Kitchen work was a nightmare, as expected.
I had ninety seconds at most to toast the bread, fry the meat in parallel, garnish the burgers, and then serve them - without any prior instruction.
Graves always found something to complain about. Meat seared here, cucumber dropped there and blah, blah, blah. At one point, I had to throw everything in the trash because the mustard drops were a millimeter too small or something. There were no breaks either. Once I spilled the coffee in my clumsiness, I was "politely asked" to end my work prematurely.
It was dark enough outside that I would have never seen my breath without all the lanterns. Burger Bob was located at crossroads of contradictions. Right next to it was a gym. Almost as there was "To your right, you can burn the calories gained on the left" written all over the street. The other two corners of the crossroads were a regular grocery store for anyone who could actually cook and a playground to eat the children's menus on.
I waited for the bus to arrive. The bus was an automated vehicle that always arrived on time and never made much noise. Plus, there wasn't any driver to make eye contact with. I showed the scanner my passport. Sure, the camera might have been able to recognize that I was under thirty and thus entitled to take a drive for free, but they didn't trust the AI enough, so I had to show my passport just to be sure.
Most seats were free at this time of the day. I took a seat at the window in the rear part of the bus. The only person in my proximity was someone in a suit eating chocolate. Funny what luxury chocolate had become with all those droughts in Africa and South America where all the cocoa was produced. Back when I was ten, everyone could still afford it.
When the bus halted, I could observe a homeless man from my mirror. He resembled the guy who always drove me into elementary school. I looked away.
The bus arrived near the back alley I called my home. This street had more potholes than the moon surface craters, allowing me to connect the dots to beautiful star signs when my mood allowed it. The terraced houses with their mansard roofs were unremarkable by contrast. Our house only stuck out of the mass through all the naked cement.
I entered. No-one heard me as I went up the stairs to our living room.
In the living room was Mom watching streaming television. She was tired and only mustered a brief smile in my direction. Sorry for forgetting to smile back.
Dad was in the kitchen and ate spaghetti. He sat there in his undershirt. Sometimes, I wasn't sure if it was fat or muscles, but on days like these, I saw that my body type was more my Mom's than his. On the other hand, his tousled brown hair and small, bent stature showed how true the proverb with the apple or the trunk was.
My sister Sophia was probably still in her room.
"You arrived," Dad said.
The sink was once again stuffed with plates and bowls. The cupboard had no more than two clean ones in reserve. Not that we could have afforded much more. I took one of those clean plates and filled it with noodles and sauce, making sure I got my preferred ratio of four to one right.
"I'm talking to you!" Dad said.
I put the plate down. "Sorry"
"You shouldn't be sorry, you should just talk to me from time to time. Why do you never even look at me?"
Because I can't talk!
Okay, technically, I could talk, but it took me a long time to sort out the words.
I faced him. "You know that it's hard. I had a hard day, but even on days less hard, it's still hard."
"Well, maybe you can be more concrete. What is it that made this day so hard for you?"
I grabbed my plate. "Can we maybe talk about this later?"
Before he could answer, I carried my spaghetti into my bedroom. I navigated past a jungle of chip bags to put it next to my laptop.
I wasn't all that hungry if I was being honest. Or - I was hungry, but I was more hungry for knowledge, so I ate whilst reading various online articles about aliens. Countless questions lingered on my mind, like why these aliens showed themselves to us now and not earlier. There was this thing called the Fermi paradox. Scientists asked themselves why we never met alien life despite the high probability of them existing. The universe was a really old place. Assuming we weren't the first intelligent civilizations, there should have been races millions of years older than us, old enough to colonize the whole galaxy or leave megastructures no-one could overlook.
Why did it take us so long to discover those alleged wormholes then though? Was there just one more alien race than us and it was one that was conveniently satisfied with hiding on our planet and watching?
Was I the only one who was interested in such questions at all? Alien documentaries were what got me into astronomy in the first place. When I was young, the idea that there was someone else out there was just so comforting to me. Even when I realized how unlikely that was, the sheer vastness of the universe was of almost religious significance to me. From the age of six, I already knew I wanted to study physics and explore the universe one day. But things had changed. My parents lost their jobs shortly before my graduation and they urged me to focus on the more "practical" aspects of physics. It became even worse when I decided to help my parents with their poverty and met Graves.
Graves was searching for young blood for his non-automated restaurant and promised the work would prepare me for the harshness of the modern-day economy. Back then, it sounded like a great idea.
However, I realized I couldn't shoulder the workload at all. There was so much exhaustion, so much sensory overload that I could barely watch TV, let alone study, whenever I came back home.
I thought about quitting, but I couldn't. I was never good at quitting something I had already started. I wanted to be useful to my parents. Maybe this was an autistic thing, I didn't know. What I did know was that had I quit, Steve would have been right that my time had been wasted all along.
And there I was, my grades ruined and my love of just about anything lost.
My back ached from all the sitting. I stood up and stretched, getting a view of the bedroom room I forgot even existed.
A piece of wall paint fell off. The two hundred ninety-eighth piece. At this point, the blue wall paint had so many white spots, it resembled my torn space poster.
I had banned this poster from my head for far too long. With all the chronic depression from work, I had neglected my room as much as I had neglected myself.
I missed the days back when I still had any real passions. Back when I searched all the zodiac signs of my favorite stars on my poster to draw circles around them.
Somewhere between Leo and Ursa Major, HD 114762 was marked; a binary star system that includes the first discovered exoplanet.
In the Virgo constellation, there was PSR B1257 + 12 AKA "Lich", the first pulsar with planets. Three, more precisely, and they were all named after mythological creatures.
Then, I had WASP-12 from the Auriga sign; a star that ate its own planet. That's a thing! A star can suck out a planet's atmosphere step-by-step with its gravity, did you know that?
Another little professor moment, sorry.
Someone knocked on the door.
Dad opened the door. He did slowly and carefully as if I was sleeping and he was trying not to wake me. Did he think I'd be scared otherwise? He descended onto the couch below the poster where my astronaut figure lay.
"Are you ready to talk now?" he asked.
I waited for the answer and only then did I realize that he was indirectly asking me to talk about my problems.
"Have you followed the news?" I asked.
"What's with them?"
"There was this video of an alleged invisible flying object."
"I've heard about it."
This was easier than I thought. "I-I know where it was filmed. Do you know the times when I kept collecting chestnuts and leaves?"
He stood up. "Are you too shy to contact the police yourself? Do you want me to do it for you?"
I had to admit that calling the police had not been among my first thoughts when learning about the abduction.
Now that I had something to gain from going to the scene of the crime, I couldn't call them immediately though.
Dad exited my room and grabbed the phone. He didn't dial anything yet, as he was waiting for me to tell him the path.
"I don't remember the exact location," I lied.
"I can't help you in this case."
"I know and you don't have to. I want to go there and see for myself."
He dropped the phone and stared at me. The fact that he had hung up wrongly didn't concern him at all.
"Lucas, there was a distress call from there."
"Do you think some criminal has his residence in the woods?"
"No, but even if you don't remember the exact path, it's best if the police checks."
I was such a terrible liar. My stories never held up to even the slightest scrutiny. Should I have told him the truth? Should I have told him that Iris has told me utter hogwash which I only believed out of wishful thinking?
He came back into my room
"Why don't you like my idea?" he asked. "Do you want to go back into the woods out of nostalgia?"
The response was automatic. It probably didn't hold up to much scrutiny, but it was fine at the moment.
"Something's eating you," he said.
At least I could stop talking about the UFO and steer the conversation into more comfortable waters. My job, for instance. The topic I should have discussed from the beginning.
"Do you think we will ever get out of this?" I asked.
"You mean, financially?"
He paused. Was he thinking of a comforting lie or did he, like me, have to search for the right words from time to time?
"We will, eventually," he said. "You should focus more on college than on this job you have right now though."
I broke eye contact. "I don't want to be a burden though. You and Mom did so much to me. What if I do make it through college and still don't get a job? This thing with Graves might be the only opportunity in my life."
"So what if it is?"
"Then I'm never going to repay you for having supported me for the first twenty years of my life!"
"Never going to repay us? You have already done so!"
"How, just by existing?"
"Of course! What should I do with the extra money if you are dead? Do you know what you and Sophia mean to me? I need to die one day and by then, you and your sister are all that remains."
A knot clogged my stomach. He might have said those words casually, but for me, they were like a brick of walls. During my whole plans, I neither cared for his well-being nor for that of the two abductees.
On the other hand, what was I supposed to look back at once I lay on my deathbed? That I had a chance to get us out of this and didn't use it?
Dad yawned and stood up. "Good night-"
"I won't kill myself or anything," I said. "But please, don't treat me like a small child. A co-worker today has already called me a wuss and blamed bad parenting on it."
He lowered his head at that last line. I didn't mean to hurt him, but sometimes, it was necessary if I was to call myself an adult.
"As soon as you learn about the place, you must call the police immediately," he said. "Can you promise this to me?"
"Can you promise this to me?"
He left my bedroom.
His last words as he left were barely above a whisper. "Whatever you do, please, don't leave us!"
We didn't say anything else to each other. Not because we were cold, but because we thought that directly stating what we felt was just the best way to go about it all.
My laptop was still blinking. Since I forgot to turn it off, why not use it? My favorite navigation app even had the route I always used to get to this place saved.
Besides my laptop, I searched for a flashlight and a camera. Only while searching did I get a feeling of how messy my place truly was. I found things I didn't even know existed; mostly DVDs of various documentaries from the 2020s. This included titles like Extraterrestrial Planet, The Future After Man, or Age of the Singularity.
Finally, I had my laptop, mobile, camera and flashlight gathered in my bag. And yes, I watched enough horror movies to check the batteries of my light.
I sneaked down the stairs to my bike.
"Whatever you do, please, don't leave us!"
You couldn't have spoken any more ironic last words to me, Dad.