Marcus shifted his weight from one foot to another as he checked his bank account in the corner outside the bookstore. God forbid someone should see him there, doing something as routine as checking his balance before buying books from the curriculum. He chided himself as he forced his legs to step out of the shadows. He knew better than to let it win.
“Can’t afford a book, Jenkins?” he heard a voice taunt.
Except, he didn’t really, did he?
Marcus stepped back into the shadows before he had time to stop and consider. His back hit the wall with a reassuring thump. He had enough money, and logically he knew that he did, but he just couldn’t manage to take a deep breath before he saw the numbers on the screen. Only then did his feet allow him to step around the corner. Only then was he allowed to stuff his phone into his pocket and find the book he was looking for. It was heavy, and daunting to even look at, but the part that really irked him was that he distinctly remembered a time when a book like that would have felt like a challenge; a chance to emerge victorious, or a lifeline even. But now it just made his heart sink.
They were just about to close for the night, and he had planned it that way, so no one would be behind him in line in case his card got declined.
“Would you like a bag?” she asked as he tapped his card against the machine. It beeped in dismay, and Marcus felt his throat clog. ‘Card rejected’, it claimed, and hadn’t he known it. He had just known it was going to happen. He had had that gut feeling, and finally – finally! – it was right. He felt sick.
“I’m sorry, I just…” he started, but the kind faced lady just smiled and clicked her tongue.
“Sometimes that tapping doesn’t work, try to insert it,” she said apologetically.
Marcus moved to insert it with trembling hands, then dropped his card. He couldn’t even hear it clatter to the ground; his heartbeat was so loud in his ears. He wiped his palms on his trousers before picking it up, and at that point, he couldn’t even look at the lady, not until he inserted the card, and it was approved.
“Would you like a bag?” she repeated, but Marcus was already on his way out, book tucked under his arm.
He felt awful, but this was what it had come to. Him or her. Time and time again he made the choice, and time and time again he cursed himself for being so selfish.
When he rounded the corner again, he was halfway to the bus stop. The ride home wasn’t that long, and the walk home from where the bus let him off was refreshing after a long day. At least usually. In summer.
He listened to music on the headset his older sister had handed down to him when she bought herself new ones, and they weren’t half bad. As soon as he sat down on the second to last row, he pressed play. For a while, his pulse went back to normal, and he managed to convince himself he was okay. He thought of a scenario in which he didn’t freak out, and instead accepted a bag from the woman, and even complemented her smile. She really had had an amazing smile. And she probably wouldn’t have minded hearing it either. And it wouldn’t have harmed him at all. In fact, he might even have felt better afterwards. He sighed to himself as the bus continued on its path, headlights lighting up the road before them as the wheels brough them forward.
The sun had begun to set earlier now as the autumn weather had found its foothold and started its confident stride. His roommate had said it was her favorite season of the year. But she was endearingly vocal about her fondness of pumpkin spice lattes, horror shows and knitting her own itchy woolen sweaters to keep her warm in the darker seasons, so he shouldn’t have been surprised, really. But for some reason, he was. They were similar in many ways, but autumn was the exception to the rule.
“I’m doing it tonight,” a man said, phone against his ear as he entered the bus and beelined for the back row. He chose the seat directly behind Marcus.
“It’s too late. You can’t stop me,” he said angrily, then hung up. He blew hot air out of his nostrils and settled firmly into the bus seat, his knees sloppily slamming against Marcus’ backrest, who startled and discreetly paused his music mid-chorus.
He felt his heart rate accelerate. They were almost all alone in the bus, why would he choose to sit directly behind him?
Only three more stops, he reminded himself, and you know better than to let it win. What were five things he could see? Or was it five things he could feel?
His knee bounced as he fiddled with his phone case, and when he turned his head to the window, he saw cars fly by in a dizzying speed. Or perhaps it was a normal speed, and he was just dizzy.
He was watching a motorcycle zoom past the window when he felt the belt against his throat. Or he assumed it was a belt. Perhaps it was his arm. He wasn’t really thinking much, just feeling. The leather, or skin, was tight and brutal as it obstructed his air flow. He tried to make eye contact with the bus driver to no avail.
Marcus was going to die.
But he wasn’t, was he?
He leaned forward, sputtering, head between his knees, gasping for air.
“Hey, man. You okay?” the guy behind him asked.
Marcus gulped down air. Yes, he was definitely dizzy. He nodded, not daring to turn towards the man behind him; way too frightened of his own mind and what it might conjure up.
He pressed the red stop button and got up from his seat, dragging his new book along with him. He nearly lost what remnants of balance he had left when the bus came to a stop. His stop, finally. Finally, alone. But then of course, he was alone.
He saw someone in the shadows beneath the trees, but was it one person or two? He diverted his eyes, and with his head downturned he started his trek home.
He heard the steps behind him and pinched his eyes closed. He didn’t hate autumn without reason, he thought as the darkness descended and his heart clenched. He worked out, avoided caffein and alcohol, took his d-vitamins and fish oils and had even started journaling. All to no avail. It was insane. He was insane.
He couldn’t even focus on the beauty of the falling leaves, not when his brain played these tricks on him. Because it wasn’t autumn that he hated, and he knew as much. It was the symptoms that followed autumn around like a bloodhound that made him want to hunt down a fuzzy bear and slumber by its side for a few months.
Every autumn and winter was the same, but new hope came with every spring and summer, so he knew it would get better, eventually. And he was patient, although he had developed a love/hate relationship with the word throughout the years.
Cold air stroked his cheek, but he deigned to open his eyes. He was almost there. He saw the smoke coming up from the chimney and knew his favorite roommate was home, and that she was sat in front of the fireplace knitting, a smile loose on her lips and warmth blooming in her cheeks.
He shivered and picked up the pace, ignoring the sound of leaves crunching and ragged breathing coming from behind him.
He ran the last steps to the front door and slammed it shut behind him, ignoring the creature waiting for him on the inside, bloody gums and hollowed out eyes glaring at him from the shadows.
Marcus made for the living room, where she was waiting, knitting peacefully just as he had anticipated. But when she looked up, there was no loose smile on her lips.
“Oh Marcus,” she said, dropping everything in her hands as she saw the look on his face and the shine in his eyes.
“I hate fall,” Marcus said, lip trembling.
She pulled him into an embrace.
“Tell me about it.”