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Polarity

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Max laid in bed. He stared at the bedroom wall—at the darkness in front of him—with wide gray eyes. In his left hand, he clutched a pair of scissors. Exhaustion held firm to him, but so did terror. He couldn’t sleep. That would be the death of him. So his eyes fought to stay open, but that grew harder and harder to do with each passing minute.
           For a second, he wondered how this happened. How did he get into this scenario? In his sleeplessness, he couldn’t remember. All he could think as an answer were the words “bad luck”.
           The bedroom door inched open with a soft creak. Even if the sound didn’t give it away, the growing sliver of light across the wall Max gazed at would’ve.
           Though Max froze, his heart went into overdrive. He might’ve got up and run if he didn’t know that was his worst option. Instead, he stayed as still as he could. The trembling of his hands wasn’t so easy to stop, but his biggest struggle was keeping his breathing slow and steady.
           Nothing happened for what felt like an eternity. Then, the floor creaked a little as the stranger stepped closer to the bed.
           Max prayed they wouldn’t notice how rigid he was, or that he held a weapon. But he knew his breathing was much too forceful for someone asleep.
           When the stranger lifted the sheets and got into bed beside him, he wasn’t sure what to do. He was about to die, but he didn’t know what to do. The anxiety and fear he felt threw his restless mind into chaos, but still he laid there, unmoving—paralyzed.
           A hand slithered closer to Max, then rested itself upon his bony hip. He gripped his scissors even tighter. It was now or never.

* * *

It was raining outside. As of late, the weather seemed confused; some days it would snow, others it would pour. Whatever the case, Maxime Aleshire hadn’t seen the sun in days. Born and raised in Australia, the lack of sunlight made him feel ever more alienated in the States. Though, to be fair, he knew it was due more to his own reclusiveness than the weather in Boston.
           Day after day, the Aussie remained in his cramped apartment, alone. All he concerned himself with were work and music. In simple terms, he considered himself a workaholic. Whenever he grew sick of work, he’d unwind with more music. On rare occasions he’d leave his apartment, but often he reserved this for when he needed groceries. To his thinking, the less he went outside and interacted with people, the better. He could be safer that way.
           “M—x? Can—hear—m—?”
           As Max sat in his swiveling black office chair fiddling with the white cuff of his pale blue hoodie’s sleeve, he found himself thinking, as usual, about work. The joy of being a digital artist, for him, stemmed from how he could make money while working from the comfort of his own home. Given, the money he made was sparse; commissions were few and far between.
           It’s because I don’t advertise myself, he realized again, as he always did. I don’t put myself out there. Reckon that’s a bad marketing scheme. A bad scheme, but one he could never seem to escape. He knew why he never advertised himself: he lacked confidence that he was as good an artist as his handful of fans told him. Thinking about his last art piece, that was only more clear to him.
           Though most of his commissions were for other’s characters, he enjoyed drawing his own more. Rarely did they appear in more than one piece each. His latest—and somehow most popular thus far—was a woman named Stacey. He named and based her off of his ex, Stacey Eichel, with whom he was still friends . . . sort of. While it seemed to him that she considered him a friend, he often considered how little she meant to him. He didn’t dislike her, only held fast to an old grudge. After all, she decided to break up with him out of the blue that past New Year’s Eve. Without warning, during the countdown. Then, she had the nerve to ask if they could still be friends. He had the nerve to say yes.
           “Stup—micro—n—. Hel—o?”
           Max let out a weary sigh. Boredom washed over him, so he gazed in silence at the thick gray curtain over his bedroom window.
           My life is too monotonous, he thought. Too predictable. He considered how long had passed since the last time he went outside and realized it was at least a week. Even longer since I last showered . . .
           The only light in the room came from his glowing laptop screen, which he returned his gaze to. Open on it was his current sub-project: a short indie horror game. Even before starting the project, he’d known he wanted the character based off of Stacey to be the star. But only now did he consider why. Was he trying to “punish” her in some way, by utilizing the warped god-complex he seemed to have developed?
           Probably.
           “Max?”
           The sound of Stacey herself buzzing in his ear snapped Max from his thoughts. Only then did he remember how he was in a voice chat with her, since she’d pestered him into it.
           “Stace,” he replied with no enthusiasm, resisting the urge to drop the call. Instead, to give his hand something else to do, he tried to tuck a loose strand of his fluffy brown hair into the band of his headphones. It only fell back down a few seconds later, though.
           With relief clear in her voice, Stacey exclaimed, “Oh, good. You can still hear me.” Then, she went on to explain, “Mittens stepped on my microphone jack. You know how finicky it is.”
           As the Aussie digested this information, he overheard the young woman scolding her cat. In that moment, he found himself wishing they were talking over the phone. That way, he could hang up on her and blame it on low battery. Unfortunately, Stacey’s phone had no minutes, so she’d insisted on doing a voice chat over Facebook.
           Out of the blue, Max heard Stacey ask, “Anyway, what’ve you been up to?”
           It took a few seconds for him to process the question. “Well, y’know,” he began in his typical lazy, Australian-accented drawl. “The usual.”
           “Drawing in the dark?” The knowing sarcasm in her voice was so palpable that Max could almost feel it, as if she’d served it as a tennis ball to him.
           Eager to prevent her from scoring on his court, he coolly countered, “That sounds about right.”
           A huff. Then, “Max, come on. Life is passing you by. You should do more with it.”
           “Like what?” As he replied, Max leaned closer to his laptop. With the touchpad, he moved the cursor over the event of Stacey’s character in his game. He clicked it, then dragged her into a pit.
           “I don’t know, like . . . going outside? Interacting with people in real life? Or, no, you know what? I’d even accept you making a new friend online.”
           The Aussie rolled his eyes. “Overrated,” he stated bluntly. “I’m perfectly healthy right now. I’d like to keep it that way.”
           Stacey scoffed. “‘Perfectly healthy’? How many times have you talked to yourself in the past twenty-four hours? I mean, like, really had a conversation with yourself, out loud?” Before Max could give his answer (seventeen), she concluded, “If the answer is anything higher than zero, then I’d argue that you’re far from ‘healthy’, bud.”
           “Yeah, well, just because I’m my own best friend doesn’t mean I’m mentally unhinged, Stace.”
           “You spent all day ranting to me about how much you hate yourself.”
           Max took a moment to consider that. “Touché.”
           Through his headphones came the faintest sound of Stacey chuckling, which mocked him. “How about this? I dare you to hop onto Omegle right now.”
           “I’m a little busy.” As he hissed this, he selected a new tile and changed the pit under Stacey’s character to lava.
           “And stay on it, until you make a friend.”
           To this, Max couldn’t help but guffaw. “I’d sooner have gray hairs!”
           “With the way you live,” she quipped back, “I don’t doubt it.”
           They shared a laugh, but for Max it felt bittersweet. It brought to mind old memories, of when the two of them were dating. When she’d served as a social outlet for him—forced him to leave his apartment. Now, without her, he realized he’d turned into a complete recluse.
           Why did she break up with me? was what found its way into his mind. It was a familiar question, one he often dwelled on but never found an answer for. Was it because I wasn’t expressive enough? The truth was, in Max’s eyes, Stacey was the perfect enigma.
           There was a temptation to ask her now, but Max froze up before he could. He knew asking stupid questions like that could ruin their friendship—the only one he still had. As far as he cared, the anguish of uncertainty was better than complete solitude.
           Stacey yawned. “Man, I’m beat,” she exclaimed through the end, words near-incomprehensible.
           “Get some rest, Stace,” the Aussie encouraged. He picked up Stacey’s character, moving her out of the lava and back onto solid ground.
           “You too, hmm? Don’t stay up too late.”
           “Sure.” Though Max said this, he already knew he wouldn’t heed it.
           “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
           “Mm.”
           “Bye!”
           “Bye.”
           The sound of the call ending brought Max both enjoyment and despair. Enjoyment, because now he could work without interruption. Despair, because he didn’t feel like working anymore tonight.
           Max lounged deeper in his chair and let out a deep sigh. He’d never felt like he belonged in Boston, but breaking up with Stacey had only made that clearer. If he could, he knew he’d go back to Brisbane. Unfortunately, he sometimes struggled to even pay rent for his crappy apartment, so returning was a pipe dream. To make matters worse, his parents were here.
           Why did we ever leave Queensland? Why, of all places, did we have to move to Boston? It’s too cold here for me, even after nine years. Even the people are cold. How do my parents stand it?
           Gazing up at the dark white ceiling above him, Max pondered the question.
           They must be more social than I am, he concluded. Or at least mum must be; dad drinks too much to make friends.
           Max closed his eyes. He must’ve dozed off, because next thing he knew, it was midnight.
           With a low groan, the Aussie forced himself upright, pulling his legs in to sit cross-legged. While he was rubbing his eyes, he debated with himself about whether to go to bed or stay up for a little while. All of a sudden, like a freight train with no brakes, Stacey’s dare slammed into the forefront of his mind.
           For nine of his nineteen years alive, Max had been far from social. Yet, somehow, fatigue always seemed to make him feel a bit open—like a carefree ten-year-old all over again.
           Nothing better to do, I reckon . . . So why not take Stacey up on her challenge?
           As he typed Omegle’s URL into his browser’s address bar, some part of him argued he was doing this out of spite. That some part of him was only accepting the dare to prove the site’s uselessness to Stacey.
           I’ll take some screenshots and send them to her while she’s asleep. Or is that too passive-aggressive?
           To no surprise, he immediately regretted going on Omegle. The majority of strangers were either bots or horny people starting every conversation with “ASL?” He couldn’t help but assume it had something to do with how late it was.
           Thirty minutes must’ve passed before his patience finally reached its limit. But right as he was about to close the browser, he noticed one last stranger.
           “Hello?” they wrote.
           Max sighed. Did he have time to spare for one more conversation? Would it be worth it?
           Probably not, but I may as well try.
           “Hi,” he replied, though with reluctance.
           “Are you a bot?”
           This question made Max raise a brow. “Ha, not since I last checked.”
           “Oh, good.” After a pause, they then wrote, “So . . . ASL?” The question concluded with a winking emote.
           For a long beat, the Aussie only stared at his screen, enraptured by a dull sense of awe.
           Well, shit, he thought. So much for that.
           Yet, despite the way his hand moved for the Esc key, he couldn’t bring himself to leave the conversation himself. Part of him decided it would be better to express his disapproval with silence and watch the stranger leave out of shame.
           Who am I kidding? No one on this website has any shame.
           So it didn’t surprise him too much when the stranger resumed typing instead. What did, though, was what they typed.
           “Just kidding. Sorry, I thought that might be a funny icebreaker. I’m not the best at talking to strangers.”
           As refreshing as the admission was, to Max it somehow came across as strange. Even so, he responded with, “Neither am I, to be honest.” Then, in a sudden burst of positivity, he added, “I’m on here in the hopes of making a friend, but I haven’t found anyone who isn’t looking to root me.”
           “Same here,” replied the stranger. “You’re the only person I’ve met in the past two hours who’s actually spoken to me like a human being.
           Max’s eyes widened. Far out! Two hours? This bloke must have the patience of a saint!
           With a smiling emote tacked on, the stranger exclaimed, “Let’s be friends! I know the point of this site is anonymity, but my name’s Cameron. What’s yours?”
           The Aussie considered his options before deciding there’d be no harm in giving his name, it being common and all. “Max.”
           “Nice to meet you, Max. What do you like to do?”
           “I make artwork. I’m a digital artist for hire.”
           “Cool! I’m a writer. My favorite genre is horror. In fact, I’m in the middle of writing a novel in that genre.”
           “That’s funny. I’m actually working on a horror game right now.” It wasn’t until he sent this that Max realized it forced the conversation into an awkward dead-end. He knew he had a bad habit of steering conversations to focus on himself, because “himself” was what he knew best. Even so, he could never stop doing it.
           Somehow, though, Cameron managed to improvise. “Really?” he asked. “What’s it about?”
           The questions caught Max off-guard, so he answered, “It’s about a girl named Stacey. I haven’t quite figured out the plot yet.” A blunt answer, but true nonetheless; besides the protagonist and a rough intro, he didn’t have much to work with. Try as he may, writing interesting stories was far from his niche.
           “You’ll figure it out sooner or later,” Cameron told him. “Don’t rush it. It should come to you naturally.” Another winking emote.
           Max digested this reply, reading it over again and again. Every time he did, he felt himself smile a little more.
           Their conversation dragged on and on. With every message they exchanged, the Aussie found himself growing increasingly comfortable. He discovered through the course of their chat that he and Cameron had a lot in common. For example, they were both introverts. Or, rather, Cameron was a former introvert; somehow, he claimed to have overcome it by force. Over time and the course of several interactions outside his comfort zone, he’d managed to convert himself to extroversion.
           “Isn’t that exhausting? Interacting with strangers, I mean,” Max inquired. “For me, even talking to a friend over the phone is exhausting. And God forbid I have to call someone myself.”
           “To be honest,” Cameron responded, “I’ve never been happier. It’s better to take risks than to be lonesome.”
           Max allowed Cameron’s words to sink in. There was a slim chance he’d ever act on the advice, especially considering how worn out he felt. After a quick glance at the clock on his taskbar, he did a double take.
           Holy shit, it’s two in the morning already? Have I been talking with Cameron for that long?
           He thought for a moment before deciding he needed to sleep before he embarrassed himself. The last thing he wanted was to say something stupid without thinking. “Listen, I’m knackered, mate. I need to get some sleep, but I’d like to talk to you again.”
           “I would, too,” Cameron replied. “This is the best conversation I’ve had in a while.”
           “I could add you on Facebook.”
           “I don’t have a Facebook profile. I’m not too comfortable using that site. Could we connect through text?”
           To Max, it seemed an odd leap, going from online networking to asking for his cellphone number. Part of him argued e-mail would be a more rational jump.
           Then again, who the hell uses e-mail anymore? If I proposed that, he’d think I’m a weirdo or something. Everyone talks through text nowadays . . . If it’s the only way to talk to him again after this, then why not? What’s the worst that could happen?
           “Sure, all right.”
           “Great! Here’s my number. Send me a text before you disconnect from here!” After this, Cameron sent a phone number.
           Max reached into one of the pockets of his dark green cargo shorts and pulled out his cellphone. With tired eyes, he tapped the number into the contact box and pressed the text bubble.
           “Hello? It’s Max,” he wrote. But as he moved his thumb to the send button, he froze.
           You’re about to make a mistake, Max.
           Something deep in the back of his mind stopped him in his tracks. But despite his better judgment, he then shook his head at his own thoughts.
           No, it’s time I get over this silly social paranoia. Cameron seems nice. Sure, I haven’t known him very long, but he’s a good guy. I can feel it. If I’m gonna open up to anyone, it might as well be him.
           After he sent the text, he watched as Cameron disconnected from Omegle. A few seconds later, the near-stranger began writing a text back. Max thought he knew what to expect from it, until it appeared in a new bubble.
           “Got you!” it read.
           For a long moment, Max only stared at the text, unsure how to feel about it.
           Okay, he eventually thought, that’s . . . a bit strange.
           Yet, even so, he decided not to read too much into it.
           It’s only a casual reply. No reason to freak out over it. He must’ve meant it like “Understood” or something, right? That’s gotta be it.
           Clinging to the slight comfort rationality brought, the Aussie took a deep breath and turned off his laptop. After a minute or two spent getting ready for bed, his phone dinged, so he looked at it.
           Cameron’s new text read, “Are you going to sleep?”
           “Yeah,” Max replied, “you?”
           “Yeah.” There came and went a pause before Cameron’s next message: “Man, look at us. We’ve only just met, but we talked until we fell asleep. This could be the start of something beautiful, Max.”
           The Aussie smiled, though he wasn’t sure what emotion caused it.
           Sure, he thought, inner voice dripping with awkward sardonicism. Though, he opted not to reply to Cameron this time.
           He plugged his phone into the wall and laid it face-up on the floor beside his bed. Then, he slid under the covers. A few minutes passed, during which he tried to sleep, but his mind wouldn’t stop racing. His conversation with Cameron kept running through his head. Sleep felt impossible.
           Was it right to trust him so fast? I’m usually more cautious than that . . . Oh, whatever. I’m sure she’ll be apples. Can’t have good things without taking risks, can you? Who knows, maybe Cameron’s right: this could be the start of something beautiful.
           Max dwelled on the idea, blinking and staring at the ceiling. As it finally started to sink in, he rolled his eyes.
           Ha. Too right. Shut up, ya twit.
           Sick of thinking, Max grabbed the blanket and pulled it up over his head. With any luck, the warm embrace of darkness would lull him to sleep. But despite his efforts, he spent the rest of his time awake thinking of Cameron.

 

Stranger