Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Orange Soda

After six long years sweating it out with Lisa in the country, Bob was glad to finally be living in a bustling city neighborhood, even if it meant he now had a divorce under his belt. He enjoyed running errands on foot during the weekend, saying hello to all the shopkeepers and random folks making their way up and down Green Leaf Avenue, though not all of them appreciated Bob's attention. There were restaurants and bars and banks and so many little stores that Bob often forgot that he had, say, a music store or a shoe repair place right around the corner. It was the perfect change of scenery, revitalizing a still reasonably young man after an unhappy span of time.

The only problem, if you could call it that, was that Bob loved orange soda. He loved it so much that he didn't dare keep a drop of it in his apartment. Lisa had taught him to fear his love of orange soda through health articles and straight up science to the point where Bob quit drinking it for their last four years together, but that changed when he moved to Green Leaf Avenue. There was a store a block away that had a vending machine out front, offering sugary orange goodness day or night. Bob still didn't buy more than one at a time, but he often found himself making the walk to the machine two or three times a day, sometimes as late as midnight.

It was during one such late night trek that Bob saw a homeless man with wild silver hair sitting near Bob's destination, perched on the back of a bus stop bench. Bob had seen the man around before; dirty face, missing teeth, a penchant for muttering under his breath and intimidating passersby. This was usually during the daytime, a time when pedestrians flooded the sidewalk and Bob could angle himself behind other people to avoid the silver-headed man's intense gaze. However there wasn't anyone to hide behind out at this time of night.

Bob thought about doubling back, but quickly felt ashamed by the impulse. It was ridiculous to be afraid of someone that had never shown him any harm. Plus, Bob knew that he wouldn't be able to sleep if he couldn't press that ice cold can to his lips for at least one citricy sip.

Before getting much farther, Mr. Silver Hair jumped down from the bench to the sidewalk, blocking Bob's path. In that moment Bob deeply regretted not keeping orange sodas in his fridge. He could hear the man say something, but it was faint. It was then that Bob realized that, at some point between his apartment and this point he had already taken a few dollar bills out of his pocket, and that the homeless man was staring at the wad of money in Bob's hand as he muttered.

"I'm sorry," Bob said, trying to keep his pace and direction firm. "Sorry, man."

The homeless man overcompensated his volume and shouted at Bob. "Wanna tell you some shit we got going on here, Mikey!"

Bob didn't know why the man had decided that his name was Mikey, but it freaked him out.

"Just out for a stroll, dude," Bob said as he sidestepped past the silver-headed man. He thought for a moment that the man had tried to grab his arm, but he continued unabated. However, now the homeless man was following him. Bob would still have to cross a street and a parking lot until he reached the soda machine, and he didn't feel like being harassed the entire time. He made a decision and turned to face Mr. Silver Hair.

"You know what? Here," Bob said as he peeled a dollar from the wad in his hand a thrust it in the homeless man's direction. Silver Hair took the money quickly. The reaching/grabbing motion was pure muscle memory though; his face was still intent on Bob.

"Some real shit, Mikey!" the man told Bob. The money had apparently failed to elicit gratitude. "We got some work to do. Gotta clear 'em out, you hear me?"

"Jesus, dude." Bob shook his head and couldn't believe the next thing he heard himself say. "Just give me the dollar back, okay?"

"Not about the cash," the homeless guy said as he leaned in closer. Bob backed away and almost fell off the curb into the street. "I'm talking about the mirrors, Mikey."

Bob stared at the silver-headed man. In return, the man tilted his face downward and raised his eyebrows, his eyes wide on Bob as though he had just revealed an unmistakable truth that Bob should have realized all along.

Bob did not share the man's conspiratorial vibe. "Now you're talking about mirrors?" Bob said, dismissively. He shook his head and started walking toward the soda machine. As he crossed the side street, the homeless man followed.

"All up and down this street, Mikey." The man clapped his hands and continued. "My man, how many mirrors you think they got versus how many they got on you. On me. I've counted them out. It's over a hundred. More mirrors than we got people. Just look around, Mikey!"

The store was closed, but the soda machine was always open for business. Bob was thankful that the parking lot was still well-lit. He'd hoped his silence would send Mr. Silver Hair a message to leave him alone, but the vagrant waited patiently as Bill fed two dollars into the machine and pressed the picture of the orange logo. A can noisily flipped through the machine and landed in the tray below. Bob fished it out, immediately opening it and taking a long swig. He didn't care about the homeless man in that moment. He had never been thirstier.

Two quarters fell into the change receiver. "Keep those if you want 'em," Bob said as he zipped away from the machine and toward his apartment. He knew he'd have to lose the homeless guy before he got back, and hoped that fiddling with the quarters would buy himself a head start. He got all the way back to the side street and glanced back to see Mr. Silver Hair just sitting by the store's front entrance. He didn't seem to be interested in Bob anymore in the least. Bob continued on around the corner and stopped long enough for another deep sip of orange soda, then slowed his pace for the walk back.

As he neared the next side street, the one that led back to his apartment, Bob noticed a store that he hadn't really paid attention to before. It was a mirror store, with a dozen or so mirrors displayed in the front window. Bob stopped walking and thought about it. He recalled seeing his reflection in these before, but the store had somehow never registered as one of the many on his block.

It's funny how the mind works, he thought. What's more, the store certainly explained Mr. Silver Hair's concern. He paused again.

Well, it explains it in a theoretical way, but not a practical one. Bob had assumed the man was using code when he was raving about the mirrors, that perhaps he was actually talking about secret video cameras planted by the government or some other such invasive conspiracy. A fear of literal mirrors seemed a bit silly in this day and age, something out of medieval times. But the man was obviously crazy and Bob did his best to not dwell on the poor man's odd obsession.

Bob took two steps and then stopped again. A tall display mirror stood beside the store's entrance. The shopkeeper had obviously put it out as a means of advertising the location, but surely they hadn't meant it to be left out overnight, where it could so easily be stolen. It was a floor length dressing mirror, the kind with a rotating stand used to tilt the mirror toward the floor. It was angled a bit toward Bob's feet now. He saw in the reflection that his soda had fallen out of his hand, the can's remaining liquid pooling in an orange froth around his shoes.

But that wasn't right. He could feel the cool aluminum can still in his hand. He reached forward and pushed the top of the mirror back a bit, angling it so as to see his face. The face that stared back at Bob belonged to a stranger, and maybe not a person at all.

"Are you Bobby?" it asked him. Bob had never gone by Bobby before, though sometimes a friend would call him that and he'd let it go.

Then it occurred to him. "Are you Mikey?" Bob asked the thing back.

Without thinking, Bob took a step closer to the mirror, not realizing that he was already standing right in front of it. There was no room to move closer, only through. That's how he walked through the mirror passage before he could stop himself.

On the other side, the first thing Bob noticed was that he still felt like himself, despite what the mirror had shown him. The second thing he noticed were all the shadows that surrounded him, hanging limp in the place where the world had once stood. The third thing was that he no longer had his orange soda.

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