tagMind ControlObverse Pt. 01

Obverse Pt. 01

bytaxandtithe©

Author's note: Very little naughty stuff in the first chapter.

*****

I mentally willed the TA to move faster as he distributed exams to the auditorium. Almost two hundred other people surrounded me in the freshman history class, the soft rustling of their presence damped by the sheer size of the auditorium and the soft white-noise hum of air conditioning. All I could think about as people in the front row fumbled with stacks of exam copies, slowly passing them backward, is that I should have sat at the front, because I would have already been able to get started.

I'm prepared for the test, mostly because I was up until two this morning reviewing my notes and rereading half a semester's worth of the textbook. I'm exhausted, and somehow still nervous that I've forgotten some enormous segment of antebellum American history that I should have reviewed. Add that to the fact that we have two hours for the test, but I'm due at my bar shift in about forty minutes, and you have a pretty good baseline of where my daily anxiety finds its level.

The owner of the bar told me he needed me for the noon shift today, and I tried to explain about my exam schedule (my classes are normally much earlier), but as usual I knuckled under. I've always been terrified of authority figures. I went through a grocery store express checkout line with too many items once (I didn't know!) and I almost cried when the clerk made a comment about it.

Finally the stack of papers made back it to me. I snatched it out of the hand of the girl sitting in front of me, ripped one off the top, and shoved the rest of the stack backwards, almost letting go of it before the boy behind me had a chance to grab it. I scrawled my name across the line at the top and set to work with a will. Most of the exam was multiple choice, and I tore through those questions in under fifteen minutes. The last ten were essay questions, though, and I had to take enough time to make my answers legible. By the time I finished the last one, a glance at the wall clock told me I had five minutes until my shift started.

If I hadn't been in such a state, I would have been calm enough to realize there was no way I'd be able to cover the half-mile between my campus and the bar in that amount of time, not safely. As it was, I shot up out of my desk, edged past the people on my row with barely an 'excuse me', and literally ran down the steps to the professor's table, where I dropped the paper in front of him. I glanced up and found myself pinned by his glare.

"Miss...," he said, glancing at the name at the top of my exam. "...Thompson. Do you have somewhere else to be?"

His voice echoed loudly in the silent chamber, and I know the entire class was staring at us. I could feel my ears burning before I started to speak. "Y... Yes sir, my job, sir."

"I hope you take this class seriously, Ms. Thompson. This is not high school."

"No, professor, I mean, yes sir, I do, I just..."

"Go." He turned back to his book, done with me.

I knew my entire face was as red as my hair as I turned and quickly walked up the stairs. I didn't look at anyone, because I knew they were all staring at me. I made it through the doors of the auditorium and waited to hear them click shut behind me before I began sprinting full tilt, my backpack thumping against my spine as I exploded out of the building and across the quad. My mind kept skittering away from the events of the last couple of minutes, as though they were just too much to bear. I was fighting tears, which probably explains why I was half blind when I tried to run across the street that acted as the border of the campus. Brakes squealed, and a someone grabbed my arm and yanked me backward onto the curb, and onto my ass. The driver of the delivery truck who barely missed me had a few choice things to yell out his window (I don't speak... Latvian?, but I'm pretty sure they weren't compliments) as he drove away.

I made a strange little cough-hiccup as my brain tried to choose between panic and shock. It finally settled on both. I looked up at the guy who'd dragged me backwards out of the road... a cop. Of course it was a cop, how could it not be?

"In a hurry, ma'am?"

"I'm so, so sorry, officer, I'm late for work..."

"You were almost late in general. What if that truck had swerved onto the sidewalk to miss you? How many people do you think could have been hurt, or died?"

"...I don't... I don't know... I'm so sorry..."

"Sorry doesn't bring someones child back to life, ma'am. Or their brother, or mother. Stand up, please."

I did, shakily, and the next ten minutes were the most embarrassing of my life. The policeman made me take a field sobriety test, right there on the sidewalk. By the end of it a small crowd had formed at the front of a coffee shop across the street and were watching as me made me perform. I began to develop a curious impulse to throw myself back in the path of oncoming traffic. He was less than sympathetic, but eventually walked me to the crossing at the corner of campus and sent me on my way without a ticket.

I was pretty shell-shocked by this point, and by the time I finally slouched through the door of the bar I was a full half-hour late for my shift. The owner was furious, in his quiet-in-front-of-the-customers way, and jerked his head back toward the kitchen. He joined me there a few moments later, led me back to his office, and spent the next ten minutes explaining the concept of responsibility to me at about a hundred decibels. I sniffled, looked at the carpet, and said 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir'. Finally, calmer but still disgusted, he ordered me back out front, behind the bar.

The place was mostly empty, because almost all of the university kids were either taking exams or getting ready to head home for Christmas break. We don't offer much in the way of food, nothing that requires a paid cook, so the lunchtime crowd of office executives generally passes us by. Besides me and the owner in the back, there was a lady working on a laptop at a table by the window, and one older guy sitting at the bar, nursing a beer and occasionally munching on a peanut while he read the financial pages.

I took a moment to repair my makeup and squeeze a couple of drops into my red, puffy eyes. I checked that the customers had everything they needed, and then fished a worn clipboard out from behind the counter. It was Tuesday, which was usually pretty slow even in the evening, and so it was the day of the week the bar did inventory. I say 'the bar', but for the last month or so it's been me exclusively, because the owner liked how OCD I tend to be about things like liquor levels in individual bottles.

It was exactly the kind of mindless, attention-absorbing task I need at the moment, so I didn't have to think about the events of the morning. I tied back my hair and spent the next fifteen minutes crouching behind the bar, going through the cabinets and making notes about everything there, from napkins and straws to bitters and giant jars of olives. I popped up every now and then to make sure no one was waiting for a beer or something, which is the first time I saw him.

I stood up and there was a man seated at the counter, directly across from me. At the table by the window, and at the bar stool a bit further down, the previous customers had both dropped a few bills and left the bar. The owner was still in the back, if he was still in the building at all. The man at the bar was... absorbing. Tallish, or at least taller than me, but not by much. In terms of age, he could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty. Dark brown hair, with just a touch of grey at the temples, and perhaps just starting to thin. To this day, despite all of the time I spent with him, I have never been able to call his face to mind. All I could ever remember were those eyes, that pale watery blue, the irises a little too large, and the pupils a bit too small, as though he used less light than the rest of us. Given everything else, that would be the least surprising thing about him.

"I would like an old-fashioned," he said. I never forgot that voice, silk across gravel. "I'd like you to make it with this. You may charge me for your most expensive bourbon."

He put a flask on the wood surface of the bar, leather and silver, etched with a hunting scene.

"We, um, we aren't supposed to do that..."

"Do what?"

"Use outside alcohol."

"It's probably best if you check with your manager, then, isn't it?"

"I... yes. I'll be right back."

Inevitably, the owner wasn't in the back. I even checked in the alley behind the bar, and his car wasn't there. Glumly, I returned to the bar.

"I take it your manager said no," said the man.

"Uh, no, no, it's just that I'm the only one here and... I'm sorry, but..."

"Think nothing more of it," he said, retrieving the flask and slipping it back inside his coat. His very well tailored coat. "I'd still like the drink, if you'd be so kind. Dealer's choice, regarding the bourbon."

"Oh," I said, relieved that he wasn't making an issue of it, "sure, right away, sir."

A couple of minutes of muddling and mixing later, I tucked a twist of orange onto the rim of the glass and put the drink in front of him, waiting for him to try it.

"Thank you," he said. He didn't immediately reach for the drink, but instead continued to look at me. The silence stretched on long enough that I began to become uncomfortable, but just before I would have turned to go he said, "Forgive me for being forward, but you seem very... anxious. I know bartending can be a chore, but..." He gestured to the otherwise empty room. "Is everything all right?"

I still don't know exactly why, but everything just... tumbled out of me. All of the terrible events of the morning, my larger worries about work and school, my religious doubts, I mean, everything. I must have spend half an hour sobbing and venting to this stranger across a bar while the inventory went undone, and not a single customer came through the door. Finally, I wound down, drained, feeling the tears on my cheeks drying into salty trails. I knew I looked like a mess, but I was too worn out to care.

"Well," he said, "that's a lot to be walking around with all the time."

I sniffled, and he passed me a cocktail napkin, into which I noisily blew my nose.

"I want to show you something."

During my recitation he'd taken of his coat and draped it over the bar next to us. Now he reached for it and rummaged around the inner pockets, until he pulled out what appeared to be a fistful of gold coins. I watched dully as he searched through them, setting them aside in a pile on the bar one at a time until he found what he was looking for.

"Here," he said, "take a look."

I accepted the coin, which was surprisingly heavy. On one side was carved the figure of a standing woman, wrapped in cloth, facing away so that you couldn't see her face. As I looked at her, I felt a sort of... depression? Fear? Something, anyway, settling over me. Something I didn't like. I flipped the coin over, and the obverse was... nothing, just a blank disk of gold, with no image at all.

"Her name is Oizys," he said, taking the coin back. "I think she's exactly what you need. Rather, I think you have a little too much of her."

"Um..."

"Bear with me," he said, tucking all the other coins back in his coat, leaving the one he'd picked for me shining on the bar, blank side up. "Now, I'm going to take a few minutes to enjoy my melted cocktail. Why don't you freshen up in the washroom, I think you'll feel better. I'll knock if there's suddenly a crowd in here."

"Yeah, thank you, I, um, I'll be right back."

A few minutes later, and feeling worlds better, I walked back into the main taproom, which was still empty except for my new friend.

"Thanks for watching the door, and, um, for listening to all that."

"Well, I asked."

The coin still lay flat on the bar in front of him, blank side up. He noticed my attention.

"I think," he said, "I should show you what this is for."

He picked up the coin, and set it between us, using the tip of his finger to keep it balanced on its edge. It swiveled so that the side with the woman graven into it faced me.

"People attach names to things, to primal things that they don't really understand, but that they know are there. Less so, these days, in modern times, but in their prime the Greeks had the pantheon down pretty well, probably more accurately than any of the interpretations that it's been shackled to since. It was all still mostly bunkum, of course, Gods and Goddesses to anthropomorphize underlying principles."

He nodded to indicate the coin. "Hence this lady." He wiggled his finger, and the coin began to spin, very slowly.

"Now, again, I need you to humor me. I want you to watch this coin, as it goes around and around, around and around, and what I want you to do is think about the things you told me. Think about all the things that happened today, the things you worry will happen tomorrow, the things that made you cry."

The coin was still spinning, too fast to make out the lady anymore. It was just a blur, really, a sphere of air and gold. The man had removed his finger at some point, but it just kept going, faster and faster. At first I didn't think of anything, I just watched it, mesmerized. Then I remembered what he said, and I thought about the test this morning, about my encounter with the professor, and then the cop, and then my boss, and I felt something... snag. The coin, I felt the coin snag something, something in me. I couldn't see anything, but it felt like the spinning disk was... reeling in something, something that was coming from me. It felt like tiny threads, like thin wisps of cotton candy slowly being pulled out of some great, enormous reserve inside me, the tiniest lessening of a monstrous pressure, and my memories of the day became... well, just memories. Not great, not particularly fun to think about, but just memories. It was as though all of the emotional charge had been squeezed out of them, like they were things that happened to me, but happened so long ago they'd been robbed of their potency by time and tide.

And then it stopped.

I stared at the coin, frozen on its edge. The side with the woman faced me, and it looked a little... a little worn, just slightly dull, like the coin had seen the inside of a lot of pockets. I could have sworn that it had been sharp and pristine a few minutes ago.

"In all things," said the man, "balance."

And the coin was spinning again, spinning in the other direction, and it was so, so, so good. I wouldn't have been surprised if my mouth was hanging open and I was drooling on the bar, and I probably wouldn't have cared, in the moment. The best way I can describe it is a really low-intensity nonsexual orgasm, all over my body, like every muscle was clenching and releasing in a sort of crazy automassage. I say nonsexual, but the truth is if it had gone on for much longer than it did I probably would have cum right there.

But then he plucked up the coin and examined it minutely for a moment. He then returned it to the inner pocket of his coat, which he'd put back on while I'd been distracted. I stood there, watching him and breathing hard, and he said, "Well, thank you for the drink, and I hope today feels like a net positive on balance. By the way, what is that clipboard for?"

"Uh... I... uh... inventory. Today is inventory day."

"Well, then, if that's what you're supposed to be doing, I want you to go back to it, and do a good job."

His words settled in me like a key in a lock, scratching some sort of urge I didn't know I had. Immediately I was back below the bar, doing counting stock like a banshee. I didn't even hear him leave. By the time my boss got back, I'd finished the inventory, double checked it, and had the weekly order ready for his signature.

----

I'd like to say something fundamental changed about me that day, that I went through life confidently and stress free from that point forward, but that would be fantasy. I made it maybe two days before a couple more exams, a fistfight at the bar, and drama with my roommate left me a quietly crying mess sitting on a bench at a city park, clutching a half-eaten sandwich.

"I'd have hoped you'd have gotten a bit more out of our time together," said the man.

I yelped, because he was suddenly just there, sitting on the bench next to me. I hadn't realized I was that focused on my thoughts.

"Uh... hi. Thanks for the, um, the other day," I stammered.

"My pleasure. I'd ask how you've been, but that seems plain."

"Ah, heh," I said, wiping my face with a tissue from my purse, "I'm... it's not that bad."

"Why don't you tell me about it?"

And so I did. And it really wasn't as bad as it had been the other day at the bar, or at least, it wasn't as much. I still felt wrung out by the telling, but I wasn't a helpless sobbing heap like the last time.

"I see," he said.

"So, um, can I..." I hesitated.

"You want to see it?"

"Yeah, yes. If you don't mind, I just... it doesn't feel like it was real, remembering it..."

"I quite understand. Here."

He'd produced the coin from inside his coat, and pressed it into my palm. The metal was warm, and I wondered if it was just from his body heat or if it always felt like that. I ran the tip of a finger along the outline of the woman. Like before, she made me feel... sad, but not just like before. It wasn't as bad, somehow, just... melancholy. She was a little worn, like I remembered her from the last time I saw her. I still couldn't look at her for too long before starting to feel overwhelmed.

I flipped the coin over to the blank side, which... wasn't blank. Or not quite. In my memory, the surface had been pristine and smooth, but now it was lightly pitted and scarred. It looked like... it looked kind of like there was a design on that side of the coin, but that it had been worn down so far that it was unrecognizable.

"As I said," said he, "in all things there should be balance. When something it taken away, something should be returned."

"What is it?" I asked, running my thumb across the faint design.

"I can't be certain, although I have my suspicions."

"And?"

He smiled, and took back the coin. "I prefer not to guess. I will tell you this, everyone is different."

He held it up to the light, and turned it to show me the figure of the woman. "Even someone else who, like you, favors Oizys, is unlikely to reveal the same design on the obverse of their own coin."

I'd looked up the name after the last time we met. Oizys was sort of the ancient Greek patron saint of anxiety. She certainly felt appropriate. He put the coin back in his pocket, and we sat for a while in silence, watching people walk through the park and listening to kids yelling in the playground behind us.

"It's permanent, isn't it."

"Well, permanent until the next time the coin spins, but essentially, yes."

I turned to face him. "Do it again."

"You're sure?"

"... will I regret it?"

"I honestly don't know."

"... I'm so tired of being afraid all the time."

"Very well. Come, lets find somewhere less public."

----

So it went. Every few days, he'd appear again, randomly, and we'd spin the coin. The woman slowly got more worn and faded, and the design on the other side of the coin began to fill in. I knew the entire thing was beyond weird but... it was working. Over the next few weeks, I began to let little things go, things that would have sent me into spasms of self-recrimination and anxiety. It helped, too, that exams ended, and that also meant that the evening crowds at the bar dropped off as well. Don't get me wrong, things still bugged me and all, but, well, for example, one day my boss tore into me as soon as I showed up about a case of missing liquor (which it eventually turned out wasn't my fault). It was basically a repeat, emotionally, of the first day I met the man with the coins, but this time I wasn't a sobbing mess when he turned up. I told him about what had happened (I was still upset, just not blubbering), and he pointed out how different my reaction was to our first meeting.

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