Sonder

By Quinn Anderson

Charlie startles awake, and for one delirious moment he can't figure out what roused him. Then he hears the familiar sound of yelling drifting up through the floorboards and smiles. Typical. He yawns—stretching his arms above his head until his joints pop pleasantly—and rolls out of bed. He hardly needs to set an alarm these days, what with the way his family goes at it like clockwork. He trundles downstairs, his footsteps muffled by the thick carpeting, and pushes open the swinging door to the kitchen. The air is thick with the aroma of fresh bread and the bunches of cinnamon sticks his mom keeps on the windowsill. Pale green cabinets and yellow wallpaper patterned with delicate flowers give the kitchen a warm, spring feel even in the dead of winter. The other two occupants of the little room don't acknowledge his entrance, so Charlie makes a beeline for a basket of apples by the stove.

"I just don't understand how you could possibly think this is funny!" his mom shrieks, holding up the smoldering remains of something Charlie is hard-pressed to identify. He has a sneaking suspicion it might have once been a shoe. His teenaged brother is standing across from her; his face is bright red, and his lips are pressed tightly together as he tries not to laugh. His mom, however, is fuming. "These were less than a year old. You think you can just go around destroying things like we're made of money?"

"I'm sorry, Mom," his brother says in a syrupy tone. His blue eyes are wide with feigned innocence. The effect is somewhat diminished by the fact that he can't quite keep himself from giggling. "I swear I was just trying to clean my old sneakers. I had no idea that anti-fungal spray was flammable."

"I'm sure you didn't," Mom replies. Charlie can practically see the sarcasm dripping from her words. "And I suppose this has nothing to do with the new shoes you've been hinting at for months?"

His brother gasps and clutches his chest theatrically. "You wound me. I would never do anything so downright fiendish."

Mom rolls her eyes and shoves the blackened lump into his hands. "Go throw this in the trash can outside before it starts to smell. Oh, and no T.V. for the rest of the week."

His brother groans and turns away, but halfway through the door he pauses long enough to say, "Morning, Charlie," over his shoulder.

Charlie quickly swallows the bite of apple in his mouth and mumbles, "G'morning, Cameron," before his brother disappears. Mom's hands are on her slim hips, and she's staring up at the ceiling like she's beseeching a higher power for guidance. "I swear, if I hadn't raised that boy myself, I'd think he was going to grow up to be a felon.

Charlie shrugs. "Don't give up hope, Mom. He's only seventeen. He still could."

She sighs and turns back to the bowl of eggs she was evidently beating before she presumably discovered a small chemical fire in their backyard. A few strands of gray-streaked brown hair have slipped free from the loose knot at the base of her neck. They make her look carefree and girlish, belying the lines that have started forming around her mouth and warm, hazel eyes over the years. "What are your plans for today, eldest son of mine?"

Charlie swallows another bite of apple and quickly wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "Work. Nothing special. I have the morning shift, so I'll be off by four. Do you need me to pick up anything from the store on my way home? I thought maybe we could use a fifteenth bag of candy, just in case the trick-or-treaters are particularly insatiable this year."

Mom shoots him a wry look and begins expertly whisking the eggs. "No thanks. Though I could use some of those paper turkey banners they put out last week. I'm worried they'll all get snatched up before I have a chance to go shopping."

"Isn't it a bit early to decorate for Thanksgiving? Halloween's not even over yet."

"It's never too early to give thanks," she replies in her best Mother Voice. "Besides, Canadian Thanksgiving ended weeks ago."

Charlie finishes his apple and tosses the core in the trash. "How's your hip?"

"Better today, though I can already tell it's going to be rough when winter sets in. I'm going to become one of those old ladies who can feel a storm coming in her joints."

Charlie rubs her shoulder sympathetically and says, "A good dose of eggnog will fix that right up."

"Only because the kind you make tends to be mostly rum."

Charlie doesn't deny it. "I'm going to get dressed for work. Don't let Cameron eat all the eggs before I get back."

"They're not even cooked yet."

"That's never stopped him before."

Charlie exits the kitchen and passes through their dining room, letting his hand glide over the battered surface of their teak dinner table and mismatched chairs. When he reaches the stairs, he jogs up to his bedroom: the first door on the right. Mom left it relatively untouched while he was in college, but now that he's moved back in, his childhood Space Camp posters have been replaced with vintage Star Wars, and his quintessential nineties lava lamp has become a light-up replica of the USS Enterprise. He likes to think his taste has matured over the years. There's still the same old double bed tucked into the right corner—piled high with white pillows and a navy blue comforter—a bedside table, an overflowing bookcase, a bureau, and a battered white desk in front of the solitary window. He'd had his own apartment for a while after graduation, but when his mom broke her hip and decided to retire from her job as a school teacher, he'd sacrificed his thriving (i.e. nonexistent) social life to move back in and help her around the house. He'd expected to miss the freedom he'd had in college, but living with his mom again had only served to illustrate how vastly he'd underutilized it.

Sighing softly, Charlie moves towards his open closet, stripping off the soft gray T-shirt and plaid pajama bottoms he sleeps in along the way. He plucks a white button-down shirt off a hanger and selects a pressed pair of black slacks from the shelf below it. His wardrobe basically consists of the same three outfits repeated ad nauseum, but at least those outfits are classic. He roots through his bureau until he locates a dark red pullover sweater to complete the look and help combat the fierce chill of a Connecticut autumn. He dresses quickly and then turns to inspect himself in the mirror hanging on the back of his door. He rakes a hand through his honey-brown hair, and the fine, straight strands fall mostly into place. Light green eyes set in a round face stare back at him as he checks his clothes for wrinkles. The button down is just a touch too small, clinging tightly to his chest, but the sweater gives him a little extra bulk. His lips are their usual bruised pink color, a byproduct of his tendency to chew them nervously. Beneath his ever-present self-consciousness, Charlie knows he's not unattractive. He's certainly not the handsomest man to ever walk the Earth, but he has regular, symmetrical features and a body kept lean from years of strict adherence to a jogging regime. He's not particularly muscular, but he has the broad shoulders and narrow waist all men aim for. Now if he could only get the hang of the whole talking-to-people thing, he could maybe start making some real friends, as opposed to the ones he only knows through screen names and Internet message boards.

Satisfied with his appearance, Charlie slips his keys, smart phone, and wallet into his pockets before slinging the black messenger bag containing his laptop, iPod, and tablet over his shoulder. One of these days he might have to admit he has a few more gadgets than are strictly necessary. When he arrives back downstairs, Cameron is seated at the dining room table, and his mother is looming over him. She has a wooden serving spoon in her hand that she's using to fend him off whenever he attempts to reach for more eggs.

"Those are for your brother," she says pleasantly as she gives him a particularly vicious smack on the back of the hand.

Cameron yanks his arm back and looks dolefully at Charlie.

Charlie chuckles and says, "He can have my share. He's still young, after all. He might grow a few more inches before he becomes an old man like me."

"Ha!" his mom snorts. "I can't tell you how amusing it is to hear a 24-year-old call himself old when I've got a bad hip and osteoporosis to worry about."

Cameron reaches for the eggs, and Mom smacks his hand again.

"Ow!" His expression is that of raw betrayal. "Charlie said I could have his share!"

"Sorry, dear. Habit."

Charlie bows, flourishing his hands. "Mother, you have all the elegance and beauty of a woman half your age. Now I must away to the scribes and oversee the distribution of great literature to the plebian masses."

"I don't know what you're doing working at that little bookstore," Mom says, and Charlie is tempted to recite along with her, he's heard this speech so many times. "You have a Master's degree from the University of Connecticut, and yet you're wasting your time selling books in some hole in the wall."

"I like the Inkwell, Mom," Charlie replies flatly. "Working with books isn't the worst way to use an English degree. The pay is decent, the people are nice, and it's a solid side job until I figure out what I want to do with my life."

"You've been saying that for two years," Mom mutters, but she diplomatically changes the subject. "Have a good day, honey, and remember to pick up some of those turkey banners if you can."

"I will. Love you both."

Charlie escapes through the car port door and into the cool, autumn air. The earthy smell of dried leaves helps soothe his irritation. He gets along with his mom famously most of the time, but if she tells him that he needs to "think about a career" and "settle down" one more time, he might have to commit matricide for the sake of his own sanity.

Charlie turns up the collar of his mid-length black jacket and trudges over to his old Camaro. Despite its derelict appearance, the car miraculously managed to limp him through two years of high school and six years of higher education. Now that's he's finally graduated, he should probably trade it in for something newer—preferably with a paint job that doesn't look like scraped crayon—but he's grown fond of the clunky green beast. He opens the driver's side door and plops in, avoiding the mysterious stain on the side of the seat cushion with practiced ease. He turns his keys in the ignition and waits for the engine to warm up before setting the heat on low. It's still relatively temperate outside—for coastal Connecticut, at least—but he's lived in New Haven long enough to know that by the time November rolls around, heating will become essential to daily life.

He backs carefully out of the driveway and heads east through a maze of narrow streets lined with cookie-cutter houses. The trees have long since shed their leaves, and piles of gold and red dot every lawn. It takes him fifteen minutes to drive to a small but attractive bookstore with large front windows like glossy eyes and a blue sign over the door reading "The Inkwell." He parks in the back and grabs his bag before trotting up to the side door. The moment he opens it, he's hit with possibly his favorite smell in the world: the musky, rich aroma of old books. He's worked at the Inkwell for more than two years now, and he still inhales deeply every time he walks in. The bell above the door chimes as he steps inside, and a frizzy blonde head pops up from between two bookcases.

"Hello!" A middle-aged woman waves cheerfully at him before yelling into the back room, "Finley! Charlie's here!"

"Hello, Sabrina," Charlie answers as he hangs his coat up by the door and then carefully navigates through a labyrinth of narrow shelves. "How's business?"

"Booming!" she chirps. "Ever since we added that section on foreign poetry, the hipsters have been paying the bills for us."

"I rue the day I taught you that word," Charlie jokes as he bends down to give the petite woman a hug. "I'm glad the shop is doing so well. I'd hate to have to go work for one of those big corporate bookstores, what with their wide selections, benefits, and ample space."

Sabrina tucks a stray lock of wispy hair behind her ear and sticks her tongue out at him. Charlie knows she's easily in her fifties, but sometimes she feels more like a bratty little sister than a boss. Her predilection for chunky, plastic jewelry, tie-dye shirts and pastel jeans only adds to the image. Despite his offended fashion sense, Charlie thinks it suits her.

"You'd probably make more money if you did. I wish you'd let me give you that raise I've been talking about for months."

Charlie waves her off. "I earn more than your average humble stock boy, and the amount of reading I do versus actual work speaks for itself. I should be paying you, considering you let me snatch up all the good titles before they even hit the shelves."

Sabrina opens her mouth to argue, but just then Finley emerges from the back room. Her dyed red hair is slicked tight to her scalp and pinned up into its customary messy bun. She's staggering beneath an armload of books that are clearly threatening to tip her over. Her kohl-lined eyes and multiple facial piercings give her a more striking appearance than most people barely five feet in height can manage. Charlie feels a pang of envy. He'd love to make such a marked statement without ever opening his mouth, but he'll probably never be brave enough.

"Ah, the prodigal daughter appears," Sabrina says as Finley expertly dodges around a card carousel stocked with bookmarks and gaudy postcards. "Did you finish cataloging the new shipment we got in?"

"Yes, mom," Finley replies with a grunt as she hefts a particularly thick tome onto a shelf that's just barely within her reach. Charlie hurries to help her before she decides to start climbing bookcases; it's far from an uncommon occurrence. Finley looks like she's about to shoo him away, but then she begrudging hands him half the books. Charlie's barely 5'9'' himself, but that still makes him the only one on the shop who can comfortably reach the top shelves.

"Well," Sabrina says, clapping her hands together, "now that we're all here, let's get to work. I'm expecting the women's Wednesday book club to stop in before lunch."

Charlie and Finley set about stocking the shelves and straightening up while Sabrina disappears into the back to log inventory. It's quiet, monotonous work that Charlie finds soothing, though he knows he should be bored out of his skull.

Finley is in a chatty mood, however, which has become an increasingly common occurrence in the past year. After Charlie was hired, it took her some time to accept the fact that the Inkwell wasn't strictly a family business anymore. She wasn't unfriendly to him, per se, but for the first year of his employment, he'd felt a noticeable chill whenever they were left alone together.

"Got any plans for the weekend?" Finley asks, squatting down to alphabetize a bottom shelf.

"Not really," Charlie answers. "I have Saturday off, but I'll probably just hang out with Gina or Lee."

"You're welcome to come to the YFA meeting with me," Finley offers eagerly. "We always love to see male faces in the crowd."

"As much as I fully support feminism and the Young Feminist Association by proxy, I don't think I'm the sort of member you guys—people," he quickly amends when Finley glares at him, "are looking for. You're more the burn-your-bras-in-the-street type, and I prefer to cower in the corner with my metaphorical tail between my legs."

Finley shrugs. "Suit yourself, but dismantling the patriarchy should be on everyone's agenda. Did you know that roughly one third of murdered women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends?"

"Yes, dear," Sabrina replies, suddenly appearing beside them with a stack of books balanced on her hips, "and houseflies always hum in the key of F. Will you go shelve these in the non-fiction section, please?"

Finley gives her a sour look but obediently takes the proffered books. Charlie smothers a laugh. It's not unusual for Sabrina to circumvent some of her daughter's more morbid topics of discussion. Charlie prefers to remain an impartial observer during their verbal tennis matches.

The topic is quickly forgotten when the bell above the front door rings, and a group of 20-somethings walks in. Two of them are wearing blue and gray University of Connecticut hoodies. Charlie doesn't recognize them but he moves out of sight regardless. Dealing with customers—the horror, the horror—isn't his strong suit, and Sabrina is usually happy to greet them personally. He ducks into the back room under the pretense of looking for price stickers and ignores the twinge of longing low in his stomach. He knows he had his chance to be a carefree college student, and he had more years than most thanks to grad school, but he can't help feeling like his indelible shyness prevented him from getting the full experience. Or perhaps it'd be more accurate to say he prevented himself from getting it. Either way, it's difficult not to regret all the nights he spent holed up in his dorm room when he could have been out partying and meeting new people.

Charlie shakes his head and forces himself to get back to work before his melancholic thoughts can suck him into a black mood. The day passes quickly as Charlie busies himself with hefting boxes and filling out book orders. When the end of his shift rolls around, he waves goodbye and quickly sidles out the back door just as a fresh wave of customers enter the store. He knows he should stay and help, but in his current mood he just can't force himself to be genial. He blares the radio on the drive home to drown out thought. He doesn't remember his mom's request for turkey banners until he's already in the driveway, and he curses under his breath. He'll have to pick them up before work tomorrow. His mom mercifully doesn't comment when he walks into the kitchen empty-handed.

"How was work, honey?" Mom's standing by the kitchen counter with a large knife in one hand and a row of neatly chopped vegetables on the cutting board in front of her.

"Good," he replies automatically. "Same as always. What's for dinner?"

"Beef stew. Have any suggestions for what spices I should use?"

Charlie has very little technical skill in the kitchen, but during his college years he learned he has a certain talent for throwing together unusual flavor combinations that somehow always work. His mom, while wary at first, has come to trust his instinct.

Charlie thinks about it for a moment before saying, "Try dusting the meat with a little bit of cinnamon. It gives it a sweet but spicy note."

Mom furrows her brow but dutifully pulls the cinnamon from the spice rack next to the fridge. "You work the afternoon shift tomorrow, right? Why don't you go out tonight? Maybe go to a bar and meet some people? You haven't dated anyone in a while, as far as I know."

Mom's tone is casual, but Charlie feels his face grow hot regardless. He's never officially come out to his family, but it's become apparent over the years that he doesn't need to. It's impossible not to notice how his mom always uses gender-neutral pronouns when referring to his love life. Charlie's confident that neither of his parents would have an issue with his sexual orientation, but he just doesn't feel the need to declare it openly until he meets someone he's really serious about. At his current rate, that'll happen approximately one week after never.

"Yeah, right," he mumbles. "I could no sooner go to a bar by myself than perform an interpretative dance routine during the Super Bowl halftime show."

His mom shrugs. "Just a suggestion. It'd be nice to see you enjoy your youth a bit more."

In lieu of an answer, Charlie grabs a knife and starts chopping vegetables, throwing them all into the big pot full of beef broth and caramelized onions that's simmering on the stovetop. Once all the ingredients are together, including a giant hunk of cinnamon-dusted meat still on the bone, Charlie's mom brews a pot of coffee for them to sip while they wait. They chat about the weather and the possibility of snow as the kitchen slowly fills with the savory smell of stew.

They can tell when the scent has permeated the rest of the house, because Cameron suddenly appears. "Is dinner ready? I'm starving."

"Another five minutes," Mom answers, draining the last of her coffee. She offers the pot to Charlie, but he shakes his head. His caffeine tolerance is almost nonexistent. He turns to his brother instead and asks, "How's school?"

"Boring," Cameron answers automatically. "I can't wait to graduate already and go to college."

"With the way your grades were last semester, you'll be lucky if any of the schools take you," Mom scolds.

Cameron rolls his eyes, and Charlie graciously interjects, "His grades weren't any worse than mine were at times, though his disciplinary record could certainly be cleaner."

"It's not my fault," Cameron whines. "If they didn't want me to climb up to the roof of the school, they shouldn't have left that ladder out in the open where anyone could walk by and take it."

"The principal certainly didn't see it that way," Mom grumbles.

The conversation is interrupting by the kitchen timer dinging cheerfully. Mom grabs three bowls from the cupboard by the stove and starts dishing stew into them. Cameron grabs his and can barely be convinced to use a spoon before he starts wolfing it down. Charlie takes his bowl into the dining room and sits down to eat, earning a mutinous look from his little brother. They do all eventually migrate to the table, however, and dinner becomes a much quieter affair than its preparation as they focus on their food.

When he finishes, Charlie washes his bowl and spoon in the kitchen sink and then decides to make a tactical retreat to his room. Once there, he pulls his laptop out of his messenger bag and turns it on, waiting patiently while the log in screen appears, followed by the desktop. His wallpaper is a shot of Optimus Prime squaring off against Megatron from the old eighties Transformers cartoon. Charlie opens his browser and checks his email. He has one message from his alma mater asking him to join the alumni association, a few notifications from the message boards he frequents—all of which deal heavily with nerd culture—a coupon from his favorite online electronics store, and an email from his bank saying his last paycheck has been successful deposited. It's all so painfully mundane, he almost turns his laptop off again. Instead, he logs into a forum website he frequents and reads a thread where two users are arguing over the virtues of "dubbed" versus "subbed" anime. Apparently, there's a noticeable increase in translation errors when they use dubbed-over voices instead of subtitles. He'd normally at least be entertained by the pointlessness of it all, but tonight he's just not in the mood. He closes his laptop and places it on the floor next to his bed. He then opens his nightstand and pulls out the latest book he's reading: Emma by Jane Austen. It's the only one of her "big six" that he hasn't read yet. The story is off to a bit of a slow start, but he knows from past experience that he just has to give it time to warm up.

Charlie reads until the digital clock on his nightstand says it's nearly midnight. He places the book on his nightstand, clicks off his lamp, and rolls onto his side in preparation for sleep. His mind is still buzzing with the events of the day, though, flitting from thought to thought as synapses fire and action potential ricochets down myelin sheaths. Charlie breathes deeply and tries to distract himself by mentally thumbing through his repertoire of favorite books. Most people associate Charlie with science fiction, but he enjoys just about every genre that involves alternate universes, from fantasy to steampunk. He lets the different worlds sprawl out in his mind, intertwining into a rich tapestry of possibilities. New lands of his own concoction start popping up like mushrooms: bright orange landscapes with three suns hanging above them, planets made of burning ice, and mountains where gemstone waterfalls cascade down from their snowy peaks.

Charlie loves his job—he does—but if he could do anything with his life, he'd be the one writing the books, not selling them. Not that there's any chance of that ever happening.

Charlie exhales sharply and kicks his covers off. There's no way he can sleep with so many thoughts buzzing in his head. He needs to blow off some steam. As quietly as he can, he changes into sweatpants and a cotton hoodie. He slips his iPod into his pocket but doesn't put the earphones in just yet. As quietly as he can, he makes his way downstairs. His running shoes are right by the front door where he always leaves them. He pulls them on—they've molded to the shape of his feet from repeated use—and grabs his keys from the hook on the wall. He steals out into the crisp night air, pulling the door shut and locking it behind him. He doesn't want to go for a full-blown run or he'll just be more awake than he was before. A brisk walk, however, should serve to clear his head.

Charlie starts down his street in the general direction of town. He fishes his iPod out of his pocket and sets it to shuffle. An indie rock song blares through the earphones, tinny and haunting in comparison to the perfect stillness of midnight. He starts walking at a medium pace, focusing on the music and the rhythm of his steps. He feels himself start to relax and melt into the melody, his busy thoughts clearing slowly away like layers of cobwebs. It's refreshing, being able to focus on something else for a while. Before he knows it, he's reached a main road. A row of little shops with dark windows awaits him on the other side of the crosswalk. He should probably turn back, but the cool air feels good, and he's enjoying the simple pleasure of movement. He punches the button to cross even though there isn't a single car in sight and waits.

Charlie is suddenly struck by a peculiar urge to look behind him. Bewildered, he turns his head to the right and immediately spots a dark figure standing on the other side of the intersection. Charlie freezes. It's a man dressed similarly to him, but unlike Charlie he has his hood thrown up, obscuring his face in shadow. Charlie can't see his eyes, but he can feel the man watching him. It makes chills that have nothing to do with the cold trickle down his spine. The cross light blessedly changes a second later, and he hurries to the other side of the street, eager to put some distance between himself and the shadowy man. His iPod shuffles over to a thrash metal song, and the bass pounds in his ears. Charlie glances back over his shoulder, and suddenly he's not sure if it's the bass pounding or his heart.

The man is following him. He's crossed the street in the same direction as Charlie, not even waiting for the lights to change. He's walking steadily towards him with his head down and his hands stuffed in the pockets of his dark jeans.

Charlie bites his lip anxiously. Okay, maybe the man just happens to be going the same way as him. He starts walking faster, and when he glances back again, the man has sped up as well. Charlie's heart stutters in his chest. He's going to get mugged or murdered, or maybe mugged and murdered, he just knows it. He scans passing streets discreetly until he spots a string of late night shops about a quarter of mile away. He speeds up until he's nearly running and locks eyes on the nearest store. If he can just reach it before the man reaches him, he can duck inside and get help. He resists the urge to look behind him, praying that the man has realized where he's heading and given up. Charlie thinks he hears a faint voice yelling over the music blasting through his earphones, but he ignores it. He channels all of his attention into walking as quickly as he can. When he's just a block away from the shop—a late-night convenience store—he finally allows himself to release the breath he's been holding. It comes out in a long, relieved whoosh. No one would be stupid enough to attack him this close to civilization.

A strong hand grabs his shoulder and whips him around.

It takes everything Charlie has not to scream.

It's the man. His hand is gripping Charlie's shoulder tightly, and the top half of his face is still shrouded in shadow. Charlie can see his mouth, however, and he's saying something that Charlie can't hear.

Without considering the wisdom of his actions, Charlie stammers, "I can't hear you," and rips his earphones out.

"I said," the man repeated, "I'm sorry if I scared you. I saw how you high-tailed it the second you caught my eye."

His voice is calm and attractively deep. For a moment, Charlie is too stunned to say anything. Then he breathes, "Oh," and attempts to edge away from the obvious psychopath, but his grip is too strong.

The man throws his hoodie back, revealing his face. He's maybe a few years older than Charlie with curly brown hair and eyes so dark his pupils and irises are indistinguishable. He's only about three inches taller than Charlie, but his close proximity makes it seem like he's towering over him. His jawline is dusted with a thin layer of scruff that gives him an inexplicably boyish look. Charlie wants to be intimidated, but the man is smiling so widely, he instantly relaxes.

"Let me buy you a coffee," the man says, "to apologize for scaring you."

"We shouldn't drink caffeine this late at night," Charlie blurts out. The second the words leave his mouth, he wants to slap himself. Great. Now he sounds about twelve years old.

The man laughs, however, and it seems genuine. "C'mon. I know a little diner near here that's open 24-hours."

Before Charlie can protest, the man claps an arm around his shoulders and begins bodily steering him towards the block of open shops Charlie had been dashing towards moments before. Protests and excuses push against Charlie's closed mouth, but he's still too shocked to voice them. He lets the man steer him into the diner, sit him in a chair at a red table, and then take the seat across from him, all without uttering a word. Charlie's certain he must look like a frightened animal, but if the man notices anything, he doesn't mention it.

A waitress in a white and black uniform appears a moment later and asks them what they'd like. The man orders a pot of coffee and a glass of orange juice. As soon as she's gone, he returns to smiling at Charlie.

"Max," he says.

"Huh?" is Charlie's eloquent response.

"My name is Max. What's yours?"

"Um," Charlie blinks owlishly, "it's Charlie."

"Nice to meet you, Charlie."

A moment of awkward silence passes, and then the waitress appears with a pot of coffee, two mugs, and a glass of orange juice balanced on a tray. She places one mug in front of each of them, sets the coffee pot on the table, and unerringly hands the juice to Charlie before turning away to greet two men in white shirts and dirty denim vests who just walked in.

Max leisurely pours himself a cup of coffee while Charlie stares at him like an idiot. Max is in the process of loading his mug with an inhuman amount of sugar and cream when Charlie finally finds his voice, "Why did you order me juice?"

Max gives him an amused look. "Practically everyone likes juice, and since you were so concerned about caffeine, I figured it was a good alternative."

Charlie face heats up, and he quickly looks down in the hopes that Max won't notice.

"So," Max says, blowing on his drink, "why don't you tell me about yourself?"

Charlie is momentarily fixated by the pretty round shape Max's lips make when he blows, and he nearly misses his question. He normally considers himself a reasonably intelligent person, but tonight his brain is firing blanks. "What do you want to know?"

"Whatever you're willing to tell me. Where are you from? What do you do for a living? What are your interests?" Max sets his mug down and fixes Charlie in a steady look. "You can share as much or as little as you like."

Now that they're in the light, Charlie takes a moment to examine the man across from him. Max's eyes are just as dark now as they were outside, and his hair is only a shade or two lighter. It falls to his ears in soft curls. He has an olive skin tone, straight white teeth, and an angular face. He's really handsome, Charlie distantly notes. Not model-pretty, but traditionally masculine and rugged. An All-American boy without the apple pie and white picket fence. His body language is open and confident, like he feels not the slightest bit self-conscious about the fact that he's having coffee with a complete stranger he pulled off the street in the middle of the night.

Charlie realizes he hasn't spoken in half a minute and quickly scrambles to think of something to say. "Well, my name is Charlie," he begins and almost bites his tongue. He's said that already. Max is grinning at him again. He quickly continues, "I went to the University of Connecticut and have a Master's degree in English. I live with my mom and little brother, and I work at a bookstore. I'm 24." He stops. He can't mention any of his hobbies without sounding like a complete nerd—which, of course, he is—but he'd rather not admit that. "And, um, my favorite color is green?" He finds himself stupidly hoping that was good enough.

Max seems satisfied, but then he asks, "What's your last name?"

"Camberswitch."

Max stops mid-sip and snorts into his cup. "Camberswitch?" His tone is incredulous. "Camberswitch is your last name? Can you spin straw into gold?"

Charlie frowns. "Hey, it's not like I had any choice in the matter."

Max is sniggering, and a cold wave of embarrassment washes over Charlie.

"I'm sorry," Max says when he notices Charlie's silence. "I'm not laughing at you, I swear. That's just a really unusual name. Charlie Candlestick, was it?"

He laughs at his own joke, and Charlie feels a smile tug at his lips. "Yeah, that sounds about right."

"So, Charlie," Max continues, "got any plans for tomorrow?"

"Not really," Charlie answers without thinking. He sips his juice and then says, "I have work in the afternoon, but I'm off at seven. I was just going to go home and help my mom cook." When he looks up again, Max is scribbling on a napkin with a pen he seems to have conjured from thin air.

A moment later, he hands the napkin to Charlie. "This is my phone number," he says casually. "I want you to call me at exactly eight tomorrow, one hour after you get off work." He stands and reaches into his pocket. For the second time that night, Charlie is too stunned to do anything but stare. Max pulls out a brown leather wallet and tosses a few bills onto the table. Charlie can tell without looking at the numbers that it's enough to cover both drinks and a generous tip.

"Don't forget," Max says. "Eight tomorrow. I'll be waiting."

"But wait," Charlie finally manages to say, "what is this? Why are you even talking to me?"

Max just smiles and says, "I'll explain when you call."

Without another word, he exits the diner and takes off the in the opposite direction from the way they came. Charlie stares after him for a few seconds before finally turning his attention back to the napkin in his hand. Just as Max said, a phone number is written on it in a spiky, impatient scrawl along with the name "Max Evans." The waitress come by a moment later and asks him if he wants anything else, but Charlie just shakes his head. He spends half an hour in shocked silence, staring at the surface of the table, before he finally shoves the napkin into his pocket, gathers his things, and slowly trudges home.