The soda cost fifty cents. But the machine dispersed whatever flavor it wanted no matter the selection.
In Duane’s dreams he was an air force pilot. He was never really sure why an air force pilot. Nothing came to mind that allowed recounting. But it was the air force. He wanted to be in the air. Doing important things. Doing dangerous things. He wanted to be someone to write home about.
He thought of this every morning while standing at the pop machine deciding which to select even though he knew it wouldn’t matter. It was a risk to not select. Even if the selection was meaningless.
On this morning in particular he received a Mello Yello. It was not what he wanted. Not his choice.
Across the lunch room sat Sophie. She had a Diet Coke. Duane wanted a Diet Coke. Sophie was someone Duane had ogled since his employment started eight years ago. In that time he had said maybe five words to her and usually by accident, actively choosing to speak with her was a burden he couldn’t bear.
But now she had something he wanted.
What should he say? How could he approach the situation? He watched her reading. Diet Coke sweating on the table. Unopened as far he could tell.
One foot after the other he began to walk in her general direction. Pretending to be sidetracked by the minimal library encased in the lunch room, he used it to buy time, shifting between the books and Sophie.
Her book’s cover was turned away from him. He thought he might use it as a conversation starter, but without that he thought maybe he could pick another book and go with it. But none of the spines looked appealing. He didn’t want to pick any of them up. He imagined reading them if he had in fact achieved his dream of being an air force pilot, but as he was not, these could not do.
A shuffling of Sophie. Packing up her things.
“Excuse me?” Duane spoke with a stutter to illicit certain sympathy, hoping Sophie would not remember that he never stuttered before.
Sophie turned. “Yes? Oh, hi!”
Hi! Hi! Duane could not think of what he wanted to ask. The words didn’t move up from his bowels.
“Can I help you with something?”
Mouth opened slightly. Saliva on the tongue. “Did you want your Diet Coke?”
Sophie’s face shifted. “Um…”
“I got Mello Yello today. I really didn’t want Mello Yello. Of course, if you really wanted Diet Coke I couldn’t dream of taking it, but since you hadn’t opened it I assumed you may have gotten the wrong drink as well.”
This entire series took an intense amount of time as Duane had to remember to stutter a significant amount to produce the desired effect without overdoing it so that he would just sound like a jumbling mess.
“Oh…umm…sure. No problem. I was going to drink it at my desk, but Mello Yello will do just fine by me. Give me a kick. Get more work done.” She smiled as if trying to sell this line of thought to herself. Duane wasn’t sure. “Here.” Sophie picked up the Diet Coke and handed it to Duane. He took the soda and gave her his in return.
With that, Sophie picked up the rest of her things and made her way to the exit.
Sophie didn’t know what to make of Duane. She remembered him vaguely. His absent quality made him interesting. He was the only guy who had not found her interesting.
The only man at a distance.
When no one was looking, Duane sketched airplanes on his rolodex. Planes he wanted to fly. Planes he knew existed.
From time to time, Sophie walked by and caught a glimpse before Duane realized she was there. She never made notice of what she saw. Never drew attention to her actions. For all she knew, Duane was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
For all he knew, he didn’t exist.
On the morning of April the 2nd fire broke out in the observatory. People ran, the fire fighters attended, the cleanup crew came to pick up the pieces. Duane stayed at his desk not knowing anything had happened. As Sophie walked by to collect her things she wondered how he was back already, calm and composed like everything was as it should be. All in its right place.
In the days to come they would all go back to their normal routines.
Sophie couldn’t stop thinking about Duane.
Duane couldn’t stop drawing planes.
The following Monday, Duane got up from his chair. He moved amongst the work flows deliberately touching the seemingly ordered randomly. He was conscious. On fire with thought. He looked at Sophie and then shot through the exterior window.
Sophie told the police everything she knew about Duane. She confided her love to them and his lack of reciprocation. During all this time she had never once noticed Duane. Never once found him fascinating.
But now he was in Sophie’s mind, being recalled with a rhythm maintained by the twirling of her hair.