notices that no matter how wild his voice grows, he does not wave the gun around. From the angle of his arm, she guesses that it's hidden in his hoodie pocket.
Which makes odds better that he doesn't actually have one.
She feels relief flooding her system like cool water, almost knocking out her knees beneath her.
She wonders how desperate, or stupid, or both, this man has to be, if that is the case.
Now if only Molly would stop being a complete moron and just press the button. The man hasn't even told them to put their hands up, and hers are still raised to the ceiling, palms cupped upwards, in a ridiculous imitation of prayer for salvation. Daisy wants to shake her.
She hears the bathroom door creak open in the lobby.
Ten minutes less than five hours before the event, Aaron is late for work. He's breathing hard, and if Paul didn't know how long the distance was, he would guess that he had run the entire way here.
Aaron doesn't respond to anyone. He punches in and goes straight to laying out biscuits for the oven, one row at a time.
Sometimes he runs into Paul as they cross paths during the day, quickly trying to fill their individual orders. There is a manic sort of energy surrounding him that makes Paul uncomfortable. Aaron does not look where he is going, like that part doesn't matter, but there is a silent, cold determination under everything that transforms the quiet, gangly kid into something alien and hard.
Paul tries to catch Daisy's eye, but she's busy training the new recruit in the kitchen.
At one point he physically grabs Aaron's shoulder. Before he can say anything – not that he knew what he was going to say – Aaron snaps at him. The voice he uses is unfamiliar. Showy and big and dark, like speaking from a stage.
Paul wishes he remembered what "mortal" means. Then he'd know whether to feel insulted or not.
There is someone outside this door and he is threatening my friends, I don't know what to do I'm scared I'm so scared but I'm the grand sorcerer Charal and I have the Courage and I have the weapon and I don't need this, none of us need this, stop trying to change things, I like it here, I like us, who we are on the park swings and the popcorn and I don't want anything to ever ever change
Aaron downs the potion and throws open the bathroom door.
A loud noise makes the man turn around. Before Daisy can even think Paul's slipped over to the register and pressed the panic button.
Somehow, stupidly, she feels that it's over then. Until she hears Aaron's voice.
Something is wrong; her blood runs cold. She runs to the front counter. She does not know if the man really has a gun, but Aaron does. His face is set, with an odd closed danger that she has never seen before. But there is something in the frame of his eyes, the way his arms shake, that remind her who this is, that Aaron is holding a gun to a potentially armed robber. His breathing is quick and ragged, and she wonders if she is imagining the shadows like bruises under his eyes.
The man is slowly putting his hands in the air.
Aaron looks spellbound, staring down the barrel. He mouths something silently, as though to speak aloud would break the spell and he would lose his power.
A jolt shakes him, like a decision electrocuting his bones. She wants to yell to just drop it, that the police are coming anyway, that it'll all be fine –
It tears from his throat like wildfire shrapnel, high and wild and breaking. He fires.
Molly screams, Paul vaults over the counter, and the man drops to the ground, smashing his head against the counter as he goes down.
"Shit!" Paul drops to the man's body, out of Daisy's view. She stands, paralyzed, and Aaron raises his suddenly blank eyes to meet hers.
They stare at each other for long, silent seconds, Molly's sobs forgotten.
Aaron raises the gun to his own temple, face expressionless.
Daisy gives a barely perceptible shake of her head. No. This isn't real. This shouldn't end like this, and suddenly she wants to stop it, she wants to cry out and make things okay.
She doesn't know how long they stand there, deadlocked. But she sees the slow fear creeping out from his irises, breaking his diamond-hard mask. Tear drops like cracks slice his face. She watches his breath elevate again, the shivers wracking his body and suddenly he could be asking her a question.
She opens her mouth, and he drops the gun to the floor.
Sometimes we just aren't brave enough. Daisy thinks that's a good thing.
Eight days after the event, Paul tests the creaky futon in the basement. It's been awhile since anyone's stayed at his house for any length of time, and he doesn't have much to offer should things work out. And there are a lot of things that would need to work out. But if they do, he'll be ready.
He's started applying for air traffic control training programs, too. There's money in that after all, and with none of that college shit either.
He thinks maybe later he'll call Daisy. See if she wants to see a movie. It's about time they started talking again, and there's some things he's wanted to ask her. He's been going over everything in his head again and again, and he still can't make sense of any of it. He remembers being the one talking to the police, explaining calmly and almost articulately what had occurred, as Daisy stayed quiet with a shock blanket draped over her shoulders and Aaron gently stood behind her, waiting. He didn't seem afraid.
It's tugging at him; it feels like there's something he's missing and Daisy is smart so maybe she can explain it to him. He thought he had figured everything out that night on the swings; who they were, maybe to their very cores. He had thought that there were no surprises left anymore. But everything during the hold-up was backwards, like they were actors given the wrong scripts for the characters they were supposed to play.
Maybe they have shining things already inside of them that no one needs to know about, buried safe and secret in a dark, cool place.
Five days before the event, Daisy gets home from work and throws herself on the bed, as routine dictates. She spends the next few minutes in annoyed meditation on her day, including the encounter with Kenny, who had tried to pull her into philosophical discussion on the Wizard of freaking Oz while she was cleaning up baby puke. She doesn't know why Aaron humors him; maybe he just doesn't have the will to turn him away.
On impulse, she turns and scans her bookshelf.
There, third shelf from the bottom. Left-hand side. A battered paperback copy. It sits inconspicuously between other books she hasn't touched in years. She doesn't remember what all is in this one, but she does remember not much caring for Dorothy. She might be misremembering, but she thinks the little girl is too cheerfully intrusive, assuming that everyone else is unhappy just because she would be devastated if she were in their shoes. People don't work that way though. Not all the time.
She has nothing to do tonight, and she does enjoy mocking the movie, after all. Overacting everywhere, alongside the witch's quaint little threats.
I'll get you, my pretty. Surrender, Dorothy.
Daisy pulls the book off the shelf and begins to read.