Year One, First Friday of November
Midnight finds the Greyhound bus somewhere at the ass end of Ohio, and the driver decides to stop at a fast food joint. Harlan wakes up from a very shallow slumber when the lights come on inside the bus and the driver announces over the intercom that everyone has twenty minutes if they wanna get food, have a smoke, stretch their legs.
Harlan’s legs feel like the bodily equivalent of white noise. He squints out the window. Can’t see anything with the bus lights on, staining everything corpse blue and piss yellow. But then they click off again, and there’s the fast food sign in fat, welcoming pink neon cursive: DEEP FRIED HAPPINESS. Weird name for a restaurant; Harlan’s never heard of it. Must be a regional franchise; it definitely looks franchise-y. There’s a mascot on the sign, too, a Mayor McCheese knockoff in a top hat and spats.
Harlan’s stomach is a clenched fist. The grimy smell of the bus, the humidity of so many bodies packed into a tin can on wheels like dead fish, the uncomfortable narrow seat, all the ambience of traveling Greyhound— it’s really getting to him. He’d eat just about anything now, and he’d take any excuse to leave the bus. If only for twenty minutes.
He disembarks eagerly, though clumsily because of his sleeping legs. He breathes in the relatively fresh midnight air, which smells of hamburgers and tobacco. Which carries, above all, the salty, fatty warmth of fries and onion rings and jalapeño poppers. That’s what he needs, Harlan decides as he makes his way across the parking lot. Some midnight junk food.
A bored young woman about his age takes his order behind a 90s-retro pastel countertop. She doesn’t look anything like Leslie, except for having brown hair. Harlan thinks of Leslie anyway: his sister in the hospital. In Minneapolis. She’s going to be okay, but he’d be a turd if he didn’t visit. They scraped a tumor the size of an egg out of her. Not a chicken egg, either. A kiwi egg. She’s twenty-six; who gets a tumor when they’re twenty-six?
“We don’t do eggs at night, sir.” The woman is frowning. Harlan must’ve been muttering to himself out loud. He corrects course, says he’ll have the extra large onion rings.
They arrive in a little fuchsia cardboard container, thick and knobby with dough, steam tendriling off their curved ouroboros backs. He fills a paper cup with ketchup and withdraws from the restaurant to sit on the curb where he can look at the golden sickle moon. A partly eaten onion ring of a moon.
Harlan ends up barely using the ketchup. Translucent onion strips slide out of their fried carapaces and down his eager throat. They taste of comfort and instant gratification. They burn the roof of his mouth for a moment, then suffuse it with buttery richness. His teeth crunch down. Delicious granular particles sticking to the backs of his molars.
Harlan finds himself thinking of a story Leslie told him once, when they were teenagers. She said it was a Buddhist parable, if he remembers correctly. Leslie’s always been into philosophy, religion, spirituality. Not like him at all. But this story: a guy is getting chased through the woods by a tiger or a bear or a wolf or something. The exact animal isn’t important; what’s important is that it wants to eat him. The guy gets out ahead of it, by some miracle, but he’s not watching where he’s going, and he runs right off a high cliff. By another miracle, he manages to grab hold of a vine growing along the sheer cliffside. But the tiger or bear or whatever is at the top of the cliff, looking down; he’ll get eaten if he tries to climb back up. Then, to make matters worse, a rat crawls out of a cliff-crevice and starts gnawing through the vine.
The guy is fucked.
Suddenly, he sees some strawberries growing out of the cliff beside him. He picks the strawberries with one hand while keeping his hold on the vine with the other. He puts the strawberries in his mouth. They won’t save him, but they’re plump and flavorful, firm yet juicy. They are the sweetest thing he’s ever tasted in his life. He has never really enjoyed or appreciated strawberries until this moment.
Harlan feels the same way about these onion rings. This night under the moon, knowing that the bus is waiting for him, and the hospital, and another bus back to Pittsburgh. This joy on his tongue: unfamiliar, stubborn.
He sees the shadows of his fellow travelers making their way back onto the bus. The twenty minutes must be almost up. Harlan waits as long as he can, memorizing the moon in its halo of wispy indigo clouds, before joining them. He folds the fuchsia cardboard container and puts it in his jacket pocket, a greasy souvenir.
Angelfood Strawberry Superfight!
The hummingbird kid prepares for battle with a breakfast of sweets: buttercream slipping between their teeth, grains of sugar melting in spit, crunch of hard icing on top. Rich vanilla paste dissolving undertongue, a trifle. Soda gulped down, crackling peach fizz. An espresso shot drowned in milk and whipped topping and chocolate dust. A cookie. A thin layer of frosting, a sprinkling of sprinkles. A single rose petal, flicked across the tablecloth. Flowers in their short hair. The hummingbird kid’s mutant metabolism creates an endless need for bright and soft and sweet things. They’ll fight me for an hour, hour and a half, then have to stop and refuel.
I’m waiting outside, lurking in my dark cloak by the cafe window. Passerby keep giving me the side-eye. They know who and what I am. Relax, people. I’m only here for the kid.
The hummingbird kid eats a jelly donut. Strawberry jelly adheres to their mouth like gloppy lipstick. Strawberry jelly squirts onto the white china plate like cartoon blood and guts. They actually lick their fingers after the donut’s gone. Delicately, one by one. My heart picks up speed and my head starts to hurt. My stomach? Always hurting. My strength is my hunger.
My strength is my hunger. I remind myself over and over. The hummingbird kid is weak. I’ll never allow myself to indulge like that. I slice off translucent slivers of bread and moldy cheese once a day, and that’s all. The hummingbird kid’s finished if they’re ever in a situation where they can’t get a super-sweet double-size latte. I can live anywhere, on next to nothing. I will conquer the world with my needlessness.
The hummingbird kid’s eyes are bright and bouncy with sugar rush, caffeine high, satiation. They suck on a violet mint as they wait for the check, and for some reason, today, that’s what undoes me. The way it must be floral and sweet, powdery and slick. The pastel color of it. The way it matches their hair and eyes. If only I had a violet mint! I’d just give it one little lick. One little crunch. I want to taste. I want to eat. I want to eat and eat and eat.
I want to eat the center out of the Earth.
I want to eat the hummingbird kid.
I want to eat everything.
I want to eat until I’m full.
I plunge through the glass window like it’s water, and we lock our eyes and arms together. Waiters scream. Rose petals swirl through the powdered sugar air, and it is sweet, it is sweet, it is sweet.
Briar Ripley Page is a writer and reader who loves genre-bending work and striking metaphors. Originally from the U.S., they recently moved to London to live with their partner. Briar has two new books forthcoming in 2022-2023: A Chrysalis For the Emperor, a collection of short stories, and The False Sister, a dark novella for teens and adults. You can find Briar and their work online at briarripleypage.xyz.