There are five rules I like to follow.
Five: Don’t touch any surface without cleaning it first.
Four: Don’t jump into strangers’ conversations.
Three: Avoid most people.
Two: Call ma every Tuesday.
One: Never leave home without the goddamn headphones.
Five simple rules for my boring life, but I still amazed myself this morning when I woke up late for work, dressed quickly, and ran out the door, completely ignoring the most important rule I must follow.
“May, listen. I need you to bring my headphones to my office,” I breathed into my phone, my head already buzzing with the thoughts. Lord, how I tried to avoid the thoughts, for all of them were so ridiculous in such short snippets. I bumped into a woman on the train who found me to be rather rude but took pity on my tired eyes.
Another woman was contemplating her weight while staring at the man seated across from her eating a thick jelly donut dripping onto his disheveled button-up. Though she was thin as a rail, she continued to fixate on her next weigh-in while unwittingly drooling over the way donut man ate the filling from his shirt with no shame.
At my age, I had learned how to make the voices a dull buzz, but the more people around, the harder it was to quiet the roar. I had a hard time controlling it when I was a young man, but with the years came wisdom, and with wisdom came the knowledge of what to avoid and how to handle crowds.
Now, I could drown it out with one specific brand of headphones. I owned three pairs, each costing nearly a thousand dollars. Any normal person wouldn’t spend that much on one pair of headphones, let alone three, but without them, I could never live in a city like Chicago with the number of thoughts screaming to be heard.
I started humming in my mind, enjoying a drink at the bar in the late sixties while flirting with the bartender, completely in my element and not on this crowded subway, late for work and sweating up a storm in my wrinkled suit.
“There are clouds up ahead. A storm was brewing something mischievous. No that’s not right. I need to add more pizazz!” A man wrote on his tablet, scribbling on the screen with a woman seated next to him wearing scarlet lipstick and a wicked scowl that dissipated when the writer looked up from his pad.
“I had expected the storm for hours before it came, having felt the shift in the trees and the taunt of the gray sky, but this one waited for nightfall.” Her voice came off soft, but her thoughts were separate from the conversation, which was impressive for such a response.
‘I want silence, not to help with another story. We haven’t even had a cup of coffee. How is he already brainstorming his next series?’ She yawned, looking around the car, locking eyes with my own for a second, looking away and returning to them before I realized I was staring with an agape mouth.
She was naturally pretty, with a wild wavy mane of chestnut-colored hair contained by a silky red headband.
I tried to tune her out the rest of the ride, daring not to look back after hearing her think ‘the hell is he looking at?’ with such a strong shift in her once soft gaze. I found myself cracking up at the two different conversations taking place, the one out loud and the other in her mind. I looked back again, locking eyes for the second time with a grin on my face.
Then it was gone.
I couldn’t hear her mind anymore, and I found myself looking to her again to make sure she was alright but she was talking with her friend, looking completely at ease. I, on the other hand, was panicking, never having this happen before, and was fearful something was wrong with me.
Other voices zipped around, but hers didn’t come back, and I became determined to understand what was going on.
To be fair, when we got off the subway, I noticed we were headed in the same direction anyway, and promised myself I would keep my third rule; Avoid most people.
Luckily I was taller than most in the crowd, so I kept my eyes on her red scarf, dressing as though she were Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s, slim in stature but fierce in the way she held her head up high.
They slipped into a crowded coffee shop and I checked my watch.
“Shit.” I was an hour late now.
I was already late though and wanted caffeine before dealing with the chaos of the day ahead.
They were standing in line when I entered and I still could hear her, only the things she said vocally. The man she was with was no help, he only wanted to ask her out on a date, but knew now wasn’t the best time for that question, especially with Katrina. She apparently wouldn’t take kindly to a come on at this ungodly hour and he’d worked too hard to build their friendship to blow it at the wrong time.
She had a strong jaw, and dainty nose, the perfect mix of brutal and gentle.
I nearly didn’t recognize my phone buzzing until the man in the pressed suit standing in front of me looked back with annoyance. HE wasn’t someone who let his phone ring, no, HE answered his calls right away.
“May, thank you,” I spoke, indicating for the man to turn back around when he continued to stare. “Please tell me you can do it.”
“I can, but it’ll be a little while, the kids don’t go to recess until eleven.” May had been my roommate since my sophomore year of college when we moved out of dorms and into our own apartment building. She wasn’t exactly the most likable person, never being for the faint of heart nor the insecure. Yet, she was the greatest friend I’d ever had.
When I had told her about my ability two years after meeting, she confessed how she had an overactive bladder.
We were practically the same.
“That’s fine, thank you for continuing to be the best.” I breathed a sigh of relief, temporarily forgetting about the woman whose thoughts went silent to me. Though she had every right to privacy, I wanted to know how she did it, who she was, where she came from.
“You need a girlfriend.” May disconnected the phone quickly after a child started screaming in the background, a normal ending to our conversations while she attempted to teach the youthful minds of Chicago.
‘I didn’t mean to hurt her.’ The businessman in front of me broke through and I took a closer look at him, seeing how shifty he was. ‘She wasn’t supposed to be there.’ He rubbed his neck, stretching his shoulders.
I couldn’t see thoughts, only hear, and while my skin prickled knowing an innocent woman was probably hurt somewhere, I remained resolved to stick to myself since I would never be able to explain how I knew.
My fist clenched.
‘Interesting. Do you read all thoughts or only the ones that you want to indulge in?’ Asked a voice up ahead, and I looked up to find Katrina leaning on the counter, waiting for her drink. When we locked eyes, she grinned in triumph. “Such a puppy.” The wall went back up. I was left flushed, as though my thoughts had just been exposed.
What an uncomfortable feeling.
I watched her friend get his drink, winking at me before walking past and out the door, leaving me in the overcrowded shop with a possible abuser and a woman with the sniffles whose thoughts were focused on her recently deceased dog, Patches.
My five-minute walk to the office was filled with what seemed to be a million buzzing bees, refusing to get drawn into any other conversations when my mind was too focused on what had just happened. Never before had I met someone who knew about my ability, or any abilities in general since there were rumors of others going around the media.
I would never see her again, nor would I receive an answer to a question asked many times in the late hours when everyone slept in the apartment building and I sat out on our fire escape smoking, looking to the stars while wondering what else was out there.
Who else was more accurate, but I was frightened of the change I felt stirring about once I sat down in my chair in my cubicle, ready to make more reports for the insurance company I was employed by.
This was why I always needed to remember the rules, especially number one, to never forget the goddamn headphones. I would have had a normal day if I hadn’t done that.
A knock startled me from my thoughts hours after leaving the office, having waited until May went to sleep before escaping into my own thoughts outside our kitchen window. I immediately put out the lit cigarette, staring at the door to make sure it had been real, trying to grasp at any sound on the other side of our home entrance.
Sometimes May’s boyfriend stopped over late at night, so I climbed in through the window and walked through the kitchen to the door, opening it with a grin turned to shock.
There stood Katrina with a raised eyebrow and mind of steel, dressed in a blue hoodie with her hair held back by a high ponytail.
“They know about you.” She said as if I knew who ‘they’ were. “Pack your things, we got to go.”
I looked to my headphones, remembering the rule I forgot to follow.