Chapter 4

Direction Chapter Five

A Second Take

Jeff awoke. He kept his eyes clamped shut, not yet ready to accept the hellish state his life had now become. He inhaled through his nose, resulting in a hard whiff of his sweat infused pillow accompanied by the light aroma of his stomach bile, which was still somehow lingering in the room. He was lying face down on his bed, his phone on the floor beside the mattress plugged into the receptacle next to his desk. He could hear the passing traffic out front, and got the sense through his closed eyelids that his surroundings were currently being illuminated with searing daylight, not covered in the beautiful comfort of darkness. He gradually peeled his eyes open, seeing the blobs of color in front of him slowly focus into the shitty rundown objects of his bedroom.

He slid his arm off the side of the mattress onto his phone and pulled it in front of his still waking face. “6:58 a.m., Thursday, September 21” it read. His mind began processing the information. “Thursday morning, why does that seem—weird?” he thought. “Fuck, wait, today should be Friday, right?” He rolled over and sat up in his bed, suddenly much more alert, and ran his fingers through his fresh feeling hair, again leading to confusion. He couldn’t recall a recent wash. To cope with the sudden surge of panic he allowed himself to fall into routine and swung his legs off the side of his mattress, then reached up over the side of the desk to grab his mason jar. As he pulled the jar down he heard a sharp thud on the carpet near his feet. He searched for the source of the noise and found his carved wooden cat, sitting there, looking up at him from the floor. That burning feeling began creeping up his neck again.

The mason jar dropped from his hand as he jumped up and rushed out of his room, down the steps a few at a time, and straight to the kitchen barreling around the corner. Chris was standing hunched over the coffee maker, holding a mug under the stream of coffee dripping out, a green mug with “1 UP” in big white letters on the side. His body visibly jolted when Jeff rushed around the corner. “Holy fuck man you scared the fucking shit out of me!” Chris shouted, now looking distraught. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Jeff looked at Chris, he could feel his radiating hatred of him making his body tense, his movements mechanical. He then became aware that he’d been standing there not talking for about twenty seconds now. “Shit, uh, sorry, tripped on the carpet,” Jeff said as he pointed a lazy finger back toward the living room. “I’m fucking starving, just grabbing a snack quick.” He extended his arm to the refrigerator door and pulled it open, bent down at his knees and sent his hand to forage inside, grabbing a stick of cheese, then letting the door close on it’s own as he hurriedly headed back to his room without saying another word.

“Jesus fucking Christ man,” Jeff heard Chris mutter from the kitchen as he made his way back up the stairs. When he returned to his room he dropped the cheese on his desk and grabbed his phone.

“I won’t be able to meet you today, something came up. I’m sorry.” he typed into the phone and hit the send button. About a full minute later his phone buzzed in his hand.

“No problem, we can catch up another time!” Riley replied.

Jeff threw his phone down on his bed and began frantically pacing his room, rubbing the bottoms of his palms into his eyes. “Alright,” he thought, “so, nothing happened. I haven’t talked to Riley, everything’s fine?” He sat down on his desk chair and looked down at the carpet around his feet. He curled and dug his toes into the frays.

“What does this even mean, why the fuck is this happening?” He could feel his breathing getting gradually heavier, his hot breath making his face warm.

He looked over at his bedroom door. He could hear Chris coming back up the stairs, humming some stupid melody from one of the games he plays, a flash of Jeff’s hatred shot through him, settling somewhere around the depths of his stomach. “Of course, of fucking course,” his barrage of thoughts continued. “How did I not fucking see that, see the way they acted around each other, it’s so fucking obvious.” He could feel the despair of his situation pulling him deeper into his depression. The brightness of the day cruelly mocked him from the window. The heat of his room began to press against him.

“There has to be something I can do. How far can I go back? Could I go back to before they got together? Or maybe I can force him to leave her? Make it so they were never together. Then I could take his place. If I had more responsibility like him, maybe Riley would look at me differently, no longer see me as this depressing, lazy piece of shit that I am.” He was talking out loud now he finally realized. “Shit,” he said.

He put his hands on the back of his neck, interlocking his fingers, then leaned forward putting his elbows down onto the tops of his legs, sinking into his flesh. “That could work, it has to work,” he whispered to himself. He closed his eyes, trying to concentrate. He still couldn’t quite figure out what was going on with his life, what this thing was, how to control it. If he could somehow understand it though, it would be a tool for him. He could give Chris what he fucking deserved.

The tingling of his nerves crawled up his spine. He began arranging his thoughts and concentrating hard. “Chris isn’t with Riley, I’m a manager. Chris isn’t with Riley, I’m a manager.” Over and over again, becoming a sort of mantra in his mind.

Knock knock!

Jeff’s eyes snapped open and he looked toward his door.

“Yeah?” he called out, uncertain.

“We have to get to work man, you ready?” Chris’ muffled voice replied through the door.

“What the hell?” Jeff thought.

“Uh, yea, one minute” he said as he jumped out of his seat and pulled his ratty mesh shorts down, then began stepping into his black jeans.

“Every fucking time man, come on!” he heard Chris say loudly as he shuffled back down the hallway, then straight down to his car.

Jeff slid his phone into his pocket, yanking his shirt over his head as he did. Went through his routine inventory check — keys, pocket knife, phone, wallet — then rushed out of his room. This mixture of confusion and excitement had him feeling spacious and faint, he tripped slightly down the steps and pulled the locked door close behind him as he stumbled. Chris was already in his running car, exhaust slowly spilling out of the back filled with a glowing red from the break lights. The camera tracked along the passing road. Jeff was visible, lumbering toward Chris’ car and tucking his body into the passenger side seat. Spots of morning light that managed to make it through the trees littered the ground around them.

The commute was mostly devoid of sound, filled only with the occasional sigh and the wind whipping along the sides of the car then straight into the unclosed back window. Jeff's mind was the opposite, loud and reeling. Did he actually do it? He couldn't just ask; Chris doesn’t seem to be in a talkative mood and he'd probably have no idea what the fuck Jeff was talking about. “I just have to let it play out a bit and see,” he thought. He was incredibly anxious and began loudly tapping his foot on the car floor, anything to interrupt his mind and this terrifying silence.

They were finally rounding the outer edge of the theater, the early hour revealing the bare pavement of the parking lot, normally covered by a dozen rows of every type of car.

Chris cut through the empty lot and was heading toward the front of the building when he said his first words since they left the apartment. “I’ll let you off at the doors, then go park. It’s going to be a long enough day, might as well save you a few feet of walking.” His voice seemed louder than normal, amplified by the extended lack of noise prior to his speaking.

“Sounds good,” Jeff replied, trying to mask the disorientation in his voice. He wiped the accumulated sweat from his palms onto the thighs of his pants, then exited the car once it came to a stop.

Chris pulled away as Jeff stood there for a moment, staring at the glass double doors leading into the theater. He saw a bright, golden reflection approaching and the sound of footsteps from his left broke his trance, he quickly looked over. Morgana was walking toward him, almost skipping, with a wide smile on her face. She had her wavy blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, a fitted white shirt that Jeff could clearly see the outline of her not so work appropriate bra, black work pants, and a black duffle bag at her side presumably full of her ballet get-up. The closer she got, the more her aroma surrounded him. Jeff immediately aimed his glance to the ground.

“Hey Morgana,” he said, flashing a tense smile.

“Hey Mr. Manager!” she replied. “How was your first week on top?”

“Oh, oh uh, fucking great,” he lied.

“You better watch your mouth mister, can’t have a manager talking like that when this kid’s party starts.”

“So it’s been about a week huh, since I became a manager?” he asked, trying to casually figure out what the fuck happened.

“I think so? Today’s Thursday. It was, what, this past Friday?” she said kindly.

“Right, that’s right,” he said, nodding, playing it about as smooth as dry butter. “Sorry, it’s been a long week.”

“Well, it’s about to get longer. It’s going to be like a daycare in there about an hour from now.”

Jeff gave a quick, awkward laugh as they began walking toward the doors. He reached forward and grabbed a handle, allowing Morgana to walk in front of him. She smiled.

“Thank you kindly,” she said, in a spot-on southern accent. Jeff stiffly bowed his head in return.

“Ma’am,” he replied, deciding against testing his acting ability and going with his normal, average sounding voice. She breezed by him and he caught another whiff of her. Intoxicating.

He followed her in, watching the curls in her hair pull down in the valley of each step. He then noticed Chris walking out of the break room from across the lobby, he must have come in from one of the side exits. Walking over with Morgana to clock in, they headed to the party room to get everything set up. Morgana dropped her bag off, pulled out her maroon polo and followed Jeff, gracefully pulling her shirt on as she walked.

As they entered the private party room, the same acid trip, pastel colored carpet from the lobby followed them in. The smell of burnt popcorn and what could only be described as a chalky smell hung in the air like a fog. Jeff walked over to a storage closet at the opposite wall and pulled out a bundle of red tablecloths and a beat up cardboard box, then set them on the large L shaped table that sat in the middle of the room. Chris entered and dropped a tray of red cellophane baggies full of popcorn onto a smaller table to the left of the door, underneath a large vintage Casablanca poster.

“Hey, Morgana,” Chris said as he turned toward the L table.

“Hi Chris!” she replied, in a manner way too chipper sounding for this early in the day.

“This is a full party, they reserved a whole theater didn’t they?” Chris asked, now turning toward Jeff.

“Oh, uh,” Jeff began.

“Yea I believe so, over 60 people!” Morgana interjected.

“Great,” Chris huffed.

Scott leaned himself into the room. He was a taller, imposing man with a buzz cut and thick, square rimmed glasses. His appearance made him a rather effective manager; he didn’t seem like the type who’d go have a friendly drink with you after work, kick up his feet and bitch with you about the man. “Jeff, you’re up in the projector room. I already loaded everything from the DCP and scheduled the showings, the party’s in theater 6,” he said flatly, still holding the door open.

“Oh,” Jeff replied, glancing over at Chris, then finally settling his eyes on Morgana.

She smiled. “See you later big shot.”

With a half-hearted smirk and a shrug, he followed Scott back out of the party room and the door clicked shut.

Chris walked over to the table, opened the cardboard box and pulled out a stack of plastic, red and white striped plastic containers with “Pop Corn” on the side in big, red bubble letters. He walked back to the little table and began separating the pile so he could fill them with the cellophane baggies.

“Going to be a long day,” Morgana said as she spread a tablecloth along one side of the large L.

“Tell me about it,” Chris replied, holding a cellophane popcorn bag a few inches above one of the plastic containers before letting it drop in, making a satisfying “pwoof” sound. “How was your week?”

“It was alright I guess. Having a few days away from here was nice, refreshing.”

“Yeah, I bet. I need a day off like a doctor needs patients. Been kind of stressed lately. You do anything special?”

“Nothing too special. Went to see some,” she paused momentarily while and squared up the sides of the tablecloths, “relatives. How was your week, why so stressed?”

He turned toward her and leaned back, sitting against the table as he continued dropping the cellophane baggies into the containers. “Just overworked. Was really hoping to get moved up, I was kind of surprised when Jeff got promoted honestly. Plus some stuff outside of work.”

“Well, what’s going on outside?”

“Just stupid cliché shit. I really like this girl, but she’s dating a friend of mine.” Chris didn’t know why he was telling her any of this, he wasn’t even really that close with Morgana. In this moment though, talking to her just felt right. “She seems to be into me as well, as far as I can tell. It just wouldn’t be right. I mean, I’d be absolutely fucking my friend over.”

“Does she seem happy with your friend?”

“I would think she wouldn’t be showing me signs of interest if she was already happy. On the other hand, I’m statistically a pretty bad judge of these things. I’ve just been having this weird feeling we should be together.”

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. That’s what I always say in moments like this. If your friend is truly your friend, and knows she’s not happy with him, he’d probably get over it eventually and understand.” She walked back to the supply closet and pulled out another cardboard box full of plastic plates, plastic utensils, movie themed birthday hats, and red and white striped napkins.

“It's not something I can just bring up in a casual conversation. If I'm being completely fucking oblivious about this I could potentially fuck up two friendships at the same time. That's a pretty daunting downside,” he replied, walking over and grabbing another stack of the popcorn containers from the box. “He just doesn’t seem like he’d take it too well. He’s not the most emotionally balanced person.”

“Well, this is just me, but I’d go for it. This person could be the one you end up spending your life with. What’s the point of sitting by while she stays with someone who makes her unhappy? At least talk to her, see how she really feels. You never know.”

The light of the projector flickered like a candle throughout the dimly lit room. Jeff sat in the grungy, soda stained office chair staring down at his hands, contemplating the ramifications of his actions, and riding out the slow high of the marijuana brownies he found in the bottom of his backpack earlier. Everything seemed to be going well enough, he wasn’t sure about where he stood with Riley though. He was too afraid to contact her, paranoid from his thoughts and the drugs, he didn’t really know what to expect. And he was regretting his stupid decision to set his phone so that it automatically deleted messages, he couldn’t even look back to try and piece it all together. He pulled his phone out of his pocket for what had to be the dozenth time in the past ten minutes. The only thing left on it was a message she sent to him this morning, “I’ll see you tonight!” He replied with a long, drawn out sigh.

His shift was just about over, the party went fine as far as he knew. He couldn’t really tell much of anything from in here, time seemed to be a nonexistent concept once you entered this shadowy cavern. Carl was kind of right about the excitement level of this particular job, unfortunately. Scott had already scheduled all the movies for the day to play at the correct times, Jeff just had to monitor everything to be sure nothing fucked up. Which nothing did. So his shift was spent staring around an empty room of flashing lights, listening to the muffled audio of a dozen different movies on repeat. He also had no fucking idea what he was supposed to do at the end of his shift, having no recollection of ever really being trained.

Light from an opening door cascaded in and Scott entered along the bright trail it created on the floor, creating an elongated stickman shadow anchored to his feet. “Hey, you can get going, I’ll finish up in here. You’re more useful at concession right now, the next rush is coming up.”

“Are you sure?” Jeff replied, praying to fucking god he wouldn’t for some reason change his mind suddenly.

“Yeah. I need you down there, and at the end of your shift I can show you how to check the cash drawers and inventory.”

“Alright,” Jeff replied as he brought himself to his feet, then almost falling backward with a hard blissful swell from the weed. He suddenly felt very paranoid and began mechanically walking toward the exit, picking up his bucket sized cup of soda on the way.

He somehow made it past Scott and into the lobby. Carl was behind the concession counter, talking to one of the other employees. Beth? He couldn’t really remember. Noticing Jeff approaching, he smiled, and waved a middle finger in his direction. Jeff waved, “Aw, thanks buddy!”

“What’s up shithead, how’s the view from the top?”

“Not so bad, makes it easier to see down your shirt you big stud,” Jeff replied in a sarcastic tone, smiling. He was worried Carl would be pissed about him moving up, he was genuinely relieved he wasn’t. “Guess we’re better friends than I thought,” he said to himself.

Beth laughed then walked over to the far side of the registers to help a man who’d just walked up.

“I came to help with the rush,” Jeff said.

“Yeah, got about twenty minutes, then fucking chaos.”

“Good, a little more time for that brownie to wear off.”

“Oh shit man! What kind of dick bag friend are you? Brownies are a sharing food. We share here.”

Jeff dug the sandwich baggie out of his back pocket, containing a small half of a brownie, and slid it across the counter.

“Righteous,” Carl replied, grabbing the baggie, conspicuously looking back and forth, then pretending to tie his shoe as he fumbled the small chocolate weed square out of the plastic and immediately into his mouth. “Alright man, let’s get to work.”

The next hour passed with Jeff absentmindedly fulfilling food orders and awkwardly laughing off customer’s complaints about the price of popcorn. “Well, you’re the asshole who didn’t just stop on your way here and buy a perfectly pocket-sized candy bar for $5 less at a gas station,” was an all too frequent thought.

“I have to piss for the thirteenth time, goddamn cherry coke,” Jeff said to Carl as he passed, on his way to the restroom yet again. Then he saw her, Riley, walking across the lobby. She was smiling and waving.

He smiled nervously, feeling a ball of anxiety begin to swell somewhere just above his stomach.

“Hey, hun,” she said as she continued to close the gap.

Another twinge of anxiety. “Hey, I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” he began.

When she arrived in front of him she raised herself onto the balls of her feet and kissed him on the mouth. He could feel the light, warm breath from her nose against his cheek as she held her face to his. He then unsurprisingly began to feel slightly aroused. “Uh, I have to go to the bathroom, be back in a sec,” he blurted out, turning away from her and continuing quickly across the lobby. “Holy fuck shit,” repeated continuously in his mind as he round the tiled corner to the men’s room. There was a man already at one of the urinals, so Jeff opted to freak out a little more privately within a stall. He quickly got to the business of urinating, which had doubled in urgency since the sudden jolt of adrenaline he experienced a moment ago.

“I can’t fucking believe this, I can’t believe whatever I did fucking worked. This is incredible.” He buttoned his pants and stood there staring at the marker graffiti on the blue stall wall. “Your life will be revealed as you’re ready to see it.”

“Pretty goddamn deep for shithouse rhetoric,” he thought.

He exited the stall and walked to the sink, staring at his reflection, focusing on the hazy whites of his eyes surrounding the light hazel drop of color, and trying to revel in what he was hoping was some sort of a victory for himself. “Sorry, Chris, I guess this is just the way things are.” He couldn’t really tell if he genuinely felt remorse or not, which means probably not. “I mean, what else am I capable of? This is crazy,” he mumbled to his audience in the mirror. He rinsed his hands, shook them dry then began walking out, watching his feet go forward one at a time along the tiles. His high was finally beginning to wear off, the floor transitioned to carpet and he raised his gaze to look around. There were two huge lines stretching out from the concession counters, he quickly scanned the small crowd for Riley but couldn’t spot her. “Fuck.” He headed back to his register to finish out the rush.

Once the influx of disgruntled lobby dwellers subsided, Jeff still hadn’t spotted Riley. “Must’ve gone into a movie,” he thought, the weed hangover kicking in at full tilt with a stomach growl so loud Carl had to have heard it from the other end of the registers. “Jesus.” He filled up a large tub with popcorn and topped off his soda, then headed to the break room. His shift was technically over, so he went in to clock out, then began down the hallway to one of the back theaters. He wasn’t mentally ready to deal with Riley yet, he had to hide, collect his thoughts. “Might as well do The Da Vinci Code again,” he decided as he sauntered to his destination. He had the bucket under his right arm with his soda in the same hand, freeing his opposite hand to systematically shovel popcorn into his open mouth. He focused on his eating, trying to stave off the constant buzz of anxiety that was slowly increasing as the high decreased. He reached theater 12 showing the first of only two showings for this movie that’d be playing today. It had to be nearing the end of it’s run in theaters by now.

He leaned into the door then walked down the dark hallway and around the corner to the seats. His eyes quickly scanned and then he stopped abruptly. The entire theater was empty with the exception of three rows ahead of where he was now frozen. There were two people sitting, a man and a woman. The bright light from the scene currently being projected lit an auburn halo around Riley’s hair. The air felt so heavy. Chris’ shaggy beard was also shining, and his arm was around her. Sweat began running down his face, or was it tears? They hadn’t noticed him walk in, and continued talking in low voices. Even over the sounds of the loud movie, Jeff could hear her giggles cutting through the air and into his ear canals like a slow blade. Chris leaned over and rested his head onto hers, then tilted his face so their lips softly came together.

The movie's audio slowed, Jeff felt himself stumble back, just missing the small wall in front of the hallway. His entire body was now burning, his disbelief grinding his senses to a dull edge. He exited theater 12, dropped his makeshift meal into the trash outside the door, then headed to the break room to wait for Chris, compulsively fiddling with the folding blade in his pocket as he marched.

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