This Place I'm In

disclaimer: this is fiction

The TV in the break room blasts Fox News while I try to focus on eating the sandwich I've packed. The sounds are vaguely annoying, but easy to tune out. This time, my sandwich consists of ham, pepperoni, swiss cheese, spinach, tomato, and, somewhat disappointingly, mayo, the regular kind, because I ran out of honey mustard and I forgot to get more. If it was kewpie mayo, the kind that comes in that weird round bottle and has a picture of a baby in front of it, I would've been a little less disappointed, but the fridge didn't have that either.

I'm looking down at my phone and scrolling through my Twitter feed. This is really the only time I get to do that during the workday, and it's fascinating to see how much it changed over the course of these hours working the cash register. The site's changed over the years: people who used to be mainstays in my feed have disappeared to live life in the real world, and, the literal look of the site itself has changed too. It was a big controversy, at least it felt big at the time, and I don't recall anyone actually liking it. I don't know anyone who isn't neutral-to-negative about the weird minimalism thing all the major companies' websites seem to be going to these days.

But anyways, these people I've been following have kind of infected my brain. Really, I've known about the whole "parasociality" thing and stuff but that hasn't stopped myself from getting straight up attached to these people in ways I'm kind of uncomfortable with? For whatever reason, they tend to either be around California (near Los Angeles) or up in Washington (near or in Seattle — I hear the phrase "Puget Sound" come up a lot but I'm too lazy to find out what the hell that actually is), with of course a million different exceptions I could get into. Like, one of them's up in Pennsylvania somewhere hosting a podcast around anime, but like, specifically within the mystery genre. I listen to their podcast sometimes when taking the commute to and from Walmart, only around twenty-five minutes or so in total to-and-from work, which means, assuming I don't listen to them when I get home, it takes around five days for me to listen to an entire episode. God forbid I try to listen to their five-hour Umineko When They Cry special episode under those constraints (in which, I find it important to note, most of them were drunk as hell.)

By now I've scrolled through about a dozen or so pictures nearly in a row that made something in my brain go "neuron activate," in the sense that the instant gratification upon seeing the images in question beamed into my eyeballs made my thumb instantly beeline towards the heart-shaped Like button in the lower right corner. I'm pretty easy to please when it comes to artwork, I think. There's definitely a set of traits that any combination of execution, as long as it wasn't complete soulless bullshit, would equal good art in my book, including but not limited to: furries dressing nice, smoking weed, hanging out in decaying landscapes, being queer and all that, holding guns or knives in a cool way, being vampires or generally edgy in a provocative Hot Topic kind of way that sorta plucks at my gender envy a bit—OK, I should mention I swear it's not just furries—I just got a bit carried away, but hopefully you get the idea. I'm pretty sure I liked some Genshin Impact picture somewhere in there.

I look up from my phone and briefly scan my surroundings. It's pretty quiet, no one's really in a chatty mood today. My coworkers are all basically in their 30s and 40s, and I'm seated reasonably away from them, near the corner of the break room. Corners are nice because you know no one can sneak behind you. I reckon that's why security cameras tend to be in corners. The TV's on a commercial now, one about dental care or something like that, the kind of ad where they show dubiously accurate 3D renderings of the inside of some dude's teeth with a bunch of vague gunk-looking stuff on it that gets washed away by a blue fluid. Not that I care much about arbitrary generational delineations, but my generation doesn't watch TV anymore, and I'm not sure who exactly does either. The millennials have largely moved onto streaming services, particularly HBO Max since that's where all the cool stuff seems to be nowadays. These days, TV seems to be purely for public waiting rooms like these, or like, sports. God, I'm realizing that I'm probably not meant to be here at all, given my demographic and my interests and the sheer contrasts between me and the place I find myself in. Why am I here? Money, I guess? I haven't been formally diagnosed with anything, so I really don't know how to describe what happens to me, but I know sometimes I just start to panic, just a little bit, not enough to be noticeable but enough to be somewhat distracting. Then the panic starts to feed onto itself and eventually it is unclear to me what exactly I'm panicking over, and it feels like I am, at once, panicking about everything and nothing. I know when I'm in it when I start to worry about whether I am "in it" or not, because truthfully, it doesn't matter where it starts, just that it started and that thus, it is something that can be dealt with. I take deep, slow breaths, in, and out, and in, and out, and start to realize how annoyed I am at Fox News playing on the TV. Is there a remote anywhere? Would I piss someone off if I changed the channel? Tucker Carlson's words pound into my head. So many people in this fucking awful world hate my fucking guts just because I have the gall to want to exist. Argh. But it's fine. It's fine. I'm safe. I'm in my corner. Everything's fine, and the clock is ticking as usual, and Jessica's eating her tuna sandwich near the vending machine and I'm sitting here watching all of it in my corner. I'm reminded of sitting alone in the cafeteria freshman year, watching hoards of people eat food and talk while I nervously ate my pizza, which really thinking back, wasn't as bad as people said it was, honestly—but no, this is not the high school cafeteria, things aren't like that. This is a small break room, with less people in it than usual, with a TV filling the silence with mindless chattering.

I continue chomping away at my sandwich—chomping, I like that word—averting my gaze at the room and focusing on the contents of my lunch bag, which right now only contains a bag of potato chips and an already-opened Oreo stick thing (because fuck "desserts last") that you dip into a separate tray of Oreo creme. I look at my hand again and notice the screen is black, so I tap it to wake it up. My thumb swipes the feed down which, right now, is showing me a tweet of some YouTuber's comment section showing some inane hate message too vague and nonspecific to really work but presumably funny or interesting or annoying enough to warrant having sent it, but, agh, I'm not really in the mood for that. I scroll down, more pictures as usual, but now it all doesn't feel quite right anymore. I don't know what else to do. I left my AirPods somewhere in my room. I just press the home button and stare at the home screen. I look at my wallpaper, who stares back at me with those thoughtful eyes, like always, and I eat my sandwich, and I breathe. In. And out. And in. And out.

When my lunch break ends and I walk through the strange, expansive halls of the back area into the main fluorescent-riddled area of Walmart proper, I still feel a bit rattled or, maybe using a less dramatic word—knocked off-balance? I return to my station, which is now Aisle 3, and resume my duties. I can focus on my tasks just fine, scanning items and telling people their total and bagging it and all that, but I can't help but feel that in the back of my head I am absolutely not at all where I want to be and that everything looks so oppressive and foreboding under all these big, bright lights.

"It must be free then, huh?" a guy says, smiling, after a pair of slippers does not scan on my first try.

I look up at him and smile back out of politeness, having heard this quip a million times already, though I don't know if he can actually see it through my mask. He's bald, wearing an orange Salt Life shirt and appears to have a bit of a tan. He looks imposing, exuding a sense of confidence that, in the retail world, could be a problem if misplaced. I feel uneasy. I don't know if it's him or me. It doesn't look like it, but I feel so close to straight-up just screaming for no particular reason. I bag the rest of this guy's stuff into the plastic bag wheel and tell him to have a nice day, and then, without pause I'm already bagging the next person's items. And the next. And the next. I'm really not up to par with this right now. It feels like we're all asleep, or at least, I am, seeing through my own eyes like a nightmare on TV. Like my hands are moving by themselves and that this is all just a memory.

I am suddenly struck by the words INSIDE OF EVERY DEMON IS A RAINBOW jolting out of somebody's t-shirt, with some character on it that looks familiar. What was it, Hazbin Hotel? I look up at the t-shirt wearer, some long-haired person who looks to be around the same age range as me. They put a bottle of Coke and an assorted "Gourmet Cookies" tray on the item treadmill, and I scan them both.

"Do you want this out, or?"

"Out is fine, thank you."

I hand them the bottle and put the cookies in the bag. I tell them their total, and then on a whim add the words, "By the way, I like your shirt," to it, despite actually knowing little-to-nothing about the shirt's source material.

"Thanks," they say, smiling a bit like they were surprised. I might've made that person's day.

I give them their receipt and they take their stuff and they walk out into the exit to god knows where.

When I clock out, they linger in my mind. Maybe we could've been friends. Maybe not. I say goodbye to my coworkers and head out of the break room into the parking lot. I notice the sky and look up. The deep and bright swirling oranges and yellows of the sunset hang ferociously over the trees, which look like mere shadows in its presence. It's remarkable. It's beautiful. It hangs like a deep and wild fire, unable to be contained. I just stand there and stare at it. Why does the sunset have to be so pretty now of all places?

This article was created by Cassowary Lake