Copyright ©️ 2022, R.K. Ryals, all rights reserved.
Description: An old library. One hot summer. Two boys, one lost and the other forgotten, discover what it means to be real.
Author's Note: Me, You, & the Letter Q is a very personal story for me. Although Moby and Q have very different existences from myself, a piece of me is in both of them. From the homelessness to the abandonment, these were things I faced in my youth as I came face-to-face with who I am. During a homeless stint in my childhood, my mother often took my sister and I to the library to escape the heat, and it became a second home for us. This story is as much mine as it is theirs. ~R.K. Ryals This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
- Chapter 1 – Call Me Moby
- Chapter 2 – Quisling
- Chapter 3 -Quintessence
- Chapter 4 – Quidamity
- Chapter 5 – Quiver
- Chapter 6 – Query
Call Me Moby
Footfalls absorbed by threadbare, stained carpet. Musty leather. Old paper. The asthmatic whir of a window AC unit pushing air into a library too big to cool.
These sounds, these smells are my world.
Mama V calls it my den of hibernation. Curled up inside a cushioned chair, legs dangling over the side, my arm goes numb beneath my head, the opposite hand gripping a book with the cover folded beneath it.
“Sacrilegious,” Mama V hisses.
Mama V isn’t my mother, but she’s hissed at me since I was small enough to fit inside the same chair in a fetal position. Same words. Same place. Same aged lines on her rosacea-reddened pale skin. The only thing that’s changed is me.
My real mama, a meth addict who checked out of life at approximately 11:11 a.m. sprawled across an overgrown lawn on an overcast Sunday morning with her glassy eyes reflecting clouds, used to say I was born from paper. I took that to mean I was conceived on the end of a rolled-up joint and a cocktail. Turns out she had sex for drugs in the basement of the Stonemoor public library, her gaze locked on the open page of a book. As if reading the words would somehow make her forget she was having sex in the basement of the Stonemoor public library.
That’s how I got my name, Moby. After Moby Dick. Because Mama couldn’t pronounce Ishmael, and she found it amusing she made me while reading the first page of a book with dick in the title.
From birth until now, my life is like one of Stonemoor’s old library checkout cards.
People check in and out of it, one after the other, each managing to get something different out of me while leaving a little wear and tear behind.
That’s how he happens.
He checks into my life on the eleventh day of June, during my eighteenth year.
At the Stonemoor Public library.
My lanky, five-foot ten-inch frame sprawls across my usual chair, reading glasses perched precariously on the tip of my nose, the spectacles for show rather than need. They make me look intelligent. Since I’m not athletic, I kind of need smart to work for me. Moby is a big name to live up to.
My long fingers crush the delicate book in my hand, leaving smudges of ink where the pen I used didn’t have time enough to dry.
“Neanderthal,” Mama V hisses on passing, her scrawny, wrinkled arms pushing a cart overflowing with tomes.
“Hag,” I hiss back.
We understand each other, Mama V and I. Mama V is Stonemoor’s librarian, a relic of the county who has mothered me with crass words, oolong tea, free crossword puzzles, and affectionate glances.
I massage my brows, soothing the furrows dug between them by frowning. “Q.”
Fuck. Q is my least favorite letter in the alphabet because it’s most useful paired with another letter. It’s too needy, and when it stands alone, no one knows what to do with it. That’s why it is the highest scoring letter in Scrabble.
“Q. Five letters. Bar. B. Q.” The words fall over my shoulder, deep and penetrating, and I lose my grip on the book. A large, calloused palm catches it, cupping the book and the back of my hand, heat emanating from the stranger’s skin like an oven. He towers over me like a giant, a strand of dark hair swinging onto his forehead over wide, dark eyes.
Lifting my chin, I stare at him.
Some people are just too much to take in. He is one of them. Sharp cheekbones, olive skin, and a face full of shadows. There is something dangerous about the shadows.
“What?” I squeak.
He nods at my crossword puzzle. “Ends in Q. Five Letters. Bar. B. Q.”
Wherever he came from and however he came to be, there isn’t much IQ there.
Raising the book to cover his face, he leans down on his haunches, using the armrest of the chair as a prop, his head nearly smashed against mine.
The momentum makes the chair wobble, and I reach out to grab the rest, my fingers digging into his skin. “Hey—”
“What kind of person sits in a library during the summer doing puzzles?” he mumbles, his eyes darting over the page to the room beyond, and then back down again.
It is then I notice the flurry of activity. Chaotic shouts ring from the street beyond, people running past the arching picture windows the town put in the summer before.
Stonemoor is good at producing two things: criminals and judges. You either liked breaking the law or judging the people who did.
I didn’t give a shit either way.
“Liquor store or the dollar place?” I ask.
He doesn’t even pretend not to know what I’m talking about. “Gas station on eleven. Damn place only has a three-hundred-dollar drawer though.”
“Isn’t that the standard?”
He looks at me, really looks at me for the first time, his intense stare sweeping over my face, undoubtedly noting my unremarkable sandy hair and freckle-spattered nose. Mama V once said I reminded her of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Considering this is the literary age of swoon-worthy vampires, muscled superheroes, and badass rock stars, I didn’t take that as a compliment.
“You calling me stupid?”
I tap the crossword puzzle. “Bar. B. Q? Really?”
He barks out a short laugh. “I didn’t realize this was an exam.”
The door to the library bursts open, the shouts from outside exploding within, sending Mama V into a flurry of frenzied “Shh’s”. Sirens ring out on the street.
“Shit!” The guy next to me dives behind my chair, which considering his behemoth size, does nothing to cloak him.
“Did you kill someone?” I ask.
He snorts. “So now I’m an idiot and a murderer?”
“Yes, or no?” I glance behind me, noting the sudden pallor of his skin.
He jerks a wad of twenties out of his ripped jeans. “I got away with sixty bucks, man.”
A laugh bubbles up inside of me, but I tamp it down. “Come on.” I stand, not looking to see if he follows.
The door is heavy when I push it open, but it isn’t loud, the winding staircase beyond leading down into dust and filth. The walls close in, making every step echo.
“Hey,” deep-voice guy calls, “maybe I should ask you if you’re a murderer. It’s always the innocent-looking ones, right? You do terrible things to animals, don’t you?”
“Horrible, terrible things,” I reply, coming to the bottom of the stairs. A dim light shines over shelves of archived books and old indexed card catalogues. Microfilm and newspapers sit in yellow, ammonia-scented piles.
This is where I was conceived.
“Shit,” the guy behind me throws his arm over his face, “this place stinks.”
“Stay put until the people looking for you leave. No one comes down here.”
“And if they search the place?”
“For sixty bucks?” I flash him an amused grin.
He frowns. “Calling me stupid again?”
“I’m calling them stupid, but then again you did just steal from a store with a surveillance camera.”
“That thing hasn’t worked in two years.”
“How do you know?”
“My uncle owns it.”
I laugh, because Stonemoor is also good at strange family dynamics.
“You might want to sleep down here then.”
“Another time maybe.”
Turning away, I start for the stairs.
“It’s Moby,” I throw over my shoulder.
Silence. A strangled cough. “I’d go with Freckles if I were you.”
“Moby,” I insist. My shoes echo on the stairs. His name doesn’t matter to me because I’ve already given him one. Q. The letter I hate the most.
a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country.
I read a book once about this guy who was supposed to be a hero but went batshit crazy instead. All the people he should have saved from the villain had their minds seized by magic because the hero became a traitor. It was the first time I had ever seen the word ‘quisling,’ and I found a way to use it in every sentence I spoke. For two weeks, I turned everything from mashed potatoes to the creepy old lady in the apartment next door into quislings.
Who knew I’d become one? All because of a few potato chips.
Crumbs. Tiny crumbs lay scattered on the brown carpet like band-aids dotting the stains. I stare at them, my gaze following them down a row of fiction books. The only thing special about the crumbs is that they’re not supposed to be there.
Picking one up, I sniff—sour cream and cheddar.
The late afternoon sun leaves trails of light across the mess. Mama V’s cart rattles across the room, and a soothing, low voice emanates against the walls from the children’s section. Florence Graves reads from a copy of Velveteen Rabbit. Rising chatter from the kids barely paying attention mingles with the rattling cart and the narration. It’s like a symphony, each sound playing against my ears like I’m sitting at a concert. Safe. Here, I am safe.
There are no nightmares inside this library.
But the crumbs don’t belong.
Leaning over, I collect them in my palm. One. Two. Three. My knees hit the floor. Bookshelves loom on either side of me. Like giants holding words.
Faint movement catches my eye, and I let my body fall to the side, my elbow propped against the floor. Denim peeks at me from between the shelves, crammed against the side of the books like a stonewashed wave crashing against a shore.
I smell cheddar.
“Food’s not allowed,” I whisper, my voice so low I’m sure the person doesn’t hear, but the denim moves, clothes and books rustling as a face joins me near the floor. Dark eyes meet mine between the books.
Long lashes float down, covering the stare before rising again. A curtain that shields the hint of amber I catch a glimpse of amongst the brown.
“Freckles,” a deep voice says, amused.
I frown. A week has passed since I heard his voice, but I haven’t forgotten it. “Moby,” I remind him.
We should move, but we don’t.
I flash the crumbs in my palm at him. “Are these yours?”
He squints. “Depends. What happens to me if I say they are?”
My fist clenches around the food. “What store was it this time?”
A chuckle sends chills down my spine. Rough. His voice is rough. “I’m just here to read.”
I snort, but I don’t respond. He’s on public property in a building anyone can enter. It’s none of my business.
“No food,” I grumble before pushing myself up.
“What? That’s it?” He pushes himself up opposite me, but because of his height, I’m staring at his neck and the top of his chest through the shelves rather than his face. A silver cross peeks at me against tanned skin.
Climbing to my feet, I steady myself against the wooden ledge, fingers brushing the covers. P. We’re in the P’s. An Edgar Allan Poe book glares at me, dark and foreboding.
He stands, denim and white flashing me beyond the forbidding Poe. “No questions?”
Stepping back, I look up to find his eyes through the shelf above me. “None.”
I don’t care why he’s here. He’s simply an intruder inside the tiny country I inhabit during the day, hidden from the world and the brutal summer sun.
“No crossword puzzle?” he asks when I start to move away.
I pause but then keep moving, stopping just long enough to let the crumbs slide into a small garbage can next to a computer before slumping into my usual chair.
“‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’” Florence’s voice rings louder now where I’m sitting inside my chair.
“What story is that?” The raspy voice asks. Q. I had decided to call him Q because I didn’t want to know his name. Names give people substance, and I didn’t want that kind of substance in my life.
Q plops down next to me and sweeps his dark hair off his forehead. Sweat bumps line his hairline, but it doesn’t detract from his appearance. He looks like I imagine a denim-wearing pirate would, his broad shoulders shrugging as he grips the side of my chair.
I lean away from him to pull out the folded book I’d stuffed into the cushion.
“There it is.” He pushes his shoulder against the armrest. “What’s so interesting about those?” His fingers reach for the crossword puzzle, and I jerk it away.
“Why are you here?”
His eyes meet mine, trapping me. “Finally curious?”
He’s weird, this Q, the excitement in his tone making my heart drum a chaotic beat. He wants me to be curious. I can see it in his gaze. Raw hunger leaps out of the depths, and I ogle his face. His need is terrifying.
I feel cornered in a place where I should feel safe.
Long lashes sweep down over amber-tinted eyes. “You should just do the puzzle,” Q whispers, standing to move away, as if he’s realized my discomfort.
He fades into the fiction section, disappearing into the aisle where I’d found him, a trace of cheddar, sour cream, and cologne hovering in the air.
A baby cries, a mother shushing it as Florence continues to read, her voice throwing out a story about becoming real. My gaze stares unseeing at the crossword puzzle in my hand, but I’m too aware of the dark hair and eyes sitting in fiction.
Q. It isn’t a real name.
For me, he isn’t real.
But, imaginary or no, he’s inside my country, and damn it, I am curious.
My fingers riot through my hair before my palm slaps my forehead. It’s okay to be curious about something that doesn’t exist. That logic gets me out of my chair and carries me to fiction, to a world of made-up stories.
Made-up people can’t hurt you.
Q sprawls on the floor, his back against the shelf, his long legs scrunched to fit. A tattered red backpack leans against the books, the zipper broken. A safety pin keeps it closed, but a hoodie and a beef jerky stick peek at me.
His head shoots up, eyes widening before his gaze follows mine. “The beef jerky or me?”
He has an awful sense of humor, and for some reason, that makes me even less intimidated.
“What do you want me to be curious about?” I ask.
He pulls his legs up to make more room and pats the floor. “What’s with the crossword puzzles?”
I don’t sit. “You don’t get to ask me questions.”
“You have my name.” It’s all I say, and I know he doesn’t get it by the way he scrunches his face. My name makes me real to him. He doesn’t get more than that.
“You can ask questions, but I can’t,” he says slowly. “Okay,” he looks up at me, “what do you want to know?”
“Why do you want me to ask about you?”
“You think I want you to ask?”
He flashes a small smile. “That obvious?” He pats the floor again. “Sit. You’re hurting my neck.”
I sit, filling up a lot of space, but less than he does.
“Let’s be friends,” he says, surprising me. “I’m looking for one.”
“I’m not,” I reply honestly. “You don’t have any?”
He sighs. “I have plenty, but I don’t need them right now. You’ll do.”
He nods as if he’s decided something, and it hits me that this is the kind of person he is. The type that decides he wants to do something, like robbing a store or making friends with the quiet guy in the library who does crossword puzzles for fun and then does it. His kind isn’t for me.
“You run out of places to find people?” I ask.
He laughs. “Libraries have smart people, right? I could use more smart friends.”
“Sure. As long as you’re in fiction, we’re buddies. You step out, and we’re not.”
Sarcasm drips from my words, but his face relaxes, his smile widening. This smile is genuine, I realize. The first one was fake. There’s a remarkable difference between this grin and the one before. “Sure, dude. Whatever. Now throw your questions at me.”
Another realization dawns. When you’ve spent as much time as I have inside a building watching people, you learn how to read them, especially if you want to keep them away. Q doesn’t like silence. He’s inside a building that banks off the quiet and wants to hear words.
“What are you doing here? Besides looking for a friend.”
“Making myself at home.”
I stare, eyes searching his before dropping to the tattered backpack, his stubble-roughened cheeks, and his desperate need for conversation.
My lips part. No way.
“Are you …” I clear my throat. “Are you staying here?”
He stares unblinking.
My heart knocks against my chest. “For how long?”
From the moment I led his store-robbing ass into the library basement. “Living here?”
“I mainly just sneak in before closing and sleep here.”
I blink. “Why are you telling me this?” Did I need to know this? Homeless people finding places to stay didn’t typically give up their secrets, considering the risks.
He’s not real, but he’s most certainly lonely. I don’t want to know why he’s staying here.
“Okay.” The word hangs there between us, like a pact. He’s inside my country, the place I think of as home. He’s invaded it, and I just told him—an imaginary stranger—okay.
I’ve betrayed myself. I am a quisling.
Pure, highly concentrated essence of a thing.
The water-stained ceiling above my head judges me, the yellow-brown marks like a cackling face in the spackling.
Little feet thud in the distance. Faint giggles seep through thinly insulated drywall. A door slams. Quiet voices flail out like grasping hands that can’t quite reach.
A crack runs across the ceiling, cutting the cackling, water-stained face in half, and I wonder, as I often do, what would happen if the floor above me caved in.
My head lolls to the side, my gaze landing on stacks of books. Besides a small selection of clothes, the books are all I own. A few feet away from the end of my bed, a washing machine whooshes.
I sleep inside a laundry room, but it isn’t because the family who owns the home doesn’t care. They do. They care more than the ones that came before, but caring always comes with a deadline in my world. I’m one of the lucky forgotten ones.
Aging out of the foster care system at eighteen generally meant aging into the streets, but the Stricklands offered me a mattress and enough time to find a new place. Alone.
Swinging my legs over the side of the bed, I sit and stare.
He’d chosen the perfect place to squat. The library didn’t have a security system. No alarms. No cameras. No one wanted to steal books.
Pulling an old, crayon-scribbled Adidas shoebox out from beneath a stack of clothes, I tug the lid off.
The title stares at me, the letters eaten by a wrinkled, faded cover, the pages beneath shriveled and yellowed by age.
Flipping it open, I whisper, “Call me Ishmael.”
I’d never read Moby Dick because it felt too sacred somehow, as if it held my fate within its vortex of words. As if the whale on its cover would swallow me if I did.
A folded piece of paper is tucked between two pages, marking a passage I know by heart.
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick."
I am the white whale. My mother was Ahab. I know this because it’s written inside the folded piece of paper.
My hand falls to my shirt, skirting beneath the hem to press the skin on my abdomen. A raised cord of rough flesh greets my palm.
The folded piece of paper inside the book whispers to me. It’s ripped out of a crossword puzzle, most of it never filled out. Neon green highlights a clue.
Five letters. The spaces where the answer should have been has five letters, all the blocks empty except the first and last one.
The book falls back into the box, the lid slamming shut.
The room I’m in now isn’t imaginary, but the stranger sleeping inside my library—my one constant home in this town no matter how many times I was placed—is. He’s curled up somewhere inside my tiny kingdom, and I’m having a hard time coming to terms with him being there.
Why did he want me to know he was there? Why was I not telling anyone?
My thoughts return to the unfinished crossword puzzle tucked inside Moby Dick and sealed away in a box. An imaginary place for lost or neglected things.
Q is lost.
The library is my imaginary place.
It is oddly appealing knowing I am not the only one seeking solace there. He is lost. I am neglected.
Shaking my head to clear it, I sprawl onto the bed, my hands tucked beneath my head, my gaze tracing the cracked line in the ceiling. It’s a structural issue the Stricklands can’t afford to fix, and I’m sleeping there waiting for the world to fall in on me.
The heavy library doors beckon, but I can’t move. It’s early, the sun behind me low enough to throw phantoms into the world. My foot taps, sneakers crunching against gravel. This is what it feels like to fear a door.
I’ve read many books with doors, magical ones that change lives when people walk through them, and dangerous ones that swallow the soul.
My life has many doors. Some of them opened into homes that taught me things. Useful things. Others opened into homes that tried hard to suck the good out of me.
I feared every single one of them. It isn’t the door that scares me; it’s what lies on the other side. It’s the uncertainty.
I’ve never feared the library door before. I’m not sure I do now, which scares me even more. My heart beats too hard, beating, beating like it’s holding a tiny human desperately trying to break free.
Anticipation is a new feeling for me, and I don’t trust the rush.
A shadow falls over me. “You waiting on something?”
Startled, I choke, “W-what?”
Q’s looming figure brushes past, smelling like soap and something woodsy, damp hair hanging in his face. His hand presses against the door, fingers splayed. “You okay?”
He doesn’t look at me, and I’m glad. I can feel the burn in my ears, and I know they’re red. Embarrassment battles with excitement, and it makes me angry.
Stepping away, I give him my back. Outside of the fiction section, I don’t know this person.
I’m aware of how odd I must seem, a lanky eighteen-year-old boy with red ears and a strange habit of making everything around me imaginary.
Life has burned me.
People generally don’t acknowledge my presence. In school, I was always the new guy who was never there long enough for anyone to get acquainted with. From one district to another. Changing classrooms. The back desk in the corner, head down on the surface, pretending to sleep.
The library door creaks open, cool air spilling into the muggy morning in a chilly swoosh as it closes.
A breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding rushes out of me, my hands meeting my knees, my eyes raking the gravel. Is that why Q stirs a strange restlessness inside me? Because he keeps acknowledging me?
A crazy laugh escapes, the maniacal sound hiding the scream penned up within me.
Charging into the library, I march toward the shelves of books in the back, dusty AC and old building smell stuffed inside my nose, making it burn. The faint scent of coffee mingles with the scent of books. At the front of the building, a breakroom door is propped open, Mama V’s stooped figure deftly filling canisters while one of the part-timers she’d hired for the summer—some scraggly dude she calls Bud—wipes down the circulation desk.
Rupert, an older man who regularly lounges in the sitting area, snaps open a newspaper.
In fiction, I move past each aisle until I find a hooded boy in the W’s. He’s wedged between the shelves at the end, back against the wall, legs out, his hoodie dotted with water.
There’s no way Mama V has missed this guy, no way she hasn’t noticed him skulking.
Then again, I’d been completely unaware of him for a week. After the convenience store robbery, he’d simply been an exciting thing that happened to me on a day when nothing usually did.
Like an eerie statue come to life, his head rises slowly, the hood of his shirt sliding back enough for me to make out his shadowed face. His features are an interesting mix of cultures, and his deep, wide eyes study me curiously. “Does it bother you that much?” he asks.
I’m not expecting the question, and I quickly huff out, “Huh?”
He draws his knees up. “I did it on purpose, you know … the chips. I left the crumbs on purpose.”
“To bother you,” he confesses. “You looked like you’d be easy to bother.”
I touch my lips, as if doing so would pull the right words out of them. “Is bothering people a hobby of yours?”
“Sometimes.” His reply catches me off guard, but before I can respond, he adds, “But it’s no less strange than you playing pretend while filling out crossword puzzles.” A half-smile lifts the corner of his lips. “Aren’t you a little old for imaginary friends?”
The question punches me in the gut. “Aren’t you too old to be pulling pranks on strangers and sleeping in libraries?”
Our eyes crash.
“Crossword boy is judgmental,” Q breathes.
“And you’re a dick,” I accuse, ears growing hot. “Go home.”
I turn but stop when he says, “I can’t.”
The floor falls out from beneath my feet because there’s pain there. My eyes squeeze shut. “I don’t want your story,” I mutter. “I don’t need to know it.”
“I wasn’t offering it.”
An exasperated groan escapes me, my hands pulling at my hair, my feet carrying me to the end of the next aisle. It places a shelf between us like a wall. Everything inside me is on high alert, blood roaring through my veins. Deep down, I know something about my life will change if I sit.
I sit, the edge of the shelf pressing against my back, reminding me that I’m human. Real. The pain steadies me.
Leaning my head back, I let it roll to the side, my gaze on the library beyond the aisle. It feels like sitting inside a tunnel. “Why do you want to bother me?”
“You need an aisle between us to ask that?” Q asks. “Geez, dude, how deep are your issues?”
Even through the books, I can smell fresh shower on him, and I inhale. I don’t know where he went to get clean. I shouldn’t care, but I do.
“Sorry,” Q mumbles when I don’t answer. He makes a lot of noise as he shifts, but I keep still. “Have you always lived in this town? I feel like I should have seen you before?”
“So, you’re the ‘never meets a stranger’ type, then?”
“You really know how to avoid a question.” He laughs, the sound short. “Fine. If I give you my name, would that change things? I’m—”
“Don’t,” I warn.
He moves again. I can feel his stare burning into the back of my head through the shelf. “If you don’t like names so much, then why do you insist I call you by yours?”
“Because I already gave it to you.”
“That makes so much sense.” His sarcasm is thick.
Silence falls between us.
“I got kicked out,” he says suddenly, and then rushes to add, “Not that I’m inviting you into my story or anything. Just, you know, telling you why I’m here and all.” He coughs, muttering something that sounds suspiciously like “shut up” under his breath as he does.
My lips twitch, and I bite them to keep the smile I feel forming there from coming. “Someone will figure out that you’re staying here eventually.”
“I think the old lady already has,” he admits.
“She hasn’t done anything, though.”
“She has a way of collecting people.”
He shifts again. “Huh?”
“You haven’t noticed all the regulars here this week?” I ask.
He grows quiet. “I’ve been out working. Part-time odd stuff until I can find something steady, so I haven’t always been here during the day.”
“Oh.” That explains why I haven’t noticed him.
“Yeah, like me. And Rupert, the old dude who reads newspapers at the front. And others.”
“Rupert?” he chuckles. “Is that really his name?” Pauses. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it, just—”
“It’s not his name,” I tell him, stopping the flow of word vomit I feel is coming. He’s the type to fill silence and awkwardness with words. “He just looks like a Rupert to me.”
He snorts and then asks, “What do I look like?”
My hands clench my over-washed and overworn jeans, “Q.”
“Like the letter?”
“Last time I checked, it was part of the alphabet.”
“Q,” he repeats incredulously. “What the hell?”
“Why were you kicked out?” I ask suddenly, and I’m unsure if it’s because I don’t want him to question the name I gave him or because the need to know is simply that strong.
A book falls, as if he’d pulled one out to peer at me through the gap, my question making him lose his grip. “I thought you didn’t want to know my story.”
I do want to know. As much as I hate to admit it, as much as I want to keep Q not real, I still want to know. If I keep him nameless, it’s simply a character’s backstory.
Turning, I find him much closer than I expected, a missing book leaving a space filled with his face. “Why were you kicked out?” I ask again, weirdly hoping he’ll say he’s like me—part of the system. An anchorless person left to drown in society.
He blinks, and I have a moment to appreciate how handsome he is, how soulful his eyes are, before he suddenly blurts, “I like men.”
It isn’t the response I expected, and I stare.
“Because I like men,” he repeats. “That’s why.”
My lips part, my throat tightening because he looks like he needs an appropriate response, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to fail him. “Men?” I choke out. “You don’t look li—”
“Is there a look?” His voice and face go hard. “Am I supposed to have a look?”
I failed him. “It’s a stupid reason to be kicked out,” I say, because it is. Even if I’d fucked up the response, being kicked out for liking someone makes no sense to me.
His face softens, but his eyes don’t. “Yeah, it is.”
I study him, noting the faint pink that suddenly colors his cheeks. “Are you ashamed?” I ask.
Q recoils. “If I was, I would have stayed. I would have become what they wanted. I’m not ashamed.”
The blush on his cheeks is anger, not shame.
His intensity makes my heart jump, heat invading my ears, and I have to stop myself from reaching up to pull on them, to hide the blush there. “I-It just seemed like you were uncertain, is all.”
Q watches me, gaze jumping from my heated ears to the teeth I’m pressing against my bottom lip. “What about you?” he asks. “Who do you like?”
He keeps surprising me with questions I don’t expect, and I gape at him. “Like?”
He nods, brows rising. One brow arches higher than the other.
“As in like like?” I ask before looking down. It’s a safe question. For me, who I like is a much safer question than where I live or why I never want to go home. Only I don’t have an answer, even to this. “I’m not sure.”
Q releases a low laugh. “You don’t know?”
I lift my head. “I’ve never tried to like anyone.”
He stares. Long and hard, his suddenly softening gaze boring into mine in a way no one else ever has, and I shift under the weight of it. “You’re really weird, you know that, Freckles?”
“Moby,” I remind him quietly.
“Moby,” he repeats, and I suddenly wish I’d kept my mouth shut because the way my name sounds on his lips is too much.
“I don’t need a friend,” I blurt. I don’t know why I say it, but he feels too close. Too there.
“Yeah,” Q smiles, “you do.” He leans closer. “I promise to stay imaginary if you let me be your first.”
“First friend.” Q emphasizes the word, as if he’s playing with it on his tongue, testing and tasting it.
I don’t know how to answer him, so I don’t.
“Moby,” he says softly.
And for the first time, I don’t feel like the whale I know I’m named after. I feel like the ship the whale destroyed.
a slight trembling movement or sound, especially one caused by a sudden strong emotion
I’m a coward.
In a wave of stalwart wimpy-ness, I roll away like the ocean of shameful fear I am, abandoning the conversation. All because I don’t know what to say.
Q doesn’t call out to me when I walk away.
I wonder if he’s too startled or if he sees the terror. I hope it’s the former.
Edging into the library’s breakroom, I push myself into a corner, making my lanky frame as small as possible. It’s like trying to squeeze a foam mattress into the bag it came in after it’s expanded.
“Gotcha, didn’t he?” Mama V snarls from her place at the bar. She pours herself a cup of coffee, the steam fogging up the glasses she wears. Her hair is pulled back so tight it narrows her eyes, the silver strands that escape her bun framing a face lost in time. It’s impossible to tell her age. She looks ancient, but I don’t think she is.
She doesn’t know how to be gentle, but her blunt crassness feels comfortable. Like an old blanket so snagged by age, there is no softness left in it, but the memory of its smooth texture makes it seem soft anyway.
“What’s it to you?” I snarl back and then, “You letting him stay here?”
She wrinkles her nose at me, and it does strange things to her face. “I let you stay here, don’t I?”
I stuff my face into the wall.
“The coffee ready?” Bud walks in, his scraggly hair swinging against his shoulders. From the corner of my eye, I see him look at me. “What’s this?”
Mama V drinks her coffee.
Bud glances between us. “This one of those ‘don’t ask’ things you told me about?”
Mama V pours him a cup and hands it to him.
I keep my face stuffed into the wall until they leave. A small sugar ant crawls along the drywall, ducking itself into small cracks before reappearing. I’ve never related so much to an ant before, to its aimless search.
“I promise to stay imaginary if you let me be your first.”
He’s inside my head now, and I hate it.
A stranger. A letter. A not real thing that I don’t want.
Or do I?
Q is like an earthquake. He appears out of nowhere and says things that aren’t all that deep, things that shouldn’t feel as deep as they do, but that somehow leaves me so shaken up I can’t think straight.
I feel like I’m standing at a cliff’s edge with only two options: stand there and stare or jump.
Mama V walks back into the room, throws a book at me, says, “I always read poetry when I’m confused,” and then leaves.
Sliding down to the floor, I stare at it.
Poetry is abstract. All these ideas and words are put together to sound lyrical so that even if the person reading it doesn’t understand, it still feels big somehow. As if the way it sounds inside the head is enough to swallow readers and the mess they are.
Looking at the open breakroom door, I huff out a laugh. Mess.
That’s why this feels insane. He’s a mess. I’m a mess.
That’s poetic, the idea of being friends with messiness.
put a question or questions to (someone).
Q is still in the W’s when I go to him, leaning against the same shelf, holding the book he’d previously removed. He leafs through it.
Absent. Distant. Unseeing.
Keeping an aisle between us, I resume the seat I vacated earlier before throwing a crossword puzzle through the gap in the shelf. It hits him in the head.
“Hey!” he turns and then freezes.
“Hey,” I reply.
“Um,” he drops the book, picks up the puzzle, and flashes it at me. “Okay?”
“You get one question,” I say. “Nothing too personal. Make it good.”
“Wait,” he straightens. “Does this mean we’re—”
“Not real friends,” I say, stopping him.
He smirks. “Imaginary ones, then. Okay.” He leans forward. “Why do you do the puzzles?”
I stare. “That’s your one question?”
He stares back, waiting.
“I’m searching for something.”
It’s not the answer Q expects. “For what?”
“One question,” I remind him.
“With a real answer,” he argues. “That feels like you half-assed your response, Freckles.”
Frowning, I punch at the books on the shelf with my finger. He waits patiently. It’s like we’re talking through a window, each of us sitting inside a different house. Two worlds apart. With Walt Whitman, H.G. Wells, and J.R. Ward as the bricks our walls are made of, among others.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “Just something.”
“For real?” he asks, doubtful.
“Okay.” He shrugs. “I really get no other questions?”
“I did say make it good.”
Q snorts, waving the puzzle at me. “This seems important.”
“It feels important,” I say, surprising us both. “But I don’t know why.”
“Curiouser and curiouser.” Q flips through it, perplexed. Half the book is filled out. The other half isn’t.
I grin at his response. “So, you do read.”
Q looks at me, gaze locked on my mouth, lips parting. His eyes light up.
My smile slips, and I turn away, leaning so my back faces him.
“You should smile more,” Q murmurs.
“That’s cliché,” I roll my eyes. “Let me guess. You enjoy romance novels and long walks on the beach.
“Damn,” he whistles. “I mean, your frown’s fine, too, Freckles. No need to get all vitriol.”
“Vitriol?” When I smile this time, he doesn’t see it. “That’s a step up from Bar. B. Q.”
That makes him laugh. “Being in a library helps when you feel like you’re being tested. Dictionaries everywhere.”
Silence falls between us.
Talking feels like a thing I’m doing wrong. My closest friend is an elderly librarian who spends every day spitting sarcasm.
“I’m guessing you don’t get out often, huh?” Q asks. His voice is too close, his breath fanning the back of my hair, hitting my scalp. Warm. Tingly.
I lean forward, away from him, with goosebumps on my skin.
It must bother him. “Alright, no close contact. Got it,” he says. “Are favorite things off the table, too? Like, you know, favorite color? Favorite song? Favorite sport? Anything?”
“I do crossword puzzles. If you’re looking not to be bored, I’m the wrong guy to talk to. But I’ve got your back if you’re looking for someone to be bored with.”
A moment of silence, then, “Are you bored?”
“No,” I answer too quickly, without thinking.
“That was fast, Freckles.” He’s amused.
“Moby,” I correct, cheeks burning.
“Fine, but,” Q shifts, making much more noise than he has to, “can we maybe talk on the same aisle?”
I don’t answer.
There’s a lot more movement, and I know he’s standing. The world feels too small suddenly. My throat feels too tight. I am a fish that’s been yanked from the water and left without a way to breathe. I beat at my chest.
If I’d been looking up, I would have seen him peek around the corner before approaching me. I would have seen how he saw me, with untidy hair, trying not to drown on land. His eyes unsettling.
Instead, his shadow finds me first, falling over me like a net.
He sits across from me, just far enough over he can cross his legs in front of him in the narrow space. His jeans are ripped in the knee, giving me glimpses of hair. He has muscled thighs, his pants hugging them like they’re proud of it.
I’m still trying to figure out how to breathe.
Q says nothing.
For a long time, we sit like that, as if we’ve run out of words. As if his moving to the same aisle stole whatever made speaking a thing we do.
His knee bumps mine. “This no-questions thing is seriously limiting me, Freckles.” He clears his throat. “You can ask me things.”
I refuse to look at him. My fingers play with the carpet. “How long are you staying?”
My life is measured by time. Each person that enters it is like an hourglass. Once the sand runs out, they’re gone.
“How long do you need me to stay?” he asks.
I don’t expect his response, and my fingers freeze on the carpet. No one has ever asked me that, as if I have control over the time they give me.
Laughter and loud whispering follow two people into the aisle.
I panic, standing in a rush that makes everything awkward. “I have to, um, …you know,” My words stumble as badly as I do, tilting into the world in a senseless dizzy cascade.
It feels like I’m doing something wrong.
“I have to go,” I say, ducking away.
Q watches me leave, the look I glimpse on his face in passing, a curious mix of fascination, wariness, and anticipation.
It’s the beginning of a dance between us. The summer is the music that guides our feet.