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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Career · #2320166
Think you lost your mind? Don't worry about it...
Ryan knew it was going to be a bad day from the minute he woke up. His head was congested and throbbing, cluttered with vaguely premonitory dreams, and his old-fashioned analog alarm clock refused to be shut off by the usual means. It filled his small, shabby apartment with a metallic fire alarm ringing until he grabbed it and threw it across the room to burst into a pile of springs and gears against the wall.

Ugh. Now I'll have to use my phone as an alarm. Can't afford another clock. They always say "keep your phone away from the bed when you're trying to sleep…" Never worked for me, but at least I'm not distracted at night. I get to lie awake and dwell on my problems undisturbed.

His head was still reverberating with alarms even as he got dressed for work.

Stupid boss will cuss me out if I'm a minute late. I have to stand around in the Mackie's parking lot like a bum until he lets me in, just to be sure I'm on time. Shoot, I'd have better luck as a busker on the streets. He doesn't like how I make the burgers, treat the customers, clean up… even though I'm doing it all better than everyone else. Him included.

Ryan grabbed his keys and backpack and hit the sidewalk, head down, eyes on his shoes.

Working so hard for nothing. Long hours, an ungrateful boss. What's the point? It's not like I have any friends there. Everyone thinks I'm weird. Joe accused me of being autistic just because I don't talk much. And the boss agreed. He said the only thing I want to talk about is music. What's wrong with that? As long as I do my job well, who cares if I'm not a vapid chatterbox?

Stepping through the back door, Ryan was gobsmacked with the smell of rancid grease, spoiled fish, and overflowing trash cans. That meant the night shift hadn’t done the proper closing cleanup, which meant it was his turn to do it before the restaurant opened.

Ryan worked with mindless automation, trying to figure out a new melody in his head. I wish I could bring my guitar to work and practice. Imagine what they’d say if I did. I'll have to make do with my phone's soundboard app.

As the other employees arrived, they said nothing to Ryan, which was what he preferred. Better than teasing, prodding, or idle chatter.

Business ebbed and flowed predictably: the morning breakfast rush of preppy people ordering coffee and biscuits; the cranky lunch crowd, the afternoon “getting off work” blue collar customers.

I do my best to make everyone happy. But is my best good enough? No one ever tells me…

There was no more chance for rumination as the pace picked up. Sweat gathered on Ryan’s brow as he stood in front of the steaming grease dipper baskets, ladling what seemed like a million pounds of fries until he grew sick of the task and went to assist the burger assembly line.

Noises of clattering pots and pans, people hollering, the sudden geyser gushing of fresh grease in the boilers, oven bells ringing, and drive thru orders coming in over a loudspeaker enveloped Ryan in a mind-numbing din.

He watched out of the corner of his eye as Ken, the boss, strode past with that glowering smirk on his face. Everyone at the cook line had their backs to him. As he passed one of the young women wrapping food, he placed a hand low on her back. Ryan saw her cringe away and grimace. He scowled sympathetically.

If he did that to me I'd knock his block off. Then again, he wouldn't. I'm a guy.

"Behave yourself," he muttered as Ken walked behind him.

"What, you said something?" The boss stopped, grinning. "Say it again so we can hear you."

Ryan glanced at the special requests and wrung the ketchup dispenser, dumping out red sauce all over the burger he was building. I'll keep my mouth shut.

"What's the matter? You're putting too much sauce on that burger."

Ryan reached for the pickles and slapped down at least five. Please leave me alone.

"What is this, Dagwood's burger? You've got too much of everything on it, dummy."

Ryan pointed silently to the grill slip on which the customer's requests were printed.

"Speed it up, stupid. You can't hold up the line just for one fat idiot's burger."

Can't you see I'm almost done with it? Don't get mad at him… he'll just use it against you. Remember what they told you about a vacation in the brain? Imagine yourself in Hawaii—warm sun, seashore, palm trees. Count to ten. Breathe. Focus. Don't get mad.

"Ryan, are you listening to me, you retarded—"

Ryan spun around and threw the whole half-finished burger in Ken's leering face. Ketchup splattered on the boss's expensive button-down shirt like blood. The other employees let out a collective gasp.

"Behave yourself!" Ryan shouted, his self-composure gone like the customer’s burger he’d just been preparing. Then…

My God, what have I done? Everyone's staring at me. I have to get out of here!

Ryan brushed past Ken, fled the kitchen and ran out the front door.

Run! He could have you arrested! You've assaulted the boss! You can't even go get your backpack. Now what? How will you ever get hired anywhere ever again?

He stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk, his eyes blurring with an overflow of hot tears. I'm all alone. I'm crazy. I overreacted. Nobody will have anything to do with me—I need to hide somewhere, anywhere!

"Hey, Ryan, wait for me!"

He jumped and turned. It was the young lady Ken had touched inappropriately. Jen, I think that's her name. Why…?

"If you're quitting, I'm quitting too." Jen caught up and held out his backpack. "Ken was gonna throw this in the trash. You should've heard him cussing at you. It was disgraceful."

"I… I—" What am I supposed to say? "I, uh, thank you! I really need my backpack."

"Of course you do. I'm proud of you, Ryan. You did exactly what I've been wishing I could do to our boss from the first day he hired me."

"What?? But… it's not good to blow up and throw things like that. What if I'd hurt him?"

"It was a burger." Jen rolled her eyes. "Nobody got hurt. He made me clean it up off the floor."

No, that can't be right. I'm a crazy weirdo, like they all think. I've proven it! This is too embarrassing.

"I need to hide," he blurted out, sniffling back tears.

"I understand. I should probably hide with you. Come on, let's scoot down this alley." Jen waved him along a narrow space between two shops. They sat down on stacks of red plastic delivery boxes by a roll-up utility door.

Ryan pulled some tissues out of his backpack and blew his nose.

Stop crying, please. You're just making it worse. But I can't! Every time I try to stop, I start again. I'm scared. I must be—

"It's ok to cry. You don't know how many times I cried my eyes out when I got home from Mackie's. It feels better afterwards."

She's not touching me. Or sitting too close. Or talking a lot. That's so… different. Does she like me?

"I'm afraid I'm a psychopath or something," he said after a long, shaking silence. "I was trying so hard to be calm. I wasn't even thinking about throwing anything at him, it almost happened by itself. And it's not like he was attacking me. It's just words. They don't—"

"Words do hurt. You're not crazy. It builds up, day after day after day. I saw how he treated you. He did the same to all of us. Under those circumstances, everybody goes through moments of losing their clarity—at least you aren't boring!"

"Are you kidding?" Ryan choked back a laugh. "I'm the definition of boring. I don't bother talking to anyone because I'm not interested in anything they talk about."

"What are you interested in?"

"Music. I'm learning to play the guitar and I'm dabbling with GarageBand. I want to make my own songs someday."

"Oh, that's incredible! I love music! I'm so obsessed with the cello right now, it's crazy. I can't afford lessons, but I'm saving up…"

Ryan relaxed as he listened patiently to Jen's excited chatter that jived perfectly with his own hobby. When she was done he told her about how he studied his favorite artists' songs to see how they wrote lyrics and built their music. She smiled and leaned in a little closer to listen.

How did I never talk to her before? All the time we spent slaving together in that awful place… I had no idea we had so much in common.

"I still think I lost my mind," he said at last, rubbing the sides of his head. "I have such a terrible headache now. I wasn't considering the consequences of my actions. He could have me charged with assault!"

"Don't worry about it," Jen assured him. "Happens all the time. In the morning you'll be better. And trust me, he's not going to the police. We've all got more on old Ken than he ever could tell them about you. Cameras don't lie."

"So now what?" This is so awkward. Am I supposed to ask if she wants me to walk her home? Should I invite her over my place? Do we just go home by ourselves?

"Well, I'd love to visit and see your guitar. I'm dying to get my hands on a musical instrument!"

"I know the feeling. It's a cheap thing I got at a pawn shop, though. I'm sure it doesn't sound very good."

"Trust me, I wouldn't mind or even know the difference! I just wanna make music."

"Let's go, then."

***

The next day, Ryan awakened naturally after a sleep so quiet it was like a blackout. He yawned and stretched, felt his ears ringing with the stretching, and began to consider his situation.

Maybe Jen and I should make a band together, start learning the ropes. At least Ken's not my boss anymore. Looks like I'll be taking a little vacation. But hey, there's always another fast food joint hiring. Things are slowly getting better, right?

He smiled at his reflection in the bathroom mirror.


Word Count: 1749.
Lyrics to Better

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