Shel desperately needed an after work glass of wine; she’d been looking forward to this moment all day. As she’d picked Mal up from kindy she could feel the condensation on the bottle bleeding through her handbag and she was slightly ashamed to notice that she was actually salivating. Once she’d settled Mal in to watch a little tv (nothing so harmful about that to Shel, she herself had spent plenty of hours with the tv as a kid and she’d turned out just fine thank you) it was time to start on dinner but the cracking of the bottle was calling her first.
The office had been particularly brutal to be trapped in today. Shel loved her job, and she was good at it, but some days being surrounded by people that needed her input on every little thing was exhausting. Some days she missed her postgrad days in the lab, listening to music or even just the silence of the empty halls. But the memory of eating peanut butter sandwiches for dinner for the third night in a row on that wage made her shudder and brought her back to reality. She could get through it, and some days even enjoyed the authority she’d come to command, but everything had seemed to be going wrong this week and who could blame her for stopping to savour a crisp cool glass for a just a few blissful, solo minutes.
A call from the next room interrupted her solitude and Shel put her glass down with a sigh. Mal had been the greatest gift of her life, despite having never thought herself the motherly type, and while he could be a handful she appreciated every second. Even when he was in a needy mood like he seemed to be now.
The walk home down Peterson Lane gave Ben the creeps. He always tried to find a way around it but if you were running late it really was the quickest way just to cut down the back of Mr Orson’s house and into the backstreet. It didn’t help that it was nearly winter and at only half past four the sun was already beginning to set.
Pulling his collar up around his neck to shield just another inch of skin, as if somehow that would keep him safe, like making sure his feet didn’t stick out the end of bed to ward away monsters, he hurried along with his head down and his arms crossed tightly across his chest.
The bricks had grown dark from the week’s persistent rain and a scattering of what could generously be called moss, and more accurately been called mould, left a slimy, slippery feeling in the whole small street. The stench combined in the air with the unpleasant overpowering smell of many different foods being cooked at the same time in adjoining kitchens and it was all Ben could do to keep down his lunch. Luckily, he had eaten quite a few hours before and an afternoon on the fields ensured that his body would keep down whatever sustenance it could, but the growling for impending dinner it had been doing just a few moments before quickly ceased.
Ben hadn’t realised he’d been holding his breath but the tension suddenly overwhelmed him and he let out his lungs just before they reached the point of bursting. He gulped another huge breath in; prepared this time for his own discomfort. Only a few more houses around the bend and he’d be back in the world of streetlights and people and out of here, at last.
The sun at this early hour lit up the city and made Val felt like she was walking through some sort of fairy land. The steam coming up from the grates shone golden and the eerie silence of the beginning of dawn made her feel utterly alone, but not in the least lonely.
The stairs to ascend the bridge were painted pink some time ago and were beginning to flake, revealing the dull grey metal below, but Val didn’t take much notice and instead counted the graffiti on the way up as she always did. The night always brought new additions to the well loved collection and she smiled as she noticed a circle of iridescent mushrooms painted hurriedly, leaving neon streaks below where they hadn’t dried in time.
Crossing over the river the new day’s rays continued to make a blinding rainbow of the city ahead. The reflection of the burning mirrored windows in the water glowed and the fog still lifting from the cold early hours hung about as if it too couldn’t yet part from watching the beauty of the morning unfold.
A cycler zoomed past to her left, the music blaring from the rider’s headphones so loud it left the echo of a beat long after their image had disappeared into the distance. Val quickened her pace a little in subconscious response, a sense of urgency filling her up and propelling her onward as if the nearing of the skyscrapers was drawing her forward as quickly as it could. Its magnet power, which drew so many to take their chances locked in its winding streets, wasn’t lost on even those who had been there for a while. If anything, its effect was compound, drawing them closer and closer into the belly of the lit up beast.
Cey opened the door the fridge and closed it again for the second time in half an hour. Her eyes searched the kitchen for anything she could conceivably snack on but nothing was drawing her attention. Her roommate had half a frozen pizza, she knew from her last unsuccessful foray into the kitchen, but she was too lazy to turn on the oven or find a pan.
The real problem wasn’t hunger, but a heavy dose of apprehension causing her to seek distraction. Exams had finished last week and Cey was awaiting an email with her final results, the results that would dictate whether she could accept her early acceptance into her postgrad and put off real work for another year or two. The next few years of her life were only a refresh away, and she couldn’t wait by the laptop anymore. She’d deleted the mail app from her phone entirely to avoid her fingers constantly reaching for it and making sure the only way she could check would be on the actual computer; at least one more barrier between her sanity and her account. But nothing was working. No matter how she tried to distract herself, her mind kept returning to the multitude of scenarios in which her life plans may about to be torn apart.
So far today Cey had cleaned the bathroom, washed her sheets, baked some muffins (who was she becoming?!) and half watched a movie while distractedly looking at nothing in particular on her phone. There was nothing else for it, she was going to have to resort to her least favourite activity. She was going to have to go for a run to get her mind off it. Disgusting.
Sports bra on, shoes laced, she refreshed one last time. And there it was.
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.