Come Home - a short story
He waits outside on a bench. People avoid the bench while he sits there. Today, he doesn’t look too bad, just... worn, a threadbare person. Most people can sense there is something there, but he is nearly invisible, he can be tuned-out. Except to children. Children don’t know what they see but they see. Some stare. Some smile. He returns stares and he returns smiles. Short smiles.
He doesn’t look too bad because it rained the night before. His hair looks oily, his skin looks oily but both in a way that could be mistaken for “fresh from the gym.” Dirt was washed away from his hands and face, but if someone were to look and were to look at his hands for more than a moment, the scars and cuts from everyday life outside would be noticeable. Sometimes he hides his hands.
He waits outside on a bench by the laundromat. He needs a fresh shirt. No tears. No stains. Something plain, so he is nondescript. It’s better for everyone that way. He’s only invisible most of the time. Sometimes he can do something that snaps him back into focus. Usually though, it isn’t what he is doing, it is where he is doing it.
He sees a couple carrying three full baskets to the laundromat. The couple are new to this. Their laundry machine at the apartment is broken. This is fun. This is an adventure, doing laundry out here. It’s tourism. He sees the couple and feels ripped apart inside. The man is the right size.
On the bench, he waits more. The couple’s wash is started. He hears tapping. Light tapping on his shoulder. He ignores it. It is not there. The tapping continues. He closes his eyes and shakes his head. It is not there. After a long moment, it is not there. The couple’s clothes go into the dryers.
The couple waits by the dryers for a time, but they are not used to having to wait by the dryers. The man is on his phone. The woman tugs his arm and they walk outside. They do not see him on the bench. He sees them. He sees them point at the sign next door that says “Fruteria Bionicos,” and the couple goes inside. They can figure out “fruteria” but do not know “bionicos.” It’s tourism.
He gets up from the bench and walks quickly into the laundromat. But now that he is inside, he is seen. The lenses have put him in focus. He is not usually inside. He goes to a dryer with the couple’s clothes. He opens and looks for a solid blue, a bright red, a faded black--colors that are going to be a man’s shirt. He finds one. It is soft and warm. He doesn’t normally get to touch something that is either. He savors it.
He takes the blue shirt and walks quickly back to the door. Moms doing laundry give him dirty looks. Kids stare. He doesn’t stare back. He does not look away from the door. He hears “hey!” He ignores it. It is there. The “hey” continues. He passes the couple as they exit the Fruteria. They laugh at the heaping bionico. “How are we going to eat this” she laughs.
He makes his way through the parking lot. The “hey” fades as he does. He turns a corner. The shirt in his hand no longer feels warm. It feels very cold. When he looks at it, he feels cold. It does not smell sour like the shirt he is wearing. It also does not look stained and torn from literal everyday wear and literal tear. It looks like a normal shirt. It looks like a costume.
He walks down the hill and then across the bridge and then pulls the fence up, scraping his fingers once again. He returns to his place. He picks up a container that still holds some of the rainwater from the night before. He uses the water to rinse his armpits and his neck. He uses some scented lotion he found the week before to cover his body. Finally, he puts on the blue shirt. It reminds him of someone. He then remembers it is a costume.
He hears a whisper that isn’t there. It is very real to him. He forgets about the shirt and screams. He screams again. The whisper and then the scream. He closes his eyes and shakes his head. After a long moment, the whisper is gone, but he still screams until his throat is dry.
Hours later he can think again. He knows he needs to do it today, while the costume...while the blue shirt is ready. He pulls the fence up, carefully, and walks across the bridge, and up a different hill. He goes to a place he has not been near in weeks.
He walks inside the restaurant. No one looks, he does not snap into focus, he’s just another person. A girl at the counter smiles and says “can I help you?” She means it.
He looks sheepish, a small embarrassed smile. “Hi, I’m sorry to ask, but I left my cell in the Uber, can I use your phone?”
She looks surprised but hands him the phone. It’s a wireless, and he is grateful. He can wander away naturally, but not too far. He dials.
The counter girl greets new people walking in. He takes a few steps away from counter.
It rings. There is an answer. She answers.
“Hey hon,” he says excitedly.
He hears something break on the other end.
“I just wanted to call and check in” he continues. “What a day.” His voice is light and cheery. It is not quite an act.
The pause on the other end is heavy. A half second that weighs a half-ton on both of them.
“Come home” she says.The weight is heavier now and drags them both down. It drags them to a bottom they both know.
He gasps for air.
“No, it’s okay. Really, it’s okay. I’m feeling great. Like, really strong right now. I woke up this morning and it just clicked for me. You ever have that? You know, it just all clicks.”
He paces around the foyer. His hands become more animated. He draws attention. A gray-haired man whispers a question to the girl at the counter. She shrugs.
On the phone, he continues speaking. He speaks faster so she’ll understand faster. She’ll understand everything if he just keeps speaking.
She says it again. “Come home.”
He doesn’t feel the phone fly out of his hand, but it does. He doesn’t feel the muscles tense and contract, but they do. He does see the shattered bits of plastic and circuits on the ground. He knows what happens next, so he runs.
As he is running across the bridge, he thinks “she doesn’t understand.” As he is climbing under the fence, he says aloud “I tried. I tried.” As he lays down on the mattress, he knows one day he will steal another shirt and he will have to go farther to find another place with a phone he can ask for. He knows one day she will not pick-up when he calls. He knows this and it makes him miss her so bad it hurts. He knows this and he hates himself and it makes him very scared. And in that moment he feels home.