Sort of Stranger Than Fiction
An excerpt from the short story by Josh Lanyon
His name was Michael.
Not Mike. Not Mikey. Certainly not Micky.
Like the archangel.
Michael Milner of Milner’s Martial Arts. Two doors down from Red Bird Books and Coffee in the self-consciously rustic Viento Square mini mall. He’d been in business six weeks, which was a long time given the economy -- and a town the size of Peabody. That was two weeks longer than Paper Crane Stationery had lasted. He wasn’t packing them in like the candy shop, but he seemed to be doing all right. He had students. Mostly skinny boys and girls needing to be kept busy during their summer vacation.
Michael looked like an archangel too. He was built like a runner or a knight of old. Tall, lean, wide shoulders and ropy muscles. His hair was nearly shoulder length -- when he didn’t have it tied back -- and of the palest gold. Not that Ethan -- who owned the book store half of Red Bird Books and Coffee and hoped to be a published author one day -- would have normally used that kind of hyperbole to describe Michael, but blond just didn’t seem to cover that particular shade which somehow brought to mind the gleaming tips of arrows or reverberating harp strings. Michael’s eyes were blue, the blue of a cloudless sky or the color you believe water is when you’re a little kid. His face was beautiful. Really beautiful. Elegant, almost exotic, bone structure -- at least on the one side of his face.
The right half of his face had been destroyed at some point. Smashed and burned, it looked like, though Ethan was no expert -- and he tried very hard not to stare. They -- whoever they were -- had tried to rebuild Michael and they’d saved his eye, but the skin looked like it had been stretched too tight over reconstructed bones. It had a stiff, shiny, inflexible quality. Since Michael was mostly expressionless, it wasn’t as noticeable as it might have been if he’d been the smiley, chatty kind.
Ethan figured he’d had about thirty words out of Michael in the weeks since he’d opened the dojo. Actually it was more like one word thirty times -- Thanks when Ethan handed him his change.
It was Chance from next door’s Sweets to the Sweet who had told Ethan that Michael had been Special Ops in Afghanistan.
“How’d you find that out?” Ethan asked through a mouthful of divinity fudge. Chance was generous with his samples. Maybe that was why Sweets to the Sweet had been a hit practically from the moment the doors opened.
Chance raised a negligent shoulder. He reminded Ethan of a cat. Sleek and graceful and inscrutable. Chance and his boutique chocolates seemed even more out of place in Peabody than Michael Milner’s kajukenbo lessons.
“Do you know what happened to his --?” Ethan put a hand to his own right cheek bone rather than complete the sentence. It was probably in bad taste to ask such a question but it’s wasn’t possible to pretend he hadn’t noticed. He found Michael fascinating. He wanted to know everything about him. He told himself it was his writer’s imagination wanting fuel for the fire.
“Why don’t you ask him?” Chance had returned too innocently.
Ethan had retreated instantly from the suggestion. Of course he would never ask -- who the hell would ask that kind of question? Even if his previous attempts to be friendly to Michael hadn’t fallen flat. Michael was unfailingly polite and unfailingly distant. On the rare occasion that he bothered to make eye contact with Ethan, he seemed to see something slightly off center that made him narrow his gaze.
Ethan swallowed the last heavenly bit of white fudge. How was it that everything in Sweets to the Sweet was so delicious? He half suspected Chance of adding addictive substances. It wouldn’t surprise him. He made Ethan a little uncomfortable sometimes -- like now when he was studying Ethan as though he could see right into the secret corners of his mind. The places Ethan himself was afraid to explore too closely.
“I should get back.” Ethan rubbed his fingers, trying to remove the lingering sugary sweetness. He headed for the door.
Ethan glanced back.
Chance smiled that sly smile of his. “He’s not married.”
* * * * *
“What’s the matter with you?” Erin asked when Ethan returned to the bookstore.
Ethan wiped his forehead. “Nothing.”
“You look like you have sunstroke.”
It was hot enough for sunstroke. Summers in Peabody were like vacationing in Hell. Minus the scenery.
“It’s just... hot.”
“Understatement. Here try this.” Erin leaned across the counter and handed over a tiny paper cup with chilled pale green liquid.
Ethan took an incautious sip. He was still badly shaken by the encounter with Chance. It wasn’t that he was closeted exactly. Being the only gay man in Peabody -- the only gay person as far as he could tell -- his sexuality was as irrelevant as if he’d taken a vow of chastity. Erin, his twin sister, was straight and had pretty much the same problem. With a population of 339, there were not many unmarried eligible people of their age in the little desert town.
No, it wasn’t that Chance had correctly identified him as gay. Heck, Ethan had originally wondered if Chance might be gay. It was that Chance had correctly identified Ethan’s interest in Michael. Ethan himself had strenuously avoided recognizing his interest for what it was, but he could no longer avoid the truth. The fact was he, well, he had a thing for Michael.
Had it bad. Bad enough that other people had noticed.
Had Michael noticed?
Ethan nearly choked as the mint green slime slid down his throat.
“What do you think?” Erin asked.
Frozen Nyquil? Chilled hemlock? One could never be sure with Erin. Ethan cleared his throat. “Uh...” He took another sip to avoid having to answer. It seemed to be mostly ice, mint with perhaps a hint of coffee. Whatever it was, it wasn’t very good. But then most of Erin’s experiments weren’t. She was a passionate and spectacularly ungifted barista. Luckily for everyone in Peabody -- and the financial stability of Red Bird Books and Coffee -- she stuck mostly to the premixed recipes.
“Hmm. I don’t know.”
“What do you think it needs?”
Erin brightened, looking past Ethan. “Here comes Michael.”
Ethan stiffened. A hasty glance over his shoulder offered a view of Michael pushing through the front door of Red Bird Books and Coffee. As usual, when he spotted Ethan, Michael’s face grew more impassive than ever and he got that squint like Ethan was a foreign particle that had flown into his eye.
If Chance had so easily recognized Ethan’s attraction to Michael, it was more than probable that so had Michael. No wonder he looked pained every time he spotted Ethan.
Ethan mumbled an inarticulate hello and retreated hastily for the back of the store and the comfort of the stock room.
Michael usually came in twice a day. In the morning he ordered a medium house blend. In the afternoon he ordered a fruit smoothie. Sometimes the mixed berry with acacia and sometimes the citrus cooler with passion fruit. Once a week, usually on Friday, he’d buy a book. Those brief Friday encounters had been the high point of Ethan’s week for the last month and a half.
He lurked in the back for a few minutes waiting miserably for the coast to clear. He could hear Erin’s cheerful voice and a lot less frequently, the dark, blurred tones of Michael, and then Erin called, “Ethan, what are you doing back there? You’ve got a customer.”
Ethan groaned silently and walked out to the front.
“Were you working on your book?” Erin teased.
Ethan scowled at her. Erin found the idea that Ethan was seriously trying to write a book endlessly entertaining. She’d told everyone they knew that Ethan was working on A Novel. He could see their customers laboring over some polite question to ask -- besides how’s it coming? Except Michael. He had greeted the intelligence of Ethan’s literary aspiration with raised eyebrows and a reminder of no strawberry in his mixed berry smoothie.
Now he stood at the book counter holding a copy of History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood. He looked up at Ethan’s approach.
Usually Ethan couldn’t shut up around Michael, chattering away about a lot of stuff Michael obviously didn’t give a shit about. Today he took the hardcover Michael handed him, rang it up quickly.
“Twelve seventy-three.” He stared determinedly down at the cover photograph of the English countryside.
Michael got out his wallet and selected the bills. A ten and three ones.
Ethan took the bills, made change, and handed the coins over, trying to avoid physical contact. He was horribly, painfully conscious of how transparent he’d been all these weeks. God. Like a teenager with a crush. No wonder Michael made a point of being as standoffish as possible.
Michael dropped the coins in the Jerry’s Kids container on the desk next to the cash register.
Ethan realized he hadn’t bagged the book. He grabbed a bag, shoved the book inside, handed the bag to Michael who took it unhurriedly.
“You didn’t read this one?”
Ethan’s head jerked up. He stared at Michael. He couldn’t have been more startled if the Bonsai tree on his counter had addressed him. As far as he could recall, it was the first time in six weeks Michael had initiated conversation between them.
“Who, me?” Ethan said brilliantly.
“You’ve always got something to say about the books. You didn’t read this one?”
The books were all mostly used at Red Bird Books and Coffee. Ethan ordered a few paperback bestsellers, but he actually preferred the old books. According to Erin, the bookstore was just Ethan’s excuse for buying and reading all the books he wanted. She wasn’t far wrong.
“I read it. It’s good.” Ethan made an effort. “You’ll enjoy it.”
Michael nodded politely. He turned and left the store.
“Bye, Michael!” Erin called as the door swung shut him. She looked across the floor. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Did something happen?”
“You acted like you were mad at being disturbed. Were you working on your book?”
“No I didn’t and no I wasn’t.”
“I thought you liked him?”
“I don’t like him!”
“Come off it. If you were a puppy, you’d be on your back and wriggling every time he walks in here.”
Ethan’s temper, generally mild, shot up like the red strip of fake mercury in the giant thermometer outside the Bun Baby Restaurant. His voice rose with it. “Like him? I’m so sure!”
The door to the shop swung open. Ethan registered the chirping bird, saw out of the corner of his eye that the door was moving, but it was too late to stop the angry words already spilling out. “I think I can do better than the Phantom of the Dojo.”
Erin’s stricken expression told him what he needed to know. He turned to the front of the shop expecting to see Michael, and sure enough Michael stood in the doorway, frozen in place -- just as the scarred half of his face was frozen.
Ethan swallowed. Even as he was trying to tell himself that Michael could only have heard half of that outburst and no way could connect it to himself -- and that “Phantom of the Dojo” could mean anything, didn’t have to be a reference to a scarred and tragic monster -- he knew he was sunk. If Michael hadn’t heard enough, Erin’s patent horror filled in the necessary blanks.
The longest two seconds of Ethan’s life dragged with agonizing slowness. Neither he, Erin, nor Michael moved. Neither he, Erin, nor Michael spoke. Ethan’s fervent prayers for the earth to open up and swallow him went unanswered.
If he’d been the one to overhear that ugly comment, he’d have backed up, closed the door, and never returned to Red Bird Books and Coffee. Michael stepped inside, closing the door after him, and crossed to Erin’s counter. The wooden floorboards squeaked ominously beneath his measured footsteps. Ethan’s heart thudded heavily in time to the thump, creak.
“I’m working late tonight. I thought I’d get one of your sandwiches.” Michael’s voice was even, without any inflection at all.
It was the bravest thing Ethan had ever seen.
“Sure!” Erin said brightly. Too brightly. “What kind did you want? Tuna fish on whole wheat, chicken salad on sourdough...” She babbled out the options.
“Tuna on wheat.”
Ethan couldn’t stop staring at the uncompromising set of Michaels’s wide shoulders, the straight way he held himself. His throat felt too tight to speak, practically too tight to breathe. He’d have felt sick about anyone hearing him say something that stupid and cruel, but for Michael to have heard it.
Erin was still gabbling away as she got Michael’s sandwich.
Shut up, Ethan willed her. You’re making it worse. But silence would’ve probably been worse. It would have been a dead silence. Michael hadn’t said a word since he’d requested his sandwich. The back of his neck was red. It probably matched Ethan’s face, which felt hot enough to burst into flame. Now there was a solution to his problems. Spontaneous combustion.
As though feeling the weight of Ethan’s gaze, Michael turned and gave him a long, straight look.
That look reduced Ethan to the size of something that could have taken refuge beneath the bonsai tree. After an excruciating moment, his gaze dropped to the counter. He scrutinized the schedule of California sales tax beneath the clear plastic desk blotter as though he was about to be tested on it.
When he looked up again, Michael had his wallet out.
Erin waved his money away. “Oh no. On the house!”
Ethan could have put his head in his hands and howled. Why didn’t she just sign a confession in blood? Couldn’t she see that undid all Michael’s efforts to put things back on a normal track?
Her eyes guiltily met his own across the floor. Had she been a mime making sad eyes and upside down smiles she couldn’t have more clearly conveyed distress.
“Thanks,” Michael said. “But no thanks.” He handed her a bill and Erin, her face now the shade of her hair, quickly made change.
Michael unhurriedly took his change and his sandwich. He nodded to Erin.
The bird-bell cheeped cheerfully as the door swung shut behind him.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.