The dead thing was ahead in the road, bright as blood. In his gut, Forrest sensed it was an animal—a fawn, a bobcat, a skunk. He grew excited. But as he drew closer in his car, he only saw a rag in the road. His spirits crested and plunged. Forrest was a vegan; he volunteered at the local shelter, where he walked an overweight pit bull who wore an ADOPT ME sign. His friends jokingly called him "St. Francis." He rescued song sparrows inside his cupped hands. How could he be the kind of person who wants one less animal in the world?
Forrest hadn't written in years, which is not the ideal situation for someone who called himself a writer. He figured he hadn't gotten over losing his husband, his mother, and his closest friend all within the span of a year. He still believed words would return in due time and maybe this was his hour. There was dramatic interest in the fact that he wanted to see murder, even if that desire alarmed him, so Forrest pulled off into the driveway of the coffee chain ahead to get to work.
Forrest was still thumbing his story into his phone—he was halfway through the second paragraph—as he waited in line. Ahead of him a straight couple gave their order to the counterperson. Their exchange was friendly and loose. Jokes batted back and forth, and it energized Forrest to both listen to that joking and to shut it out. Forrest always liked making things in a room with others, even when he was a child, when he spent hours designing cities on butcher paper. He put in a line in his story about his narrator's childhood; he was still thumbing away—he didn't want to lose this story when the interval between this one and the last had been so long—when the couple ahead of him stepped aside to pick up their drinks.
Forrest lifted his face, thumbs still working the face of his phone. He ordered his one cup of coffee.
The counterperson—a tall man in his twenties, with ginger hair, impeccably white skin, and a curious absence of facial hair—just looked at Forrest.
"How old are you?" he said, his voice dropping to whisper, as if he were asking for a dirty thing.
Forrest imagined himself cornered, in a room without a view of a bird or a plant. It was the same question his mother had once posed to him when he was all of six, as he giggled beside her in the cool movie theater. His voice was high, shameless, hysterical that night. He slapped his bare knee in joy.
"What are you talking about?"
"Well, your beard is old, but your clothes are young. Your hat, young. Your shoes, young. Your shorts, way young. What's up with all that?"
Forrest thought about his outfit he'd picked out his morning—shorts; camp shirt; boat shoes, caramel and scuffed up. It was just another version of what he'd always worn in the summer. He'd never associated his style of dress with youth. Even his 89-year-old father wore the same uniform! But Forrest's brows and beard were going gray, one consequence, he believed, of spending so many days and nights alone. Not suffering exactly, but simply missing the sound of another voice in the apartment, the sound of brush against teeth, the thudding of shoes against hardwood.
"One large coffee," Forrest said again, his voice emphatic in its enunciation.
The confidence left the counterperson's eyes, as if he hadn't quite expected his aggression to be taken in by Forrest. He'd probably assumed that Forrest was clueless and vain, too absorbed in the life of his phone to care about the living creatures surrounding him when Forrest had been paying attention all the time. He'd never let down his watch, not once. He'd learned the ways of the prey animal long before the counterperson was even born.
That was it—the counterperson probably thought he could see Forrest better than Forrest could see himself. It infuriated the counterperson, but not nearly as much as it infuriated Forrest, who looked out over the people in their chairs, listening to music on headphones, swiping at their tablets. Had the counterperson interpreted them to their faces? Had they been called young or old or artistic or gay or skinny or whatever? Forrest suspected not—everyone appeared to be serene under the heating ducts and the open wood globes, unfazed by the music. Before the window, a man and a woman leaned into each another across a table, fingers intertwined between their open lips, as if they were about to taste the single fist they made together. Their affection needed the room; they needed the people inside to recognize it, to feel invaded by it. Outside the window the cypress shuddered in the wind. Forrest looked down at the story on his phone, and he forgot why he was writing it. He forgot why the need to finish it, to send it off to a magazine, had mattered so much, and he knew at once he'd never get the story back, just the way he'd lost his husband, who had walked out the door on the most unremarkable night, when Forrest had simply expected to watch some documentary about Florida panthers.
The counterperson snapped the lid onto the coffee cup. He passed it on to Forrest with apprehension. He couldn't stop blinking, as if his eye had trapped some pollen. Maybe the counterperson had spoken out of turn on other occasions. Maybe he had a history of categorizing people to their faces and not knowing why he'd done it, or how to stop. He lost jobs, failed classes, lost friends, confusing his bosses and professors and parents. Maybe his habit was similar to the syndrome in which people can't stop cursing in public. There was the man who cursed in the supermarket of the Midwestern college town where Forrest had gone to graduate school. Even when shoppers knew the man was inside the store, the violence of his outbursts still shook them out of their frozen-weather stupor, and they hurried their carts along the aisles, flinging in groceries they couldn't possibly want, and couldn't get to the checkout fast enough.
Forrest gripped the cup in his hand. It felt hotter than the usual coffee cup and though he tried to sustain his grip on it, he couldn't. Now he was the boy who tried to hold the knife, in eleventh grade biology, on the day they were scheduled to dissect the fetal pig. He did not want to dissect the fetal pig, so beautiful in its pink composure, its dream of ongoing death. It did not need any amateur slicing at its skin. And as if he were sleeping, dead to himself, Forrest flung the coffee at the counterperson, splashing his scalp and forehead, scalding his eyes.
Why wasn't Forrest reacting when he watched the counterperson crouching on the floor, cursing Forrest? Why wasn't he thrashing and stomping when the man behind him put him in a headlock, choking him? Seven additional men stumbled toward Forrest as if he were a deer, who had no business crashing his glorious antlers through the windows of human spaces. Forrest knew there was a story in his calm. The boot pressed harder into his back. His mind gave up the first words.