“The light is green!” doesn’t seem to matter. My mom yells to the car in front of her, “What’s holding you back?” Slowly, our car moves up and passes the person in front of us by moving slightly into the next lane. “That was illegal, but whatever.” I hear it coming from my mom’s direction. I look over and see her quickly fixing her hair at a stop sign and then proceeding when the coast is clear. I spend most of the drive looking out the window, watching people scramble through their morning routines. Rushing to overpriced coffee shops, and getting ready for school and work. We pull up to the drop off zone at school and I grab my bag. As I’m about to take a step out of the car, she grabs me by my shoulder, smiles and says, “Have a good day, sweetheart.” “Thanks, mom.” I get out of the car and watch our old Subaru drive off south towards downtown. I take a deep breath and walk into school. As the class starts, I see students walk into the room, and take seats with the friends they’ve relied on to survive over the last three years. I know they’ve been there for each other’s loud parties and quiet tears. There is an empty spot at the back, I grab the top of the chair and sit down in the seat. The teacher walks in the class and attempts to teach calculus. My mind is so far away, he may as well have been speaking an alien language. The desks are the same wooden ones they’ve used for the past twenty years or so, covered in faded carvings and sharpie marks telling someone to ‘fuck off’ or how their relationship will last ‘4 eva’. Usually, I’d love to make stories guessing what happened, but right now I can't bring myself to do it. It doesn’t seem to make a difference to me. My phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s a text, from Erica. “Come for a walk with me.” “I’m bored.” “Xoxo” Excusing myself, I leave the room and take three steps out of class only to see she’s waiting for me by the door. “Joel!”, she cries out with glee, “It’s been way too long since we’ve seen each other, don't ya think?” “Didn’t we talk in the hallway last Friday?” I ask, not quite sure what she’s planning. Erica frowned and crossed her arms. “That isn’t what I meant, now come on, let’s go for a walk.” She goes on and on about her weekend as we wander aimlessly around the hallways. These same hallways have witnessed us grow into shockingly different people. Almost strangers from when we walked in here the first time for the ninth grade. She talks about how her friends wanted to go to a party to meet some guy who goes to some university out west; how she watched a new anime and how I just have to watch it. I stopped paying attention partway through her life
story and realized she had a point when she’d dragged me out of class. It has been a long time since the two of us had hung out. I had missed the way she gets all excited about little things. “Anyway,” she says, stretching out the word, “There is a real reason I pulled you out of class.” My heart rate speeds up a little bit and I start to feel the world slow down very slightly as I nod my head in response. “I think we should try again.” “I beg your pardon?” I ask with an almost sarcastic level of disbelief. “Look, I know we broke up last time in the eighth grade because you said you weren’t ready for a relationship, but that was four years ago” “Try again? I feel like you’re going kinda crazy fast.” I can see another frown forming on her face as I finish my sentence. “But,” I add quickly, “You might be onto something, we haven’t hung out in a bit too long. How about we get coffee after school today? That sound alright?” She squeals in glee and hugs me tight. “Yes,” she beams, “Can’t wait. I’ll text you where to meet me.” Erica practically skips back to her classroom, and I don’t know why but I feel a smile come across my face. It’s the first genuine smile I've had in a long time. It’s been about a month as February comes to a close, and Erica and I have started dating. It’s weird to think that she makes me this happy, but something doesn’t feel right. I can’t quite put a finger on it, shoving it out of my mind to worry about it later. We’ve spent weekends together, exchanged gifts, the whole nine yards. A small part of me wishes I got to know her better when I was younger. We spend a lot of time together, most of it spent in her room, watching movies, doing homework, among other things. Her room is our personal safe haven from the outside world. There are constant talks between her parents about divorce and the constant stress for her and it breaks me to hear that she feels like this so often. The room is relatively bare on its own. Cream white walls strung with fairy lights on the ceiling. Two music posters, prominently displayed as you enter the room. One of Frank Ocean’s Blond and the other is some alternative-indie band no one knows about, both having the lead singers stare blankly at whoever walks in. They stare at you as if they know something about yourself that you have buried deep inside. It’s a little scary, but I try not to give it any attention. All of our time is spent on her bed, not like there is a lot of floor space anyway. A Belle and Sebastian album plays through her speaker, Tigermilk or something. Not like it matters anyway. I think it's almost midnight, but I can’t tell for sure. We’re lying on her bed drifting off to sleep and I have one arm behind my head while the other is curled around her as she rests her head upon my chest and starts to fall asleep. “What are you doing here?” I hear in my head. “You’re not good enough for her. You know this.” I shake my head to get the thought away but that does no good. It comes back immediately to haunt me.
“You’re worthless. She’s so much better than you will ever be. What the fuck are you doing? You’re going to poison her. You are going to drag her down.” The thoughts come at me in an explosion of rippling doubt. How did I get here? These feelings have come out of nowhere. I take a deep breath to question why these ideas are coming at me; they’ve never been an issue. From as far back as I can remember, being in a relationship is all I’ve wanted. I was raised on romantic comedies, this is supposed to be where the happy ending starts. Erica moves her head off of my chest, and I walk to the bathroom for melatonin. The package says no more than 4 but I end up taking 6. Doesn’t seem to matter, anything to help me escape from this chilling living nightmare. I wake up in a few hours, the digital clock on her desk continuously flashes 12:00 am. All the lights are off besides one small lamp on her desk. Erica isn’t next to me, and the bed looks as if she was never there. The house is deathly quiet and seems if I breathe too hard something bad will happen. There is something unnatural about where I am. I slide off the bed and try to find some kind of clothes yet the floor is barren. Her desk chair has been moved a foot or two to the right, and there is a small fish tank on the desk containing a fish that seems slightly too big. The Fish smiles with such a vile smirk, big enough to show the human teeth fitting in its mouth. The desk lamp is shining towards the bowl basking The Fish in an abundance of shadows that look thick and heavy, emanating something evil. “What are you doing here, Joel?” It asks me in two separate voices leaving its mouth at once, one extremely feminine, and the other masculine. I attempt to answer its question with one of my own, but it speaks first, enunciating every vowel. “Wasting your time with poor Erica Carter. You know you’ll never be good enough for her right? You are personally holding her back. She’s completely oblivious to all of this.” I try to speak but it's as if my mouth isn’t even there. What is going on? I question in my head. It feels like I’m witnessing a supervillain’s evil plan begin. “No questions?” It says with that disturbing grin again flashing its all too human smile. “This is what you wanted right? Always? A girlfriend who loves you?” The Fish presses. She loves me? I think to myself. “Well of course she loves you, why else would she be spending all this time with you? But you never answered my question. Is this not what you have wanted ever since you were a kid?” Well... yeah. All I’ve ever wanted. “Then what’s holding you back? If this is all you’ve ever wanted then why are you still thinking these thoughts? What’s holding you back? Joel? Why aren’t you happy?” I feel I’ve stepped on a landmine, I couldn’t move even if I wanted to. My heartbeat feels slow, yet powerful; I can feel every beat sending blood through my body. I’m ... not ... happy. The realization is right, it feels as if a wrecking ball swung and knocked me right onto my ass.
“No, you aren’t.” The Fish’s voice replies. “Why do you think that is? Have you not noticed the way our brain works?” Did it just say ‘our’ brain? “Yes. Now you’re starting to get it. We have been united together for some time now. Haven't you noticed that most things don’t seem to matter anymore? That was never odd to you?” Its voice is getting louder and it's amplifying the fear I am beginning to feel. “Why did you stop making up stories from the desks? Why did you stop thinking about the music posters, or the music you were listening to before we spoke? You love music. You said it was more important than family. And the melatonin, why did you grab so many?” I try to think of any kind of explanation or excuse yet nothing comes to mind. What is wrong with me? I ponder within myself, hoping for something, anything that could help me. “I know what’s wrong with you.” The Fish says maniacally, the grin morphing from disturbing to malicious. “You’re worthless is what you are. The smallest impact you could ever make on this universe would be covered up by all your mistakes. Absolutely nothing you could do would change that. Gunk at the bottom of a peasant's shoe, completely worthless.” I blink once, to hold back a small tear and everything is the same. I blink once more and I lie awake on Erica’s bed. I’m not happy. I think to myself, being completely conscious this time. With the nearby shower running I can tell where Erica is, but the rest of the house is empty. I need to go clear my head, and before Erica notices, I stuff my belongings into my bag and leave. Just over a week has passed since I was at Erica’s house. She’s tried to get in touch with me all week, but I haven't answered. My friends have left me messages but I said I’m fine. Just need some space. The shades are drawn in my room, and I have quiet music playing as I lie in bed without anything to do. I don’t do much, and I don’t have the energy to do anything. My phone buzzes again. It’s Erica, she’s calling me. I can’t leave her in the dark anymore so I pick up the phone. “Hello? What’s up?” I ask indifferently. “What’s up?” she scoffs, clearly worried, “What's up Joel, I haven’t heard from you in a week! You just got up and left one morning! What happened?” I’m quiet and ponder my response. “We should talk.” “Yes, please,” Erica says, almost instantaneously. “I’ll meet you by your house.” I state, making sure I get straight to the point. “Okay.” Then I hang up before she says anything she might regret. I love her, but she doesn’t make me happy. I feel stuck, nothing seems to make sense to me. I look at her and want to tell her how amazing the world is but that isn’t how I feel. The world is gray and maybe it always has been. I want to blame her because this wasn’t knowledge to me until we started seeing each other but that isn’t just wrong; it isn’t fair either.
She has the typical suburban white home. Good-looking cars in the driveway, a big tree in the front yard, well maintained with a red brick foundation. Seems as though God hit copy-paste for a few neighborhoods. I ring her doorbell and see her silhouette getting bigger through the blurred glass in the door as she rushes out. I greet her with a small hug and an even smaller smile. “Look, I’ve been doing some thinking--” I start to say. “Did it hurt?” she interrupts me. I give her a blank stare. She tries to laugh it off but realizes this is something important. “I am not happy ... when I’m with you.” Erica looks me dead in the eyes, changing her expression from her usual fun-loving smile to a delayed and despair-riddled understanding – but she stays quiet. “It isn’t your fault. I need you to know this. When I’m with you I feel worthless, like I’m weighing you down or holding you back, as if whatever I do isn’t good enough for who you are.” Slowly a tear falls from her face. She doesn’t wipe it away, and I watch it glide down her cheek. “Hearing me say this out loud makes it sound like some fucked up prank but I need you to know that is not what this is. I hope you believe me when I say that.” I hesitate for half a second working up the courage to finish it. “I think we should break up.” I thought that I would feel something, but I feel somewhat void, somewhat hollow. Some husk of what I used to be or what we used to be. Maybe it’s some sort of sign that staying with her would be worse than this; I’d rather feel numb than any real pain. We both stand perfectly still, neither of us having any idea what to do next. It feels as if moving would cause a sinkhole to swallow the city up. I gaze into her eyes and give a quiet and mournful smile to try to tell her she’ll be okay. And slowly, I walk off the stone porch in front of her home and walk away. “Not happy?” she yells to me, as I reach the end of her street. “What is holding you back?” At this point, she has run onto the sidewalk in front of her house. “Hello!?” she screams to me. “What did I do wrong?” She’s beginning to start a scene but she doesn’t care. I hear her, but I keep walking. “Whatever it is,” she hesitates for a second, “we- we can fix it!” The stutter hits me, she’s doing everything she can. My footsteps slow down, ever so slightly, and she notices. “Please, Joel. PLEASE!” I stop but don’t turn around. I don’t have an answer to that. Who would? I never told her how I felt, how I love her. But I guess it doesn’t seem to matter. Nothing matters. the end.