One swipe of jam goes on the one white side of the bread, one swipe of peanut butter goes on the brown. Harvey licked the butter knife, looking around to make sure that no one in the office was looking, and pushed together the two halves of his favourite sandwich.
Sitting back down at his desk he took a large bite, crust corner first. His eyes closed and he savoured first the slight savoury of the peanut and then the tangy sweetness of the jam. When his mother used to make them for him she had always used strawberry, but having once accidentally purchased raspberry and eaten it before he had realised, Harvey now craved the slightly sour taste. He had tried to eat one raw, just once from a display at a market, but the slight fuzz of the berry’s tiny hairs and the way the segments came apart on his tongue had made him gag and from then on he had stuck to the kind with sugar; much nicer.
Too soon Harvey was looking at a plate of only crumbs. He swept them into the trash bin underneath his desk and cleaned his hands with two pumps of citrus scented hand sanitiser. The company had provided an odourless kind, but the strong smell of alcohol had upset him so his manager had made sure he could have something that didn’t stress his senses so much, and the orange-lemon smell had done the trick.
Clean and fed, Harvey got back to work. His desk was at the back of the office behind his own divider, ensuring privacy and quiet. He was allowed headphones if he wanted to listen to music or podcasts, but Harvey quite liked the thrum of his co-workers, they made him feel a part of something.
Look up. You’re in an unfamiliar room. The room is white and the glare from the window hurts your eyes. Your eyes haven’t seen daylight in some time, much less this stark kind that gives away neither the time of day nor year, and it takes them time to adjust. Each blink readjusts your pupils in what seems like minutes rather than microseconds.
How did you end up here? You remember heading home from work last night, then nothing. Was it even last night? You question yourself and your own sense of time. If you’re waking up here, at this hour, could it have been days since you last saw light? Your muscles certainly seem to think so. You pull yourself up from your position lying on the floor by pushing your body up onto your elbows but the movement sends your head spinning. You crouch over yourself, your body pulling forward and your pounding head resting in your hands. Your hands feel dry and they make you realise that your throat is parched. Beyond parched, you notice the feeling of cracks in your lips and along the sides of your mouth. You run your tongue along them to soothe them and the acidic, coppery salt taste of blood fills your mouth. You run the back of your hand along your lips and it comes away with a red smudge, so bright against the sterile while room, but it doesn’t seem too bad.
You realise that you haven’t looked at yourself yet so you survey your aching body. You are in a white tshirt and white linen pants, items you would never have chosen yourself which alarms you, but there doesn’t appear to be any more blood. Dark bruises surround your sore wrists, but otherwise you seem okay. For now.
I’m running late and the line at the coffee shop is long. I hang around for a couple of minutes hoping it will speed up but it doesn’t and I have to get out of there. I practically run the rest of the way to work, dodging dawdlers on the street and nearly slamming into a small child, and slide into my desk barely a minute before the boss passes by on her own morning walk from the coffee shop. I glance up and smile at her as though I’ve been sitting there working for an hour already but she doesn’t notice me anyway and the sight of her coffee just makes me jealous.
Once she passes I slouch down in my chair and turn on the computer. It takes forever, even though it seems to be constantly updating itself, so I slink into the kitchen and make myself a mug of inferior brown sludge from the loud machine. The taste makes me gag a little but it does the trick and while it doesn’t erase how late I was up last night it does mask it for now and make that future-me’s problem.
Back at the desk and there’s only about twenty new emails this morning, not too bad. Last time I went on a holiday I got back to nearly two hundred and I wanted to throw the stupid thing out of the window. But twenty I can do. I immediately delete the newsletters and roll my eyes at some requests for information the senders could have easily found out themselves and as I’m down to the last few one catches my attention. I don’t know who it’s from and the subject line is blank but there it is, in the first line. I’d never told anybody that.
Inside of the white house lay a white corridor. Down the white corridor, through several twists to the right and one to the left, there lay a white room. Inside of the white room was another, smaller white house. A doll sized white house. Inside the white dollhouse an exact replica of the corridor and the room itself lay in pristine silence.
Twice per week the white dollhouse was cleaned. Meticulously but with a specific rapidity, the old woman in the white dress polished each floor of the dollhouse until not a speck of dust remained on its shining surfaces. In the rooms not containing the even smaller dollhouse she polished tiny replica mahogany chairs and cherry wood tables and even a tiny replica of herself bent over in the white dress doing just the same to the smaller dollhouse that lay inside. Once, on a particularly dull polishing afternoon, she let her mind wander to the question of whether the tiny version of herself was inside the dollhouse every day or only on the days that she herself entered the larger white house in which the dollhouse lay. On this particular afternoon she polished a teak side table in the tiny replica bedroom to the left so vigorously that one of the tiny legs snapped clean off and she had to balance it very carefully back inside to make sure that no one noticed.
Whether there was anyone to notice she never knew. The house was always empty when she entered and exited and the only communication that someone aside from herself even knew the house existed was the weekly letter she received with her payment. Every so often the paper or penmanship would change, but always the same request: tell no one what you saw here; enter alone.
Three drinks in and Billie was growing louder. She could hear her voice struggling to rise above the music of the overcrowded bar but she didn’t care who else might hear. She certainly wasn’t listening to anyone else outside of her booth and assumed they were the same.
She felt such relief to be out with him and their friends. For so long a lot of things that seemed to come naturally to everyone else had felt like a struggle to her. To hear them all now, finally past their agonising early twenties, laughing about rental agreements and promotions and engagements; it was beginning to seem like she was on the right track.
Her laughs were coming easier and she could feel her whole body leaning into it, her top lip curling back in a way that she knew she found ugly when she saw herself in photographs but also meant she was having such a good time she lost such surface inhibitions. They ordered another round of vodka something-or-rathers and she sank further back into her seat, enjoying listening to her boyfriend talk and watching the others listening intently. There used to be a time when they all talked to hear themselves instead of really listening to each other but she felt the dynamic had shifted. Now, they were genuinely interested in each other’s lives and jobs. Well, not so much jobs anymore but careers. These weren’t the café and bar stories of old but commiserations and congratulations on managers and views and bonuses.
Billie felt settled. Not quite at the peak yet, the parent teacher meetings and weekends interstate of her older colleagues, but no longer a wisp of the person she wanted to be. The bricks of her life were falling into place and creating a home.
Standing at a distance Cal could just make out the thrum of the party through the living room window. He watched the fogged panes grow light and dark as dancing bodies moved past them, a couple stopping to kiss on the windowsill, and the flow of the party inside bursting to the thrum of the music.
He wanted so badly to approach, to be one of the kids inside having fun, trying new things, figuring out who they were, but he couldn’t. For one his older brother would beat the living shit out of him if he spotted him. High school had been easy for Trevor. The social aspects came easy to him in a way Cal struggled so much with, but how could they not when you were six foot with hair down to your shoulders and a licence? Cal was only three years younger but it felt more like a decade, or may as well be. From his first class Cal had felt the expectation his brother had left in the minds of teachers and students alike, and he could physically feel the disappointment they felt when he didn’t live up to his brother’s legacy.
Gawky and not yet quite so tall (he was still hoping for one last spurt) Cal drifted uncomfortably through rooms and interactions. His responses came just a second too late to put anyone at ease in the confident way that Trevor had, and being fifteen and yet to even hold hands with a girl while the rest of his class seemed to be light years ahead romantically, wasn’t exactly helping things.
Cal took a deep breath of the frosty night air and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. He turned to leave, disappointed in himself, but that’s when he heard it.
The mist parted and the ship sailed slowly forwards. Silent but for the creaks of the old wood and the clank of cutlery below deck, it swept through the islands closely. The captain rubbed his eyes, still filled with morning dust, and squinted into the bright gleam of the sunrise in the distance. The water was not so deep in their current location and in its sparkling clear blue waters he watched huge turtles and swarms of playful dolphins swim by. It was growing towards the warmest time of year and all sorts of creatures were headed back into the ocean for their yearly commutes. The captain envied them their steady routines, he had to sail even in the coldest and roughest time of year, no hibernating for him and his crew.
They had been at sea nearly three months and were rounding the isles that their destination lay amongst. The map was rough but well charted and their benefactor had marked clearly the route. They had brought amongst them the only translator they could find to liaise with the people of the seaside village and being a scholarly type the time at sea had not been easy on him. The captain had watched as he had grown queasy once again off the side of the ship yesterday and noted that he must have lost a substantial amount of bodyweight since they had left their first port. He could use it though, he chuckled to himself at the less than flattering thought. These men of letters always romanticised the life at sea and the hard days of burning sun and pulling ropes always shaped them up quickly. While he enjoyed watching them learn, he lamented seeing yet another man losing part of his softness to the harsh and beautiful sea.