Graeme gives his best customer service smile to the condescending, pink velvet track-suit wearing, jerk of a woman standing in front of him, daring her in his mind to just say the inevitable already.
“I’d like to speak to your manager.”
And there we go. “Yes, ma’am,” Graeme says with a nod, twin spikes of anxiety and anger piercing his heart. He should have known the minute he saw her, with her perfect blonde updo, that the customer was going to end up being entitled and unreasonable, blaming him for the fact that what she ordered had mayo on it. Mayo is clearly listed on the menu. But whatever. What is she even doing at a fast food joint? he thinks to himself as he walks away from the counter to find his manager. “Hey, Jer, customer needs to see you.”
Jeremy sighs, pulling his long legs off the break room desk and stretching out. “What’d’ya do this time, Graeme-cracker?” He laughs at the look of anxiety on Graeme’s face and slaps him on the back. “Just kidding, just kidding, I’m sure it’s fine.”
Sure. Sure. It’s just fine. Everything is fine, he tells his too-rapid heart, and immediately goes to the kitchen to see how he can be helpful in the meantime. If he just stands here until he’s needed at the front again, he’s going to end up spiraling into a panic attack.
I don't get in trouble that often. This is the first time someone has asked to speak to a manager in months. I’m not getting fired. I’m okay. It’s okay.
The positive self-talk actually helps as a coping mechanism for once, as he slides in beside one of the high schoolers. He thinks her name is Jenna. They come and go, so why bother to learn their names? They’re not going to be stuck here for life, not like him, not like Jeremy. They’re just earning pocket change or gas money or their college fund. The Burger Joint is just a pitstop on their way to a life where they get to be the rich jerk with the blonde updo and pink velvet tracksuit asking for a manager. He doesn’t bother making small talk with the high schoolers. He may have only graduated high school two years ago but he feels infinitely older than them.
Course, he barely makes small talk with the ones like Jeremy, either. He's worked here since he graduated — hell, the Burger Joint might be the steadiest presence he’s ever had in his life — and all he knows about Jeremy is that he's only slightly older than him and he got pegged as management material his first year on the job. Jeremy, as he often likes to tell Graeme, has ambitions. Jeremy will own this franchise someday, according to Jeremy. That’s Graeme’s problem, according to Jeremy: Graeme doesn't have ambitions.
Bull shit Graeme doesn't have ambitions. Graeme’s biggest ambition is the most important ambition anyone could have: to survive. To keep his head above water, because being alive is worth it even if being alive is this. He will not give up.
Unfortunately, Graeme’s biggest weakness is that when it comes to survival mode, he doesn’t opt for fight or flight — he opts for freeze. His brain is built that way — anxiety disorder, first diagnosed at 15, first experienced at who the fuck knows, it’s always been like this for Graeme — and the only thing that beats back the anxiety effectively is being on meds. He has a whole array of coping mechanisms that he uses, more often now that the meds are gone. With them, he can string together some manageable hours of his day.
He and the high schooler fall into a routine, automatically slapping burgers and chicken sandwiches together in complete silence. Enough silence that Graeme begins to worry if it’s an awkward silence. If he should fill that silence, even though he doesn’t want to.
Because this is what Graeme’s mind does. Well, it’s what his mental illness does. It finds stupid shit to worry about and worries about it into the ground until he’s caught too deep in the spiral. He should not be worrying about making shit small talk with this high schooler that’s probably going to quit in another month because the Burger Joint is minimum wage and demeaning and beneath her. He doesn’t need to worry about this, he doesn’t, he doesn’t—
“Back to the front, Graeme-cracker,” Jeremy says with a grin, like it’s the funniest joke he’s ever made, despite making it ten minutes ago. Maybe it was funny, the first time Graeme heard it, two years ago. He can’t really remember now. “Gave her a free meal ticket and sent her on her way.”
He manages, just barely, to keep his lip from curling up in contempt. Maybe he should try complaining about petty shit at fast food places, if he could get free meals out of it. Except the thought of eating anything from here, after years of coming home smelling like fry oil every night, makes his stomach turn. He has a deal with Fernando, one of his roommates, anyway. He brings home his comp meal for Fernando every day, and Fernando pays part of his rent.
He has a similar deal worked out with Terrence, except with the food he cooks. Graeme doesn’t have expensive tastes — he can’t afford to — but he does like cooking for himself, figuring out how to do it on his budget. Sure, he buys a lot of dented cans and bruised fruits and veggies, but he makes it work, so Terrence, who can’t cook for shit, pays part of his rent, too. The two deals make the skyrocketed Seattle rent for his closet-of-a-bedroom manageable, for the most part.
Graeme is good at working out deals. He’s used it as a survival mechanism since he was little. Mrs. McCree gave him cooking lessons in return for him keeping her yard clean year round. He edited papers for Billy Jenkins in exchange for protection at school. And most importantly, he stayed out of the house as much as possible so mama could have her private time with her long, varied string of boyfriends, and in return, he didn’t get hurt or yelled at. When he left the trailer park, he exchanged blow jobs for places to stay or less rent or meals, until he got tired of the anxiety that came from waiting for his tests to come back.
He’s negative, right now, and he’s planning on staying that way for the near future, and his life is too messed up to pursue any type of non-reciprocal relationship based on like... love or something. Whatever normal relationships are based on, like he knows normal. Something deep inside him misses and craves the short human contact that came from that sex deals, though.
The world is a series of exchanges, deals, and machinations, and that’s how you get things done, a lesson Graeme learned long ago. Deals mean surviving, and surviving is paramount. His dad hadn’t survived, hadn’t fought to survive, and Graeme’s not going out that way, no matter what. He shudders and suppresses the memory of the afternoon his died killed himself. He’s never taking that out.
Part of his brain continues to take orders, offer wan smiles and greetings and acknowledgements of ‘have a nice day’, and exchange money. The other part of his brain continues to spiral. Only now, he’s tackling the bigger things, the bigger problems he has to worry about, genuine worries, not just that shit like small talk.
The big stuff, like how his brain’s slowly getting worse without his meds. He hasn’t had a day without spiraling since… fuck. He’s not even sure anymore. He used to be able to count the days between spirals, would reward himself for beating his old record. Now he’s forgotten how long it’s been since he hasn’t had one — it’s like he’s fifteen all over again, emotions and hormones all over the place, barely able to make it through a day of school.
The big stuff, like how his hours got cut back at the gas station. With the new schedule, he’s going to have to scrimp even more at the store, cut even more corners, to get by.
The big stuff, like how he’s going to have to go back to Drew if he wants to feel better. And the last time he saw Drew, the dealer had tried to push other stuff on him, because honestly, his anti-anxiety meds are rather small fry. Sure, on the street, they go for a pretty penny — although cheaper than at the pharmacy with no health insurance — but Drew tried to get him to shoot up, promised it would fix all of his problems. He hadn’t, he’d gotten out of there as quickly as possible — without his meds — and now the thought of going back to Drew scares him shitless.
Because at least he’s got that part of his life together. At least he’s not on drugs. Or, well. Not illegal ones. Just ones that make his brain work, that make it possible for him to work, to sleep, to function in society. The ones he’s been bending over backward to make sure he can still get for the last two years. Like, number one on the list for survival is TAKE YOUR MEDS, GRAEME.
The spiral gets worse when he clocks off at the Burger Joint, without work to distract him. He slides his favorite black hoodie on, his fingers jittery as he pulls out the little ponytail he’d swept his rough-textured thick brown hair back in for his shift. He fluffs it up, grumbling at it, thinking about borrowing Terrence’s clippers tonight and shaving it all off again. He wishes he could care more about it, fleetingly, before other worries swamp him. He plugs in his earbuds to try and drown them out.
It’s already raining outside when he pushes the back door open, but he flicks through his music list to find the rain sounds album anyway. Hood up, he pushes his phone and his cold fingers into the hoodie pocket and clomps through the puddles in his ugly black non-slip work shoes. Coping mechanism number 379: rain sounds. For some reason, rain sounds make him calm. Maybe it reminds him of the rain pattering down on the roof of the trailer, pinging and drowning out anything he didn’t want to hear. Maybe because sometimes, if it’s hard enough, it just sounds like static, and whatever frequency that static vibrates at makes it so his brain can’t be penetrated by invasive anxious thoughts.
He used to listen to music, once upon a time. The last few months, though, it’s basically just been the rain sounds. Shutting his brain up and zoning out is better than the spirals. Neither are a permanent solution, he knows. Spending hours a day zenned-out to rain sounds is no better than spending hours a day worrying. He still loses the hours, regardless. There’s probably stuff he could be doing with those hours, like accepting one of the invitations from his roommates to go out and dance, for once. His roommates think he’s the world’s biggest introvert. He’s not, it’s just — just that his brain is too loud to take it anywhere louder.
He has an hour break before he has to be at the gas station; 6 hours there before he gets to go home and sleep. Ha, sleep. Okay, before he gets to go home and curl up on his futon and let his mind spiral about … everything. He hasn’t been getting enough sleep for the last eight months or so. Even when he had them, the meds had needed adjusting; but getting a doctor to adjust them is not a thing he can afford right now. Still, the dose he’d been on is better than nothing, if this is what nothing feels like.
Part of him knows that it’s gotten worse because of the withdrawal. Stopping suddenly had not been in the plan, of course, and those first few days had been the roughest he’d experienced. He’d had to take a sick day, and he’d sat in his bed, panicking for hours, heart racing, certain he wasn’t going to make it through the night.
Even then, even then, he hadn’t thought of ending it. Just making it through. Surviving. It’s slightly better, now, but it’s not good. It’s just...slightly less bad.
His plan for his hour break is to find a dry place and pull out the lunch he packed for himself this morning — just a sandwich and an apple, but it pleases him, the healthiness of it. He’s willing to fight for the ability to feed himself the food he wants to eat, not the food that he’s been forced to deal with his whole life. It’s one of the only things that soothes his mind these days. He knows he’s too skinny, still, but he’s doing his best.
In his ears, the rain sounds album continues to play, a virtual torrential downpour, nothing like the small spitting drops of water currently coming down from the Seattle night sky. There's even thunder in the track, rumbling in the distance. Graeme wishes they got more thunderstorms in Seattle. He likes to watch them blow up from the Sound, especially during the day. Likes that type of rain that drowns out all the sounds of the city, not this crap that just makes everything damp for days on end. Damp and cold.
He finds a hotel with an awning and sort of ducks out of the way, into the darkness at the side, pulling the sandwich out of his backpack. He hopes he looks nonchalant enough that no one will report him as they whisk inside in their fancy clothes, or their tourist gear, out of the cold. He’s not trying to be creepy, people watching. Just trying to eat his lunch before someone tells him to shoo. It’s not like he belongs here, so he’ll shoo, but he’s hoping to get half his sandwich in before that happens.
Fernando tells him that he needs to have more confidence. That if he acts like he’s supposed to be there, no one will question it. Graeme just chews his lip at the thought every time Fernando brings it up. What if he’s not supposed to be anywhere? He’s never felt that confidence — he’s never felt comfortable in his own skin, his home, his school — he’s basically worthless.
Except he’s not worthless enough to give up. He doesn’t need to survive because other people need him. He knows they don’t. He knows no one would miss him.
He needs to survive because suicide leaves behind a bigger, darker mark than anything else, and he’s not going to inflict that on anyone, either. No one will discover his body, and have the sight burned into their brain forever.
He manages to get all the way through lunch before a big, burly guard comes out and shoos him along, and by that time, he has to rush to get to the gas station on time, anyway.
The nice thing about the gas station is that the graveyard shift means he rarely has any customers. Most of the time, it’s slow enough that he can pull his latest knitting project out of his backpack and work on it. The manager doesn’t mind, as long as he’s taken care of his inventory duties, mopped the floor, and done the trash by the end of the night.
Knitting is another thing he’d learned from Mrs. McCree, in exchange for folding laundry. The school counselor had approved, saying something about how soothing knitting is, and how a hobby could help his anxiety. Graeme supposes that’s true, considering he still does it, keeps working on it, making more and more complicated things to keep his brain quiet. He scours the second-hand shops for the materials, or even for sweaters he can unravel and reknit into something else. He’ll finish a project, unravel it, and reknit it again and again until the yarn is too kinked to take out again. Sometimes, he stops by the fancy yarn shops downtown, the ones that carry local dyers, and he’ll covet, but he won’t tempt himself by going in. The colorful displays make his fingers itch to touch. Someday, he’ll walk right into one of those places like the lady from Pretty Woman did, and he’ll buy a beautiful, soft skein of yarn, and he’ll make himself something. Normally his goods go to deals and exchanges. Knitted hats are a lot less messy than blow jobs, and with way less risk of STIs.
Tonight he’s working on a brioche hat that he’s hoping to exchange for some of the fresh veggies one of his neighbors gets in a CSA box. He’s nearly done by the time his shift relief comes on at 4am. Tucking back into his hoodie, pulling on the straps of his backpack, he’s calmer now. The knitting helped, as did having basically no interaction with customers for the last 6 hours. He doesn’t need his headphones to get home.
He makes dinner, which is actually breakfast, for Terrence and himself, tossing the comp burger and fries in the fridge for Fernando for later. Breakfast is several different ingredients cobbled together into something that’s tasty: Terrence likes to call that the Graeme Special, taking seemingly disparate or mismatched items or leftovers and making it into something new and yummy.
This time, it’s a veggie scramble with toast, utilizing some dented cans from the grocery outlet, and the last of the fresh garlic he’d bought a week or so ago. He’s just scooping up the last of his scramble onto his toast when Terrence comes in, yawning, and heading straight to the coffee maker. They grunt at each other in greeting; Terrence isn’t much of a morning person and Graeme doesn’t feel much like talking after a long day. With a quick wash of his plate, Graeme mumbles a “see you later” and shuffles off to the bathroom.
He strips and showers, unable to stand the smell of the old frying oil that clings to his skin, his hair, his clothes. He has to go to bed clean or he’ll never get to sleep. In the shower, he notices his toenail paint is chipping, and that, at least, is soothing. That means he has an excuse to fix it.
Painting his toenails has become a sort of mindfulness exercise, and it’s one of the things he loves to do before bed. Cracking open his window the tiniest bit for ventilation, he methodically cleans each nail of old polish, wiggling them happily as he goes. When they’re dry, he pulls out the bottle of deep, almost blood red. He lets himself buy a new color only when the old one is used up, so he has to choose something he really likes, but luckily, this red color looks beautiful against his skin tone. Tongue stuck between his lips, his mind goes quiet for a few precious moments as he concentrates on the polish. He sighs with happiness when he’s done, admiring his toes, wishing he could wear the color on his nails.
The relief from his anxiety is short lived once he’s done, though. He can feel the spiral itching through his brain, waiting for him to lay down to really pounce and take advantage. In his pajamas, he goes through the small apartment, checking off his mental list. Yes, the door is locked, twice, yes, he turned off the oven, yes, he did put the hamburger in the fridge and didn’t leave it in his bag to rot, yes, the windows are all locked, too.
Check done, he stumbles back into his room, lays down on the bed, and attempts to sleep so he can do it all over again later today.