The coffee cup shattered on the kitchen tiles, shards exploding to all corners of the room. The thick black liquid turned amber on the sand-coloured floor, an elegant splat that moulded itself into something like a crescent moon.
Alastair stood there for a moment, bemused. This had never happened before. Oh he had knocked a cup or two off a counter in his time, even an antique vase once, which was memorable for all the wrong reasons, but nothing like this. He had lifted it from under the coffee machine and then it just … fell. He hadn’t even felt it slip from his grip. It was as if it had slipped through his hand entirely.
He ran a hand through his bedraggled chestnut hair and scratched at his silver-flecked stubble. It was too early for this. And he was suddenly just that little bit too warm, enough that the collar of his shirt felt tight and uncomfortable, even though it was supposed to be a relaxed fit. He pulled it away from his skin for a few seconds, letting some of the chill morning air in under the fabric. It helped, a little. I must be coming down with something, he thought. His throat felt a bit raw.
No wonder with all the stress I’m under. The eviction notice had come in three days ago – or was it a week? – and life had been a blur since then. He had sixty, maybe seventy dollars of a cushion in his account and barely half a deposit in savings. He was dead to his family for walking out of their religious commune up in the mountains, and while he had escaped the rapes and the beatings of the others the scars from his life there made it impossible to let anybody in.
He choked down the emptiness he had felt ever since getting to the city. The walls began to close in as his heart pounded, each beat bringing the walls a little closer. They were just about to crush him when the alarm on his phone went off, snapping him back to reality. If he didn’t leave in the next ten minutes he would be late, and that would mean another write-up.
Sighing, he delicately stepped between pieces of jagged ceramic, cursing himself for not having put socks on yet despite being fully dressed otherwise. Sweeping up most of the mess didn’t take long – his apartment wasn’t particularly large to begin with – but he still winced occasionally as almost invisible little shards dug into his heel or toes. The brush caught the edge of the spilled coffee, sweeping it into a ragged-tooth smile. He amused himself for a few moments drawing images on the floor, as if he was some great Chinese calligrapher of old. But far too quickly the art was gone, and the tiles were clean again.
Rolling socks up to his calves and slipping on well worn moccasins, he went to pluck his coat from the hangar but missed. True, he hadn’t been looking right at it but he had done this hundreds of times before. Every day was exactly the same, or so it seemed. He had the intense, jarring feeling of deja vu, despite being certain he had never dropped a coffee cup before. And then the feeling passed as quickly as it had arrived, and he reached for his coat. Only he couldn’t quite grasp it, for some reason. His fingers could not get purchase on the fabric, which was rough to the touch. Putting it all down to a lack of sleep, or a lack of food, he concentrated and this time easily lifted the coat off the hook and onto himself in one, fluid movement.
He drew the bolt and opened the door, but stopped as he heard a dull sort of rumbling, like sounds heard while under water. They were voices and seemed to be in conversation, one definitely a man and one definitely a woman, with a third he couldn’t place. Words swam into focus occasionally – “unexpectedly – single man, yes, no pets – very sad, I know, I know – no discount, I’m afraid” – and then he shook his head and the sounds went away. A quirk of the pipes maybe, or a hole in the ceiling. He had never really gotten to know the people on his floor, let alone in the rest of the building, but he hadn’t realised there was another man living alone.
Either way the noise was gone now, so he hustled out the door and to the subway, catching his train by seconds and getting to the office a few minutes early. Nobody seemed to notice. Nobody ever seemed to notice him, he thought, and that gaping maw of hopelessness opened until he could shut it tight for just another while longer. He worked in the basement level, in one of a warren of ad hoc offices. There was nothing exciting about logging error reports in a giant shared database he knew was seldom looked at, but the job had escaped a wave of automation by going under the radar and Alastair wasn’t about to rock the boat.
Not for the first time, as he meandered his way through the corridors, he wished he could get away with hiding in one of the storage rooms, but he knew that while the place was used infrequently the whole building had been fitted with cameras and sensors ultra sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. They must have been installed quickly some night recently when he wasn’t paying attention. His office didn’t have them, forgotten like himself, but he knew he would be found in a day.
Signing in to the terminal just about on time – the timestamps were automatically recorded, saved on another database somewhere, and an alert sent to HR if too many late entries were logged – he flicked on the little percolator he had smuggled in and sat in a decaying office chair that was at least two decades old. “Jesus wept,” he said softly, as he looked around. His desk was there as normal, but somebody had lumped in extra boxes and a pile of plastic chairs were stacked in one corner, making an already cramped space claustrophobic.
Muttering a quiet profanity, his fingers glided over the keyboard as he made a start on the stack of bug reports in his inbox. They still went to the accounts of five people, but four of them, including his manager, had been laid off six months ago. Alastair had been waiting for his pink slip, but it never came, so he kept on keeping on.
The lights waxed and waned, an intense buzzing that filled his ears even as he had to squeeze his eyes shut to keep out the pain. They settled into a rhythm then, like sunrise and sunset, and that watery rumble followed him everywhere. For a few seconds he could have sworn that people were coming in and out of the door, but blurred as if in extreme fast forward. The tips of his fingers went numb as he typed, though he was still hitting keys. He was overcome with the feeling that he had forgotten something very important, and his stomach tied in knots as he was gripped with the very concrete sensation of being irretrievably trapped. He fought it all away even as his eyes were drawn upward to the ceiling fan. Just how strong was it anyway?
The lights died and it took him a few seconds to realise what had happened. The door opened, spilling sickly yellow from the corridor outside. A slim red-headed woman came in, followed by a squat balding man. They kept the door open and she was clearly looking for something.
“This room just creeps me out,” the man whispered. “Doesn’t it creep you out?”
“Well, after what happened, yeah. I mean, they didn’t even clean it out. Like, what the hell? It still has one of those old ceiling fans. I don’t spend any more time in here than I have to. Oh look, there it is,” she reached for a box a full arm’s length from the door and managed to scoop the handle with one hand, swinging it toward her easily until she could get a secondhand under it.
“Thank Christ. C’mon, let me lock it up again,” said the man, who Alastair vaguely recognised from the legal department. The door shut, a lock clicked, and the lights came back on. Alastair sat there, confused and with another dose of deja vu making his head swim. He had the impossible sensation that a great deal of time had passed, not just hours but days, maybe years. The sense of rising panic and claustrophobia returned, quietly at first and then in a blaze. He tugged at his collar as he sweated incessantly, convinced more than ever that he was coming down with some sort of throat infection because of how painful and congested he felt. Strep throat? Tonsil stones?
Whatever it was if it didn’t pass soon he couldn’t afford to get it dealt with.
When he got back to his apartment, some time after nightfall, things had been moved around. Small things, it seemed to him, like a closet door open when he had shut it, a knifeblock on the other side of the kitchen. Almost as soon as he had noticed these he was struck by that watery sound again, though now the voices seemed to be closer, almost in his face at times. The room grew hazy and an oblong shape drifted in front of him, flickering like white noise. Some of the sounds seemed to be coming from it, and it floated from the main living room toward the kitchen space. Individual words punched through the static. “Creepy – weird vibe – all we can afford?” From the bedroom came an answer, again through a wall of static. “Best we could – keep looking – what was that?”
Alastair’s stomach pitched and rolled as a second oblong shape passed through him on its way to meet the first voice by the stove.
“What was what?”
“Just then, you don’t get that cold?”
“The apartment doesn’t have aircon, Jerry, I don’t know why I let you talk me into living here.”
“Like I said it’s only for now. But here, right here” – and the oblong shape grew what could have been an arm and swept it through where Alastair was transfixed in terror – “it’s so cold.”
The first shape crossed the room again and also extended an arm. “My God, what the hell sort
of place is this? Why couldn’t we just ask your parents like I said a month ago.”
“Ah, you know how they are–”
And then the voices cut out, the static died away, and the room returned to normal, with everything where it should be. Alastair was too numb to think but stumbled his way toward the bathroom, realising suddenly that he was on the verge of hysterical tears. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, pale and washed out, and the hysterical tears turned to hysterical screaming at the sight of a thick black weal all around his neck.
He was back in the office. How much time had passed? How had he got here? He was being eaten alive from the inside out by an intense feeling of loss and despair. A mug of coffee was steaming on the desk though he had no memory of making it. Perhaps he had never left the office and had fallen asleep there in the middle of his working day, dreaming of a return to an apartment that was his but wasn’t his at the same time. He found himself staring at the ceiling fan again, and thoughts floating through his mind that didn’t feel like his own. Desk too high, chair would be better. Make it quick. What did that even mean?
He felt like he was being split in two. It was more than a headache or a migraine, it was like his very essence was being torn asunder. He floated outside of himself, watching his body work and move without his control while inhabiting the same space as he did. It was horrifyingly disjointing, as if his soul and mind were under the control of some other entity. But while he could not control it he could absolutely feel it. Wave after wave of the most terrifying despair, with the depth of an abyss that could never be filled. And utter hopelessness.
He had left a scarf on the back of the door during the bleak midwinter. He had picked it up for almost nothing but it had been uncomfortable to wear so he had left it behind that day. It would be able to serve a purpose now. Moving without any will of his own, trying to resist without success, he got up from his desk and walked toward the door, apprehensively. Yes, he heard himself think. That’ll do. He, or his avatar, pushed the desk away and pulled the chair underneath the fan, which was beating slowly in contrast to his hammering heart. He pulled the cord and it coasted to a halt.
He stood on the chair and swung the scarf over what looked like the strongest part. And if it broke, well, maybe that was going to be God telling him to go on living. He looped the scarf around his neck, knotted it, and pushed the chair back. The knot held and he groaned at the sudden weight and pressure in his head. His neck hadn’t broken. That wasn’t how he wanted it to happen. He wanted it quick, not this. But as he swung very gently, he began to fight. This was a mistake. He didn’t want to go. He tried to flick his foot at the chair, to drag it over toward him somehow but it had shifted as he stood up and it was agonisingly out of reach.
Not like this.
I don’t want to go, he thought, scrabbling at the noose around his neck. He clawed at it, as viciously as he could, but he couldn’t get it undone or even tear it slightly. And little by little over seconds that seemed like infinity, he realised he couldn’t feel the tips of his fingers eve as he knew they were pulling and picking at the rope. The nothingness crept up his fingers quickly, then to his hands, and steadily everything shut down and went black. Not again, he thought. Why can’t it be different this time
The last thing he remembered was the smell of coffee from the mug on his desk.
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David O’Mahony (he/him) is an experienced copy editor and newspaper designer from Cork, Ireland, whose first love is writing. He specialises in horror and ghost stories but is interested in everything from Gothic fiction to science fiction. He has worked in Ireland and the Arabian Gulf, has been a tutor at university, has written opinion pieces for the Irish Examiner on history-related topics, and holds a PhD in history.