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Alex quickly slipped through the side door of the art history auditorium and moved up the stairs before sliding into the exact same row he'd sat in all semester long for ninety minutes a day, three days a week. 

It was just past halfway up in the stadium-styled lecture hall, right at the point where the room faded into darkness, placing it just out of reach of the projector's bright screen and the professor's roaming eyes. His usual chair was in about eight seats, somewhat centering him but still leaving him close enough to the aisle for easy access and to hopefully deter anyone else from sitting too close.

The class was fairly large and the majority of students situated themselves towards the front so they could ask questions and be seen by the numerous TAs, and maybe sitting close even helped them to stay awake in the notoriously boring class. Alex needed none of that and preferred being higher up and away from the others so he could comfortably observe and learn in his own way.

It was early December and the cruel cold held tightly to Alex's bones, reluctant to loosen its stubborn grip despite the warm air being pumped into the hall. 

Alex shivered at the temperature change as he unwrapped his scarf and removed his gloves, and he was just struggling out of his wool coat when movement at the same door he'd just entered caught his eye. 

He quickly freed himself of the last vestiges of his winter gear and sat, eagerly watching the familiar group enter and noisily work their way up towards him, laughing and chatty as usual and casually greeting him while removing their own gear and settling in their rows.

Alex responded with a small smile and short wave of his hand.

 

They were a sizable lot, three girls and three guys, and from what Alex could tell they were good friends and were probably newly acquainted since attending the university.

Each girl was gorgeous in her own unique way and they always made Alex blush when they smiled warmly and greeted him, sometimes even adding a wink for flirty measure. And of course, the guys were good-looking, as well, another fact that also turned Alex's face red. All three were boisterous and athletic in a way that Alex knew he would never be, but could still appreciate and admire from afar.

The group had always been nice to Alex, had always politely smiled and nodded, even on the very first day of the course, as they shuffled around, choosing some seats down several rows in front of him.

Every class after that, they had somehow managed to subtly move closer and closer to Alex in some secretive adult adoption ritual that Alex hadn't realized was happening until it was too late and they were suddenly sitting in the rows directly in front of him.

It didn't bother Alex as much as he thought it would, they still gave him the space they sensed he wanted, but they were closer, in a nice, noninvasive way.

 

The girls always included Alex when they brought treats to class.

It was a gesture that had started early in the term when they had given Alex one of the homemade cupcakes they'd made to celebrate Nick's birthday.

Alex had been awed by the simple gesture and their generosity, and he blushed into an embarrassed smile and stared entirely too long at the beautiful offering in front of him before he finally tore into the sweet perfection, earning him gentle, knowing smiles from the ladies.

And the guys were just as friendly and included Alex in their weekly football discussions whether he contributed to the conversation or not, and they sometimes compared lecture notes with him and always invited him out to dinner and parties, even though they knew from past experience that he'd never accept.

It meant a great deal to Alex that this group of classmates liked him enough to not only include him in their plans, but they were also completely fine letting Alex be who he was and never pressured him for more. Their interaction with Alex was much more than any other he had on campus, where he doubted anyone else even knew his name, where he was probably just referred to as that creepy quiet guy, just like in high school.

Alex found himself thinking about the six of them often as he sat alone in his small flat, imagining they were close friends and wishing he were normal enough to hang out with them.

 

When Alex was very young, his parents had worried that he was possibly deaf, partially mute, or even something more complicated because he didn't holler, scream, and run around like most children his age.

But he'd been tested and was found to be perfectly healthy, much to their relief.

The doctors told them Alex was simply shy, and that he'd eventually grow out of it.

But he hadn't.

Alex simply liked to be off by himself, either playing alone or watching others play, usually staying very close to his mum or dad, his timid fingers clutching at their clothing as he bashfully peered out from behind them. And that was fine with his parents, who never pressed their boy to talk or interact more than he wanted to and encouraged him to be content in his own skin and doing only what he was comfortable doing.

Alex did extremely well in school, earning top marks across the board, his teachers adapting to his unique condition by giving him alternative assignments that didn't include presentations or speeches in front of his peers, where he constantly squirmed with the nagging feeling of being judged, stared at, or made fun of because of his inability to be normal.

Because of his shyness, Alex went through school never experiencing a close friendship. His personality was a hard one to coax out and the rare few who were ever even remotely interested in developing a relationship with Alex soon gave up, not liking the quietness he was most comfortable existing in.

Holding simple conversations and building long-lasting friendships was a skill most people learned at an early age.

Not Alex.

Alex just wasn't like other people.

But that didn't mean he didn't want the same things.

It wasn't as though Alex hated being around people, he actually enjoyed it. His reluctance to socialize didn't exclude him from admiring or being envious of people like Matt, Jamie, and Nick, or even Breana, Katie, and Kelly, who seemed to have it all — looks, confidence, humor, and smarts.

To Alex, they were living the life, a life Alex sometimes wished he could be a bigger part of.

 

Lately, Alex had grown tired of being alone.

He was ready to make the extra effort and work hard towards moving forward in his life and embracing all the wonderful things it had to offer without giving up too much of himself.

He wanted friends, wanted to go out with them to have a bite to eat, see a movie, attend a concert, or even just to shop, he wanted friends who would text him and wouldn't judge him because he was abnormally shy.

And Alex wanted to find that someone special of his own out there in the great, big world who cared about him and accepted him just the way he was, someone he could trust and depend on, whom he could share his private thoughts and secrets with and maybe, one day, could even hug or hold their hand, just to see what it was like to feel their skin and its warmth, to see if it was as wonderful as he imagined it would be.

This group of people in his art history class motivated Alex with their utterly complete acceptance of him and their genuinely honest display of friendship. This was the closest he'd ever been to having real friends and he vowed to himself that, one day, he would forge ahead with his newfound goal and take them up on an offer to join them.

One day.

 

"You did WHAT?" Nick sputtered out loudly, nearly choking on the sip of hot coffee he'd just swallowed as the group continued the discussion they'd been having as they entered the building.

The girls began giggling while Matt and Jamie, who were both usually loud and animated, seemed weirdly turned to stone, their faces pale and frozen in shock as they sat down mechanically like robots, their mouths hanging open and their tongues tied over the current topic.

"Oh my God, Nick! Keep it down!"

"I said we kissed! That's all...and we got paid really well for it...it's no big deal."

The three girls stood in the row in front of the guys and took their time carefully removing their scarves, mittens, and hats before placing them safely on nearby seats.

"Oh, and we may have also taken our clothes off and fooled around a bit...now shut up and eat the lovely breakfast we were so thoughtful to bring you..."

The ladies giggled again and leaned into each other affectionately as they started passing out pastries from a local bakery's instantly recognizable blue and silver bag.

Matt, Jamie, and Nick were stunned into silence.

 

Breana stepped one foot on her folding seat and hoisted her tiny self into the guy's row before repeating her actions and landing gracefully in Alex's row.

She smiled at him as she placed a napkin and donut on top of his notebook and then gently popped Matt in the head and motioned for him to pass back a coffee.

She set the hot drink next to his pastry. "Hi Alex, I really like that shirt..."

Alex looked down at himself, trying to recall what he'd thrown on that morning, discovering his dark, long-sleeved Henley.

He flushed and smiled shyly, pushing the strands of his long hair slightly off his face. "Thanks, Breana..."

"No problem, honey, we missed you Wednesday night..." She said it casually, as though they regularly met up, even though they never had. It was the gesture that counted, the group never guilted Alex over declining their invitations, this time for karaoke night at a popular pub. 

Alex picked at the donut, not making eye contact with her, and nodded.

Breana's smile grew wider and more gentle. "Maybe next time, yeah?"

Alex's body flooded with warmth at the friendship she and the rest of them continued offering, afraid one day it would disappear, and he looked up at her and nodded again, the soft smile still there as he tore a piece off from the donut and popped it quickly into his mouth.

She grinned and nodded back as she easily propelled her little body back over the row, accidentally kneeing Matt in the shoulder. Alex wondered if maybe it was done a little on purpose based on the reaction it provoked. Matt's strong arm shot out and grasped around her tiny calf to steady her as she continued climbing over the other row of seats, and the two exchanged long eye contact that seemed filled with blooming interest.

The entire five-second interaction made Alex blush and he immediately stared down at his coffee, hiding behind his long, dark hair.

He was both happy and sad.

Happy because they seemed to be headed in an exciting new direction.

Sad because all he wanted was for someone to look at him the way Matt looked at Breana and Breana looked at Matt.

 

"Now, ladies...for the love of God...we need to know everything that happened...all of it...every little detail..." Jamie demanded, having just recently regained his ability to speak.

Nick and Matt nodded eagerly in agreement, completely ignoring their food and drink and leaning in closer to the row in front of them.

Alex listened in as Breana, Kelly, and Katie explained how they'd made some easy money over the weekend by allowing themselves to be filmed making out, and maybe some other stuff, and that the photographer mentioned he'd be in town through the new year and was looking for more people to film.

"Wait, wait, wait...just hold it right there..." Matt sat back hard against his seat in disbelief. "Let me get this straight. Are you telling me that someone will PAY ME to have a little wank in front of a camera? Is there a limit on how many videos I can make?" Matt's enthusiasm earned him shushes from the girls and hoots and shoving from the guys.

Even Alex grinned, embarrassed, into a blush. 

The lights dimmed, the projector turned on, and the professor began yet another monotone lecture, silencing the auditorium and the discussion.

"I'm serious...is there?" Matt whispered, but was ignored.

 

Alex completely zoned out as the instructor droned and droned on and on and on about chiaroscuro and tenebrism.

More pressing matters were running through his mind.

Just the month before, the little bookstore Alex worked at had suddenly closed, leaving him extremely short on cash for his living expenses.

Extremely short on cash meaning no cash at all.

It had been the perfect job for Alex, who loved the old books and the quietness that just happened with that type of store, where people naturally slipped into library-mode when surrounded by books. It was also full-time, paid well, and the natural ebb and flow between the regular visits of their loyal customers allowed Alex ample opportunities to study.

The owners had tried competing with the big chain stores and their trendy coffee shops, but they couldn't keep up with the costs, so Alex could only offer tea and two old tables with mismatched chairs, and could only order new books when customers left deposits for them.

Alex knew the store was struggling and that it was going to close eventually, he just hadn't planned on it being so soon and on such short notice. 

He was now in a bind and needed money desperately. His electricity had already been cut off, his rent was nearing two weeks overdue, and he was quite certain the final warning from his landlord, threatening eviction, would be taped to his door and greeting him when he returned to his flat later on that evening.

Eating the rest of the month would be nice, too.

 

It wasn't like Alex wasn't trying. The same day he arrived at the bookstore and saw the sign stating they were closed permanently, he had started looking for extra work, but the timing couldn't have been worse with companies already with enough seasonal help, or not hiring at all.

And Alex did have two other jobs, but their paychecks combined weren't enough to get him in the clear.

He was part of the work/study program at the university and occasionally cleaned the academic halls late at night when a custodian was ill or they needed extra help.

The work was easy and repetitive, and Alex would lose himself in the music blaring from his crappy pair of headphones while sweeping, mopping, dumping trash, and cleaning bathrooms in the buildings where he had just attended classes. He really didn't mind it much, he liked being on his own and the pay was decent, but the hours were sporadic at best and sometimes it was hard staying awake in his lectures the next day after being up all night.

But he managed, beggars couldn't be choosers, after all.

Alex also edited papers online and made a decent amount of cash doing it, but just like the janitorial work, it wasn't consistent enough to rely on as steady income. And with school about to let out for winter break, he knew he wouldn't be getting any new contracts until classes started up again.

Alex liked the computer work a great deal as there was no direct, face-to-face interaction, so he could be anyone he wanted to be, could be outgoing and have an amazing sense of humor, and could maybe even be a little flirty, too, if he wanted, because online, his clients only knew him as TheLastShadowPuppet.

Alex enjoyed sharing exchanges with fellow students from around the globe, most were repeat customers or referrals from others who had used him before, and he liked that, liked feeling like they were his good friends who were away at school and occasionally messaged him with questions about content, organization, and grammar.

Alex sometimes wished his actual life were more like his online life.

 

His last class that day came and went quickly, finally heralding in the weekend's arrival, and Alex emerged from the English building bundled up in his heavy coat with his backpack slung low over one shoulder, his eyes peering out from his thick, wool scarf.

It hadn't been a very productive day, which was unusual for Alex, who always listened intently to lectures and took copious notes, but he was okay with it, this time.

The girls and their tale of quick cash had stewed in his head where he had mulled it around, weighing his options and sorting out the pros and cons until he had come to a decision.

Alex's usual path after exiting the building would've had him cutting across campus towards his flat, but today, he turned on his heel and headed in the opposite direction, towards the city bus stop where he stood huddled in the corner of the bench's shelter beside several other students who were doing the same, all too cold to talk, too cold to move, too cold to care, even for a Friday.

The bus he was waiting on arrived not ten minutes later. For a split second, Alex thought about walking away, but his resolve kicked in along with the image of the very cold and dark flat that awaited him, and that alone was enough to propel him through the opened doors, up the short steps, and onto the bus.

Both his nerves and the biting temperature had him shaking, causing him to fumble with the coins through his thick, cumbersome gloves before shoving them into the meter. He then quickly moved down the aisle, avoiding eye contact at all costs, until he came across an empty row near the back.

 

He remained bundled up, it was going to be a long ride and the hollow metal bus with its poorly insulated and rickety windows and its cheap plastic seating felt frozen solid from the constant opening and closing of the door at its frequent stops.

Alex sunk his face into the warmth of his heavy coat and hid behind his scarf, trying his best not to look around, afraid to meet others' eyes, thinking they would know exactly where he was headed and what he was about to do.

After several stops with passengers shuffling on and off, Alex accidentally met the gaze of an older woman roughly about his mother's age, who smiled gently back at him as she sat down, and no, no, no, he couldn't think things like that right now, like how the stranger was his mother's age, or anything about his mother or his father and how devastated they'd be if they knew what he was doing.

Alex had already disappointed them enough by not going home for Christmas break this year, choosing instead to stay behind after his last final exam where he would hopefully pick up some quick, seasonal jobs to get him through the holiday and into the new year. He had desperately tried to figure out a way around it, but in the end he knew he just couldn't afford to relax and celebrate with his parents in the comforting home of his childhood, time-wise or money-wise.

As their only child, he knew what the news had done to them both, but as usual, they tried their best to sound cheery and understanding, so as not to make Alex feel even worse.

Alex back-swallowed the growing lump that was painfully forming in his throat as he tried to push thoughts of his parents away.

 

He sighed, his warm breath filling the scarf around his face.

He didn't need this right now, he didn't need to think of his parents when he was about to do something he knew would absolutely break their hearts. And he wouldn't go to them for help. He'd already asked too much and he couldn't, wouldn't, ask for any more. He knew times were hard at the moment and that his parents could barely afford to make their own monthly payments, much less help him out with his.

Alex needed to do this just once to get the cash to pay his bills, and then he'd find another job that would work around his schedule and allow him to support himself.

The solution wasn't ideal, Alex knew that, but it was a solution and it would only put him on the spot, no one else, and that fact alone was what had helped him make the final call.

Alex had to stop being such a burden and had to quit clinging to his parents' pant legs.

He had to learn to make it on his own out in the world.

He could do this.

No matter how introverted he was, Alex was determined to push through it, to prove to himself that his shyness didn't control everything about him, it was just the way he preferred to be.

He was going to do this.

 

The motel was on the outskirts of town in an area that used to be its thriving hub but had been pretty much abandoned once the city started growing in a different direction.

It was styled in an old America West theme, complete with a neon cowboy sign that had a mechanical moving arm, slowly waving his pistol back and forth towards the sky.

It was a two-story, wraparound building with a sad, little cement pool with a faded fiberglass slide in the middle of the parking lot, drained and closed for winter. There were aged, cracked lounge chairs stacked and shoved off into a corner and the two large concrete planters at the entrance were now filled with cigarette butts and trash, their paint chipped and flaking, the cheery flowers that were there long ago now dust and a faded memory.

There was an old, flocked Christmas tree with tinsel showing through the office windows, half of its multi-colored lights were out, the other half blinking sadly against cheap dollar store ornaments.

The sunlight in the sky was fading fast and that made Alex feel a little better at the thought of being cloaked in the anonymity of the coming darkness.

Recalling every detail the girls had told the guys during class, Alex quickly bypassed the office and went straight to one of the motel rooms, straight to the one with the bright, burnt orange door with a longhorn on it.

 

The door opened before Alex could muster the courage to knock and two young women about his age emerged, giggling nervously and whispering as they headed to the parking lot.

Alex noted the wad of cash they both clutched in their mittened fists.

"Good luck!" One casually threw out to him, causing his eyes to drop to the ground as his face reddened.

"Looks like you're really going to need it!" The other giggled at his bashfulness and they both rushed off, laughing and whispering even more.

Alex was standing at the threshold when the door opened a little wider and a guy peeked around it. He grimaced when he saw Alex, rolling his eyes and mumbling something about overtime and missing dinner, before he quickly sized him up and nodded briskly.

"Well, come on then, get in here. I haven't got all day and it's fucking cold."

Without a second thought, Alex entered and stood just inside the closed door, awkwardly looking around the room which had been set up like a temporary office with a row of metal, folding chairs and table.

Alex soon found himself sitting on one of the chairs and answering the guy's random questions while filling out some forms clipped to a worn, wooden clipboard.

 

There were several others in the room, one a jock about ten times Alex's size who already looked hard and ready to go, the other was a young couple and the girl looked like she was about to back out at any minute, maybe because the alcohol was wearing off and she was sobering up.

Alex looked down again, nervously scribbling his answers.

"Are you cool with being filmed with someone else? We pay more for that." The guy pointed to one question on the sheet, hopeful that he might be able to finish his shift on time that night if he could pair the participants up.

Alex quickly checked the SOLO box.

Despite the draw of extra cash, he was already having a hard enough time accepting he was going to be naked and touching himself in front of anyone, much less a stranger with a camera. Alex didn't need the extra pressure of being paired up in some bizarre circle jerk, or worse yet, with the monster of an athlete sitting across from him who would no doubt put him even further to shame.

The receptionist sighed, his irritation not lost on Alex.

"How about your name?"

Alex looked up at him, his face flushing and brows lowering because he didn't understand the question.

The guy rolled his eyes and tapped impatiently on the clipboard.

"Can our filmmaker use your real name, like when he talks to you during the video?"

Alex looked down at the sheet, feeling the pressure to complete it quickly before the receptionist became any more agitated.

He checked YES.

 

"Alright, if you answer no on these next two, your pay will double because it'll save time on the editing process and we'll be able to get your video out there on the streets faster...so everyone, even your mom and pop and all your friends back home, can see you in all your naked glory..." The guy sneered, pointing to the questions about putting black bar over his eyes and pixelating his face.

Double the pay!

That amount of money would cover another half month to find a job.

Alex felt his face heating from both the guy's rude teasing and the idea of his parents ever seeing what he was about to do, but he wasn't going to let this condescending jerk affect him either way.

He needed the cash.

He checked NO on both boxes, sending up a silent prayer to the Karma Gods that his tape be accidentally destroyed somewhere along the processing line, keeping it from ever seeing the light of day, or dark of night.

Alex's stomach lurched as he handed the clipboard back to the guy, his mind racing at the thought of who was going to be watching him on film and what they would be doing to themselves as they watched him.

 

The guy looked him over, judging him critically.

"You sure are a quiet one...maybe you'll find your voice when rubbing a dirty one out, yeah?"

Alex's face blushed against his wishes and the couple giggled while the jock felt it necessary to chime in.

"From the looks of him, he'll probably only be moaning out his own name!"

The receptionist laughed at that and must have immediately thought better of it, by the looks of the menacing glare he immediately directed at the jock.

"Shut your fucking trap, you moron! I didn't ask for your dumbass opinion, so shut up, will ya?"

Alex suddenly felt lightheaded, his palms were clamming up, the room was beginning a slow rotation into a spin, and he honestly thought he was about to be sick.

The tiny motel room was suddenly too, too warm and Alex began to remove his coat while he eyed the path to the bathroom, just in case, when the mobile on the table chirped.

 

The receptionist grabbed the phone and sent off a series of short texts with the sender before looking straight at Alex, and smiling.

"Okay, Alvin, you're up first, lover boy."

Alex was about to correct him, to tell him his name wasn't Alvin, but then he decided maybe it was better that the guy had his name wrong.

It really didn't matter one way or another.

Alex never planned to do this again. After this, he'd find a better way to make ends meet, gladly leaving this experience in the past where it would hopefully fade out of his memory.

And anyway, people getting his name wrong was nothing new to Alex.

He understood.

That's just the way it was.

He was forgettable, just a ghost going through the motions, transparent, with people either forgetting him as soon as they saw him or looking right through him and never really seeing him.

He was used to it.

 

Alex stood, fidgeting, and the guy motioned for him to leave the room, thrusting the paperwork in his hand as he did it.

"You can't miss it, unless you're a complete idiot. Go past the doors with the coyote and the rattlesnake, and knock on the one with the cactus...and give him this..."

"Hey! Why does he get to go first? We've been here longer! I haven't got all day, you know, I've got things to do!" The jock stood, angry, motioning wildly to the couple and himself.

The receptionist moved into the athlete, who towered above his scrawny frame, and aggressively jabbed a finger into his chest while looking up at him.

"Now, you fucking listen to me, asshole, because I'm only gonna say this once. You go when I tell you to go, alright? Don't you dare tell me how to do my fucking job, you moron, or you can leave right now."

The two stared off for a few seconds before the monster of a jock stubbornly sat back down, pouting.

"Now, you...Alvin...stop wasting my fucking time and get your ass over there. Time is money!" The guy rudely guided Alex to the door where he pushed him out and slammed it shut behind him.

At first, Alex welcomed the instant chill as it soothed his nausea, but soon he was cursing the bitter wind and the way it blew the cold deep into his clothing, his gloved fingers awkwardly pulling his scarf up over his nose to protect it and his face from its relentless onslaught.

Alex wondered briefly if it were possible that it was even colder and windier than when he had arrived at the motel not even a half hour before.

Only because the weather was dictating it and not because he wanted to rush things along, Alex found himself with his head down and hurrying his way to the door with the cactus.

 

Alex hesitated in front of the turquoise door, his hand balling into a puffy fist, poised to knock.

He could feel his heart beating through his many layers of clothing, faster and faster, louder and louder, could feel it in his chest, his head, his ears.

This was it.

His last chance to change his mind.

He could just blow this off and maybe look for a quick job or two shoveling snow, except shoveling heavy, wet snow wasn't quick nor easy, and making this video paid so well for the amount of time it took, was actually double the pay he had originally expected.

Alex didn't have the luxury of time to waste. His rent was past due, his flat was dark and cold, he was hungry, and he could only job hunt between classes, and with finals now coming up, he'd have even less time.

Alex mashed his scarf down past his mouth and used his teeth to pull the glove from his hand.

He stood there as his trembling fingers traced over the colorful, lime green cactus for a moment, back and forth and back and forth, before he took a deep breath and committed himself.

His knock was uncharacteristically loud and firm.