It was the first time he'd been to a supermarket in thirteen years, and as he casually observed the torrents of mist that bathed the produce, he took time to revel in sanity.
It was odd, to say the least. He'd compare it to losing a sense: an insistent and perpetual sensation, suddenly ripped away from you, leaving nothing but the empty void of oblivion.
He basked in it. It felt wrong, for sure, but oh so right.
Apart from being a diagnosed schizophrenic, Roman wasn't anything spectacular (or at least he wouldn't describe himself as such). He preferred his coffee with two creams, two sugars.
He enjoyed reading before bed. He couldn't commit to growing himself a beard, but he couldn't commit to being clean-shaven, either.
He tried to educate himself by reading the paper every morning at sunrise, but often lost motivation part-way through.
Upon observation, he was the type of person that your eyes would pass over without a second thought; merely another character to blend in with the background.
All in all, you wouldn't have guessed that he'd spent almost half of his life institutionalized.
A draft wafted the frigid air from the freezer towards him, and he could feel his arms breakout in goosebumps from under the confines of his sweater.
The endless fluorescent light bulbs above him flickered half-heartedly, reflecting softly off of the linoleum floor. He admired how the white light rendered every color so vivid and pure.
Perhaps this was done on purpose?
There was no one in sight, which would be expected when venturing to the supermarket at two o'clock in the morning.
The only sound he could discern was the determined humming coming from the freezers. As he pushed his cart forward, he winced at the wheels' cacophony.
He was in the dairy section, looking at the cheeses. There were so many brands, but they all appeared the same.
Why such the variety, he thought? He didn't like being presented with so many choices. At the institution, you could either choose cheerios or bland oatmeal for breakfast.
There were waffles on Fridays.
He didn't want to make a wrong decision, so he skipped the cheeses altogether. He'd come to the end of the line, and he glanced back at the rows of aisles. He then looked at his cart.
So far, he had a loaf of bread and a can of pickled onions.
He regretted not coming during the daytime, where he could have at least looked into other shoppers' carts and get a clue of what to buy. There were so many items, so many choices.
How did people know exactly what to get? Was there some sort of universal shopping list that he was unaware of?
Roman was hardly an adult when he was institutionalized, so he never really quite learned how to be one. One day, he was passed out drunk on the only piece of furniture in his apartment.
The next, he was passed out on sedatives on a thin cot, bundled up in a straight jacket.
Paradoxically, being labelled schizophrenic made him feel more normal. His insanity could be explained. Biology, and all. However, he never felt as if he were truly schizophrenic.
His symptoms never quite aligned with the diagnostic criteria. He was very organized; he'd organized his closet by color and bookshelf by title.
He hadn't considered himself to be "socially withdrawn"; he just never had a lot of friends in the first place. He never heard voices, either. He only heard one voice.
And it never talked to him, specifically. Roman had heard accounts from other members of the ward, speaking of how abusive and negative their voices were to them.
It puzzled Roman, quite frankly. Roman's voice (whom he named Fitzgerald) never spoke to him or even about him. He just... spoke. Most of the time, his words were jambled.
They didn't make sense. Roman would write them down and try to decipher them, but he could never find a clear pattern.
Some rare moments, when Fitzgerald decided to speak in normally constructed sentences, Roman never quite had the context to understand what he was talking about.
Regardless, Roman could never get him to stop, and he'd end up hurling beer cans across the room or pulling out fistfulls of hair in the shower.
Thirteen years later, Fitzgerald simply... disappeared. Roman was quickly discharged. He was elated, of course, but... but something. He didn't know.
Perhaps it was the idea of change, or perhaps it was the absence of the voice that had accompanied his thoughts for so many years.
He wasn't precisely keen on moving into his new place, being set up with a job doing data entry, and learning how to stand on his own two feet.
Maybe he was fretting the idea of failing and winding up back in the institution again.
He tossed a box of steel-cut oatmeal into his cart.
His shrink probably wouldn't approve of him purchasing the exact same food he had at the institution, but he forgot of all of the other foods he enjoyed and didn't feel like experimenting.
Dr. Herschel coaxed Roman to "embrace change" and "try new things", but he simply couldn't find the benefits of doing such. Regardless, Roman decided to buy the blueberry Eggo instead of the plain.
He examined his cart with satisfaction and decided to make his way to the checkout.
He was dismayed to find all of the self-checkouts closed, as he wasn't particularly gregarious and wasn't looking forward to the cashier silently judging his choice of items.
Only one cashier seemed to be stationed and was currently scanning the items of a man in a suit.
Roman slowly rolled up. The man looked back and smiled at him. Roman smiled back. The smile felt wrong on his face, and he was sure that it looked wrong, too.
If the man noticed, he didn't show it. He continued piling up his items on the steady conveyer belt in front of them.
Looking at the items he was purchasing made Roman feel better about his own choice of items. Envelopes, dish soap, copper wire, a wrench, two tomatoes, a blue coffee mug.
Roman didn't want to judge him, but he was. He looked at the man. He appeared quite put together. His suit was crisp, no discernable wrinkles, a crimson tie.
His dark hair was slicked back, not a single out of place. The suit, Roman concluded, wasn't for show. The man didn't have any sort of ornaments or jewelry, and he couldn't smell any cologne.
He pondered who the man worked for, especially in such a small town, and why he was buying such odd items at night.
As the man continued stocking the conveyor, Roman turned his gaze out the large windows that spanned the front of the store.
He could see the faint orange smudges of the street lamps in the parking lot, but that was about it. He could also see his own reflection within the window.
At that moment, some warning bell within the back of Roman's mind went off. Something about the reflection was wrong, he concluded, but he didn't know what.
Maybe it was simply another delusion, he thought? He studied the image further. The image was backwards. Well, yes, of course, that's how reflections work. He waved at himself.
He started to become frustrated. Why did he have this subtle feeling of dread, and why was it provoked by this reflection?
The man in front of him coughed. Roman looked at him again, and at the speed of light, the circuit in his mind was complete and an icy bolt of pure horror raked through his body.
His eyes flickered to the reflection again, and, unfortunately, terror continued to thunder down on him.
He blinked rapidly, praying that some speck of dust would be behind the disturbing image before him. It wasn't. The man, Roman surmised, was missing from the reflection.
Roman darted his eyes down towards his feet. He wiped his palms, saturated with cold sweat, onto his jeans. Sure, Roman may be schizophrenic, but he'd never seen anything before.
Trepidation trickled down his spine. He took in a sharp breath once he'd realized he'd stopped breathing.
Was his condition spiraling? Was Fitzgerald's disappearance simply a calm before the storm?
He kept his head down, hoping that the two in front of him wouldn't recognize the state of utter panic he was in.
Roman focused on his breathing, racking his brain for the mindfulness techniques that Dr. Herschel had taught him. Damnit, why couldn't he remember?
"That will be $80.33, please."
Roman felt the adrenaline racing through him, causing his body to tremble, inpatient for action. He tried to convince himself that he was just overreacting. It was simply an illusion.
He was tired. It was the meds, or the lack of thereof. It's not as if he was seeing a dancing leprechaun prancing down the drinks aisle.
This seemed to placate him, until he heard something that stopped his heart. Fitzgerald.
"Do you take checks?"
This couldn't be happening, he thought. He tried to part his way through the terror that blinded him. Wait, what did he say? Checks?
"I don't usually write checks. Haven't since, I don't know, '97? Think they'll become obsolete, eventually."
Roman simply stared. He would have been certain that Fitzgerald had upgraded to a visual hallucination, if it hadn't been for the cashier who was conversing with him. He didn't understand.
He couldn't. Was this what true insanity felt like?
It was his voice. He knew it was. There wasn't a doubt in his mind. He'd heard the exact same voice everyday for 5,057 days. And the voices weren't simply similar.
"Who are you?" Roman asked suddenly. He would have been embarrassed at the way his voice quavered, but when the world is crumbling down on you, how you are perceived is irrelevant.
The two turned their heads toward Roman, as if they'd suddenly noticed his presence for the first time.
The man, with an eerie grin on his face, tilted his head. "Are you talking to me?"
The man, with a smirk on his face, head tilted down, and an eyebrow raised, gave Roman that look, causing a nameless dread to engulf him.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten about me already, Roman."