9:50 a.m.: Michael P. Mitchell was two-lane highway driving, listening to Elton John. He tapped his hand on the dash, his makeshift piano. Seeing a white flash in the road, he slammed on the brakes.
"Jesus!" Michael shouted. He took off his glasses, wiping them, but the pasty rodent was still there. He'd been stable. He took his medication. He followed directions.
It was terrifying, both the thought of a mental relapse and the sight of the red-eyed white squirrel sitting in the middle of the road.
It was still there. And so was the memory of the hospital. You are bi...polar. Echoing. Every second.
Other cars brake-slammed. All around, windows rolled down.
"You're psycho!" the SUV said to Michael.
Then another car pulled up. And another, until there was an angry line.
"It's a rare one! Albino!" Michael yelled, pointing at the pale rodent.
"Shoot me now," the Honda said.
"Fuckin' go, weirdo!" the Chevy said.
"Tommy, fix your seatbelt!" the BMW said.
The squirrel, content in the middle of the highway, cleaned its paws. Even with all of the screeching, no one got hurt.
When the squirrel looked up and scampered away, Michael swore he heard it chatter-laughing. He looked out the window, down the row of stopped cars. Then he saw her neck, her bed head. Her.
A grayish-black-beat-up-foreign-type was the machine that held her.
Michael adjusted his glasses. He tugged at his Goodwill pants, baggy around the edges. From his seat, Michael stretched his neck to study her tangled hair — the black, knotty emotion, the intensity that leaked into her fair skin. Her skin had flaws — a scar above her left eye and one on the right side of her lip. Lines of love or rage. Or birthmarks. From a distance, barely visible but present.
So was this thought: You are bi...polar. The doctors always said it like that. Two separate words.
He'd seen her hair before — she worked at Foot Locker across from Watson's Mattresses, his mall store. Her mess made Michael relax; it didn't matter whether or not he took his meds or sold a Queen.
She was always late. She wore running pants that went swish, swish when she sprinted through the mall. But behind her uniform was the unpredictable hair. Any time of day, it looked like she'd rolled off one of Michael's mattresses. That thought made Michael's pants feel tight.
She was late again.
So was he. 10:15 a.m.: The cars slipped away. Deciding to change his route, he took the back roads. Suddenly, he didn't want to miss anything, be it strange woman, animal or twiggy cloud.
8:55 p.m.: It wasn't in his nature to be mysterious, but when he heard her swishing near his store, all that Michael could think was this: You come inside. I see you. Then he glanced around Watson's Mattresses to make sure the customers were gone. No one. Michael adjusted himself near his Goodwill zipper.
She didn't come in.
Next day, 12:32 p.m.: Michael watched the demo video of a steamroller running over a Watson's mattress to test the springs when she appeared in front of him, smiling through her face scars.
"You have 3/4 mattresses?" she asked him, pulling back her unruly hair.
Michael noticed more scars. On her wrists. He covered his blush by saying, "It's hot in here."
"Yes," she said. "I need a 3/4 mattress!"
"Nobody makes those anymore," Michael said, smirking. "Try a Full."
"No way," she said, bouncing on the demo, which was cut in half, spilling insides.
Michael counted the stripes in her shirt. Twelve on front.
As fast as she came, she left.
Michael became a customer service genius. That day, he sold three Twins and three Kings.
9 p.m.: He closed Watson's. It was safe; he traveled across the mall hall to Foot Locker.
She was arranging Pumas. "Hi," she said.
"You got any slipper socks?" Michael asked.
She laughed. "No, try Converse."
"Need a ride?" he asked.
"Yeah, my car's broken," she said, grabbing her Foot Locker down coat.
Michael said, "We'll take the back roads."
Wide-eyed, she asked, "You saw it, didn't you ... the white squirrel?"
Michael smiled. "Yes. Rare one."
10:50 p.m.: At a stoplight, Michael kissed her wrist scars. He ran fingers through her hair, straightening it. All around Michael, cars honked.
"Light's green, freak!" the Cadillac said.
"Mister Crazy, step on it!" the minivan said.
"Go, you nut!" the Porsche said.
Michael rolled down the window and laugh-yelled, "Pass us!" Then he kissed her cheek and asked her name. He tapped his hand on the dash. Cussing drivers were the music.
11:30 p.m.: When they reached her apartment, Michael P. Mitchell discovered that Carly Ann Souza's roots were slightly white and crazy gorgeous.