At the laundromat, the lights are always on, and one dryer is always running.
I’ve taught myself not to let it bother me, the same way I taught myself not to be afraid of the spider, the one under the banister on the stairs leading up to my apartment. She never moves. Familiarity breeds contempt, or in this case, it dulls fear.
I am not afraid of the dryer that is always running. I am not afraid of the spider.
These things are always true, and if they are ever not true, then I might be afraid.
The laundromat isn’t empty this Friday morning. It almost always is–day-jobbers, nine-to-fivers, do their laundry on the weekends, or sometimes in the evenings. Most of them in their own home washers and dryers, too, probably.
I see the man slumped in the hard plastic chair at the far end of the room, but I don’t greet him. His chin is on his chest. His eyes are closed. If he’s not asleep, he’s faking it well.
I walk along the wall of machines, peering inside each for stains. You never know what sort of dirty laundry other people are washing.
I choose the fourth washer, measure the detergent into it, and load my clothes. The steady hum of the tumbling dryer near the sleeping man breaks, punctuated by the high rattle of metal on metal. He’s drying something with zippers, though the rest of the sounds are muted, rustling, like pillows being punched.
I start my wash, the plink of the quarters as they fall through the slot into the collection bin providing a tinny counterpoint. Looking over my shoulder, the man hasn’t moved, undisturbed by the noise.
There are chairs that face him, and chairs that don’t. I brought a book to read–I always bring a book to read, because leaving the laundromat to do other errands in town is just asking for your clothes to vanish into thin air. But I don’t know where to sit, if I’m not alone.
Facing him, he’ll distract me from my reading, even if he never moves. But he will. My eyes find the timer on his machine–twenty minutes. He’ll be done, packing up his clean and dry clothes, before mine are even finished in the washer.
The idea of facing away from him makes my heart stutter.
I settle with my back to the opposite wall and manage to read three pages before I can’t help studying him.
Young, barely out of his teens, maybe, though some people just look younger in their sleep. No older than I am, anyway. Dark hair, wavy and disheveled. Eggshell-brown skin liberally peppered with deeper freckles, clustered over the bridge of his nose and fading out across his cheeks. White tee shirt with some logo on it I didn’t recognize, red zippered sweatshirt, tattered jeans.
He raised his head, opened his eyes. They were entirely white, like pools of milk. “You’re staring.”
The words I tried to say in apology came out as a squeak instead.
He laughed, then cocked his head and studied me in turn. “Wait, I know you.”
“No.” I’d remember this man, if I’d ever met him before. “You don’t.”
“I dream about this place, sometimes. Sometimes you’re there.”
I wanted a mirror to raise between my face and his, so I could look into it and be sure I was still me. Not someone he knew, someone he’d dreamed about. “I’ve never dreamed about a laundromat, or about you.”
“Course not.” He stood, shoving his hands in his pockets and rolling his shoulders in a stretch.
I saw feathers behind him on the wall, cream edged in red. I blinked. Blank wall.
One hand stretched out toward me–I hadn’t seen him take it from his pocket. “What’s your name?”
I touched my neck, my hair. I still felt like me, but I didn’t answer.
His hand dangled at his side again. He shrugged. “Someday, you’ll tell me.”
The buzzer on my laundry dinged, and I whirled to face it. It hadn’t been half an hour yet. The man’s laundry still tumbled in the dryer.
I turned. He was gone, and the dryer that was always on, wasn’t.
I shuffled through transferring my wet clothes to a dryer–not the one that should have been running, but wasn’t–and the room held its breath. Not me, not mine, but the air was so still.
I fed in the quarters. A hand touched my shoulder.
The white-eyed man held my wrist, keeping my raised hand from his face. “Sorry I startled you.” He actually sounded sorry, but my heart didn’t start to drift down from the contact high until he let go. “Can’t always be sure where I’ll appear.”
“Never mind. When you’re done, want to grab some coffee?”
I stepped back and found myself pinned by the dryer. “No. No, thank you.”
“Right.” He turned and stepped away, leaving a scent in his wake, a sharp blast of air flavored with salt and pine and dampness. Then he turned back to me with an eager, boyish smile. “Tea?”
As if coffee were the problem, not the invitation. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.
“That’s better.” Whatever he’d meant to say next, he stopped, turning his head to the window. “Rats. Gotta go.”
I blinked, and he was gone again.
I leaned against the dryer until my bones rattled in sympathetic vibration, wondering if I’d been hallucinating, wondering if he’d reappear the next time I moved. A crack of thunder boomed through the sky, shaking the building, and I went to the window.
A storm was moving in from the south, but in the pale brightness of the northern sky, I saw the shadow of an enormous bird, circling in the air before fleeing ahead of the rain.