Getting Older, Getting Faster
Counting out the last of the coins she found in her jeans, Max just could not figure it out.
She wasn’t that badly paid and she hardly seemed to spend her money on anything, but it was once again the day before payday, and once again the bank account was maxxed out and she was on her last few cents.
Her period was due this week and she was covered for that, at least, and while her short hair was getting a bit shaggier than she would have liked, that could wait. But there was also no food in her apartment, forcing Max back out into the cold, hard world only minutes after getting home from an extraordinarily long day at work. Farrar had been on top form today, even though he didn’t mention his attack on Kubrick the day before. The older man had also kept quiet about it, so Max had just got on with things, trying to ignore the uncomfortable silences that stretched on and on and on.
But Max had skipped lunch and was starving when she got home, and a quick search through the cupboards had revealed the only edible products were a half a jar of marmalade, one extremely stale slice of bread and a peanut.
Max couldn’t stand peanuts.
She had nibbled on the piece of stale bread, but gave up and headed for the nearest burger joint. It was only when she stepped inside the fast food outlet and looked up at the menu that she realized she would actually be lucky if she had enough money for anything.
Digging the last of her change out and adding it up, she found she had just enough for the most basic of meals and joined the queue, standing right behind an obese couple who were sniping at each other about their choices, not caring if the rest of the world was exposed to their idea of marital bliss.
They were so busy arguing with each other that by the time they got to the front of the queue, they still had not decided what to eat. As the bored teenager behind the counter waited patiently, Max rocked on her heels and tried not to think about grabbing the ballpoint pen out of her pocket and stabbing them both through the back of the neck.
“It’s always the way,” said a voice from behind Max. She turned around and saw a man with a face that was both curiously young and strangely experienced, wearing a black suit and shirt with a bright yellow tie. “Some people can make the simplest of tasks horrendously complicated, don’t you think?”
“Tell me about it,” agreed Max.
“I mean, it’s not fair to inflict that sort of things on others, is it?” continued the stranger. “Things should be much more simple. It’s only polite.”
“I guess,” said Max. There was something about the stranger that was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “I'm sorry, have we met?”
“Not in the way you would think,” said the stranger. “You can call me Goob. If you like.”
“Goob?” snorted Max.
“Hey, it’s still a better name than my fishy friend,” said Goob cryptically. “Besides, it’s not like having an odd last name is all that exclusive these days. Is it, Max?”
Max felt a shiver run down her spine.
“How do you know my name?” she asked. “Who are you?”
Goob just smiled at Max. “I’m just a visitor. I can’t stay here, the weight on my back of this world is too much.”
For some reason, Max resisted the urge to grab the man by the neck. “What are you talking about?”
“Things should not mix, not at this level. But it will happen, all the same.”
Behind her, the fat couple had finally completed their order and moved away, unnoticed by Max. The teenage worker spoke up. “Excuse me, miss?”
Max ignored him and went to poke Goob in the shoulder, but her hand went right through him. Her fingers froze as they went right inside Goob’s body.
“What the fuck?” whispered Max.
“I’m not really here,” whispered Goob. “I don’t belong here. I will be on my way now.”
“Sir?” said the teenager more forcefully this time. Max pulled her fingers out of Goob’s shoulder and turned around for a brief second.
“Hang on,” she hissed, but when she turned back, Goob was gone. Max looked around the restaurant, but there was no sign of him anywhere.
Max turned back to the counter. “Where did he go?”
The teenager looked at her like she was crazy, a look Max had seen a little too much of lately.
“The guy in black behind me. Did you see him?”
“Uh, there hasn’t been anyone behind you since you got in line.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” snarled Max. “He was right fucking here!”
“Would you like to talk to my manager? I don’t think I c-“
“No,” said Max, waving her hand, trying to wipe it all away. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and opened them again. “It’s okay.”
“Are you sure?” said the teenager, looking like he was about to bolt out of the room at the earliest opportunity. “You don’t really look okay.”
“I’m fine,” said Max, putting on a huge, fake smile. “Can I have a Chicken-Licken double burger combo please?”
Sitting alone at one of the plastic tables in the fast food restaurant, Max finished off the last of her burger. Although her friends often joked that the tables were tastier than the food in this place, Max thought she might just have eaten the best burger of her life.
She ate the last bite, finished off the soft drink and belched happily. She was now completely broke, but her belly was full. Nothing else mattered. Not even men with yellow ties who didn’t exist.
A group of men and women in expensive suits passed by and Max sniggered as one of the men loudly spoke about the ironic value of rich people eating poor people’s food, but one of the women slowed down as they passed and turned back to her.
“Maxine?” she asked.
She looked up at the woman with her immaculate black haircut and perfect lipstick. She stared at her for just a second longer than was comfortable for both of them before she suddenly recognized her.
“Jesus,” she mumbled. “Sonya?”
She smiled warmly. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Max just stared at her. A while was an understatement. She had not seen Sonya in nearly two decades. They had gone to school together for most of their childhood, but Sonya's family had moved to another town just as they entered their teens. They had kept in touch for a while, but eventually she had just faded away out of her life.
She had been Max’s first love, but had never said anything about it.
One of the men in the group she was with walked back. “Come on, Sonya. The show starts in five minutes.”
Sonya didn’t even look at him, just kept on smiling at Max. “You go on, Richard. I’ll catch up with you.”
Richard glanced up at Max and scowled, but Max did not notice, still totally shocked, and the man walked off with the other group without another word.
Sonya slipped into the booth directly opposite Max. “So, what are you doing here?”
“Uh,” said Max, her head still buzzing. “Eating a burger?”
She laughed softly and Max realized she might have grown up a lot since she last saw her, but Sonya hadn’t really changed. “No, you idiot. What are you doing in the city?”
“I moved here a few years ago, I guess. Had to move on.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve been here a couple of years myself. So what are you doing for a job?”
Max didn’t even consider giving her details of her exciting working life. “You first.”
“Oh. Well, I’m a defense lawyer for a small law firm over the east side of town. Working on a lot of interesting cases. I feel like I’m really making a difference. Now come on, what do you do? What do you do for a living?”
She shrugged. “Just living, Sonya. Just living.”
“Same old Maxine,” she said, still smiling. There was something about her smile that was shaking Max and she actually found herself blinking back a few tears.
“God,” she continued, her voice dropping in volume a little. “It’s good to see you, Maxine.”
“You too. So have you settled down or anything?”
She flashed an expensive gold ring and broke Max’s heart. “Married for five years now. Two kids.”
“Fucking hell,” said Max, genuinely surprised. “I never thought you were the maternal type.”
“Yeah, I know. But people change, Maxine. They grow up and suddenly they just really want those little pink babies. It’s just part of life.”
“Not a part of mine,” said Max. “Not yet.”
“It’s nice to see some things never change.”
“So, husband huh? Was that the Richard guy there?”
“Ha!” laughed Sonya, covering her mouth. “Oh no, not Richard.”
“I guess that’s one good thing.”
“You’re not wrong there,” she replied with a wink.
“Why didn’t you answer my letters?” asked Max suddenly.
Sonya’s smile fell, but only a little. “What are you talking about? You stopped answering mine.”
“I guess…” started Max, trying to sort out the words in her head and failing, so she took a different track. “I always loved you, Sonya.”
She took her hand and patted it tenderly. “I know. I know you did, Max.”
“Do you think that if your Dad hadn’t got that job up north, we could have…”
“Don’t go there, Max. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that life is far too short for what ifs.”
“Yeah. I know. I always thought you would grow up and be out of my league anyway. I’m glad to see I was right about something.”
“Oh, Max. I was never out of your league. We just live in different worlds.”
“Yeah? What world do you think I live in then?”
“That’s for you to find out,” said Sonya, giving her hand one last squeeze before looking at her wristwatch. “Damn. I have to go.”
“Back to the kids?”
“No, they’re home with their father. I’m having the night off for a night at the theatre with some workmates. That guy Richard, we’ve been working on a big case lately together and we needed to refresh our brains a little.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Yeah, it should be.” She stood up and moved out of the booth, but stopped, reached into her handbag and passed Max one of her business cards. “Look, I know I’ve settled down and everything, but it really would be good to catch up one of these days. You can meet my husband. His name’s Clive. You’d like him.”
“Yes, Clive. And you can stop smirking like that.”
“I’m not smirking,” said Max, trying to suppress it. “Clive is a perfectly reasonable name. But shit, it’s not that Clive kid we went to school with, was it?”
“No. That Clive died in a gardening accident or something.”
“Oh yeah,” said Max. Something tugged at the back of her mind, but she ignored it. “Well, it was great to see you again.”
“You too, Max.”
She stood up and they stood apart awkwardly. After an uncomfortable moment that just never seemed to end, Sonya broke it.
“Oh, come here, you big fucking idiot,” she pulled Max closer and hugged her. She hugged her back, feeling nine years old all over again.
Then she broke it off and headed for the fast food restaurant’s exit. “Give me a call sometime, okay?”
And then, with one last smile and a wink, she was gone.
Max sat down in the seat in the booth. He looked at Sonya’s business card and then put it away in her pocket.
She took a few more deep breaths before whispering to herself. “What world do I live in?”
Then she stood up and left the restaurant. The thing in the back of her mind was still there, but she ignored it.
She didn’t know what it was, but right now, she really didn’t care.