"I am driving in a Hummer. I am on a two lane highway. I was listening to Counting Crows before panic threatened to cut off my air supply. Air supply is a band. I have no idea what they sing. I'm pretty sure they were a clue on Jeopardy once. I…I…have to pull over so I can breathe."
Omar put on his blinker and steered the over-compensation-mobile to the shoulder of the road. He fumbled with the lock on the door and his heart felt like it was going to burst through his chest when he tried to get out of the car and couldn't. Seatbelt. It was just the seatbelt. His hands were slick with cold sweat by the time the belt whizzed cheerfully back into its place and he managed to slide out onto the shoulder of the road.
He was glad it was so late and glad that the highway was so deserted. He was trembling so hard that the change in his pockets rattled and he never would have been able to speak if someone had pulled up and offered to help. He hated for people to witness his panic. Of course, that was the very definition of his oldest "quirk," diagnosed at the ripe old age of 15. He still remembered the psychologist's explanation.
"It's very simple. Your son Omar has what's known as agoraphobia. This means he—"
"Doesn't that mean he's afraid of cats?" his mother had asked in confusion.
"No, dear," his father had cut in. "It's like claustrophobia, except he's scared of open spaces. Why didn't you ever tell us that?"
Omar had stared, baffled, at them all. Open spaces? This was Nebraska! Anyway, how could he tell something he didn't know?
"Actually, Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson," the not-exactly-patient-Doctor had said. "That's not true. It's not open spaces that Omar has a problem with; it's leaving the house at all. It's a fear relating to other's seeing him as weak due to his inability to control his panic attacks. Once he learns to control the attacks, the agoraphobia may recede on its own."
Omar looked at his hands. They were still tremulous, but not trembling. He remembered his parent's expectant looks in the office that day 15 years ago. It was as if they'd thought that simply hearing he needed to control the panic attacks would be enough.
Clearly that wasn't the case. Otherwise, he would not be on his way to Cape Cod in a rented Hummer in the middle of the night. He stared at the car and willed himself to get back in it. It didn't help.
What if he had another attack? A worse one? What if it happened on a road with more traffic and no shoulders? Or a bridge. Omar shuddered and leaned his head against the black onyx metal flake of the car door. Bridges were another thing that flipped him out.
Then there was the fear of insects. And it was spring. He checked for grasshoppers automatically before giving in to despair again. There was his fear of bridges, his fear of having a heart attack and causing a five hundred car collision, his fear of toll roads. He'd planned his route so that he didn't have to encounter any, but what if he missed an exit?
The fear monster began to claw its way up his throat, leaving gashes that poured panic like inky venom into his veins. He stood paralyzed. He couldn't get into the car, but he couldn't stay out there either. There might be bugs.
He heard the desiccated whimper as if he was far away, but the part of his brain that remained logical knew it was him. He wished that part could take over, but it seemed to be walled off from all the crazy that was the rest of his brain.
Omar reached for the door handle, but before his fingers touched it he yanked his hand back. He'd thought he'd heard a cricket earlier. What if it was there? Hiding and waiting in the cavernous space beneath the door handle? He would touch it. More to the point, it might touch him. It might crawl up his skin and, when he opened his mouth to scream, because he knew he would, it might jump into his mouth. And then, he'd stumble backward in shock and disgust and get mowed down by the one semi truck on the highway.
He glanced down the road, more than half expecting to see headlights, but of course he didn't. He'd never died in any of the ways he'd imagined over the course of his life. Obviously, because he was standing here on the roadside between Nebraska and Massachusetts thinking about how he might die this time.
There was only one option. He used it as a last resort now, but it had once been the only thing that could get him through the day.
Omar closed his eyes and whispered, "Drew? Are you there?"
A knock from inside the Hummer made him jump. Drew was sitting in the driver's seat.
"Am I here?" he repeated with a shake of his head. "I live in your head. Where else would I be?"
"I don't know," Omar answered. "How about out here with me?"
"It looks like rain."
Omar eyed the skies. Drew chuckled.
"Made you look."
"What do you expect? You keep me locked in your head for months at a time—"
"You should be happy. You used to be stuck with me daily."
"The inside of your head isn't as interesting as you think it is."
"Aren't you just insulting yourself now?"
"Touché. However, I'm not the one standing outside the over-compensation mobile talking to my imaginary friend."
"Touché again," Omar said. "I…can't get in right now."
"Bugs on the handle?" Drew asked sympathetically.
"How would I know? I'm in here. Like a normal person."
"Why not come and look?" Omar said, going for casual and missing.
Drew sighed and appeared beside him.
"It looks fine."
"Well, sure it does. But do you see the little place under there? It's perfect for a bug."
Drew bent over and peered fearlessly under the door handle.
"It's fine, man."
"What do you know? You're a figment of my imagination."
"I know where bugs ain't," Drew drawled, a leftover of Omar's cowboy phase. "And there aren't any. Why would a bug get under there anyway? Now, come on. It really does look like rain."
Omar glanced up again. Drew laughed at him again. Omar sighed and opened the door. He was cranking the car when he realized how smoothly Drew had accomplished his task. He'd been so annoyed with himself for falling for the same practical joke twice in less than twenty minutes that he'd forgotten the possibility of ninja bugs.
Drew grinned at him from the passenger seat.
"Yes, yes," Omar acknowledged. "Nicely done, sir."
"So you're headed to Cape Cod?" Drew asked from the passenger seat. "Are you sure that's the best choice?"
Omar sighed, put on his blinker, checked each side mirror three times and the rearview twice, and pulled back onto the road.
"No. Yes. Maybe."
"As long as you're sure."
The tone in Drew's voice indicated that Omar was fooling himself. His hands tightened on the wheel and he sighed.
"You know what? I think I'm okay."
Drew flashed him a smile and a swift salute and disappeared. Omar was grateful that he hadn't had to argue. Drew took leaving a lot better now than he had ten years ago when the therapist said that Drew was inhibiting his recovery.
Drew had disagreed and Omar had felt downright insane from the arguments that followed. He recalled them now as the road wound away under his tires.
"You want me to what?"
"Go away?" Omar was aware that it was a question.
"They say you aren't helping."
"Not helping? All I do is help! What about when that cat was staring at you on Wednesday? I'm the only thing that kept you together. Without me you still wouldn't have eggs in the refrigerator!"
"That's not true! I'm sure Mom would have brought me some eggs."
"I thought we talked about that. You're a grown up now—"
"With an imaginary friend! Don't you see that this is crazy?"
"What's crazy is that you don't want my help!"
"I do want your help!"
"Then don't tell me to leave!"
"I have to!"
But, in the end, he'd had to keep Drew. No one else could distract him from the natural world like Drew. It was probably because they shared a brain, but it was nice to be so completely understood. It would be even nicer when he was in Massachusetts.
He drove for five more hours before his eyes started to close. At least he'd finally made it to Cape Cod. He wasn't near the house yet, but the picture he created of falling asleep at the wheel and dying a fiery death trapped in the Hummer while firemen and rescue workers tried in vain to free him was vivid enough to keep his eyes open until he found a hotel with four floors. If the number of floors was odd he wouldn't be able to sleep.
"A room on the second floor please," he said to a sleepy looking clerk.
"The second floor?" the man repeated.
"Yes. The second floor. Not the first. Not the third."
God help him if they put him on the fourth. It was an even number, but what if he tripped over the bedspread and crashed through the window? He'd be much less likely to survive.
"Room 215," the clerk said.
"No." Omar felt like a moron but he went on. "Sorry. It has to be an even number. Like 204 or 206 or something like that."
The clerk stared at him for a long moment. Once he'd figured out that Omar wasn't joking he began typing rapidly again. Omar went back to imagining his fourth floor death. Or worse, what if he didn't die? If he did survive he'd probably have to be in a wheelchair. Then how would he reach things on high shelves in the grocery store. Even worse than that, what if he ended up a quadriplegic? He'd have to be waited on hand and foot. Attended 24/7. He repressed a shudder.
"Here's your key," the clerk said, the impatience in his voice assuring Omar that he'd said it before. "Room 208. Unless there's something wrong with that too."
Omar shook his head and took the key that the clerk shoved at him. As much as he wanted to say thank you, the words stuck in his throat. Now the guy was going to think he was a jerk as well as crazy. He opened his mouth, determined to say something to the clerk who was now staring at him a bit warily, but again, nothing happened. Panic spiked. The key dropped from his suddenly cold fingers and clattered onto the tile floor of the lobby. When he looked down the floor seemed to fall away under his feet. Omar closed his eyes. Not here, not here, not here.
"Come on, man."
He relaxed when he heard Drew's voice behind him. It gave him the presence of mind to bend down and scoop the key from the floor. He stood up, gave the clerk a tight smile that he showed no reaction to, and walked up to the second floor.
"This place looks pretty nice," Drew said as Omar swiped the key card and told himself that there was no maniac behind the door. There probably also wasn't a body under the mattress. "Not as nice as it could be though."
"Good enough," Omar said in a low voice.
The last thing he needed was someone else on the floor calling security about the weird guy who was talking to himself in room 208.
"Not really," Drew said. "I'm thinking this is three star at best. Two and a half if you count the desk clerk with no knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act."
"Crazy doesn't show."
"You insisted on the second floor and flipped out when he put you in an odd numbered room. I'm pretty sure he could tell."
"Thanks a lot." Omar tossed the extra pillow off the bed and turned down the covers.
"Go ahead and check for a body," Drew said as he leaned against the window.
"Don't lean like that," Omar answered as he did just that.
"What do you think is going to happen to me? Even if I could somehow pop the window out of the frame, do you really think that your imaginary friend is going to fall to his death?"
"You live in my head. You should be more scared."
Drew cast the window a suspicious glance and stood upright.
"I suppose that's a good point. I never know what you're going to dream up for me."
"I never think about your death."
Omar left Drew watching late night television on the bed while he took a shower. Drew had been right. Three stars would cover it. Nothing in the room was dirty, but the owner of the hotel clearly saw no need to update the clearly eighties décor.
He didn't really blame the anonymous owner. As long as he didn't have bedbugs, or see mold he had surprisingly few issues with hotel rooms. Of course with the bedbugs, he wouldn't really know until about six weeks later when he started to itch from the scabies. He scrubbed harder.
When he felt clean enough he stepped out, dried off, and pulled on his flannel pajama pants and a tee shirt. Drew was lying across the bottom of the bed.
"You're in my way."
"I'm imagining that you're in my way."
Drew sighed and stood up. Omar turned off the TV and collapsed into the bed with a sigh of his own.
"Are you ready to tell me why Cape Cod yet?" Drew asked.
Omar turned off the light.
"That's the trouble with imaginary friends. I'm just as real in the dark as I am when the light is on."
"Oh come on! Let's not do this again."
"You need to talk about this. Obviously. Otherwise I wouldn't keep popping up."
"I won the lottery," Omar admitted.
"So that's where the travel money came from? You never do anything cool. I was hoping you'd robbed a bank."
"You know how I feel about guns."
"The chance of it actually backfiring and blowing off half of your face is—"
"We've been through this."
"Okay, go on. You won the lottery."
"I guess not exactly the lottery. You know that new casino?"
"I went in."
"And you didn't take me?"
"My therapist wouldn't let me. Anyway, I played a dollar in a slot machine. I…won."
"Million," Omar corrected.
"And you're staying in this dump?" Drew's voice went nearly squeaky with indignation.
"We've talked about that too."
"So now that you're a millionaire you had to move to…Cape Cod? Maybe I'm missing something, but I thought you were happy in Nebraska."
"Then what's all this?"
"Did you know I had several sets of cousins three towns over?"
"No. I don't see what…oh."
"Yeah. I've got family coming out of the woodwork. Everyone wants to chat and casually work in their sob stories over the course of a few days. I don't want people in my house for a few hours and they…they just expect to show up! I actually hid in the bathroom for six hours last week and when I came out they acted like everything was okay."
"Maybe they're just being nice."
"They are not nice." Omar pushed his hands through his hair. "It's like living surrounded by vultures."
"You like living alone."
"You don't want to socialize with your extended family."
"You want a quiet simple life."
"Then take it from me," Drew's voice was suddenly serious. "You should not have pulled that lever."
Omar rolled over onto his side and closed his eyes.
"I don't want to talk anymore all right?"
"All right. You know where to find me."
When Omar woke up he was still tired and it didn't bode well for his silly plan of buying a house. To buy a house he'd have to meet with a realtor. To meet with a realtor he'd have to talk. To talk, he was afraid he might have to bring Drew with him.
"I'd be happy to."
"You're awfully eager to show up lately."
"You're rich. Why wouldn't I hang out here? Besides, I'm living with you. I should get a say."
"You have to keep quiet though. I don't want to look insane."
"You're having a conversation with me while we're walking through the lobby."
Omar swore under his breath. At least it was a different clerk looking at him like he was a crazy person this time. He gave her a small wave and hurried out.
"That's a nice house," Drew pointed out a bit later.
"That's not for sale."
"Well, I'm just saying."
Omar sighed and pulled into the first realtor office he found.
"She's going to think I'm insane."
"All realtors hate their clients."
"That doesn't help."
"Come on. Be firm. Tell her what you want."
So Omar found himself explaining to a very nice woman in a very purple pantsuit that he had to have a house with some space and it had to be an even number and it had to have an upstairs but it couldn't have a basement.
When he was out of conditions and she'd covered three sheets in her neat purple flowered notebook she said, "All right then, we'll see what we can do!"
"Sure! My other appointment cancelled. Let me go through some listings and see what I can find."
Omar waited in the Hummer.
"See? She didn't think you were a basket case."
"She wants my money. Just like everyone else."
As bitter as Omar felt, as frustrated as he was with trying to appear normal, by the end of the day he'd found a house that worked for him…and Drew of course.
There was space, there was light, there were two stories and no basement. It was almost exactly like his house in Nebraska. It was perfect. Not to his surprise, the loan wasn't a problem.
Two weeks later, Omar and Drew relaxed on the couch he'd ordered online.
"I have to say," Drew commented. "I'm glad you're letting me out more."
"Keeping you locked up is pretty difficult."
Omar popped the top of his beer and took a sip.
"You actually seem…happy."
"Yeah. Who knew? All I need in life is no family and my imaginary friend."
"And unlimited money."
Omar raised his beer to that and flipped the TV on. It was different, but all in all, it wasn't bad.