It always starts with a simple thought. Maybe an ache in his back. A flicker of disinterest from someone he’s talking to. Or, as with today, a guy passing by him with a backpack.
Each one of these things are normal—a part of everyday life that probably wouldn’t send up red flags for most people. But Austin doesn’t fall into that category.
Since he was young, his mind has always been in a state of hypervigilance, taking observations and turning every minute detail over and over in his head until it was so thoroughly overanalyzed, all that remained was the scariest scenarios.
He spins out so quickly, it’s like he has no chance to grab the wheel and try to right the course. Lately, it’s become even worse.
The pain in his back? It must be cancer.
The disinterest? It’s not the topic of conversation that isn’t of interest to the woman. It’s that he is a complete loser.
The man with a backpack? That’s an awfully suspicious thing to bring to a football game these days. The guy’s stopped and is looking around—not like he’s searching for someone, but like he’s watching everyone heading towards the stadium. Eyes flicking one way and another, all while rocking on the balls of his feet and keeping a firm grip on the backpack’s frayed and tattered straps.
Austin takes his own look around the crowd bustling with buddies and families on their way inside. What if whatever this man has in his bag is carnage-inducing? What if this whole time, he’s been scoping out where he’ll get the maximum casualties? It would explain why he’s moving like that. Isn’t this usually how these things start? With some shifty guy and a backpack?
He wants to back away, and leave the park where he’ll be safe, but he can’t move. It’s like his legs have been coated in fast-setting cement.
A group of people pass in front of the man, obscuring Austin’s view. What could be happening now? What is he doing?
When a gap appears, Austin gets his answer. There are two other people with the man now, a guy and a woman. He’s smiling, his backpack hanging open in one hand, a camera in the other. Lanyards with on-field passes dangle from each other’s necks. The man with the backpack was a photographer.
He steps around to the front of his truck, while the rest of his friends enjoy beers in the bed, oblivious to the possible threat. Needing to breathe, he sits on the front bumper, spine against the grill.
He doesn’t know why he’s like this. Part of him likes to blame society, and the constant bad news it churns out. Growing up in the shadow of terror, he’s conditioned to be alert, and recognize how quickly a beautiful day could become tragic if no one sees the signs. If he saw them, he could warn someone, go to a doctor, make changes that save lives.
“Aust, you okay?” It’s his friend Owen, in full fan gear, the orange of the tiger on his sweatshirt matching the blaze of his can koozie.
He hasn’t told anyone what’s going on, why at times he falls completely silent, or why getting him to come here was like coaxing a child to eat broccoli.
Right now, among this constant stream of people tailgating and celebrating, doesn’t seem like the best time or place to address this mental crisis, and yet, the words flow from Austin’s mouth one after another as if he’s opened a dam. He’s so tired of pretending.
“I think it’s broken. My brain. Something’s not working.” He turns his hand beside his head as if he’s putting a malfunctioning cog back into place there.
Owen, his best friend, doesn’t quite know what to make of the admission. But, to Owen’s credit, he doesn’t flinch, or look like he’d like to be the one who ran away. He just drops beside him and nods.
Looking over at Owen, Austin waits for him to agree and say he’s gone mental, but Owen shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s it. If anything, it’s overworking.”
“I don’t how to make it calm down, though. It’s easy in retrospect to see it everything was fine, but when I’m in it, I’m in it.”
If a movie was full of only bad things, he wouldn’t think it was realistic, and he should know his thoughts aren’t either when they’re like this, he tells himself. For a little while, it calms him until more sinister voice chimes in: The moment you ignores the signs will be when the world sets itself ablaze.
“I get that.” Owen stares forward at the ground as if he can find the answers in the asphalt, before grabbing onto Austin’s shoulder. “But we’ll figure it out. The world’s a sucky place, I know, but not as scary as you’re seeing it. Your life should be more than just worrying.”
Austin doesn’t want it to be. He’d like to silence his internal security system, chill his nerve endings, even if it is just for one day.
“Do you want to go home? We don’t have to stay here,” Owen says.
Even though the threat is no longer, Austin wants to say “yes,” because in a second, another could appear. But he knows if he does, he’s going to regret it—for himself and Owen. He needs to keep living his life. “No. I just need to sit here a few more minutes.”
“Okay.” Austin doesn’t expect Owen to stay with him, but he does, his hand a steadying presence, and in a way, relieving. Life might be a ticking time bomb getting closer and closer to destroying Austin, but at least he’s not alone.