Trey’s crush on Sylvia developed slowly at first. Sylvia was Trey’s newest co-worker at While You Dream Cleaning Service and a fellow Multioak High School dropout who Trey had never really noticed while they were both still in school. It wasn’t until two weeks after Sylvia was hired that Trey acknowledged the crush’s existence, but even then, he kept it under wraps. He did his best to keep it manageable, to slow its growth, to give only a little ground each day.
When, in the wee hours of a given morning, Trey and Sylvia sat down on the floor of an empty lawyer’s or chiropractor’s office for their lunch break with their three other co-workers and Trey said something and Sylvia laughed and said something back, Trey did his best to convince himself that she wasn’t flirting with him, she was just being nice. But, of course, a not-too-deep part of him thought there was a chance she might be flirting.
And then, when a given night’s shift was over, when they were all leaving whichever facility they’d last cleaned that night, and the as-yet-unseen sun was paling the Eastern horizon, and Trey and Sylvia and their three other co-workers were all saying goodbye to each other and telling each other to be safe on their drives home, and Sylvia was yawning cutely, Trey tried to tell himself that no, there was not an extra note of sincerity in Sylvia’s voice when she told him to drive safely. That was just him wishing. But Trey was also willing to admit that wishing for something didn’t automatically make it impossible.
And then, one morning after the While You Dream Cleaning Service had given a half-hearted once-over treatment to the offices of the better of Multioak’s three veterinarians, Sylvia’s car wouldn’t start. Trey, as usual, had parked next to her and this time had managed to prolong their usual goodbye ritual by wondering aloud about the work schedule for the upcoming week, though in reality he not only had it memorized, but actually had a written copy folded up in his wallet. By the time Sylvia had retrieved her own copy of the schedule from her purse and shown it to Trey, their co-workers had left and they were the only two people left in the parking lot when Sylvia discovered that when she turned the key in her car’s ignition, all it did was make sad grinding noises.
So Trey offered to give her a ride home, Sylvia accepted, and it was during that ride, somewhere along the nine mile stretch from the veterinarian’s office parking lot to Sylvia’s front door, that Trey lost his handle on the crush. It might have been Sylvia’s gratitude that did him in, or maybe it was the way she cheerfully dismissed his apology for the messy interior of his car, or maybe it was the way she gave him directions to her parents’ house in a dead-on impersonation of one of those female GPS voices. Whatever it was, when Trey backed his car out of Sylvia’s driveway and headed home, the crush was in full, fragrant bloom and Trey understood that there could soon be trouble.
The first and most obvious sign of the crush’s escalation was the fact that Trey was no longer content to only see Sylvia in the context of work. He wanted to see her more often and in other environments and in clothes other than her black jeans and neon orange While You Dream Cleaning Service polo shirt. Since he’d given her the ride home, Trey knew where Sylvia lived, but it didn’t seem like a good idea to drop by unannounced. The idea of parking on the street near Sylvia’s house, waiting for her to leave, and then following her to her destination where he could pretend to run into her by chance held some appeal, but also struck Trey as perhaps over the line. So he contented himself with simply cruising past her house every once in a while and feeling a small tingle of satisfaction at knowing she was there inside, doing the kinds of things that she did, whatever they were. But soon, of course, this was not enough either.
One night while the crew was cleaning the offices of a failing insurance company, Trey overheard Sylvia tell another co-worker that she was going to a concert at a local coffee shop called The Grounds of Music on Thursday night. Though Trey was scheduled to work on Thursday night, and though the name of the coffee shop made him literally shudder in horror, he knew right away that he would be at that concert, even if it meant having to lie to his boss and to his dad, which it did.
On Thursday evening, after calling in sick to work and then telling his dad he was leaving early to run a few unspecified errands, Trey arrived at The Grounds of Music a full hour before the show was scheduled to start, bought nothing, and positioned himself at a table in a back corner of the room with a terrible view of the stage but an excellent view of the door. Then, content to wait, he waited.
Three gently-strummed, indiscernible songs into the opening act, Sylvia arrived, looking gorgeous in a white, knee-length skirt and a gray coat. She was with a friend who Trey recognized as another former classmate, a girl named Vivian who he’d been assigned to do a group project with in World Civilization the semester before he’d dropped out of school. He had not been an asset to the group, to say the least.
Trey watched from his seat as Sylvia and Vivian greeted people, ordered coffee, and behaved very much as if they belonged. Sylvia seemed to know everyone, even the hunched, lanky guy with the guitar case and feather earring who Trey assumed was the headlining act.
Trey couldn’t decide how best to approach Sylvia. Should he act surprised to see her? Excited? Casually pleased to discover that they had similar taste in music? Also, there was a chance that she knew he was scheduled to work tonight, so he’d have to admit to calling in sick, which might make him seem cool but also might make him seem dishonest and irresponsible, depending on how Sylvia viewed it. There was a lot to consider. The one thing Trey definitely didn’t want to do was make his crush apparent unless he could be sure that Sylvia would react favorably. Maybe as a preliminary test run for this kind of thing, it would be best for Trey to stay in his seat and just watch Sylvia in her element, and if she happened to notice him, then, yeah, he could talk to her. As much as Trey had dreamt of interacting with Sylvia outside of work, he’d never done it before and he didn’t want to charge ahead without a clear plan of action.
But then, somehow, Trey caught Vivian’s eye. She kept looking over at him and Trey could tell she was trying to figure out how she recognized him. He had only been out of school for a few months, but he knew from observing his older brother that dropping out had an almost immediate effect on a person’s attitude, bearing, even a person’s appearance.
Trey tried to avoid making eye contact with Vivian, but every time he glanced over to see if she’d lost interest, she was still looking at him. Then, to Trey’s irritation, he saw Vivian tapping Sylvia on the shoulder and pointing at him. He turned his eyes to the stage and tried to feign interest in the slight, formless acoustic picking of the pudgy youth behind the microphone, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Sylvia and Vivian coming towards him. He knew he needed to act normal but didn’t know how.
“Trey,” said Sylvia. “You’re here! Why didn’t you say ‘hi?’”
Trey looked up from his table and said, “Oh. Sylvia.” He stretched his lips into a smile with no clear connection to any specific emotion. “I didn’t see you come in. That’s why I didn’t say ‘hi.’”
“I didn’t know you were going to be here tonight,” said Sylvia. “I thought you had to work.”
“Oh, no, I asked Mr. Gimquist for the night off,” said Trey. “So I could come to this concert.”
“Really? I thought you had to request days off two weeks in advance?”
“Well, usually you do, but, you know, seniority.” Trey didn’t like the trajectory of the conversation or the way Vivian was looking at him with her head tilted forward and a tiny, suspicious smile on her face.
“Did you know we were going to be here?” asked Vivian.
“No,” said Trey. He waited too long and then said, “Why?”
“Just wondering,” said Vivian. Her tiny smile increased almost imperceptibly in size. “It just seemed like I saw you looking at us a lot before we came over. And then you acted like you didn’t know we were here.”
Trey stood up. “I was actually just about to leave.”
“But Adrian hasn’t even played yet,” said Sylvia, looking between Trey and Vivian as if she was missing something that she knew they were in on.
“I know,” said Trey. “But it’s fine.”
“We’ll see you around,” said Vivian. “Won’t we?”
“Not necessarily,” said Trey.
“See you Saturday night at work,” said Sylvia.
“Yes,” said Trey, and he wound his way through the small clusters of coffee shop music fans and left The Grounds of Music with, in his opinion, his dignity still very much intact.
On Friday, his scheduled day off, Trey laid low at his house and played video games until after 10 that night. Then, too restless to keep still any longer, he got into his car and drove to the office building where the While You Dream Cleaning Service staff was working without him, their cars lined up in the spots closest to the building’s front entrance. Trey pulled into the parking lot and drove slowly past Sylvia’s car, feeling some of his nervous energy begin to dissipate.
It wasn’t until he circled back to drive past Sylvia’s car for a second time that he noticed that Mr. Gimquist’s Jeep was also parked in the lot. Mr. Gimquist would occasionally drop by during a shift for twenty or thirty minutes to make sure his employees weren’t cutting corners or wasting cleaning supplies. Even though he wasn’t expected to be at work tonight, after calling in sick the previous night, Trey decided it would be best if Mr. Gimquist didn’t emerge from the building and see him cruising the parking lot. Trey gave Sylvia’s car one last good look and drove home, his evening jaunt fanning the flames of his crush into a merry blaze.
The next morning, before he even got out of bed, Trey got two important phone calls. The first was from Mr. Gimquist.
“Were you really sick Thursday night, Trey?”
Trey held the phone next to his ear with his stale-smelling green comforter pulled up over his head to block out the light coming through the one small window in the top corner of his basement bedroom.
“Yeah,” said Trey. “I was sick.”
“That was your last chance to not get fired,” said Mr. Gimquist. “If you had told me the truth just now, I would have let you stay on. But you blew it.”
“But I really was sick,” said Trey.
“I know you weren’t, Trey. Last night I went to check up on the staff while they were working and while I was there, Sylvia asked me how long she had to work for me before she could get time off without two weeks advance notice. Like, according to her, you do.”
“Oh,” said Trey.
“Yeah,” said Mr. Gimquist. “She wasn’t trying to rat you out, but it came out anyway, so you’re fired.”
“Can I keep getting the schedule?” asked Trey. “So I know when other people are working?”
“Of course not,” said Mr. Gimquist.
It was not the first time Trey had been fired. His youth had thus far consisted of an impressive string of cuttings, lettings go, suspensions, firings, and if none of those, quittings. He wasn’t distressed by the loss of income or worried about another lecture from his dad, but he did wonder how he was going to be able to see Sylvia now. Not only would he not be able to see her at work, but he wouldn’t be able to overhear or innocently inquire about her plans outside of work. Staking out her house was beginning to look like his only remaining option.
But then, an hour after he’d been fired, his phone rang again. This time he didn’t recognize the number.
“Who is this?”
Vivian laughed. “Don’t play dumb, Trey.”
Vivian laughed again. “Yes!”
“Oh,” said Trey. “Hi.”
“It took me forever to get your number,” said Vivian. “Hardly anyone at school even remembers you.”
“Wait, are you at school right now?”
“No, my mom called me in sick today. Kind of ironic, huh?”
“How so?” asked Trey.
“Because that’s how you got fired.”
“How did you know about that?”
“Because,” said Vivian. “Sylvia’s boss told her he was going to fire you. Oh, also, Sylvia feels bad about getting you fired, even though it wasn’t really her fault since you lied to us.”
“Is that why you called?” asked Trey. He wasn’t understanding the point of the phone call.
“No, no,” said Vivian. “I was calling to ask if you’re stalking us.”
“What?” asked Trey, sitting up in bed. “Stalking? Stalking who?”
“Us,” said Vivian. “Me and Sylvia.”
“I’m not stalking anyone,” said Trey.
“Then why did you skip work to go to that concert that you weren’t really interested in and then leave as soon as we caught you staring at us?”
“I wasn’t staring,” said Trey. “You kept looking at me.”
“Because I was trying to figure out who you were and why you were staring at us.”
“Well, whatever, I’m not a stalker.”
“OK,” said Vivian. “Good. Because me and Sylvia are going to the library book sale this afternoon around 4, so now you know, so if we see you there, then we’ll know you’re stalking us.”
“I’m not stalking you,” said Trey. “But I was already planning on going to that book sale.”
“You were not!” said Vivian, laughing.
“Yes, I was,” said Trey. “But I was gonna go earlier. Like, around 3. Maybe I’ll still be there when you and Sylvia get there, I don’t know.”
“Bye, Trey,” said Vivian in a sing-song voice.
Trey hung up. It was 11 a.m. He wondered what he was going to do with himself for the next four hours.
Trey, appearing as innocent as any of the real used-book shoppers browsing the sale racks in the Multioak library basement, was looking at page 109 of a battered, hard-cover copy of a book called Throat of a Moonlit Diner when Sylvia touched him on the shoulder and said, “Trey? This is weird! We keep running into each other!”
Trey looked up from the book and said, “Oh, hey Sylvia, ha ha, this is weird. But I’ve been here for over an hour, actually.”
“Hello, Trey,” said Vivian. She was standing next to Sylvia and was a bit overdressed and excessively made-up for an afternoon library book sale. Her knowing smirk was hard to take.
“Listen, Trey,” said Sylvia. “I’m so sorry I got you fired. I didn’t mean to tell on you. I didn’t realize-”
“It’s fine,” said Trey. “It was just a misunderstanding.”
“I know,” said Sylvia. “But I still feel bad.” She gave him a sad, adorable smile that was hard to appreciate with Vivian looming behind it, watching the conversation with a disconcerting intensity.
“Don’t,” said Trey. “Don’t, you know, feel bad.” This should have been a nice moment for Trey. He should have been basking in Sylvia’s attention and gaining points right and left by gallantly absolving her of blame and accepting his fate. But Vivian was ruining it. She wouldn’t stop giving little self-satisfied nods and biting her lip as if trying to keep from saying something. It was irritating and distracting and it made it hard for Trey to feel anything but a few feeble flutters from his crush.
“What are you doing right now?” asked Sylvia. “Can you hang out with us? I mean, I’d like to at least buy you an apology ice cream cone or something.”
Trey felt the crush surge briefly inside of him, trying to claw its way to the surface, but then he looked at Vivian and saw that she looked not only smug, but also predatory, somehow, and the crush lost its footing and fell back down inside of him and he couldn’t find it. “Nah, sorry,” said Trey. “I’d like to, but I actually have to help my dad with some stuff tonight.” His dad would have been the last person to believe such a lie.
As he left the book sale, Sylvia looked hurt, but Trey barely noticed. He was much more concerned about Vivian and the way she watched him leave with her arms folded and her jaw set. It was not the posture of someone who was happy to see an alleged stalker voluntarily leaving her presence.
That night, just after giving up on Throat of a Moonlit Diner – which he had forgotten to pay for on his way out of the book sale – Trey received another call from Vivian. He didn’t want to pick up, but after five rings, he did.
“So now we know the truth,” said Vivian.
“I wasn’t stalking you. If I was really stalking you, then why didn’t I hang out with you guys?”
“Because,” said Vivian. “That’s classic stalker behavior. You just want to follow and watch from a distance. You don’t know what to do with it when, like, you-”
“Don’t analyze me,” said Trey. “Just leave me alone.”
“That’s so ironic,” said Vivian. “You telling me to leave you alone.”
“It’s not ironic,” said Trey. “It makes perfect sense. You’re calling me and harassing me and I don’t want you to.”
“I’m not harassing you, Trey. I’m calling to make you an offer.”
“Then hurry up and make the offer.”
“I want to make a deal with you,” said Vivian. “If I give you a lock of my hair and a lock of Sylvia’s hair, will you agree to stop stalking us?”
“I…no, I…” Trey didn’t even know where to begin.
“I’m spending the night at Sylvia’s tomorrow night,” said Vivian. “So the soonest I can get the hair to you is probably the next morning, although I might be able to sneak over that night depending on when we-“
“I don’t want hair!” said Trey. He hung up the phone and went upstairs to the dark kitchen where, with a shaking hand, he poured himself bowl after bowl of rice-based cereal.
The next morning, Trey’s crush on Sylvia was either dormant or gone for good. He was sort of sad to see it go, but every time he tried to remember why the crush had been important to him, all he could think about was Vivian borderline obsessively accusing him of being a stalker. All day as Trey played video games and walked back and forth from the convenience store for snacks, he kept dreading another call from Vivian, expecting it at any time, but to his relief, she didn’t call.
Until 3 in the morning.
Trey was just on the verge of sleep when his phone started ringing on the stand next to his bed and even before he looked, he knew it was Vivian. He didn’t pick up. A minute later, the phone rang again. Again Trey ignored it. Then the phone alerted him that he’d just received a text message and he couldn’t resist looking. It was from Vivian, of course, and it said, I’m outside.
Outside where? Trey texted back.
Trey certainly did not want to go outside to see why Vivian was at his house at 3 in the morning, but he was also terrified of what she might do if he didn’t. Groaning, he got out of bed and pulled on sweatpants and a hoodie and slipped his bare feet into his sneakers, not bothering to tie them.
Vivian, in sweatpants, a light jacket zipped up to her chin, flip-flops, and eyeglasses Trey hadn’t expected, was sitting on the front porch and shivering. Her hair was pulled into a loose ponytail and she had a plastic bag in each hand. In each plastic bag was a small chunk of hair.
As Trey came out onto the porch and closed the front door quietly behind him, Vivian stood up and held the bags out to him. “Here,” she said. “The one on the left is my hair and the one on the right is Sylvia’s. I couldn’t get as much of hers ‘cause I had to do it while she was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her.”
“I don’t want the hair,” said Trey. “I’m serious.”
Vivian looked at Trey with solemn, glossy eyes and said, “Trey, I have something I need to tell you.”
“No,” said Trey. “Go home.”
“A few years ago my older sister had a stalker. It was terrible. He was totally obsessed with her. He followed her around and wrote her long, rambling notes and made these embarrassing public declarations of his undying love. Eventually she had to get a restraining order. I’m just hoping that it won’t come to that point with you, Trey. I’m hoping that if you take this hair, then you can add it to your little shrine to us or whatever and then you’ll be satisfied and we can all just move on.”
Trey was too aghast at everything he’d just heard to mount a counter-argument. He had no interest in Vivian and didn’t care if he never saw her again, but he didn’t want to fight so he just said, “Fine, if it means you’ll leave, I’ll take the hair.”
“There,” said Vivian, her voice quavering dramatically as she handed Trey the bags. “You have what you want. It’s over.”
“It better be,” said Trey.
Vivian turned and walked slowly across the yard, her hands in the pockets of her coat. Trey had the feeling she was going to stop and look back at him once she got to the sidewalk, so he ducked back inside and closed and locked the front door. Then he flushed the locks of hair down the toilet in the bathroom next to the kitchen, threw the empty plastic bags in the garbage, and went back to bed.
The next day, Trey woke up at 1 in the afternoon to the sound of his dad knocking on his bedroom door and saying, “Trey? There was something for you in the mailbox. I’m going to the hardware store so I’ll just leave it by the door here. ” Then Trey heard the basement steps creak as his dad went upstairs and, assuming he’d been honest about his intentions, left for the hardware store.
Trey got out of bed and, wearing only a pair of gym shorts he’d been required to purchase for P.E. and then never worn for anything other than pajamas, he shuffled through the tangle of black electrical wires, jeans, and video game strategy guides that covered the floor of his room and opened the door. There, lying on the floor facing him was a yellow envelope with “Trey” written on the front in bold, blunt letters.
Inside, Trey found a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and saw the words “Vivian and Sylvia’s Probable Schedule for the Next Three Days” written across the top in black pen.
A brief examination of the paper revealed it to be exactly what the title claimed it was. Vivian, who was certainly the source of the schedule, had broken down the next three days into an hour-by-hour chart with her activities highlighted in yellow, Sylvia’s activities highlighted in blue, and the activities they would be engaging in together highlighted in pink. There was a key at the top of the page next to the title explaining the color-coding system. Trey turned the paper over and saw that Vivian had written a message on the back. It said, “Don’t be at any of these places during any of these times or I’ll know you’re still stalking us.”
Trey flipped the schedule back over and gave it another look, a mounting anger growing in the exact spot where his crush had taken root before it withered. He realized that Vivian would construe even coincidental run-ins with him as further proof that he was stalking her. He suspected that even if he did everything in his power to avoid her, she’d still find ways to make sure they crossed paths. For the first time, Trey wished he hadn’t dropped out of high school. He certainly didn’t miss anything about his high school experience, but the decision to drop out had spoiled some crucial element of his life and now here he was, unable to leave his home without being publicly accused of being a stalker by a girl who, with every fiber of her being, clearly wanted him to stalk her.
According to the schedule, Vivian was at school right now. She’d written “Chemistry: Room 204” in the Monday 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. block.
Trey didn’t consider anything he’d done in his pursuit of Sylvia outside the realm of normal crush behavior. He hadn’t looked in Sylvia’s windows or hidden in any bushes. To his knowledge, he hadn’t scared anyone. He had not been a stalker. But if Vivian wanted a stalker, he’d be a stalker, and not a cute one. A real stalker, creeping in the shadows, calling her phone and hanging up, appearing out of nowhere in parking lots and scurrying away when she screamed.
If Trey played it right, if he really devoted himself to the stalking, Vivian might get a restraining order for him within a few weeks.
Trey crawled back into his bed and pulled his covers over his head. If he was going to spend all night in a tree outside Vivian’s bedroom, he was going to need all the sleep he could get.