He’d stapled the Patterson report improperly. This his boss tells him in a two-minute dressing down at his cubicle. It isn’t shouting but it isn’t been quiet either. He concedes that yes, it is his biggest client load, if there’s one client to pay attention to it’s that one. He promises never to slack again. One time he’d been a nineteen-year-old. ‘You’re damned right it won’t,’ his boss concludes, stray locks falling from her bob, fanning her forehead into slices. He’d been nineteen with a hundred dollars, or less, in his pocket. Ansell had promised to run away with him. His boss closes her door. She never closes her door unless incurably pissed.
He remembers Ansell as he works the staples out of their incorrect corners. Remembers the brine of his lips, the buckshot freckles between his shoulder blades. They’d make it to the city, they promised to one another. Starve as artists, live forever in the lines of poems and frames of short films. One midnight he parked down the road from where Ansell lived with his parents, as they’d arranged, only Ansell wasn’t there. All the lights off. ‘Eh, it coulda been worse,’ a co-worker confides over the cubicle wall. He’d thrown pebbles at Ansell’s window. ‘A lot worse.’ Tck tck tck. One after another, bounding off the glass. Ansell will open his window, he thought to himself, rooting for more stones in the wet grass. He’ll help me escape. In the break room the coffee pot refuses to turn on. A tightness blooms in his chest.
We’re all of us oceans, kaleidoscopic shells beneath our surface, our depths populated with blind terrors scrabbling over shipwrecks.
And then there was Shay, who took sugar packets from the dispensers at dinner and tore the paper into tiny strips. She bent her soup spoon backwards. She promised me that no matter what, she would be gone by the morning. She asked if that excited me and I said I didn’t know. She asked if it terrified me, and again I wasn’t sure. Maybe she wanted me to be sad at the prospect. Her laugh was bright and so obviously fake that I wanted to stop with the jokes, but how else are you supposed to have a good time?
I offered wine and she took whiskey. By midnight she’d dragged me into my own bed and had me wriggling and shirtless before asking if this was what I wanted. I breathed Yes in a handful of dust.
Only she paused and reminded me that she would leave before dawn. Nails curled and black hesitated on my chest, the thumbs torqued backwards. I told her that that would make me sad, very much so, and I might as well have been laughing with her voice.
'I think it's time to sleep now.' Her voice low, chirruping.
'Not yet. Just a little more time.'
'You'll always want a little more time.'
I woke lightly hungover and tasting iron in the back of my throat. In bed beside me, Shay’s clothes slumped deflated, empty. A baker’s dozen of sparrows flitted about the opposite end of the room. They hopped along my bookshelves and questioned one another in their sparrowspeak. I opened a window with one hand and covered my nakedness with the other, shooing the birds into the frozen morning. All but one took wing, the holdout flitting onto the windowsill. It squeaked once, twice. A third time, high and bright, fake the way a photograph is fake. A featureless simulacrum of the actual.
Then it too turned and sped off, laughing all the while.