by Amy Stuber
Childhood geniuses level out. They become sad grownups. At least that’s what had happened to Odon and his friend Mac.
They’d met in fifth grade where during the first week of school, one hamster killed his cage-mate, and they’d all stood around the garden at the edge of the playground while their teacher dug with a plastic spoon in the dirt and placed the stapler box of hamster remains in the small hole in the ground. I don’t give a shit about dead hamsters, Mac had said to Odon at the back of the pack of children. Hamster, singular, not hamsters, plural, Odon said back to Mac. Touché, Mac said, except he pronounced it incorrectly and without the accent in the way of someone who had read a lot but not actually talked to many people, but it was enough for Odon to instantly recognize Mac as one of his own.
From then, they were always together. Even though Odon was always a head taller and gangly as fuck, and Mac looked a little like a child Rachel Maddow, they often dressed as twins, not to be clever, but for the utility of it, in Steve Jobs-esque uniforms of skinny black jeans and giant black hoodies. They gathered detritus from Odon’s garage and designed an elaborate conveyer machine that did nothing more than ferry candy to them from Odon’s kitchen. They wrote sci-fi novels that featured detached and electrified human arms taking over a city. They made food-based bets before timing each other solving multi-page math problems. They had promise. They had potential. Everyone said so.
But now, at nineteen and having dropped out after a first year of college at the un-brag-worthy university in the town where they’d grown up, Mac and Odon spent evenings in Odon’s mom’s attic doing a few things: smoking weed, playing a modified two-person version of Settlers of Catan, and eating Takis. And it was in this haze that was one part giving up and two parts delayed-adolescent agitation, they came up with a plan.
Wendy Huang worked at a bagel place on the sad strip that had once been a highway through their town but now, thanks to a bypass, wasn’t even that. Wendy Huang was perfect but denied and resisted her perfection, which made her even more so. She was putting herself through college and turning over her small bagel-associated paychecks to her mom, and even though she’d gotten a full ride to better places out of state, she’d stayed in town to go to the local university because she was the oldest girl in a family of four with a single mother who did alterations at a windowless place near the bagel shop where formal and prom seasons were a fucking nightmare with the sorority girls and their thousand-dollar dresses that had to be shorter or show more side boob, and, yes, they needed that in 24 hours.
It was not an overstatement to say Odon was obsessed with Wendy. He’d scoffed at romance and love for most of his life. His mother was long divorced, and she’d never dated after his dad left. She spent most nights sitting in their living room with her sister who lived down the street, drinking boxed wine, listening to music, and mocking people. And because it was easier to not feel but also to be her disciple, he’d adopted the same attitude. People in his high school hallways who practically fucked against lockers were weak and all urge and no superego, and he and Mac would do dramatic eye rolls when passing these displays, and it was easy to keep it like that for 9th, and 10th, and 11th grade when he and Mac sailed through Calc 2 early and each submitted full-length novels to small presses and led a robotics team to a national victory and were all-state in Debate. Until Wendy Huang.
This is a love story. Or really, it’s a story of wanting and not getting love, which is the saddest love story of all.
Odon had almost never spoken to Wendy, aside from maybe a hello or a nod in Calc or Debate. But for several years he’d watched her, which he knew if admitted to anyone but Mac would sound predatory, but he was not douchey, he swore. But he knew the following:
Wendy lived with her mother and sisters in a duplex. Once after a snowstorm, he’d seen Wendy standing in the yard looking at her phone while one of her younger sisters stuffed another sister into a plastic storage container and pushed her on a track they’d made through the snow. Wendy preferred Linear Algebra to Calc. She liked Indian food. Her birthday was May 11. She drove an older-model Prius to drop her mother at work before backtracking to park on campus where she sometimes sat in her car, sometimes with her head on the steering wheel. In high school, she had been quiet, but he’d once seen her jump on the back of a girl she sometimes walked with, and the girl started running with Wendy piggy-backing, and they were both laughing so hard it made Odon think for a second before he blotted it out as unnecessary and damaging that he didn’t know Wendy at all.
Through all of the pre-spring weeks when there was that breath-holding and chill that came before the daffodils fully opened and the forsythias shot yellow across their spines, Odon developed a plan: to rob the bagel shop on a Thursday in late March and then drop the cash mid-day when no one was at Wendy’s house because he assumed she and her sisters could really use it. He imagined them opening such an envelope by their front door and the celebratory looks on their faces and the way they might cast out toward the sidewalk in wonder to see if anyone was watching or if they could just take this envelope inside and call it their own. Or at least the sisters would, not Wendy, who would pull it away and save it for their mother because Odon just knew she was selfless in the way of a Mother Theresa or a Gandhi.
And so those were the exact masks Odon and Mac ordered because a) they thought Wendy would be pleased with the choices and b) everyone would have to admit it was a little hilarious to have Mother Theresa and Gandhi robbing a bagel shop on Thursday mid-day after their busy two-for-one special when everyone seemed to come in inexplicably with cash, even though cash was nearly obsolete.
Odon and Mac mapped out and practiced their plan from start to finish many nights in a row in Odon’s attic while they heard squirrels chewing and making inroads into the eaves and soffits that ran along both sides of the attic room. If he stepped back from the plan just a little, Odon would see it made no sense at all, but he was too deep in to do anything more than believe in it fully, and Mac, devoted sideman, would never voice any concerns even if he had them.
When Mac left at night, Odon, alone with the squirrel noises and the branches tapping at the skylights with the wind, sometimes put his hands over his ears and cried for reasons he wouldn’t have been able to articulate, not for a million dollars, not even gun to head.
The bagel place where Wendy works is in the small shopping area that someone in the 1970s planned to look like a Swiss village and no one has had the time or money or motivation to redesign. It’s white stucco and dark brown beams with shop letters in scrolled iron-work for signs that had been around forever and incongruous lighted plastic for those that have not.
It probably goes without saying, but off-the-charts abstract reasoning scores do not prepare one for crime, but they might give one the misplaced confidence required to think it’s 100% possible.
Mac and Odon sit in the car for a solid thirty minutes, and no one reacts to them in any way. Not the woman tugging a toddler with one hand while holding a bag of dog food half her size with the other. Not the man vaping in his car before setting out for who knows what from the hardware store. And definitely not the couple in massive down jackets fighting in front of the gaming place.
At some point in their planning, Odon had decided it would be better for Mac to be the only one in a mask, for Mac to come in the bagel shop while Odon was positioned at a table by the register and for Odon to step in to protect Wendy, to chase Mac away, to save her from harm. Every single thing Odon’s mother had taught him should have forewarned him that Wendy didn’t need saving and that to think so was an insult, and he really knew this on some level, but he still wanted so badly to do it anyway.
What was the logic to robbing the place where Wendy Huang works to give Wendy Huang the money? They’d felt in the planning like there was a beautiful cleanness to it, but now, in the execution, Odon worries he’s been horribly wrong.
Odon gets out of the car first. He knows from past trips to the shop that the door has a bell in the shape of a dolphin that rings when the door opens and closes. A ringing dolphin made little sense to him, but he tries not to think about it as he walks to the register to order an everything bagel and coffee to pour into the metal mug he’s somehow remembered to bring from home, all from Wendy Huang who gives him a familiar, “Oh, hey,” while ringing him up and counting out coins in his hand. It’s the time of day when old men drink endless coffee alone at tables and read sections of the paper that they trade with each other every now and then, “Have you read Sports? I have News if you want to trade,” that kind of thing. Odon settles in with the classifieds, and it’s a little hard to believe, with Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, that people still post ads in a newspaper that almost no one but the aging and aged read, but he leans in close as if reading something very important to wait the pre-planned five minutes for Mac to enter.
“Which mask should I wear? Theresa or Gandhi?” Mac had asked Odon in the car. “Surprise me,” Odon had said, and he is actually surprised when Mac walks in in Theresa because Mac is vehemently anti-Catholic and often goes on quiet tirades about organized Christian religions, but Odon assumes that is sort of the point, that in this mask he is even less recognizably himself.
When Mac walks to the register, Odon watches but tries not to watch too hard. He doesn’t want to give anything away before it even happens, but he gets a little transfixed by the hair on the back of Mac’s neck below his hairline but above his shirt. It’s almost like a dark fur, and he wonders why no one, no barber, not his mother, has told Mac to shave that shit off, and even more so he wonders why after all this time together he hasn’t even noticed it.
And then things happen quickly. Mac says something about needing all the money a little too loud and out of character (he’s usually at a sardonic whisper), and Mac has his hands in his pockets and anyone who has watched any crime show knows that this is to suggest a mystery weapon that’s likely nothing but a screwdriver or a carrot or a fist but could be something still. Odon can only see Wendy’s face, and it’s blank but also a little undaunted like she’s been expecting this her whole life, like nothing can surprise her. She opens the register and starts to gather bills. For a beat too long, Odon is held by her expression, and he realizes right then that he never had a chance. He realizes the idea of a person is thin and paper and nothing up against the actual person.
He’s supposed to be getting up to intervene very soon; it’s what he and Mac practiced so many times. But he doesn’t. He looks at Wendy’s face, and it’s only an extra second, but in that second, one of the old men, the one who a minute before had been reading the style section and making arch comments about the ridiculousness of TikTok and The Hype House, that old man gets up faster than anyone would have imagined possible and pulls a gun out of who knows what crazy kangaroo pouch under his sports-team nylon jacket and straight up and without even a pause, shoots Mac, and then Mac is on the floor, and his Mother Theresa mask is askew in such a way that allows Odon who is now down low over Mac’s face to see half Mother Theresa and half Mac in a way that is so almost existentially confusing that he passes out.
When he wakes up there are paramedics, and the Mother Theresa mask is on the floor face up as if Mother Theresa herself has clawed up from underground, and only her face has broken through but the rest of her is surely coming soon. Mac is in a plastic oxygen mask. Mac is on a stretcher. Mac is being carried out the door. Wendy? She is nowhere. The old man with the gun is talking to police, and he hears one of them saying, “You did what you had to do,” which angers Odon more than just about anything because there is almost no scenario in which an old man in a bagel shop needs to shoot a 19-year-old demanding singles from Wendy Huang in a Midwestern strip mall.
In a better version of this story, Odon would chase Mac out and Wendy would be cheering for him. Or he’d get into a math-off with a still-masked Mac, and he’d out-math him, and then Mac would run out unharmed, and Odon and Wendy would split a sesame bagel and laugh together about the charming oddity of the whole thing, and he’d brush sesame seeds off her chin, and he’d see her startle and smile at the fun electricity of all of it. He’d meet her sisters, and they’d love him immediately. His mother would make them cookies and send them on a road trip without piling on any guilt about his leaving her there in the house alone.
What happens instead is this: Mac spends three weeks in the hospital. Odon gets one text from Mac’s number that says, “It’s best for you not to visit,” which he knows from the word choice and punctuation is not actually Mac, and amazingly after all their years, that is that. Even though they’d planned it together, the spin is somehow that it’s all Odon’s fault. Odon goes to his phone a thousand times to text Mac but doesn’t. He does a few sad drive-bys around Wendy’s block and then as penance forbids himself from doing so ever again. He listens to all of his mom’s vinyl on a small portable record player, so it sounds scratchier than it should and awful, but he thinks he deserves it. He spends maybe nine weeks working through much of the Criterion Collection on Hulu. He builds nothing. He writes nothing. His mom and his aunt with whom his mom spends most evenings talking and listening to music and drinking from a wine box call up from the landing in the evenings. They blast “September” on their phones and beg him to come down and “join the party,” but he won’t.
It’s a Saturday in June when he and his mother are both standing in the kitchen eating ramen for breakfast and his mother tells him that she ran into Mac’s mother at the co-op, that Mac has only a slight limp, that Mac’s parents have set him up in a studio apartment near MIT where apparently he’d deferred admission and was scheduled to start classes in the fall, where he was working in a book shop known for its extensive collection of vintage science fiction. “There’s a lot of signed, first edition stuff there,” his mom says. “You’d love it.” And he thinks that’s maybe her way of saying without saying that he should go or at least that he should do something that isn’t this.
Would it be good to say, several months later, in September when the windows of the attic are open and he has unplugged the T.V. for good and painted the room white and he can hear the tips of tree branches tapping up against the house in a gentle and not foreboding way, that he’s moved on from Wendy? Okay, for the most part, he has. But he’s still in his mother’s attic, alone and listening to his aunt drunk and dancing to ELO like they seem to do every night as if they are ten again and in their parents’ basement, which is, he realizes, where they always and forever wanted to be. What would be his moment? He still isn’t sure.
He looks out the attic window and sees in the streak of the outdoor light the spot in the eaves that extends out from the house to make a delicate wooden pocket where the squirrels have built a large nest out of leaves and sticks and the stuffing from various deck pillows they’ve stolen and torn apart. He doesn’t want to be sad. Or angry. Or stuck. There’s something for him, he’s sure of it. With his fingers orangey with Taki dust, he stuffs his pockets with all his money, puts on his Gandhi mask, heads down the stairs and past the chaos of his mom and aunt dancing, and walks out into the night, ready for anything at all.
Amy Stuber‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Common, Idaho Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Best Small Fictions 2020, and elsewhere. She’s the Print Issue Editor for Split Lip Magazine. Find her on Twitter @amy_stuber_ and online at www.amystuber.com.