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Can of Worms

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My eyelids felt heavy, but I concentrated on the bobber adrift in the water. I felt more adept than ever, having my share of practice over the last few weeks. My grandpa’s old farm had fallen to me. As overrun and decrepit as it was, it was ideal for fishing, which all but consumed my waking hours since arriving. It wasn’t just a new hobby, it was a window into a different life ahead of me. I was ditching everything I had ever owned and everyone I had ever known. I had burned every bridge, violently, that I might never be able to traverse them again.

A quick dip of the bobber snapped me into attention, and I jerked the pole back to hook into my quarry. A bit of fair struggle with intermittent reeling and soon I suspended a decently sized sunfish above my head, admiring it with a sense of accomplishment. When its fight had all but vanished, I worked to detach its bleeding jaw from my hook, placing it among the dozen others lying cold and clammy in a nearby box. It was only early afternoon, but my arms were tiring from my inexperience, or maybe just my general lack of fitness. My body was changing, though, however slowly.

I stretched and stood, surveying the land with a tired, lazy grin. The space was massive, with waterways stretching around island-like land masses connected by makeshift wooden bridges. Tall grass grew indiscriminately, weaving through trees and stone cluttered by years of neglect. The house behind me was small, practically a shack, with nothing more than a bed and a fireplace. I had let the stress slide off me, I completely blocked it from my mind and supped up the crisp spring air. Sighing loudly, I closed my eyes and leaned towards the sun. Nothing could bother me here, I was finally alone, I could finally do whatever I wanted, on a schedule of my own.

It was hardly half a month ago that I resigned from my corporate job, sitting inside for hours on end, watching nothing the harsh blue light from my monitor. Life had been a train wreck since as long as I could remember. Even at an early age I was brimming with anxiety, I resorted to tears at the slightest provocation. Nothing seemed too insignificant, nowhere was safe from the looming pressure of performing at my best, or the gruesome savagery of failure. Regardless of what I did, the waves of guilt and fear overpowered me, until I eventually broke.

This was my only chance at living a better life, to leave all my expectations behind. No one was here who could judge me. I could leave the house a mess, bathe in a stream, or fish all day every day, it was nobody’s concern but mine. The fact that I made money off of the fish I was catching was just icing on the cake. The town was bustling with things to do, but I would take one thing at a time. For now, I just felt like ending the day with some time at the saloon.

 

It was a quiet, short stroll through the town to get to the Stardrop Saloon at the center, past the mostly defunct bus station and under the local general store. Animals chattered and leaves rustled, as the warm, strong breeze ruffled my already messy dark brown hair. I was wearing my most comfortable red jacket, prepared for the cool night air on the way back home in the middle of the night. I probably looked disheveled and smelled like fish and dirt, but the standards of the townsfolk I met so far were already pretty low for me. Most people were pretty friendly, even excited to see a new face, but didn’t appear to be particularly stuffy and kept to themselves most of the time. It was ideal, for sure, and I kept most interactions to a genial hello and common niceties. I saw a few people on my way and waved as I went.

The saloon was really the place to be, no one I had met was quite as friendly and welcoming as the owner Gus, or his cheerful barmaid Emily. Always smiling, they were perhaps the first to get to know me in any sense, harking to me as I entered.

“Flash, it’s good to see you!” Gus called from across the bar.

I smiled and waved to him as well. Emily perked up and whirled around when she heard my name.

“Oh, Flash!” She exclaimed. She all but jumped over the counter to see me, “How’s the farm doing? Did you plant anything yet?”

I shook my head quietly, while smiling derisively.

“I planted that stuff Mayor Lewis gave me, but… I can’t be bothered. I’m just taking things at my own pace.”

She solemnly nodded, as if I had imparted some kind of wisdom. She had mentioned before that she loved the idea of working on a farm, but she seemed to bring that kind of enthusiasm to anything I talked about. It just seemed to me like she was nothing but smiles from the inside out. She always wore bright clothes complimented by her glimmering short blue hair. Gus on the other hand was stoutly and reserved, with a big bushy mustache and happy eyes. Maybe it was because the saloon received the steadiest patronage besides perhaps the nearby JojaMart, but either way it culminated in a reliably easy-going atmosphere.

I ordered a cold beer and sat by myself on a bar stool. I could expect a few regulars to shuttle in as time went by. There was an older woman Pam who you could set your clock by, coming in right on my heels and cozying herself up to Gus’ side for easy access to her nightly rounds. She recognized me by now, also content to dole out minimal pleasantries and keep Gus preoccupied with conversation. Almost everyone came by a time or two a week, up to a practical influx on Friday, which I mostly tried to avoid. Everyone had their own schedules and company as they saw fit, so I didn’t really stand out and was left unbothered by all but the occasional energetic discussion with Emily on the slower nights when she had less to occupy her.

 

There was one other regular though, usually coming in after Pam, slinking away to the corner of the bar without saying much of anything at all. It was hard not to notice him after the first few visits, because he was always there, standing unmoved like a piece of the furniture. He gave me a run for my money in shabbiness, wearing a heavy blue hoodie so threadbare you’d think it’d been recovered from a landfill. His grisly face was pale with at least two days of stubble apparently a permanent fixture, complimented by dark bags under his eyes. He was completely distant, not making eye contact with anyone in the bar on any occasion. It was pretty clear that he had one goal in mind, which was to get plastered and leave.

One time our eyes met when I was casually looking over in his direction, and he immediately grimaced, as if begging me not to initiate a conversation. I could sympathize, so I left him alone. I hardly imagine he knew who I was, and I certainly didn’t go around making a reputation for myself. In a weird way, I started to build an imaginary respect for him, like two solitary boats drifting in nearby waters, not causing any commotion, leaving each other to their isolated lifestyles in harmony.

 

With all the disposable income coming my way through compulsive fishing, and a veritable lack of bills and expenses, I was compelled to buy my two fellow regulars a round on me. Gus had the sense not to make a big fuss over it, and doled them out quietly. Pam found a way to make a fuss anyway, her loud voice brimming with unnecessary adulation. Smiling and averting my eyes, I glanced over at the man in the corner, just receiving a pint from Emily. Out of nowhere I was suddenly flush with embarrassment when his head rose up from its usual focus on the floorboards. I wondered what I would think if someone I never talked to suddenly bought me a beer. I’d probably think they had some kind of ulterior motive, that they were trying to rock the boat.

I looked away, staring at the door like I was expecting something. I tried to take my mind off of it, another small thing, like a spider crawling around in my brain, tickling it with anxiety. Part of me wanted to bolt and escape the thoughts running through my mind, but instead I tried taking a few deep breaths. I had to have perspective, I had to calm down and remember where I was. I had my own bed, my own safe space, and I had freedom. I didn’t want to begin letting the fear of messing up change a simple act into a bastion of regrets. The breathing helped, and a swig of the cold beer reminded me that things were okay. This was a good day. Fresh air, fishing, beer… it was all good. I calmed down.

I turned my stool back around to the bar and glanced over through the corner of my eyes. He was drinking as usual, it didn’t seem like any boats were rocked after all. Emily had come back around to me, seeming to be in the situation where she didn’t have much else to do.

“If you’re wondering, he appreciated it.” She smiled graciously, “He spends so much money here, it’s hardly a surprise.”

“Oh, yeah. I don’t really know much about him.” I continue on the subject, happy to break up my unwarranted breakdown with some light banter.

“Well you’d have a hard time if you tried,” she said, resting her head in her hands with an exuberant expression of worry. “Honestly, he’s not too friendly. That is… he really doesn’t like when people try to talk to him. It’s not like he gets in fights or causes any trouble. Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh. It’s like, I dunno, he’s completely shut off.”

I didn’t really want to take part in any gossip, but from my experience, Emily was just a very genuine person, without much of a filter when expressing her feelings. I could imagine what a blow it must have been for her vivacity to come up against an impenetrable wall. It was perhaps worse than I even thought. I figured for him to be much like me, but I’d hardly up and tell someone to bug off, even if they were bothering me.

“Well I hope I didn’t bother him then.” I said curtly, forming a half-smile. Emily laughed in response.

“You didn’t! I really mean it, he spends way too much money here!”

I don’t think she realized how sad that sounded. When I looked over again, I was surprised to meet his eyes again. He didn’t frown, but rather looked away calmly. I imagined being in his position again. I’d probably be thankful, but not want to have to go to the effort of having to thank someone. It was good enough to put my mind at ease, at least.