The Watchmen – Part I – A Horror Novella

And the Watchmen wander the streets with a flurry and flutter, the wisp of a coat. With weary eyes they usher;

Tick-tock, little rabbits run to your den.

For on this night, hallowed night, They send the world to silence.

Ever still, ever waiting, ever stoic they remain;

And the Watchmen release their hymn to fall upon deaf ears.

Let the breeze stir, let the night rise. Oh peace, dear quiet surely now you will come!

For the creatures of this world listen to wicked tales spun by devils. Oblivious to this moment, oblivious to stalkers that roam in the night, oblivious to the silence that the Watchmen shall bring. Their eyes how they sag; their bones brittle and weary. They cry for their saviors as their arms reach for the sky.

And the Watchmen remain silent.

For the world in one night the Watchmen did see, as They gaze from the darkness and listen to their pleas; And so it begins, from the earth it rises, mist flowing like water into cracks and crevices; it fills their homes, it fills their lungs, it fills the space until nothing is left;

Save the mist. 

And the Watchmen stay silent until at last, all at once, their eyes look to the sky.

This night, hallowed night, They gifted the world to silence.

14

It is just a note, some silly poetry I’d stumbled across in my old high school backpack. I remember taking a few creative writing courses before college, and then a few more in college. I thought most of my work had been transferred to my blog online, but I guess I had missed one. The number at the bottom intrigued me. I have no idea why it is there or what it is meant to be, but the font on it was different and bold like it held some sort of importance. I can hardly believe that I graduated just a few weeks ago and already starting my new job. My story is like something out of a dream. I doodled all through college, worked on projects with my friends, and submitted a few of my art pieces to companies with some silly dream to be a character designer for games. I couldn’t believe it when I got not one but two different offers─ from the companies I never expected to hear back from. We’re talking major game titles, the guys that went to conventions with millions at their disposal. I still can’t believe it. I am floating on a cloud as I pack my things to move down to Dallas. Texas, man that sounds weird. I always pictured that I would be in Eerie, or some small town in Pennsylvania for the rest of my life. I don’t even know where to begin with clothes shopping, or what to bring. I stare at my shovels and snow boots. I guess these definitely won’t be going with me.

#

After several tear-filled moments and lots of convincing, I tell my parents that I will be sure to call them once I get in my new place and I am all settled in. I had made arrangements for my new place over the phone, but I haven’t gotten to see it. Saying I am anxious to step foot in it is the understatement of the year. Part of the perks of this new job is I get to live in the complex not far from our office. It is a new building and within five miles of Downtown. I would be able to drive anywhere. I am bummed that I will have to look for a car, but according to my new boss I will definitely need one in Dallas. Apparently public transportation isn’t anything close to what we have back home. I smile as the thought crosses my mind. I am still thinking of mom and dad’s place as mine. This is definitely going to take some adjusting. Thankfully, my boss has given me the weekend to get settled before I start Monday.

My apartment is actually larger than I expect. I have room for everything and then some. It is a sad realization that I really don’t have a lot. Except my art supplies and computer which I keep exceptionally organized and stored away. I am not the sort to collect things. Stuff that piles on the shelves or takes up space annoys the crap out of me. In less than a handful of minutes, the internet is working and good to go. I have most of my living area, all of my bedroom, and bathroom, and some of my kitchen put together. I stream some music as I dig through the last box from the living room. I’m not sure why, but I decide to go ahead and look at that poem again. Hell, maybe I will run up to a hobby store and get a frame. It is kind of a neat piece, it even has doodles of some hooded figures around it. After rummaging around, I locate it near the bottom shoved between some art folders. I look at it and frown. There are drawings on it, but this time it is a city skyline that is surrounded by hooded figures. Something else has changed. Maybe my memory isn’t right or perhaps someone is playing a joke on me. But the more I try to rationalize it, the more concerned I become. My parents aren’t the joking sort, especially my mother. Why would they have pulled it out of the box at all? Neither of them would have done that. Despite all that, it isn’t the strangest part. The number at the top of the paper has changed from 14 to 12. It has been exactly two days since I looked at it. The color drains from my face. Were the numbers a sort of countdown? More importantly, a countdown to what? I turn the paper over in my hands, looking from the back to the front. There is no other information on it, no date, just the same words. The skyline looks familiar to me, but I can’t quite place where I have seen it. I pull out my phone and snap a few pictures. Maybe I can search it up online later.

#

I frown at the screen, shift in my seat, and then zoom in on my character. It is my first design for a new game that is still in the planning stages. They have trusted me to come up with the side character designs. I am insanely happy at my role here as it is, but this is going to be a major release game and I get to be a part of it. Me. It really is too good to be true. My first character, to my amazement, is approved and I am adding the finishing touches on her shirt and jeans. I add a patch, remove it, and then add it again. I decide the cute little hooded emblem will work with the dystopian theme and give it a little bit of a punk edge. I grin as I turn on the final layer. She looks badass, and not overly complicated which means other artists could duplicate the style in the department. I click save and get up from my desk to stretch. I look down and blink a few times. I can’t believe it. Have I really been here for twelve hours? A quick peek out at the office confirms it. Everyone has gone except me, the building is completely dark. My mind shifts to the letter and I wonder if the numbers will change again and what, if anything, they actually mean. I push the down arrow on the elevator when I notice a light flickering in one of the cubicles. I guess I am not here alone, one of the other artists must be staying late as well. It is near the back and toward the middle of the isle. The sporadic light patterns remind me of gameplay on a computer, like a shooter or something with fast movements. We don’t have lamps so it must be coming from a monitor. I smirk and turn back to the elevator. Someone is probably just chilling and playing games.

I tap my foot impatiently, it has been a while since I pushed the button. I press it again thinking that maybe someone else had gotten on and it canceled my call for it to come up. The golden ring lights up and I watch as it shows that it is making its way up. A loud bang erupts behind me. I spin around, expecting to see that maybe someone has knocked something over. Instead, I am greeted with complete and total darkness. I panic and freeze in place, not even daring to breathe. Ok, I reason, maybe the lights are on automatic timers. Suddenly there is a flash and then a flickering light toward the back of the office. This isn’t like before, it is the only light coming from the entire space. Even the emergency back-up lights aren’t on. I turn toward the button, fumbling my way in the darkness to find it. Why isn’t the elevator coming up? The light continues its rhythmic pattern, only now there is a loud buzzing sound. Similar to the sound an old florescent bulb makes but amplified tenfold.

My eyes are glued to the light, I am terrified that if I turn away something will get me. The hairs on my arms stand on end and I struggle to breathe. There is a whoosh, and then a sigh as a low groan sounds in the darkness. I can feel Its presence. It is waiting there just beyond the light. I am not sure how I know this, but it is a fact. I am not alone. I squint my eyes and can barely see the outline of a dark, hooded figure. Its presence is full of hate, it wants to hurt me in unimaginable ways. As soon as I am aware of Its presence, It shows me what it is thinking. The vibration intensifies as I watch myself in vivid detail and all of mankind standing helplessly at the towering mushroom cloud that forms in the city. I watch as my face in the vision goes from shock to absolute horror. The cloud seems so far away but then it is on me in an instant. Bile rises in the back of my throat as I watch myself smile wide─ the skin and tissue blasting against the wall in a large, gory pile. The whole time my grin grows wider. My now half-blasted body crumples to the floor in a loud, wet thud as the roar dissipates giving way to silence.
I squeeze my eyes shut and scream as I slam my hand on the down arrow again and again. The buzzing stops and I opens my eyes. I am shocked to find the lights are back on. The bell sounds behind me and the elevator doors open. I stumble toward the elevator, my legs threatening to give out. I yelp as a pair of hands grip my shoulders.
“Jesus Christ. Kate, are you OK?”

I want to cry at the familiar voice, but then I remember that this is my boss. I glance back at the space but find nothing there. It’s back to the soft lighting that had filled the office before. My lower lip quivers but I manage to straighten myself up. “I’m so sorry,” I stutter, “I─ thought I saw something.” Devon releases my shoulders and takes one of my hands. “What on earth happened to your hand? Are you sure you’re OK? I was just coming back up to check on you and close everything down.” His voice sounds guarded as he looks around the office.
I steady my breathing, convincing myself that I am just tired. It has, after all, been a twelve hour shift and my first week here. I am just stressed out over the new job and moving. I force a smile, “Yeah, I’m fine really. I bumped into something and didn’t realize I cut my hand.” His shoulders relax. He turns my hand over and inspects the jagged wound, “Either way, that’s a nasty cut. You should go get that cleaned out at the very least. You may need stitches.” My face is burning hot and I look at the ground. I must look ridiculous, like a scared little girl in an empty office building that freaked out when she was alone. Which is exactly what happened but I am way too proud to admit that in front of him. It’s bad enough that I realize it.
I manage to nod my head, “I will. It’s just been a long day,” I offer weakly. Devon smiles and clears his throat quickly releasing my hand, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to touch you, I was concerned about your cut and didn’t think about it.” I shake my head and smile, “No, no, it’s fine. I think I probably would have done the same thing.” We stand awkwardly for several moments before he takes a step toward the office. “You mind if I take a look at your progress since we’re here?” My grin grows wide, “Sure. Let me go clean up and I’ll meet you at my desk.”

#

I’m talking a mile a minute as I spin the camera around my imported designs on the character. Devon’s face is a mask, I’m not getting anything from him. Occasionally he nods and murmurs as I explain the textures I used and the designs that can be easily duplicated by the team. When I finish, he’s quiet and we sit for a moment as he stares at it. Finally, he gestures with his hand toward my keyboard, “do you mind if I drive for a second?” I shake my head, “no, go ahead” and I slide my chair over. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he pauses and clicks a few buttons, then grabs the image with the mouse, “but I can tell you aren’t as used to Maya as some of my other guys.” He rounds out a section and then pulls back to take a look. I feel my face grow warm but I smile anyway. “Yeah, I mostly use illustrator and Photoshop with Z-Brush. I learned Maya, but I’ve grown a bit rusty.” He chuckles, “Old school, nice. But, I wasn’t trying to say you aren’t talented, I very much think this is a great start. We’ll go over it with Zedd tomorrow.” We sit in comfortable proximity as he sets up a few hotkeys and changes my settings. Devon is getting really in-depth, so at some point I grab a notebook and start jotting down notes. I’m not sure what impresses me more, the fact that he is taking time out of his day to share his knowledge with me, or that the owner of a game company seems to genuinely care about all his employees. I hear so many nasty rumors from friends that I had prepared myself before I started working here. Devon seems to be a perfect mix of teacher and boss He welcomed me to speak about any issues I was having and pointed out my mistakes in a way that I could learn from them. This is perfect. Neither of us realize how late it is until I get a text from my mother. It’s midnight honey, did your first day go OK? We haven’t heard from you.
I quickly respond to her and let her know that my first day is great and that I am sorry for worrying her. She tells me that it is fine and to get some rest and call her tomorrow.
Devon mentions something about us both getting some rest and that my mother is right. He walks me all the way out to the train station when it dawns on me─ the trains won’t be running this late. I walk over to the schedule just to double check and sag. The last one had run at twelve thirty, I’ve missed it by less than ten minutes. I can walk, I reason, it’s less than three miles. Or, I can Uber. I get a slight thrill as I pull out my phone. I’ve never gotten to use an Uber before, my mom used to drive me everywhere when I couldn’t ride the train.

Devon quickly catches on to the situation and offers me a ride. I’m thankful for the dim light because at this point he has seen me blush enough for an entire lifetime. He insists that it’s fine and we’re on our way in less than five minutes. I’m pleasantly surprised that I get to see what the inside of a Tesla Model 3 looked like. I’ve seen a few on the road, but I have never gotten to sit in one. I’m amazed at how clean everything is, especially considering the white seats. It is so quiet, I can’t get over it.

“So, how are you liking it so far?” Devon says. I grinned like a schoolgirl, “oh, I’m loving it,” I say excitedly, “this car is amazing, I’ve never been in one.” His eyebrows raise and he lets out a surprised chuckle, “Well, I meant at the office but thank you. I’m pretty fond of it too.” I’m again thankful for the darkness as I yell at myself to stop being an idiot. I quickly recover, “you should be more clear about the questions you ask,” I say, shaking my head. We both share a laugh as he pulls up to the stoplight.
“Sorry, let me be clear─ how are you liking everything at the new job?” He turns onto the street and I’m almost sad that we will be to my place in less than a handful of minutes. “It’s hard work, but I knew that going into it.” I pause for a few seconds and wait on him to respond, when he doesn’t, I add “but it’s a great job and I’m very thankful to have it. I’m one of the lucky few that can say I draw for a living.” That gets a smile out of him and I relax a degree.
“I’m glad that you feel that way,” Devon says. He looks out the window and then glances at me, “I meant to ask earlier─ Did you get a look at Zedd’s design already?” I furrow my brow and purse my lips, “At Zedd’s? No, I didn’t. Will mine clash with his?” My heart sinks thinking about all the hours I put in today. Maybe I should have checked in with the team first, I haven’t even thought about it.
“Oh no, nothing like that. I just noticed that you both used a black hoodie design on your characters and had collaborated. Just an odd coincidence I guess” Devon responds. I smile at him despite the growing nausea. “Did he design his today too?” I ask. He nods as we both pull up in front of my place. “Yeah,” he says, “that’s why I thought the two of you had spoken about it.” “Oh,” I say, my awkward smile growing, “how odd. I guess great minds.” Devon smiles at me as I try to shrug it off and reach for the handle, “See you tomorrow Kate.”

It’s not until I get out of the car and wave goodbye that fear starts creeping its way back in. Has Zedd seen them too? I mean, a hooded figure is always related to death. Apocalyptic themes, blah blah─ It could just be that our minds are in sync. I toss my keys on the counter and then plop into my computer chair. I’m grateful that our hours are flexible at work. I am able to work the early eight to five, or take the ten to seven shifts. I’m tempted to go in earlier, but honestly it’s crunch time so it won’t really matter. I wouldn’t have much of an evening left even if I did come in at eight. I decide that second shift will work just fine.

#

When sleep finally comes, it comes in fitful bursts. I can’t purge the image from my mind and it again keeps going back to my skeleton grinning from ear to ear. The horrifying feeling as half of my face dangles by a thread, and the image of hot, blinding light as the boom echoes throughout the city. And It is there watching from the corner. Then all at once I realize─ not just It, but They. There, just in the building next to mine and then another standing below. They’re all staring at me, their dark hoods as black as night. I can feel the joy as they sense my suffering, They’re─ feeding from it. To my horror I can feel more behind me. They are right there. I can’t move and somehow I’m still alive. I feel my bones creak and splinter, sounding as brittle as dead branches snapping from the trees. Searing pokers jam into my belly and my skin drips from my sleeves and then falls to the floor in a sickening wet thump. I reach up and tear at my face wanting the sensation of dangling to stop. I can still see with the eye that now faces the floor and the one that remains in my head. I try and move, but I just fall to the ground. All I can do is lie there, suffering. Jesus.
I can’t take it, I just want to die.
Let me die. I try several times to scream but nothing comes out. Nothing exists but the deafening silence.

#

My eyes try to focus as I stare at the screen. I rub at them and stand for the hundredth time to grab a cup of coffee from the kitchen. I need to get my shit together before I have my first team meeting with Zedd. He had looked over my files and seems happy with the direction I am going. I am a little nervous, this will be the first time I have met the guy. We may work in the same building, but most of us keep to ourselves. I was able to meet the sound team earlier today. Let’s just say I’m envious that they get paid to to record different noises for the game. It looks like a blast watching the actors get into character, or the strange things the guys use to make different sounds. I’m sure they have a sound bank, but Devon has explained that they like to add a little flair to each game. I haven’t gotten to talk with him much today, but he seems just as friendly as he did yesterday. I’m really lucky to be here. That’s why it is imperative that I make the best impression possible. I don’t want to be seen as the newbie that can’t keep up. I even walked myself through the hotkeys and shortcuts Devon showed me last night. In the end, all I have managed to do is stay awake and flesh out a few characters and vehicles. I am feeling pretty shitty when one thirty comes too soon. I need to show an entire group of people some scribbles and color concepts. I sigh heavily as I save it to my G-Drive and trudge over to the kitchen for a last minute pick-me-up.

#

“Wow. Kate, was it?” I nod over at Zedd as he shuffles through my files. He projects them up for the team to see and I feel my face grow hotter than the sun. I keep trying to convince myself that I am ready, but I am completely dying inside at all the attention. I can’t wait for them to move on. “I want you to take a look at something,” he says. I watch the screen as he opens a second folder containing his work and then pulls it into an image viewer next to mine. My jaw drops as I look back and forth between the two. They were in different spots, but our characters have matching hooded tattoos. His is way more clever─ hidden between the character’s knuckles and going halfway up his arm in a badass old-school style reaper. Mine is clearly displayed on my characters back and shoulder that goes up into a reaper hoodie. I have decided against the patch today and went with something a little less obvious. Zedd has caught it right away. “I can take out the flair if it messes with one of the mains,” I offer wanting to be done with it. He looks over at one of the other guys and they both grin. “Are you kidding me? This is great. Honestly, I think we should add her to one of our main crew.” Zedd pauses and then leans in to get a closer look. “Is that a scythe, that converts into a hoverboard?” I blink a few times and then stutter, “yeah─ I guess I got carried away.” The whole team laughs as I pray that I melt into the chair.
“I don’t say these sorts of things lightly,” “he really doesn’t,” one of the other guys interject. That gets another hearty laugh and it’s a few more seconds before Zedd calms them down. “But seriously, I see why Devon hired you. Did you get to see our concepts before you drew yours?” I press my lips together and shake my head side to side. “I probably should have, that would have been smart.” He chuckles. “Well, we can clean it up a little bit with the rest of the team and she’ll fit right in. Missy, I think we got ourselves a new main character.”
I’m mortified at the thought, “Well, no, I mean it’s just some scribbles. We should ask Devon first right?” I’m practically stumbling over every word. The corners of his mouth turn up and there’s an unsettling gleam in his eye. “There’s a reason I’m team lead, Kate. Devon trusts me.” “Oh no, well, I didn’t mean that you aren’t─” words fail me and I’m left speechless at the thought of my new responsibility. This is all too much too soon, but I thank him and smile.
I’m flooded with relief as they move on to the rest of the team. I can’t believe the talent I see and they are all working on backgrounds and side characters. I definitely don’t deserve this. As soon as the meeting ends, I am determined to pull Zedd aside and tell him to put me back on the side characters.
The meeting lasts for just over an hour and we’re all packed up to leave. I make a beeline for Zedd and tried my best to argue that someone else’s work should be used before mine─ especially since they had been there longer. That got me nowhere fast and in the end Zedd stuck to his guns saying that he would supervise me every step of the way. After pouting for all of five minutes and slinking away, it suddenly hits me─ why am I being such a baby about this? Anyone else in my graduating class would have killed to be in this position. I need to suck it up and get over this fear. For once in my life I need to allow myself to believe I am here for a reason. I think back to the comments earlier during our meeting and smile, There’s a reason I’m team lead, Kate. Ok, maybe I am being a little harsh on myself.

#

I chew on my stylus as I sit back and stare at my submission art. I want it to be perfect and I have been messing with Maya all day. I pull her into a standing, and then crouching pose before I decided to send her bent on the hoverboard. Both her hands are sprawled out with flair and I make a quick gif of her pose animation for the opening credits. Technically, it’s a whole other team that does that part, but I want to reveal her with style. Zedd tells me that the social media guys were working on a fun build up to release her as a surprise and asks me to sit in on a quick skype with them today. It feels super awkward at first until one of the dudes and me hit it off on another game we love. I describe in detail about her abilities and we come up with several ability trees in less than an hour. It is going to have to be run through Devon, but Zedd says that the rough draft is looking great and that we are early enough in that adding a fourth lead is no big deal. After what feels like a long, but productive day I stand and stretch. I send out my final draft and copy Devon on it like Zedd had mentioned. I look at my Fitbit and frown, I have barely gotten in three thousand steps today. I am definitely going to the gym tonight, especially after the team meeting donuts. I suddenly feel very aware of how many I’ve eaten. Was it two, three? I shake my head, yep definitely gym time.
“Hey.” I leap at the voice and spin around. It is Zedd, but he looks─ different. His normally well kempt hair is wild and his eyes are rimmed with red. He looks as if he has rolled out of bed from a long night of drinking. And god, he smells.

What is that putrid odor? I try to smile, but my wavering words give me away, “oh, hey Zedd,” I reply, “what’s up?” He staggers toward me, his eyes trained on mine. His arm comes up and he points at me, jabbing in my direction, “you saw them too. Didn’t you?” My eyes grow wide at how angry he sounds. “Saw who?” I ask carefully, edging my way back toward the elevator.
His red, watery eyes bore into mine. He looks as if he will fall over at any moment. His hand stays mid-air but he points in a different direction, “them,” he whispers. I swallow thickly, but remain quiet. Zedd looks over toward the area I had first spotted the creature and nods, “I saw your sketches and it made me curious,” he slurs. Is he drunk?
Then it dawns on me, that is the odor I am smelling, vomit mixed with liquor. “So I went back and reviewed the cameras.” I cover my mouth and shake my head, “oh god, I’m so embarrassed, I was really tired and it had been a long day.” His finger comes up to his mouth and he shakes his head. “I saw how scared you were,” he whispers. I shift uncomfortable at his words. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. 
Before I can say anything, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper. The crinkling sounds loud in the large, open space. “Here,” he growls, “take a look at this.” He thrust his hand toward me and I gingerly take the paper from his hand. “I thought it was just me until I saw your drawing.” I glance up at him confused and then down at the paper.
The hooded figure glares back at me from the sheet, nearly filling the page. There is no denying it─ the dark creature glares back at me. I can feel the entity’s eagerness oozing from the page. The same words are written on his paper. “Where did you get this?” I demand. He blinks in surprise at the shift in my demeanor.
“You’ve seen this before?” He grabs my shoulders and shakes me─ hard. I try to pull away, but he holds on tight. “You have to let me see it. Does yours─ change?” My body grows cold as I realize what he means. The numbers. He releases me as he studies the look on my face. My legs wobble and I can feel the contents of my stomach rising. I don’t want to, but I scan the page all the way down to the bottom. There, in bold print are the neatly typed numbers:

10

#

“I’ll have the number four, well done, with a coffee,” Zedd responds mechanically. I can tell he’s been here a few times. The waitress smiles and calls him by name. I order a muffin and coffee, smiling politely. Zedd has managed to clean himself up. His brown hair is combed back and he smells a little less sour with a hint of mint. He must have swished some mouthwash and washed up in the office bathroom.
As soon as the waitress leaves, Zedd turns his attention to me. He clears his throat, “hey, listen─ sorry I gave you a scare earlier. It’s just, no one else has” he trails off, taking a deep breath. He seems to struggle with his next sentence, “seen what I have. I thought I was going crazy.” I nod sympathetically, “it’s ok. I thought I was just, you know, tired or something. But, how did you know we saw the same thing? I mean, it was just a hooded figure. There’s tons of those around. It’s not exactly original.” He stares at me, quiet for several heartbeats.
“You’ve seen them, right?” his voice is soft, but it’s emotional. I tilt my head to the side, “I saw them, yes. But I only saw more than one when I─” I hesitate. He is the one that brought me here, but suddenly I feel dumb saying it out loud. “That wasn’t a dream. It’s going to happen.” It is my turn to stare at him, “how do you know that?” I ask.

“You asked how I knew we saw the same thing. I know because I felt that same feeling when I looked at your drawing. Plus, check this out” he pulls out his tablet and opens the files back up. It is our drawings sitting side by side. “It took me a while to spot it, but there it was, plain as day.” He taps on the screen and then zooms in on both images. “Do you remember drawing this?” I frown at the screen, squinting to see what he is trying to show me.
At first all I can make out are what appeared to be a bunch of squiggly lines. I look from one character to the other, trying to find some similar pattern or shape. “You can’t spot it yet, can you?” I shake my head, “no, sorry.” He taps on the screen a few times and then desaturates the images. The color drains from my face as he pushes the screen toward me. “How about now?”
Suddenly, I can see them everywhere. Words scrawl across their clothes, skin, making up part of the scythe, on the hoodie, covered in the background repeating over and over again:
No Escape. My stomach is in my throat as I think about the joy that creature felt as the skin slid from my bones and my insides sprayed the walls. How delighted It was to dine on my terror.
“There really is no escape.” Zedd’s voice sounds hollow. “It has to be what that countdown is on our papers.” I don’t know what to say, because there is nothing to say. After several moments of silence, the waitress brings our food. We both thank her, but neither of us touch our plate after she’s gone. 

Where the Silent Ones Lie Part I – A Horror Novella

My gaze shifts to outside as his words drone on. I can see his lips move and hear the deep rumble coming from his chest. I can’t make out what he is saying but it really doesn’t matter─ anything he has to say after tonight would be pointless. I flinch as I feel his hand close over mine to give it a gentle squeeze. I understand that he is just trying to comfort me, but my skin crawls at this small invasion. His words go up at the end, the sounds registering to my brain as a question. I turn and tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear.

“Sorry, what was that?” I ask. I shift myself to face toward him but my eyes are cast downward. I fidget with a straw wrapper focusing on pulling and then pushing it in my hand like a tiny accordion.

He sighs, “I asked if you were ok to drive home.” I offer him a quick smile, waving my hand in front of me, “of course I’ll be fine, Paul. It’s less than twenty minutes from here.” He regards my cool demeanor for a few seconds and then nods. “Alright, well just you know, take care of yourself and call me if you need anything.” My head moves mechanically up and down as I smile. The same smile I use when I want someone to believe that everything is hunky dory in Zen’s world.

A few more words are exchanged between us, I make promises that I don’t intend to keep, and then I stand and leave. There’s no doubt in my mind that Paul is feeling incredibly guilty, so I made sure to lay it on thick. No sense in making him fret for more than a few moments. Besides, it isn’t as if he personally made the decision.

I slide into my car, adjust the mirrors for the hundredth time, and pull out of the tiny parking lot. My car groans in protest as I drive over the familiar dips and bumps. The city has long forgotten these roads. It’s absolute murder on my 2001 Honda Civic. I’ve had great luck over the years, only needing to replace the main belt, spark plugs, light bulbs, and just recently, a new radiator. Thank god for the internet, I would have been out of a car for months if I had to have someone else repair it. I pull up to the main road and plug in my phone. No one would be pulling up behind me at this hour. By now I am normally rolling the pastry dough and prepping them for the long day ahead. My chest tightens and I feel my throat constrict. I fight the urge to keep everything down. I breathe, focusing on the air that exits and then fills my lungs. After several seconds I manage to calm down and draw one more deep breath.

I tap the screen on my phone and bring up my favorite playlist. I skip past the first few songs before settling on a metal band with a seriously awesome female vocalist. Her range goes from angelic high pitches to low, raspy growls─ she is definitely something special. I close my eyes as the beginning chords fill my car, her voice a silvery whisper brushing against my ear.

This time,

This time,

This time─ I’m really saying goodbye.

I’ve survived this long with one hell of a fight,

Clawed my way through the trenches,

You carved out of our lives.

Never-ending climb

to the other side

While you watched from above

Hoping that we would die.

Well watch this.

The car roars to life as I pull out onto the main road, the windows rolled down. The combination of cool air and heavy guitar rifts sends my heart soaring and for the remainder of the drive my troubles fly away.

*

The well-lit parking lot is a welcome sight as I pull into my normal spot by the light post. I am a few hours early so no one will be here yet. I reach down and grab the neatly packed bag in the back seat. As soon as I get inside the store, I make the rounds turning on the music, coffee machine, and re-stocking the fridges.

After all of the morning duties are taken care of I walk to the front and scan the parking lot. No one is here yet so I quickly cut off the lights and walk back to the lockers. Beth had a habit of getting here early but normally no more than thirty minutes. The handicapped stall is calling my name─ it has it’s own closed off room. I shut the door behind me, set my things on the chair, and then slide to the floor. I draw my legs in close, wrapping my arms around them and then rest my forehead on my knees.

It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK. I chant silently. Except it isn’t. I’m prolonging the inevitable pile of shit that is suspended above my head waiting to come crashing down on me. How long will I have this time? What’s going to happen when I have to skip on rent─ again. Andrea is extremely lenient and knows my situation, but that can only go so far with anyone. I have a sneaking suspicion that she isn’t charging me what she is charging the other tenants. I’m surprised that she already hasn’t put a notice to vacate on my door. I’m already behind by at least six weeks and now this. I will be respectful and go tell her today about the situation. I’m going to have to ask for a week or so to move all of my things and hope that she will be kind enough to let me. The bakery has been having problems and I knew it but with only me and one other employee on each shift I was hopeful that I could stay there longer. I squeeze my eyes shut then gently massage the bridge of my nose.

I try again to repeat the phrase a few more times until I convince myself, for the moment, that it’s true. I stand on two shaky legs and then turn the shower on full blast. I rotate the nozzle almost all the way to the left, cranking it up as hot as I can stand it. No matter how hot it is I still can’t shake the chill in my bones. My teeth chatter as I rub my body vigorously with soap.

My mind wanders to the inevitable and I sink into myself allowing a little of the truth to come through─ I have nothing left. My chest tightens and I struggle with my thoughts, trying to shove them down. It won’t help to think like this, I need to focus on work or whatever else gets me out of this mental hell. I’ll just go apply to every place I can think today and early tomorrow morning. I pause for a moment thinking on what day tomorrow is. Thursday I remind myself, Thursday is your day off. I’m torn between asking for more hours or just using a full day applying everywhere I can. Most places want you to fill them out online but with how things work now an algorithm sends your application to HR and you have to know what to add to it. I am horrible at filling out the damn things but maybe I can search up some templates and fill them out at the library.

I’m drying off when all of a sudden a huge boom resounds across the floor. My hands shoot out but only manage to slide across the slick walls. My teeth slam together so hard I’m sure they are going to break. Searing pain jolts from my elbows and knees and then runs through the extent of my body. Everything hurts but it doesn’t stop me from quickly shifting myself into a fetal position. The floor undulates beneath me, and I stare in wonder at the small blocky tiles rippling seamlessly like water. Is this what an earthquake is like? Finally, the ground stills. I lay holding my breath for several seconds not sure if it is safe to move. I let all of the air escape from my lungs, then draw in a deep breath. Reassured that nothing else is coming, I slowly pull myself from the floor and on my feet. Cautiously, I peek out from the shower into the main workout area. Nothing is out of place or broken and there is no sign of damage that I can see from here. I glance up at the clock and frown, it is almost time for Beth to get here. The last thing I need is her wondering why I’m taking a shower here. Then again, I could always explain that I came in early to work out. I think Beth may be onto my situation or have her suspicions so I decide not to chance it.

After getting dressed and making myself look presentable I stuff my bag into a locker and walk to the front. I’m almost through opening the registers when the beep sounds. Beth walks in and smiles, “hey Z- you’re here early, did your shift end sooner today?” I smile and nod, “yes it did. I think Paul could sense that I am running on fumes.” Her eyes take on a concerned look and she places a hand over mine. “You have looked pretty exhausted lately. Everything alright, hun?”

Beth is the only person that I don’t mind touching me. She really is a sweetheart and I almost feel guilty for lying to her, “oh, nothing I haven’t handled before.” I place my other hand on top of hers and gently squeeze before adding, “I really appreciate it though.” She smiles at me and then reaches for something from her bag, “alright sweetie, well anyway, I brought you some of my homemade biscuits and jam.” I perk up, grinning from ear to ear. “Did you really?” I’m practically radiant, clapping my hands together. “You spoil me too much, I’m going to put on so much weight if you don’t stop!” She raises an eyebrow and purses her lips as she gives me a quick once-over “From the state of you I’d say you need it. You can’t be more than a hundred pounds soaking wet.” She’s just about nailed it. I laugh it off “oh, I just forget to eat half the time I’ve got so much going on.” She shakes her head, “well you get some food in you, I don’t want to have to wheel you out of here on a stretcher after you pass out from hunger.” She’s only half joking and I know it. I clear my throat and start over, making sure that I count all of the one’s correctly. Beth turns back toward the locker room, leaving her offering on the counter.

Something occurs to me and I call back to her, “Hey, Beth?” She spins back around smiling, “what’s up sweetie?” I pause for a minute, trying to form a cohesive sentence. “Have you had any crazy earthquakes, or really hard vibrations when you’re up here?” She cracks a smile at me and cocks an eyebrow, “hun, I haven’t had any hard vibrations like that since Obama was in office.” She sighs and shakes her head, “man I need to get laid.” We both laugh and I feel a little better, Beth has that sort of effect on me. “My sad dating life aside, no I haven’t had anything like that happen here. Did something happen this morning?” I nod, “Yeah it was really strange, like the whole earth just shifted. You didn’t feel anything driving in this morning?” She purses her lips and tilts her head, “no sweetheart, I sure didn’t.”

The uneasiness creeps back in but I shrug, “guess it might have been an earthquake or something.” Beth nods, “yeah that or the new construction up the road. I think they’re pounding in some large beams for the foundation.” She pauses and then smiles wickedly, “wish someone would pound me like that.” I shake my head, “you’re awful!” Her grin widens, “hey, you must feel it too─ I have literally never seen you take time off and no mention of a boyfriend,” then she adds quickly, “or girlfriend whichever floats your boat.”

I shake my head, “go back to work pervert.” She laughs and turns back toward the office. I glance over at the food Beth brought and sigh. My mouth waters and it takes everything in me not to scoop them up and devour them right then and there. I know how that will look to her and I can’t stand the thought of making her worry. She has enough on her plate as it is. I don’t know how she manages to put on a happy face every day and be such an uplifting person. Her daughter and son passed away just last year on their way home from Thanksgiving. Beth once admitted to me that she felt at least partially responsible insisting that they rideshare with their cousins. It was just one of those freak accidents, a literal once in a million chance. They had all just made it into the city and decided to pickup food downtown. Sandra and David, Beth’s children, and Grace, the younger of the two cousins, had decided to stay in the car while Grace’s older brother, John went in to pick up their order.

The next thing he knew there was a deafening crash from outside. It took John a long time to talk about it but after getting over the shock, he had described in great detail what had happened. Apparently a man desperate to end his life had chosen that exact moment to leap from the top of the hotel. It still gets my blood boiling, how can someone be so selfish? I mean, taking your own life is one thing─ but to snuff out another’s without a thought is reprehensible. I still can’t believe Sandra is gone. Beth’s daughter was something special, just as kind and caring as her mother. That girl was going places, she was done with high school by fifteen and working on her masters in neurology. She would have started med school next year. While David might not have been the ideal son and sometimes him and Beth didn’t get along, he did love his mother very much. He wasn’t as ambitious as Sandra but he did just get his first office job and in less than a year got promoted to assistant manager. They both were very dedicated workers─ something Beth had drilled into them for years.

I wipe the registers and counters down with strong cleaner. Normally the people that closed were young and never bothered to clean. With the virus nearly shutting down all of the gyms around town, we really couldn’t afford to get sued over uncleanliness. These damn kids think they’re invincible and have a clear lack of motivation to do anything. I once opened up to find someone hadn’t even removed the cash from the registers. I suppose I could understand though, the pay here is abysmal. I look up and realize it’s less than five minutes until open. I rush to the office, lock up the cash, lock the door, and run back to the front.

Our usual is out front and waves at me as I unlock the door. He smiles at me as I let him by. “Hey Chris, how’s your morning?” He returns the favor opening the second set of doors. His face is comforting as always, I can’t help but relax near him. His deep timber washes over me, “always better to see your shining faces. You and Beth are awesome, always open on time.” I chuckle as he strides to the men’s locker room. “What can I say, you keep some normalcy to my days. I like to think I do the same for you.” He gives me a thumbs up and disappears around the corner.

The first part of the day went by a little slow it was one of those days that there were a steady stream of people but not enough to keep my head completely focused on work. I frown looking over at the clock, come on lunch rush I plead silently. I look outside and sigh heavily, the sky is an angry shade of grey. It meant that we would slow down quite a bit, it didn’t always mean that but today was fairly chilly. I suspect it will last until the rain takes a breather. Probably until I leave, I think bitterly. I frown and walk over to the cleaning closet to grab some disinfecting wipes. I might as well make use of my free time. Beth steps out of the office and smiles, “you going to wipe down the machines honey?” I nod as I pull out a set of gloves, “yes ma’am. Figured I should make good use out of my time.” She grinned and patted me on the shoulder, “girl, can you please clone yourself? Or at least light a fire under all these kids asses.” I chuckle and shake my head, “you remember what it was like working your first few jobs, right? It’s hard to care making minimum wage.” She places her hands on her hips in mock outrage, “why, miss Z, it’s as if you are suggesting we don’t make a livable wage here!” she clicks her tongue and shakes her head. I smile shaking my own head, “oh I know it isn’t your fault Beth, you already pay me more than I know they would like you to.” She groaned, “hun, if it were up to me you would be salary with full benefits, no over-time.” She smiles and I notice her eyes dart from me to the floor. I laugh nervously and pat Beth on the shoulder, “oh I’m just teasing, we both know how Taylor can’t go without her latte and Justin, bless his heart, would be lost without his Tesla and three thousand dollar shoes.” We both burst out laughing as I turn toward the machines. I wave my hand to shoo Beth away, “you go relax, I know you are up to your eyeballs in budgets, schedules, and whatever other ridiculous tasks Taylor has you doing.” She sighs rolling her eyes, “yeah and speaking of which watch your ass, she’s on another one of her rampages. We were down by six percent last month and she’s flipping her shit trying to find a way to cut back on expenses.” I frown over at her “you can offer to cut my hours if you need to I don’t want you having to deal with the queen-of-bitches if you can avoid it.” She lets out a deep breath, “don’t you worry about me sweetie, I’ll lay off one of these lazy brats if I need to. But, unfortunately you won’t be able to work doubles for a few days, possibly a week or two.” My chest tightens, “oh” I say unable to come up with anything else. My mind’s racing but I manage to smile, “no worries. I’ll see if I can’t pick up a few more shifts at the bakery.” I flinch inwardly at the lie. Beth looks at the ground again unable to meet my eyes. “If it makes you feel any better she wanted me to cut more but I managed to talk her into cutting several of the brats hours instead.” I grin wickedly at her, “does this mean I get real breaks?” She snorts and walks back to the office calling out, “don’t press your luck kiddo.” I release a long breath of air not realizing that I have been holding it in. I really am lucky to have someone like her around.

I am supposed to work a double today but that’s gone out the window. Shit, I won’t get pay from the bakery until the end of the week. At least last week I was able to work a few double shifts so pay should be decent enough to make ends meet. At least for gas, food, electricity and water. Rent is another story. I pause and then do the math in my head─ holiday pay! I should actually be able to pay rent. I’d completely forgotten that last week was thanksgiving. Whether that’s enough to keep my place, I don’t know. At least I can try. The end of my shift comes way too fast and I dread every step out to my car.

#

Andrea peers over at me from across the table, she’s quiet but her face has hardened. I’m shifting nervously, waiting to hear what she has to say. I know that look and this isn’t going to end well. Unable to hold it in any longer, I break the silence, “I understand Andrea, I don’t expect a miracle. Can you please give me one week to get all of my things moved out and clean the place up?” I’m getting more worried by the second as she looks me up and down. Her arms cross in front of her and she sighs, “well, at least you were honest with me. To be frank, that space has been paid off for quite some time.” She picks up her cup of coffee and takes a long sip. “You know I try and be as forgiving as I can for you because I know about your situation. Tough having to work two jobs and barely make ends meet, been there a few times in my life.” She takes another sip and then gently sets the mug back on the table. “Listen, hun, I know how things can get, especially right now─ but I’m in the same boat with many other tenants. With the pandemic and job losses, I’ve got more than a few properties we’re going to have to take legal action against the tenants.” She shakes her head, “it really is a shame what has happened to them but now that the government has lifted the restrictions on rental properties, I have got to start getting paying tenants in here. I’m already starting to dip into my savings just to stay afloat.” I fidget with my hands, unsure of what to do with them.

My voice cracks as I respond, “no, really I understand. I’m so sorry that I’ve been behind and I know at the end of this month it will be two months.” My eyes start to burn but I take a couple of deep breaths and try and fight back tears. Renters have heard every sob story in the book, mine will just come off as manipulative. “After holiday pay this past week, I can go ahead and give you this month’s rent. If I’m able to get out of the lease and have a week to get everything ready, I can be out of your hair by beginning of next month.” She’s still quiet so I add nervously, “and I can have it all cleaned and tidy for anyone that you may need to show the space to.” Andrea regards me for a few more seconds and then nods. “Alright, but I need the space to be spotless and you have to be ready to leave if someone is coming by.” My shoulders sag and I can breathe again. “Thank you so much Andrea, I really appreciate it.” I fish out the envelope with my money and hand it over reluctantly. I planned on keeping a bit for food but having a warm bed for a week sounded much better. I’d be able to have plenty of water and some snacks at the gym. She takes the crisp envelope, counts the contents and then crosses over to her computer. The gentle sound of her nails hitting the keyboard somewhat settles me as I wait patiently for my receipt.

Her delicate flowery perfume contrasts her firm, business-like personality. It makes me wonder if there is a hidden feminine side to her. Even though her words are kind, there is a ‘don’t fuck with me’ vibe behind her fierce green eyes. I respect the hell out of her for it, you have to have a stiff upper lip to own properties. I have a theory that she can sense a lie from a hundred feet away, maybe more. “Alright, so I’m not going to charge you for the last few remaining months of rent owed. I just need you to sign this agreement that you will be moved out by─” she looks at her watch, “December thirtieth.” I take the paper from her, initial all of the marked sections, and then sign my name. “No problem,” I say double checking that I had filled everything in, “I’ll hand in the keys the day before so your guys can look it over for move-in ready.” My hands are shaking something fierce as I quickly hand the paper back to her. I’m practically burning a hole through her table with my eyes as she glances through my signed copy. “Thanks again for being so honest with me and saving me the time of going through all the legal motions,” she says softly and then adds, “It really does mean a lot to me.” My knuckles are squeezed together so tightly that all the color has completely drained from them. I know that my voice will betray me if I respond so I choose instead to smile and nod.

After several seconds of awkward silence it dawns on me that we are done talking. “Anyway,” I say, “on a personal note, thanks for being a kind person and putting up with me. On a business note, I’ll hold up my end of the bargain and hopefully you can get someone placed there soon. I’ll check around and see if anyone trustworthy I know needs a place.” Feeling better I reach out my hand to shake before realizing I shouldn’t and quickly withdraw it. “Sorry,” I say, “force of habit.” She laughs despite the situation, “I do the same thing all the time. It takes quite a bit of getting used to.” This is the first time I have heard Andrea laugh. It somehow warms my heart hearing it. I’m almost to the door when I hear Andrea call out, “hey, Zen?” I freeze and then turn toward her, “hmm?” Her face softens, “All things aside, I hope things do get better. Just, take care OK?” I’m on the brink of losing it, but manage to whisper a thank you. I wave and smile again before stepping out into the rain. My place isn’t too far from the main office so I opted to walk. The cool wind and wetness on my face and hair helps clear my mind. I have a lot to think about, even more to take care of, and a week to make it all happen.