“Right here,” Grace responded. Her hand stretched out and offered Drew the strip of cloth. His hand rested on it, clasped in reception, and she turned her attention to her other hand as he counted to himself. He reached five and she released it, finally handing it over to him. He had to hold onto everything for at least five seconds for fear that it would vanish, float away, or do anything else unknown.
When he thought about that, Drew wished fervently that it was some pensive metaphorical reason. Maybe he wanted to be rooted in the present and be aware of what was around him, appreciate the phenomenon of possessing something. Unfortunately, his reasons were far more literal.
Drew Filton was actually afraid that anything he touched could spontaneously change nature and potentially harm him. He was afraid of that and virtually everything else on the planet.
“Alright, let’s go,” he shrugged, and followed Grace to the door of their apartment, pausing to tie the blindfold over his eyes before he crossed the threshold.
Grace’s explanation was simple and plausible enough. Maybe her brother was blind or just recently out of some sort of eye surgery. But the wonderful thing about society is that, as fascinated as it is with people who break the norm, we’re outstandingly apprehensive about actually approaching the subject. So she’d make the false explanation to those who asked, but was happy to see the vast majority of people stare for a while (because, hey, he couldn’t see them staring anyway) and shrug it off, their attention drawn to ordering a latte or hailing a taxi.
“Why am I going again?” Drew asked as he climbed into the car. He hated driving and liked to do so as little as possible.
“Who’s Stan?” he interrupted Grace’s explanation.
“Stan,” she persisted, “is the pizza guy. The one who works Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at-”
“6:30 PM,” Drew finished. “I know. But why am I meeting him? I don’t meet anyone.”
“Exactly. But you two have been aware of each other going on 2 years now and I told him not to deliver this one because you haven’t been out all week.” It was Friday.”
“Grace,” Drew explained, “I’m 18 years old. I have no reason to be out on a Friday night. Can you turn that up some? I can hear the traffic.” He reached for the knob of the car’s radio to turn up the volume. For Drew to make it through a car ride, he had to convince himself that he wasn’t in a car at all. For that reason, he refused to wear a seat belt and demanded that the Eagles’ The Long Run be constantly playing to drown out external noise and distract him. Sometimes he’d allow for Toto IV, but let’s face it, even though that was their best work, their sound and mastery still couldn’t compare to that of the Eagles’. The point was moot, however, to Grace who either way had to explain to other passengers she may have why there was such an abundance of late seventies (or early eighties) rock in her car.
“Being 18 gives you every reason to be out on a Friday night,” Grace rolled her eyes. “And you’re the only one who would consider going out to get a pizza as ‘going out’ at all.”
“Well you caught me,” he raised his hands in surrender. “I’m different than other kids my age.”
Drew had suffered half a dozen heart attacks in his life. This subsequently led to a fear of hospitals (one of them taking place due to the fear induced by the sudden realization that he was inside a hospital), despite explanations that the hospitals were the very things that had kept him alive. Well not the hospitals, but the doctors inside them, but those frightened him, too.
Of all the things around him, Drew found security in a scarce few. Certain selections of classic rock, his sister’s apartment, and pizza were the primary items. Every other food had something about it that made him uneasy, even the individual ingredients in a standard pizza, but somehow that Italian mistress of a pie served to be the only staple of solace in Drew’s otherwise haunted life. And for all the specificity his lifestyle demanded, he was notably indiscriminate in his pizza selection. One night could be Papa John’s, another night Mr. Jim’s, heck he could even stand a Red Baron or Tombstone. As long as there was melty cheese, rich sauce, and a chewy crust, there could be peace in a hectic and horrific world.
“Look, it’s a small place, we’ll get the pizza and go home, maybe watch something on Netflix. Sound ok?” Grace was used to every plan being a bargain with Drew.
“Alright,” he sighed, his stomach turning over at the realization that there wasn’t any backing out now. “But it’s fast. And no handshakes.” His argumentative tone evaporated into a quavering one, shaky and unsure. “Not today, ok?”
Grace placed her hand on his shoulder after a verbal warning and reassured him, “Yeah, that’s ok.”
Drew flinched at the electronic ding signaling that the door to the Papa John’s had opened, and Grace stayed close, their arms intertwined as they stepped through and stood at the counter.
“Drew, I’m guessing?” Stan’s voice was hard in the chilled air, but it made a noticeable attempt at friendliness.
“Y-y…” Drew tried to say yep. Friends said yep. It was casual. But they’d never talked before so formality got the better of him with a “Yes… Yes sir.”
Stan chuckled warmly. “Sir? We’re the same age, man. Stan. But you know that.” Drew nodded to confirm. “Well, I’ve got your pizza right here. Hey, Grace.”
The three of them stood there for a while as Grace paid and someone in the back opened the oven door to pull out a fresh tray. Drew winced at this realization and had to keep himself from blurting out that pizza ovens could kill a person in at least 10 different ways.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you again?” Stan offered as they turned to leave.
“Maybe,” Drew answered softly.
“Maybe you’ll even find out what I look like one day,” he joked. And Drew wanted to laugh, but by the time he thought to, the door had already swung shut behind him.
“That was good,” Grace nodded to herself as they drove back home.
“He might be an ok guy,” Drew agreed, patting out the drum line on his leg.
“And speaking of ok guys,” she led in. He instantly knew where this was going.
“Again?” Drew groaned, his stomach retying itself.
“Yes,” she laughed, again. “You’re still not used to it after we’ve been dating for a year?”
“Am I used to a strange man coming into my apartment-”
“My,” she reminded him, “apartment.”
“And spending time with my sister?” He finished. “No. No I am not used to that.”
“You like Ryan fine,” she defended. “You even know what he looks like. He’s more of your friend than Stan is in that way.”
“No,” Drew corrected her. “No, Stan brings me pizza.”
“Ryan’s brought pizza over before.”
“No,” a grin spread across Drew’s face as he explained. “Ryan has brought pizza over, yes, but Stan crafts and then couriers the pizza to me. He’s a real stand up guy for that. Ryan couldn’t make a pizza if it hit him in the face.”
“I don’t know if anyone could make a pizza if another pizza was hitting them in the face,” Grace rebutted.
“It’s fine,” Drew finally settled. “Ryan can come over.” Grace thanked him as if she had actually been asking permission.
Ryan was a kind enough guy, especially for the situation surrounding his girlfriend and her little brother. Drew refused to even allow him in the doorway of the apartment for 2 solid months. Then he was cleared for standing next to the kitchen, then the couch, and then the rest of the house once Drew had finally seen him and talked with him several times, determined that Ryan was no threat to himself or Grace.
He didn’t understand Drew, but didn’t claim to. This last fact was what ultimately sold Drew on a hesitant friendship with his sister’s boyfriend. Ryan couldn’t figure out how Drew could be afraid of piggy banks, but still eat pizza for practically every meal when the cheese could stretch and choke him or a chunk of sausage could get lodged in his throat or pepperoni grease could rob him of his sight.
In turn, Grace had explained to Ryan that life with Drew was comparable to a large-scale game of the Green Glass Door, only without any set rules. Some things got in but others were filtered out and only Drew knew why things made the cut or didn’t. Even then, he only knew why for some of them. Even Drew was baffled to find out that he could watch puppet shows so long as the puppets didn’t have realistic skin tones and that pajama pants were safe to wear, but if they had pockets, they were life-threatening attire.
Ryan showed up to the apartment half an hour after they returned from Papa John’s and the three of them sat down and began to scan through the movie selection on Netflix. Ryan and Grace would pick a movie that seemed remotely interesting and then run it by Drew who would either accept or deny the proposal from across the room with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Surprisingly, they seemed pickier than he was.
“Are you sure, man?” Ryan asked when Drew affirmed the choice to watch Olympus Has Fallen. “I hear it’s pretty intense.”
“That’s alright,” Drew nodded. “It’s got Gerard Butler in it. If he could lead 300 Spartans against Persia, he’ll be fine against terrorists.” There was visible pause in Ryan’s face as he debated bringing up how 300 ended, but decided to let it pass.
The movie went on and Drew even inched nearer the couch over the course of it, seemingly gaining the bravery to seek company as the plot progressed. His eyes were wide and they drank in the action, the cussing, the explosions, and all the patriotic glory that the hero and Morgan Freeman had to offer.
Once it ended Ryan asked Drew what he thought of it. He said he thought it was great. “Question,” he posed. “Why does all that danger and stuff not make you nervous, but you can’t even walk down the sidewalk?”
“Because,” Drew answered and pointed to Gerard Butler on the cover art of the movie. “He’s the main character. Nothing can happen to him.”
Drew went to his room before Ryan left for the night, a routine that he was slowly but surely beginning to settle into. Grace had talked with him about it extensively, patiently answering all of the ludicrous questions that made all the difference to him. “He loves action heroes,” she explained to him. “He thinks they’re invincible.”
“But he doesn’t think he’s the main character?” Ryan said softly. “That’s sort of sad, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “I mean, it’s humble, but… If that’s what’s keeping him.”
“Are you sure it’s not about your parents?”
“No,” she responded. “He only started getting scared well after he knew what happened to them. We can’t get a lot of answers.” They’d tried a handful of therapists, and Drew had legitimately liked them all. But they each eventually just drew a blank. Drew was acutely aware of his past- that his mother had died in childbirth with him and that the father had left just after conceiving him. Their parents were young, Grace remembered, being 6 years older than him. With that they went into foster care and had had wonderful experiences. When she turned 20, Grace got a high-paying job at a tax firm doing work she hated, but work that would allow her to provide for herself and her brother. by then he’d been suffering from his intense fears for 4 years and getting a place for just the two of them to live helped to soothe that. Since then, though, she’d had awful experiences trying to live her own life, meet boys, that kind of thing.
But Ryan had stuck around.
The next day Drew watched movies for hours. Those action heroes darted across the screen and shot without looking, hit their targets, and didn’t care to watch the explosions they set off. Everything was so sure.
That night Grace ordered pizza as usual, this time permitting Stan to deliver it. Drew stood in the hallway around the corner as usual as he waited for him to arrive.
His stomach twisted and his breath wedged itself in his throat. When the knock on the door came, he heard Grace answer it and greet Stan, pay him. But as she went to shut the door, Drew asked her to wait.
He began to nudge his head around the corner and visions flashed through his mind. Visions of retired cops who had to use their experience to solve a personal grudge. And of heroes in worn and beaten clothing vaulting over ruins of a city, charging straight into the thick of battle. Swords and skill and blood and grit.
All of this with the assurance that they’d make it out on the other side.
And that wasn’t him. But maybe it could be.
His eyes made their way across the apartment to the doorway where Stan was standing, hands in his pockets, brown eyes watching him carefully. He was black.
Huh, Drew thought. That wasn’t expected.
But he wore a smile and nodded. “Hey, man,” he said.
Drew could feel the explosions behind him, the enemy’s bullets whizzing harmlessly past him. He wasn’t invincible. No one was. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t be the main character.
“Hey,” he replied. “Thanks for the pizza.”