15 - Hell is Other People

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Hell is other people. 

Or, more specifically, hell is a Pizza Rocket on a Sunday afternoon. 

There were two birthday parties running at once, and Liz had given up on trying to keep track of which was which. She was doing good to remember which children, more or less, belonged to her group. Paying mind to whether they were intermingling, eating each other's pizza, stealing each other's favors, mixing up presents -- that was all above her pay grade, as far as she was concerned. 

Pizza Rocket was one of those combination arcade-and-pizza-buffet restaurants that billed itself as a "family fun complex." To Liz, that sounded more like a psychological disorder: family fun complex. Like a hero complex, or a martyr complex, some intense pathological need to be fun and wholesome and entertaining. A certain type of shared madness endemic to Pinterest-obsessed wine-moms. 

The thought amused her, and she leaned back in her booth, craning her neck to keep an eye on Liam -- he was currently feeding quarters into a claw machine packed full of cheaply made stuffed animals, tongue poking from the corner of his mouth in concentration as he tried to line up the claw over a willing victim -- and took a sip of her Diet Coke. She allowed herself the luxury of pretending that she was not afflicted by this Family Fun Complex. That, despite her presence her, she was somehow better than this; the aloof and detached observer, here to watch and pass amused judgment but never let herself get caught up in caring about it. 

She wondered whether she'd made the right choice by leaving Nat at home. 

Nat would have been fun to bring here, she thought; a fellow outsider, an ironic interloper. But Nat was always awkward in big groups, and she could get miserable to be around after she'd hit her limit. Nat was many things: beautiful and funny and sharp-witted and hard-working. But resilience was not one of her strengths. She was a delicate orchid, someone who wilted under the wrong conditions, and Liz had to shield her from it or else endure those long-suffering, sulky silences and tightly-wound tensions for hours afterward. 

She could just imagine her here, the muscles going tense in her neck, her shoulders creeping up around her ears, her jaws set hard against the sound and chaos and feral-roaming children who belonged who-knows-where. 

Liz's phone began to vibrate, and she glanced down at it, seeing Kyle's name scrolling across the screen. 

"Are you coming to pick up Liam?" She asked, answering the phone without preamble. 

"Hi, Liz, it's nice to hear from you too." 

She stayed silent, waiting for him to get around to answering the first question. 

After an awkward moment, he complied, heaving a sigh. "Just swing him by the house. It's on the way home for you, right?" 

Liz made an impatient, irritated noise at the back of her throat. That wasn't the point. The point was that she could duck out of here quickly if Liam's dad showed up to collect him early. She couldn't make a similarly socially-acceptable excuse to pack him up and leave on her own. 

She wondered why she cared about shit like that. Maybe the Family Fun Complex was a contagious disease, and she was in its incubation stages. 

She had to get out of here. 

"Just come get him so I can get out of here," Liz said, exasperated. "This weekend has been bullshit, and you know it." 

"You know, Liz, other parents don't have the luxury of doing this part-time. They don't get to send their kids away when they get bored with playing house." 

And there he was, the smug piece of shit, and Liz felt the blood flush up beneath her skin as he talked. Her fingers tightened around the phone. "You're one to fucking talk," she said, and her voice was louder than she'd wanted; some mom, probably from that other birthday party, turned to fix her with a glare. Liz flipped her off. 

Kyle said some other things, but Liz wasn't listening. She was stalking toward Liam, feeling the ripple of building irritation bubbling up in her like water in a kettle, and she was about ready to let loose the pressure with a long, loud scream. 

"Liam honey. Let's go." She managed to keep her voice even. Somewhere, without giving it much thought, she'd stuffed her phone into a pocket. She didn't know whether or not she'd disconnected from Kyle first, and didn't really care. She reached for Liam's arm to pull him closer. "It's time to go to your dad's house." 

"I don't wanna." Liam pawed at the claw machine, which he had fed god-knows-how-many dollars into and still stubbornly refused to give him a prize. He turned a pouting face upward to his mother. 

"We're leaving!" Liz snapped, and something in her voice had gone cold. The hardness of it surprised her; judging by the way Liam's eyes widened, gawping up at her, it had surprised him too. 

They stared at each other like that for a long moment, silence falling between them. 

She released his arm, seeing pink return to the places that had gone white from the pressure of her grasp. She stood there feeling a sense of displacement, that feeling of entering a room and forgetting what you had come in there for. 

"...Okay," she said, at last, breaking the silence. "Okay." 

She stepped back, and found herself again in time and space, re-oriented herself. Liam watched her uncertainly. 

"We can stay a little longer." 

Her phone vibrated in her pocket, buzzing against her thigh, but she ignored it. Instead, she peeled a few fresh dollar bills from her coin purse and handed them to Liam, a peace-keeping gesture that he accepted happily, that awkward tension dissipating between them. 

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