Patrick doesn’t have any friends, he doesn’t know how to make them.
On Fridays he leaves work and drives home in his 2006 Honda Accord with 175,000 miles on it, but it still runs great. The voices on the radio make him feel like he’s standing just outside a fun conversation. Patrick doesn’t care much for music, he prefers talk radio and local news. He tries calling in to speak with the hosts every once in a while but doesn’t like the hold times.
“Hello, how are you?” He enthusiastically tries to make conversation with the grocery clerk as he buys milk, butter, and individual bottles of soda.
“Great. Do you need a bag?” The clerk is going through her motions in order to get through her shift without incident or reprimand from management for a below-average customer-per-hour rate of checking.
“No, thank you. Do you have any fun plans this weekend?”
“Working. How about a receipt?”
He declines, but thinks about how nice it would be to work over the weekends. He’s not sure he could handle her job, though. “I love your hair.”
“Thanks. Have a great day.”
His studio apartment is mostly empty. He doesn’t need a lot of things. There’s a bed with no frame, a recliner facing a large television, several boxes neatly unfolded up against the wall near the bathroom that he has been meaning to recycle, a stool underneath the bar-like laminate counter top next to the kitchen, and a few dirty dishes in the sink. Other than that, there are no details to make note of. During the four months of his lease, no other human beings have entered this unit, only Patrick and a small ant problem.
He boils hot water and adds hard noodles out of a box. Once the water has either evaporated or been absorbed by the noodles, he adds a slice of butter, orange cheese powder, and a splash of milk, stirring the ingredients into the noodles. There are sometimes small cheese powder chunks when the milk ratio is off, but he doesn’t mind the little bursts of flavor that these balls create.
His recliner, a dull red corduroy fabric, wraps itself around his body like an octopus might a diver it curiously explores. It’s a comfortable chair, more comfortable than his desk chair at his office.
He wonders what Erica is up to this weekend. Or Walter. Or if his boss might need something from him, a call or even a text would be a welcome reminder that he’s needed. Reruns of his favorite sitcoms play for several straight hours, he knows most of the lines from the episodes that air. Patrick checks his phone every fifteen minutes or so, but doesn’t receive any communication.
He falls asleep in his recliner, the residue of his pasta dinner has hardened inside the bowl that is now sitting on the carpet next to his chair.
At 11 P.M. his television shuts off, a setting he had set when he first bought it. The sales rep had gone through the list of features, this one seemed particularly useful at the time and this has proven to be true. With the background noise now gone, he shuffles to his bathroom, brushes his teeth, thinks about flossing but doesn’t go through with it. Patrick lies down in bed, but has trouble falling back asleep.
The ceiling above his bed, and everywhere else in the apartment, is textured. His eyes wander to familiar shapes that he had noticed previously. Little constellations in the apartment sky. He turns on a fan for the white noise, but in this heat, it’s probably only blowing warm air around.
Saturday morning, he wakes up and pours a bowl of cereal, letting the milk sit for several minutes because he likes it soggy. He checks his email, three unread messages. Two newsletters he has signed up for, and one a reminder that his rent payment is due in one week, with a reminder that he can set up auto-pay to maximize convenience. He prefers walking a check to the leasing office once a month.
He cleans his kitchen, phantom vibrations in his pocket suggest maybe he should check his phone again. Still nothing.
There’s a nearby lunch spot he loves, the people are so friendly. With his regular patronage, some of the staff, although they change rapidly, know him by name. He loves the feeling of being recognized. His boss sometimes still calls him Pat, a nickname he does not prefer but is forced to tolerate. The ones who know him at this little restaurant, they all call him Patrick. He likes that.
He gives Maggie his order. She’s young despite the older person name. Maggie smiles, and says, “I already knew that, Patrick. You always get the pasta.”
It’s true. He gets the same thing every time. Maggie smiles at him, she’s a good person.
Back in his apartment, Patrick replays the conversation he had with his server several times. He analyzes every word for clues that maybe she wants to be friends. He would love to have a friend. He thinks about buying a couch so him and a friend could watch movies together late into the night.
Patrick logs onto his computer and surfs social media websites. He’s afraid to type anything. He lingers around the comments of others. He thinks about playing computer games for a bit. He loves strategy games, mostly single-player. He has an online dating profile, he has made a few connections with attractive women, women that seem suspiciously out of his league, as they say.
He checks his messages. Marissa, her profile picture is of her in a black lacy bra and seductive, has messaged him saying she would love to spend more time with him. They have been chatting for several days, he loves her. She asks if he wants to set up a sensual one-on-one video chat. He can feel his groin tingling or his brain buzzing. He writes back and says that he would love to.
He refreshes his browser window dozens of times in the five minutes after he sent his affirmative.
“Hey sweetie, let’s set up that chat. Here is the link. Join me!”
Patrick clicks the link, a buffering video feed opens in a new tab. There’s a woman standing in her underwear, she doesn’t look like Marissa’s profile picture, not exactly, but Patrick isn’t sure if he cares. In the corner, Patrick sees his own face and larger figure, his own insecurities take over. He tries to position himself in a way to minimize visibility.
“Sweetie, can I see you?” The woman asks.
“Is that you Marissa?” He says.
“Yes, sweetie. Good to see you.”
Patrick notices her thick accent. “Good to see you too.”
“Want to see more of me?”
Patrick is trying to be polite. But he can’t help himself. “I would love to.”
She starts to remove the bra strap on her right shoulder and pulls down slightly but stops. “I want to see you first.”
“Show me you naked, I want to see you naked.”
“Are you sure?” Patrick was hesitant, but he was so lonely.
“Yes, I will show you everything if you show me you naked.”
Patrick rolls back his chair and pulls his pants off. He is nervous but this is very exciting.
As he reveals himself to the camera and to his new girlfriend, she asks him to keep still for one moment.
A new message comes through, a link from Marissa. He clicks it, it is a screenshot of his full body, naked, his face visible. The chat room is alerting him that she is currently typing.
“Please send $500 to this address, or we will post this photograp [sic] of u naked online and send it to your social media. You have ten minutes to send us the money.”
Patrick panics, this is not what he was expecting, despite the warning signs. He checks the webcam again, the woman is gone, the room where she had been is now empty. The feed cuts off a few seconds later.
Three new messages, proof that they found his social media accounts, as well as the same photo again, him naked.
“You have seven minutes.”
Patrick copies the email from the first ransom note and launches an online money transfer service. He enters his bank account information and without thinking twice, he sends their ransom, a small price to pay.
“Did you get the money?”
“Yes, give me $250 more and we will delete the image forever.”
Patrick thinks this is rather unfair, but they have the power in this conversation. He fulfills their request.
The chat window alerts him following his second payment that Marissa has blocked him. This hurt more than the theft. She had been nice to him, and he is going to miss that.
Checking his social media, he sees that no photos of his naked body have been posted, and he hasn’t been called or messaged by any of his connections asking why they got a nude photo of him. It sure would be embarrassing, he’s not really sure how he would handle such a situation.
He thinks through this while he scrubs out his bowl from last night in order to make another boxed pasta for dinner. There’s a movie on TV that he has seen several times. He doesn’t mind the commercials, they alert him to interesting new products and services that he might be interested in consuming.
The TV flashes as it shuts down for the evening. Patrick brushes his teeth, he’ll floss tomorrow, he swears, before going to bed. The white formations above his bed, a new adventure.
Patrick likes Sundays a lot more than Saturdays. He will be back at work tomorrow, where he won’t feel alone. He is reminded of this as he wakes up.
He wonders what happened to Marissa. Patrick does not feel like it was a scam, maybe she was being forced to do this to him by someone else who needed money. He logs back online, but sees she still has him blocked. Several other women in his area are trying to get him to respond to messages, he notices. It seems like this has suddenly increased but he now has doubts about their intentions.
He goes for a walk. He thinks about getting a dog or maybe a cat, but sometimes work has him stay late or arrive early to handle extra tasks during sprints. He likes being at work. They don’t allow pets there. Patrick is already looking forward to tomorrow.
Lunch again, same restaurant as yesterday. Maggie has the day off. Steve takes his order. Patrick doesn’t like Steve quite as much, but he’s nice. They talk casually about local sports team performance, something Patrick isn’t terribly interested in discussing further, but Steve persists.
“Hell of a game last night. Can’t believe we won.” Steve says.
“Yeah. I’ll have the cheese pasta.”
“The fettuccine or the linguine?
“You got it. Did you see that last inning? It was nuts.”
“No, I missed it.”
Patrick puts his napkin in his lap, his silverware is neatly placed on both sides of the mat where his plate will arrive in a few minutes. The pasta has a little bit too much sauce, but he isn’t going to complain about it. It’s not that bad.
His neighbor, the person renting the unit next to him, is an older woman. She’s sweet and says hello as she’s leaving and Patrick is unlocking his door. He doesn’t know her name but he smiles before pushing the door open and locking the deadbolt behind him.
He tries to watch today’s baseball game, it’s an afternoon game, so he will have something to talk to Steve about next time he sees him at the restaurant, but he has trouble paying attention.
The bowl from last night, he washed it before going to bed, is dry on a rack next to his sink. He boils more pasta, but nails the cheese and milk ratio this time. No clumps, it’s perfect.
He checks his dating profile again and sees that Marissa still has him blocked. The television has a weekly news recap playing at a moderate volume. Summer heat waves, a drought in Southern California inland, political debates also heating up before the next election, one national candidate embattled in a sexual harassment scandal. Patrick forgot to vote last time, the ballot sat on his counter for three weeks following the election.
Patrick hasn’t heard from his mother in a while. He ignores her calls and she doesn’t leave voicemails anymore.
The TV flashes as it shuts down again. He flosses tonight, he doesn’t want any gunk in-between his teeth before his workday starts tomorrow. He falls right asleep, even though he’s excited for the week to start.
His car starts right up just as it has for the last 7,000 or so times he has turned the key, local radio playing.
While everyone complains about Monday, or the week just starting, or how fast the weekend flew by, Patrick sits at his desk, happy to be surrounded by his favorite people again.