Waking up early had proven worth it. I had managed to register for all the classes I wanted, including The Experimental Works of Yoko Ono, which was a coveted course. I leaned back in my chair and stretched, satisfied with myself and my schedule for the summer semester. The quick plate of scrambled eggs I had made myself for breakfast was clear except for the hot sauce now caked on to the ceramic. I finished the coffee that was in my mug and considered pouring more, I still had half a pot left, but decided against it.
As I sat there, I heard Joel’s alarm go off which prompted me to get up and clean my dish. A few minutes later he was walking into the kitchen, rather sleepily.
“Morning,” I said to him. “Want some coffee? I made too much.”
He didn’t say anything and just stood there stretching his arms above his head and yawning loudly.
Again, he didn’t say anything and instead gruffly brushed passed me into the bathroom. It was strange to see him that way. Joel was a morning person—he never snoozed his alarm and some of our best conversations had been over coffee before 9 am. So I just stood there for a moment, confused, staring at the closed bathroom door until Rachel came into the kitchen.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Have you talked to Joel this morning?”
“Nope,” she said pouring herself a cup of my coffee.
“Do you know what he was up to last night?”
She just shrugged and her indifference made me feel like I was overreacting so I decided to just shrug it off too. Then he emerged from the bathroom, still looking quite haggard. Since I had just decided to ignore him I didn’t say anything, but his appearance seemed to peak Rachel’s interest a bit more.
“You don’t look so good,” she said.
“You sure you don’t want a cup of coffee?” I added.
When again he was silent Rachel rolled her eyes.
“Mmm, this coffee is amazing,” she teased. “You should totally have some, Joel.”
He didn’t say anything, but he went over to the coffee maker so I thought he was going to take some anyway. But instead, he took the pot of steaming fresh coffee and dumped it into the sink and then started to make a new one.
“Jeeze, Joel, what’s the matter with you?” Rachel asked, no longer smiling.
“Looks like you had a crazy night last night,” I said, trying to keep the mood light.
Rachel and I looked at each other, confused, then stared at him as he started frying up bacon. As I watched, I realized that he didn’t actually seem to be in a bad mood. He even started whistling “Love Yourself” and Rachel and I couldn’t help but laugh. But when his bacon was done he sat down across from Rachel at the table and proceeded to eat in silence. He ate slowly and calmly and would even look up between bites and stare at her. But he wasn’t focused. It was as if he was looking out the window through her head. She waved her hand exaggeratedly right in front of his nose and made a goofy face, but I could tell she was starting to get really irritated.
“Fine, screw you,” she said, then stormed off to her room and slammed the door.
“The silent treatment really isn’t doing anybody any good,” I said. “Did we do something to upset you?”
But, again, he didn’t say anything. I sighed and looked over at the clock above the stove. I needed to get to work, so I stood up and left without a word.
It was a busy day, and the manager had me stationed at the espresso machine for all of it. That was fine with me—I was not really in the mood to be talking to customers anyway. As I frothed milk and poured it into the shape of moons or hearts or swirls, all I could think about was Joel. I didn’t really give a fuck if he was mad at me, I decided. It was just odd that he was acting this way. He was usually the type of person who yelled if he was mad. Fighting with Joel was explosive and intense and then it was over. He didn’t linger on anything for very long; he never held a grudge. So I spent the day formulating arguments as to why he should just talk to me. If my communication was good and clear, maybe he would be inspired to do the same.
By the time I got home, I had a speech fit for Obama planned out in my head. But when I saw him reading peacefully on the couch, legs crossed like a jerk, I got mad. I threw my bag down, made a bunch of noise as I put my jacket away, and did a generally poor job keeping my cool. But through all the noise he didn’t even look up. In a huff I took a stance about three feet away from him with my arms crossed.
“Joel,” I said.
I felt my teeth clench.
He turned the page of his book.
“I said fucking excuse me, asshole!” I said, raising my voice more than I had intended.
Having heard me yell, Rachel came out of her room.
“Sorry,” I said to her.
“I’ve yelled at him like ten times today,” she said. Then she sighed and crossed her arms so that we stood like two rooks poised to attack the queen.
“But no like seriously,” she said after a minute. “I’ve literally screamed at him ten times today.”
She glanced at me sort of sideways with a strange look on her face. Then, as if suddenly making a decision, she grabbed my hand and led me over to where he was on the couch and we both sat down next to him.
“Actually,” she said, “I’ve screamed at him so many times today that I’m starting to think that he can’t actually hear us.”
I rolled my eyes.
“No, seriously,” she said. “Look.”
She moved her face so close to his that her lips were almost touching his ear. She took a deep breath and screamed his name so loud that I jumped and was momentarily nervous that the neighbours were going to complain. But he didn’t react at all. He didn’t even blink. Rachel turned to me and I stared at her with my mouth half open. She just shrugged. I got up slowly and then crouched in front of him and thought for a moment before blowing softly into this face. The hair close to his eyes quivered but other than that he didn’t move. Finally, I got even closer and screamed louder than Rachel had, but there was nothing.
“I’ve tried everything, “Rachel said.
“What is happening?”
“I don’t know but I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”
“Hungry, Rach, are you serious?”
She shrugged again.
“Well do you have any suggestions about what to do right now? Honestly, I’ve been here with him all day and nothing has changed. I’m trying to think but I’m starving and I don’t think we’re going to figure this shit out in the next half hour anyway, do you?”
I looked back at Joel and pursed my lips, thinking.
“I guess not.”
“Great, let’s make some pasta.”
“Okay. I have peppers and garlic.”
She put the water on to boil as I chopped up a clove. Even in the kitchen I could feel his eerie presence. His silence felt so close but also so far away.
When I was done chopping I threw the garlic into a pan along with some olive oil and it started to sizzle. As I was pushing the garlic around the pan I noticed him begin to stir. He stretched his arms over his head and walked lazily towards us in the kitchen. He opened the fridge, pulled out a loaf of bread, some ham, and cheese, and proceeded to make a sandwich.
Rachel and I both stared at him like wild animals watching a naive hiker in the woods. He turned towards the spice rack just next to the stove, and as he was picking out the pepper and dill weed he placed his right hand down directly on top of the burner where we were currently frying garlic. We both yelled out as he did so, but he just rested it there until he decided to also grab garlic powder, then turned back to his sandwich on the other counter.
“What is going on?” Rachel asked, mostly to herself, as he returned to his spot on the couch with his sandwich.
“He didn’t even feel that,” I said.
“And he can’t see or hear anything either?”
“Well, no, he can see. He just can’t see us.”
“And we’re the one’s the turned on the heat.”
“You think that matters?”
Rachel shrugged for the umpteenth time that day.
I joined Joel on the couch and put my hand on his cheek. I could certainly feel him. I gently stroked his scruffy cheek and then pat it lightly. Then, before I really knew what I was doing I pulled my hand back and slapped him as hard as I could. He turned the page of his book. I looked at Rachel, feeling a bit guilty, but she didn’t seem at all surprised at what I had just done.
Rachel grinned in her childish, mischievous way and I got a little worried. She sauntered into the kitchen and grabbed a pair of scissors from the drawer.
“What are you going to do with those?” I asked, alarmed.
“Relax I’m not going to hurt him,” she said.
She grabbed his shirt between her index finger and thumb and pulled it away from his chest. Then she poked the tip of the scissors into his shirt and cut out a small circle. When she dropped the shirt, there was an almost perfect hole framing his nipple. We both laughed giddily as she cut out the other side.
“Oh fuck! The pasta!”
The water was boiling over so I sprinted to the kitchen. I drained the spaghetti and mixed the garlic in, along with some sauce I found in the fridge. I scooped it into two bowls and brought Rachel hers in the living room. I sat down next to Joel and handed Rachel her bowl. She was giving me a very strange look, grinning foolishly with an expectant gleam in her eye.
Her eyes shot toward Joel and mine followed. First I gasped and then immediately burst out laughing when I saw him. Into his shoulder length hair she had cut bangs—perfect, Zooey Deschanel bangs. I couldn’t contain myself as I laughed and my shoulders began to heave forward and backwards. Then, suddenly, my steaming bowl of pasta tipped directly into Joel’s lap and immediately we both stopped laughing.
“Shit!” I said. “Shit, shit shit shit!”
Rachel was up already fetching paper towels and we both scraped the pasta out of his lap and back into the bowl. Throughout all of this, Joel read.
“He doesn’t feel heat?” I asked in disbelief.
“Maybe just pain in general,” Rachel suggested.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, staring at Joel with his new haircut, exposed nipples, and stained lap.
“But like, how much pain?” I asked after some time had passed.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, like, he just won’t feel anything at all, no matter what we do to him?”
“Jesus, I don’t know.”
“It’s like he’s in a dream, though. Maybe we can push him far enough so that he wakes up.”
“So,” Rachel said tentatively. “You want to hurt him to see how far he’ll let us go?”
I stayed silent, unable to either confirm or deny that that was, in fact, exactly what I was implying. I was sure she would tell me I was crazy and that we should just call the hospital or something. But instead, she lifted the Evergreen candle that was on the coffee table and slowly began to pour hot wax onto his leg. Like the stove, the heat wasn’t affecting him at all. It was uncomfortable and scary to watch, but I was also fascinated. When all the melted wax had run out, she put the now extinguished candle back on the table. Then she looked at me and I thought I saw the hint of a challenge in her eyes.
“Wax doesn’t really hurt that bad,” she said.
I shifted uncomfortably where I was sitting, but I had started this so I got up and went into the bathroom to grab the sewing kit. I pulled out a pin and brought it close to his arm, moving slowly so Rachel had a chance to stop me. She didn’t. I pushed it into his forearm and felt the flesh give way to the sharp end. I pushed it in pretty deep before getting grossed out and pulling it out again. We both watched as a drop of blood began to form at the prick point.
“Wow,” she said.
She then began rummaging around in the sewing box and pulled out a tiny pair of scissors, a needle, and some red thread.
“What the hell are you going to do with that?”
She didn’t even look at me and instead thread the needle. Then she moved her hands towards the sleeve of his t-shirt. I drew a quick breath as she sunk the needle into his shoulder and didn’t exhale as I watched her pull it through his sleeve. Then it went back into his skin, then his sleeve, and then his skin again until the cotton was held tightly to his body, a thin red line in the middle and a bit of blood beginning to seep through.
“Oh my god, Rachel.”
“You didn’t stop me,” she said defensively.
I noticed she looked a little sick and snatched the scissors from her. As I began unattaching his shirt from his skin he moved his arm slightly, and I took another sharp breath. But he only turned the page again.
“We could do anything,” Rachel said. “He doesn’t feel anything.”
“But he does bleed,” I added, wiping my hands on my pants. “Do you think he’ll scar?”
“I don’t know”.
“He’s about finished the book.”
“The book,” I repeated. “He’s almost done.”
“Good for him,” Rachel said.
Still sitting there pressed close to him on the couch, Rachel and I watched him as he very seriously read the last page of the book. His eyebrows were furrowed but he seemed satisfied. I watched the left corner of his mouth twitch upwards.
“Must be a good ending,” I said.
Then, suddenly, he clapped the book shut, looking up abruptly as he did so. And then he jumped just as his eyes caught mine. And they held them. They didn’t look through me, they pierced me, holding my gaze until they shifted towards Rachel.
“Jesus,” he said.
Then I watched his face contort and he brought a hand up to where his shoulder was bleeding.
“What is happening?”
I looked at Rachel and then back at Joel. My stomach churned as I looked at his hair and the blood coming from his arms, the red streak on his cheek where I had slapped him and the stain from the steaming pasta I had spilled all over him.
I felt Rachel grab my hand hard.
What did we do?