4.


James helps me clean up. Rather, he cleans up while I stable my heart rate to something not life threatening. I breathe through my nose and clutch my knees.

James, who's kneeling on the floor, looks up at me. "What's the matter, Maxxie?"

"I thought I saw someone." My mouth is clammy. "But it's no one."

"Really?" He gets back up.

The owner, who has noticed my spaz—as has the entire restaurant, really—comes with fresh cutlery. I babble out an apology and she pats my shoulder. She's so nice I want to pat her shoulder back.

When she's out of sight, I grab my mug with both hands and take a couple big gulps. Like wine, spiked coffees are not the best thing to chug. My throat burns and I press my hand to my mouth and my eyes water. I should never have liquor near me because by god I will guzzle it.

"You good?" James looks very doubtful.

"The slow burn of diesel and despair is cleansing my soul through fire and will."

"I'll take that as a 'yes'." He grins, and then mouths an apology at the girls over my shoulder. I wonder if the toaster boy thinks it's to him? Because when James gestured to the girls, maybe the toaster boy was watching and thought he was gesturing to him? Because I turned around and met his eye and then made a nice dramatic scene over it all?

My heart is hammering and my hands are sweaty. I'm fixated on the tabletop, on the swirling patterns. This again. This—agitation.

I've never met someone who can make me this anxious just by existing.

"James." My head snaps up, and James actually jumps. "Can I run something by you?"

"Yeah?"

The owner comes and takes our order. I've forgotten what I want, so James reminds me by ordering for me. Yes, classic English breakfast. Don't we all love the classics. She smiles at me and I am too distracted to smile back. She leaves, and James raises his eyebrows at me in a 'carry on' way.

"Okay." I shift my seat closer. "I've been thinking. You know how I get anxious sometimes?"

"Gee, do ya?"

Hidden skill: defiant ignore. "Elaine's really good with it, you know? We grew up together and she knows how to handle me when I'm having a, uh, thing." It's true. She's really good with me. When I have a panic attack—yes, a routine thing—she sits with me and strokes my hair. She plays with my fingers and sings sometimes when I'm nervous. I set the pace, and no matter how sporadic the pace is, she's always there to match me.

I want to get better.

I'm a burden.

I want to get better.

I can.

The more freaked out I am, the more used to it I'll be. And then I'll develop ways to not react that way.

I'm going to become a calm and collected person. I am going to be composed.

My shoulders hunch. "James, what do you think about exposure therapy?"

James takes a drink, and sets the mug down with a nod. "Sure, why not? It's not like you gotta worry about the cost being an issue with a therapist, rich boy."

I wriggle in my seat.

"Do you have to pee?"

"No." I drink again, a nice big sip. "I've met someone."

James goes cross-eyed. "What are we talking about?"

"I've met someone who can cure me, I think."

James uncrosses his eyes and frowns at me. "How do you figure?"

"Well, we haven't technically met."

"You've—?"

"Interacted?"

He stares blankly at me.

"Point is he scares the hell out of me. As you've just witnessed."

"What?"

"I mean, I get really anxious and pretty much go bat-shit when he's around. Not that he's around often. But just like—this is the second time, and I . . ." I trail off. Talking about it is making me sweat more. My heart is going back to rapid fire mode.

"So that person you thought you saw who you said you didn't see is actually someone you did see, and that triggered your very inelegant behaviour?"

I pause. Inelegant behaviour. I'm going to punch him. "Um. I guess so, yes."

He breathes out loud through his nose. "Here I thought you got all flustered over girls. Never mind—it's a guy."

I narrow my eyes at him. "It's not like that."

"How's it like, then? You don't squirm in your pants every time you see Elaine."

"I've been with Elaine forever! She's the last person I'd be anxious around."

James rests his chin in the palm of his hand. "Is it the guy beside the table of girls? The one with dark hair who keeps glancing at us?"

The back of my head burns. He's been looking? Well, everyone looked when I'd swept half the table to the floor, but why was he still looking? He recognized me? He's probably wondering what's wrong with me. First I beat up people on my way out of the café on the corner, and now I'm vandalizing the diner.

"I don't know." My voice is small.

"Did he do something to scare you?"

I don't reply.

"Maxxie?"

"He . . ." I tilt to the left, and then to the right. "He sketched a picture."

"A picture?"

"Of a toaster," I whisper.

James has a totally incredulous expression on. "Pardon? Do you have some kinda childhood toaster trauma?"

I scratch the side of my cheek. "He just surprised me."

James rubs his forehead. "I'm totally lost. Do you want me to wave him over?"

I recoil. "How the hell did you come to that conclusion?"

"I feel like that would be easier than you spouting riddles. What's his name?"

"I don't know! He's a total stranger."

James shrugs. "Well, whatever. I don't get it. Can I go talk to the girls real quick? I'll explain your squirrel behaviour and maybe I'll still get to have sex with at least one of them."

At least one, like he's gaming for all three. Knowing James, he can pull it off, too. I wave him off, mostly because I need to compose myself and James grilling me about the toaster boy isn't helping.

James gets up. He clamps a hand on my shoulder and speaks in my ear. "Like you said—exposure therapy, right?"

Why does he sound so funny? Sly, like he knows something I don't?

He walks off, and someone takes his spot.

It's him.

The toaster boy.

Sitting across from me.

Green eyes. He has green eyes, and they're sharp and pretty—juniper dark but somehow really bright. Dark hair and green eyes, like an unlucky cat. His profile straight on. He's looking at me, and I'm looking at him, and we're, like, sitting together and stuff.

Was he standing behind me? James left so he could sit here? I can't believe he did that, without telling me. He knows what I'm—

Oh.

Exposure therapy.

I'm going to die. I'm not ready for this. I didn't mean I could start now. James has way too much faith in me. He's been my friend for five years. Doesn't he know how ridiculous I am? Of course he does. He tells me all the time. So why did he let this happen?

The shaking starts in my fingers and hands. It travels up to my shoulders. I'm shaking so hard I might as well fall apart into sad little pieces.

I become enthralled by the table top. The swirling patterns may or may not be moving.

"Hello."

His voice.

He speaks.

Well, of course he does. He is a normal human being. A normal guy, and he's sitting across from me on purpose, with the purpose of being here with me, very purposeful.

His voice is gravelly and husky, but it's not deep. He sounds young, like my age. Which makes sense, because this is college and all, so chances are he's around my age. Like it'd be weird if he wasn't, and . . . yeah. Okay.

I lift a hand in a weak wave.

"Your friend left this." His hand inches into my view, and it's pressed against James' coffee. "Think he'll mind if I try it?"

James has chewed on other peoples gum. Which is absolutely gross to me, but if he can do that, I'm sure he can let a stranger drink from his mug. Still, it's not my call, so I sit still as a stone and swallow my own nausea.

Seconds clock by. I should probably explain it's not my decision. I should probably say something, like—

"Hey!" The toaster boy yells and I about jump out of my skin. "Can I help myself?"

Is he yelling at me?

"Yeah, whatever!" It's James' voice, carrying back.

Oh.

I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding.

The toaster boy touches the mug again. "Aren't you going to drink, too?"

My coffee is doubling in my vision. I'm frozen.

"You sure? Isn't it our thing?"

Our thing?

We have a thing?

I have a thing with a total stranger? With this total stranger, even?

I raise my head. He's grinning at me, head cocked to the side. His eyes really are bright.

He's all I see.

There's something wrong with me. Really, really wrong.

I move my hand. Ah, I can move. I inch my hand closer to my coffee, and then drag it closer to me. I cup both hands around it and lift it. He lifts James' coffee. We raise the glasses to our lips and drink at the same time. I can't meet his eyes because he's staring—like, really staring—so I focus on the black liquid and swallow.

We set our glasses down. He twitches. He thinks it's awful too, doesn't he?

We relate.

"You're cute," he says.

Uh.

My ears blaze. My eyes water. I'm not ready for this.

He's gay. Of course he is. Straight guys don't draw two guys doing the dirty. Then again, he's an artist. He probably draws a lot of things. He can draw two gay guys, that's fine. If not like if he draws a horse that automatically makes him a horse.

Foolproof logic.

I've just turned myself around. What was my point again?

I'm in the middle of dying, right.

This is like saying I'm going to get over my fear of snakes and then taking a bath in snakes. That's too fast. Way too fast. It's like having a fear of heights and then being pushed out of a plane. This is scarring stuff.

I clench my eyes shut.

No.

I have to try.

I don't want to be a burden.

My eyes flash open, and I fix him with a very determined look.

He's looking at me like a curious pup.

"I—" I steady my breathing, brace myself. "It was a—uh—cool toaster."

His expression blanks for a moment, and he falters. "I'm sorry?"

So yeah, I'm screwed.


AN: Poor Maxxie. Send Maxxie your love.