I leapt onto the train just as the doors were closing. I heard a voice crackle from one of the speakers.
“Red Line train. Next stop Greenville,” it said in a flat, computerized tone.
I took a moment to catch my breath before taking my favorite seat, the one right by the entrance.
Usually the train was empty when I took my trip to work, but today there was a man sitting across from me. He had a newspaper pulled over his face, and I got the impression that he wasn’t actually reading it.
I let out a long sigh and leaned my head back against the windowsill. I always found that relaxing, even if the ledge was cold and hard and jutted into my neck.
The train jolted to a stop and the doors opened. The station outside was quiet and bare, except for the soft rustling of trash along the streets. Occasionally a car would zip by, and I would stare longingly after it, hoping by some miracle it would stop, turn around, and let me on.
I tried to fix my eyes on the ground, but they kept wandering around the car. After a few minutes, I began to notice something.
It was the man across from me, the one with the newspaper. Every few seconds he would peer above it to glance at me, then every time I would look at him, he would pop his head back under.
I wasn’t bothered at first. But after five minutes had gone by, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Stop staring at me,” I said, sitting up in my chair.
The man didn’t respond at first. There was a silence, and he slowly put his newspaper down, revealing scruffy, brown hair and light blue eyes. He looked around, as if there was some other person on the train I could possibly be addressing. After a few seconds, he cleared his throat and replied, “Sorry?”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You’ve been doing nothing but peer over that newspaper for this entire ride. So what, are you hitting on me?”
His lips curled into a smile. “Why? Is it working?”
I rolled my eyes. He was one of those guys. “Just quit it, okay?” I leaned my head back again.
Even though I couldn’t see him, I knew he was still looking at me. I could almost feel his gaze, as if it was melting through my skull. I groaned and opened my eyes. “Look, I’m not interested,” I said stiffly.
The man eyed me curiously. “How old are you?”
“How old are you?” he repeated.
“I’m sorry, uh…strange man on the train, but if you think I go around picking up random guys, then you’re mistaken, so just leave me alone.”
“Jeez,” he muttered. “I was only asking your age. For all you know, I could be a movie scout, or a business manager.”
I laughed. “Well, I don’t know what movie you’re recruiting me for, but I can tell you for certain that if you’re directing, I don’t want to be in it.”
The man smirked and raised his eyebrows, which is probably the most annoying expression a guy can make. “You are cold. What, are you on your way to a boring job or something?”
I frowned. There was no way I was telling this guy where I worked. “No,” I said.
He hesitated for a moment, his brow furrowed. “I see. So what is it then? Did you skip breakfast? Get up on the wrong side of the bed? Watch that one Batman movie directed by Joel Schumacher? If it’s that last one, I totally sympathize—”
The train turned abruptly and we sped into a tunnel. I squinted as my ears popped in and out.
After a few seconds, we appeared in the station, and began to slow.
“This is my stop,” I announced, standing up.
The man grinned and crossed his legs. “Good. I had a feeling you were starting to get annoyed with me.”
I chuckled indignantly and smoothed out the wrinkles in my dress. “Bye, stranger that I sincerely hope I will never see again.”
The doors opened and the voice came on over us. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and stepped into the darkened station.
“Nice to meet you too!” the man called.
I turned to give him a snide remark, but the train had already sped away.
Exhaling slowly, I spun around on my heel. How come there are never any sweet guys on the train? Well, figures, I thought. When the destination is terrible, why shouldn’t the road that leads you there be just the same?
I made my way onto the street, blinking to get my eyes used to the sunlight. The road was still deadly quiet, which was nothing I wasn’t used to. Only workers at Zippy’s Oats got up at 3 o’clock sharp.
I put my sarcasm away and tried to smile. Just get through one more day, Essie, I told myself. One day at a time, and before you know it…
“Essie?” squealed a voice.
I didn’t have to move to know who it was. My only “friend” in the office, if you could even call her that. In fact, at times I wasn’t even sure she was human.
“Essie, wait up! It’s me! Daphne!”
I knew she would eventually catch up to me, so I decided to stop. “Daphne,” I said with fake enthusiasm as she hurried up to me, forcing my mouth to curve into something that resembled a grin.
As usual, Daphne was dressed in about every piece of clothing imaginable, from raincoats to snow boots to baseball caps. That was one thing about Daphne. She always liked to be prepared.
“Can you believe Harley’s out sick today?” Daphne shrieked, her brown eyes widening. “You know, I heard there is this new flu going around. What if she has it? What if we all have it?”
I had to stop her before I lost my sanity. “Daphne, calm down! Harley probably just has a cold.”
Denise Harley was our boss, and by far the toughest woman I had ever met. I had only seen her once, and I considered that a blessing. Tall and muscular, with short black hair and beady, brown eyes, I knew she could take us down using a few toes on her left foot. Most of the time, she stayed locked up in her office, blasting announcements on the overhead speakers, but we all knew she was there, watching us.
That was why my remark had sounded so silly to me. For Harley to be kept out of office by a cold? To stay out of here, Harvey would probably need a team of sumo wrestlers to tie her down with indestructible chains. Well, maybe I was exaggerating a little bit. Nevertheless, it was a bit curious that she was gone, especially on a day like this.
Today was the day that Zippy’s Oats’ oatmeal would have its first ever commercial onscreen. Obviously I wasn’t involved in making the ad, since any amount of fun in my job would defeat the purpose. That was Daphne’s department, and rightly so, since Daphne was one of the most trustworthy and handy people I knew. If you asked for a tissue, she had it in one of her many pockets. Hell, if you wanted dynamite she’d know where to find it. And anything you told her she’d remember, for far too long in my opinion. When I first began this job, I once asked her to jot down the address of a dog kennel for my neighbors, and let’s just say that to this day, if I ever needed to contact a dog kennel, Daphne would be the person to ask.
“A cold?” Daphne squeaked, knocking me out of my trance. “Well she should have just said something! She knows I keep cold medicine with me at all times.”
“What are you doing about the advertisement?” I asked, as we headed towards the tall, white building on the corner. I kicked a piece of trash out of my way and Daphne immediately picked it up.
“I don’t know,” Daphne said worriedly, placing it gently in a trashcan. “But I hope this doesn’t take a toll on Zippy’s Oats!”
Honestly, I couldn’t have cared less about what toll it took on Zippy’s Oats, but I course I didn’t tell Daphne that. “Me, too,” I agreed, pushing on the door, which was decorated with its usual sign, the lopsided sketch of oatmeal with a strawberry on top that looked like it had seen better days.
As soon as we entered the office, the phone on Daphne’s desk rang. She waved to me and hurried over to it, her short, black bob bouncing after her.
Finally alone, I sighed and took a seat in my own desk.
The workplace at Zippy’s Oats was made up of about fifty offices, ten on each floor. The offices were in separate, closed rooms and usually held two employees, but for some reason, the other desk in my office had always been empty. It was probably because I had the least desirable job in the entire company. I’m not sure if there was an official name for what I did, but to most around the building, I was referred to as Assistant Proofreader and Funds Compromiser. That pretty much meant that any choices the company had made were sent down a long line of people, who had to do a final check of the decision and approve it. I was the last in that line.
It may sound like that gave me a lot of power, but the truth was, it didn’t. Even if I didn’t like the decision, it had already been finalized by many others before me, so there wasn’t much I could do, unless I wanted to face Harley. And most of the time, I didn’t even get to check anything, because someone before me with a higher rank had vetoed it.
Because of that fact, I called Assistant Proofreader my “back-up job.” Most of the time, I performed my other function, Funds Compromiser. That job required me to listen in on ten-hour conference calls, where irritating people would argue about how much money to spend on this and that. I was also required to mute myself, since I didn’t have the authority to contribute to any of the conversations, so I spent most of that time trying to imagine what people looked like based on their voices.
At least twenty other people in the building were Funds Compromisers or Assistant Proofreaders, but they had other, more interesting jobs to go along with it. I was the only one at Zippy’s Oats who had gotten stuck with the two worst jobs. Needless to say, I didn’t have many friends at the office.
I spun around in my desk chair for a while, gathering my nerves. I opened up my email, and sure enough, there was an alert that the next call would begin in a few minutes.
Taking my time, I untangled the cord of the phone, dialed the number, and pressed the speaker button, my usual routine. Luckily, it was Wednesday, which meant I didn’t have to take notes on the conversation.
A woman spoke first. I closed my eyes and tried to create a picture of her. Tall, I thought. Blonde hair, blue eyes, white teeth. I reached into one of my desk drawers, took out a sketchpad and began to draw.
I counted the seconds ticking by as if they were the countdown to a time bomb. As my fingers swept over the page, the woman’s voice on the phone began to sound more and insipid.
By the time the clock struck for my lunch break, my eyelids were already starting to droop. I wanted to lie down and take a nap, but I knew Harley would find out somehow.
I rose to leave, but something stopped me. I glanced back at the picture on my desk and my eyes widened.
It was the man with the newspaper. I had drawn the man with the newspaper. And quite well, in fact.
I leaned over to inspect it. The lines curved and dipped perfectly, as if I was looking at a photograph. But why on earth would I find inspiration in some weird, skirt-chasing stranger?
Quickly, I crumpled the paper up and threw it in the direction of the bin. I missed, but didn’t feel like picking it up. I turned and headed slowly to the cafeteria.
The usual roundup of people had gathered there: the bombshell blondes in one corner, the misunderstood droolers in another. The couples sat by the wall, the workaholics were huddled in front of their computers on the armchairs, and the aristocrats sat right in the middle.
Daphne and I usually sat on the floor in the hall. Sure, it smelled sometimes, but it was better than being near any of the groups in the cafeteria. That’s all this company was: groups. There weren’t any individuals, just flocks who seemed to be attached at the hip.
I was unwrapping my sandwich when Daphne came back from the lunch line. I never bought lunch. Maybe it was because I found a few hairs in Daphne’s food once. Maybe it was because the ladies in the hairnets scared me. Either way, I was fine with my sandwich.
“Essie, guess what?” Daphne cried, in between mouthfuls of food. “They’re postponing the commercial! Can you believe it?”
“No, I can’t,” I said, taking a bite to hide my sneer.
“Harley must be really sick,” she exclaimed to no one in particular. “I don’t think she’s ever missed a day.”
There was a silence, then Daphne eyed me.
“How has your day been so far?”
For a moment, I wanted to snap at her, but I caught myself just in time. “Fine,” I said, clearing my throat. “Great. Best one in weeks.”
“You said that yesterday.”
“I know.” I smiled weakly. “They just keep getting better and better!”
“Did you draw anything?” Daphne asked. She always had a fascination with my sketches. I drew her once and she put it on the wall in her office. To tell the truth, it kind of creeps me out.
“Not anything good,” I replied hastily.
She kept talking after that, but I sort of zoned out. Why was I stuck here? Why couldn’t I get a real job?
I tried to imagine what it might be like if Father hadn’t died. If my life had turned out different. My mom used to say that I could be anything, do anything. Look where I was now. And look where she was: halfway across the world on some business trip. Of course, she had left a message on my phone. Don’t worry, Honey. I’ll be back soon, Honey. I love you, Honey.
That had been nine years ago, and frankly, I wasn’t buying it.
If she had to go to some trip, couldn’t she at least call to check up on me? When I was younger, I would worry constantly that I’d get a phone call from someone who had found her body by the side of the road. But the call never came, and after a while I stopped waiting.
I knew she wasn’t dead. And I wholeheartedly wished she wouldn’t come back. I had nothing but anger to offer her, since the selfish teenager still lived on in me, and I could think of no possible reason she would want to leave me.
“Essie, are you okay?”
I looked up. Daphne was staring at me suspiciously, her eyes locked on mine.
“I’m fine,” I stammered. “Just a little out of it.” Before I could receive more of the third degree, I picked up my things, muttered something about getting a head start, and dashed over to my office.
The call was waiting when I got there, as if no one had left. I wondered if the people on the other line had just waited there, without even having lunch. I could picture it easily: the blonde’s even stare fixed on the phone, applying mascara as if her hands were little machines.
“I’m here,” I said, then pressed the mute button again. I didn’t even have to say who I was, since the Funds Compromisers seemed to be dead to everyone else.
“Are we ready to start, Karen?” a man asked. His voice sounded crackly, like a bunch of twigs being tossed into a shredder.
“You bet, Michael,” the blonde laughed.
A bunch of others giggled happily on the line.
I sighed. That greeting was probably the most fun part of everyone’s day.
They started to talk, but instead of listening in, my thoughts drifted again.
I remembered the moment I found out father had died: fourteen years old, my caramel hair reaching far too long over my back. I had been staring out the window, drawing a picture of my favorite tree with bows for leaves.
Then I heard a knock on the door. Short, stiff, and extremely odd. My parents never knocked. They always just barged right in, which I found annoying, but still, it had always given me a sense of comfort. I had nothing to hide from them, and they had nothing to hide from me.
“Uh…come in?” I asked uncertainly.
The door creaked open, and my mother stepped gingerly into the room.
I could never forget the way she looked. Her brown hair was wispy and gray, as if she had aged ten years in a few hours. Her green eyes were wider than I had ever seen them, and her clothes…well, she was still in her pajamas. I could tell she had been out, since she was holding her car keys in her right hand, and my mother never went out without dressing.
In that moment I had been so afraid I could barely speak. “M-Mother?” I choked out.
She swallowed, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Your father’s dead.”
Then she turned and left the room without another word. No hugs, no reassurances, no fake smiles. She just left, and I hadn’t seen her for nine years since.
The two weeks that followed were the worst moments of my entire life. I would just lie in bed, sobbing. Sometimes I would replay Mom’s phone message, looking for some sort of clue about which direction I should go.
I didn’t eat or sleep, just cried until my eyes were burning and I could barely see anymore. I remember being in denial: there was no way my life could turn upside down in one statement, no way.
I don’t recall the exact day I finally got off the bed and decided to get a job. All I knew was the crying wasn’t going to help anymore. I had to pull myself together, to be strong.
And that’s exactly what I did. I got the only job I could find that would hire fourteen-year-olds. My anger turned to sarcasm. I forced myself to smile. I learned to take care of myself.
Of course, I still cried myself to sleep sometimes, but it gave me a flicker of hope to know that I had something to wake up to, an obligation, a purpose.
Working at Zippy’s Oats didn’t feel much like a purpose anymore. It felt more like Hell.
The call ended at four o’clock sharp, as it always did. The blonde gave her signature farewell, a polite “Goodbye” followed by three short chuckles. No one else would respond, and in a moment everyone would be gone, as if they had had their fingers poised on the exit button for hours.
I didn’t hang around for any longer than I was needed. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and headed out in a pace that wasn’t quite a run, but was definitely faster than a walk.
Daphne worked an hour later than me, which was a good thing, because by the end of the day her cheerfulness usually made me want to puke, and today was no exception. But she gave me an exuberant wave as I left the building, which I followed up with a nod of my head that was barely noticeable.
The train was always packed on the ride home with all sorts of people. Strangely, I found myself looking for the man with the newspaper, but he wasn’t there. Why did I want to see him again? We had shared a short, creepy conversation, and all I had gathered about him was that he had some odd fascination with my age. I considered that an event that was worth forgetting.
But for some reason, I saw his face around every corner.
I arrived at my apartment at around five o’clock, which meant I had plenty of time to sulk around before I felt like going to sleep.
Of course, I didn’t live in my parents’ house anymore. That house had been stripped from me about a month after they had been gone. Now I resided in University Creek, a run-down apartment complex in the middle of the city. I never understood the name, considering we were located nowhere near a university or a creek, but it had a nice ring to it.
I took the elevator up to the third floor, and immediately stopped when I saw the sign on my door.
Do Not Disturb only meant one thing: Sylvia was doing yoga, and the first rule about my roommate was never, ever disturb her during yoga.
Sylvia Bauer was a tall, thin women of twenty-five, with curly, red hair and so many freckles it would probably take a billion years to count them all. She wasn’t very talkative, but when she did speak, it was always to complain or to insult. Sylvia was the most pessimistic person I had ever met, which, in my opinion, also made her brilliantly funny. She always found something to criticize, from the line in the grocery store to the color of the floor tiles. I had known Sylvia since I got the job at Zippy’s Oats, and although I was only two years younger than her, she had always been much more mature than me. I think it was because she had grown up by herself. She never even knew her parents; she told me they had just dropped her on a street corner somewhere in New York and didn’t even look back. I questioned how she could even be sure of that when she was so young at the time, but Sylvia thoroughly believed it.
I didn’t contradict her any further. After all, Sylvia had done so much to help me. By the time she was sixteen she was living in her own apartment; she was so tall that everyone mistook her for an adult, including me. And she had taken me in, when I was so broken. Of course, she didn’t do much after that. Sylvia wasn’t exactly the comforting type. Paying the rent was as far as she could go in terms of kindness. I still have no idea why she let me stay in the first place. I used to believe she felt sorry for me, but now I know that Sylvia doesn’t feel sorry for people, especially not me. Still, we had lived next to each other for almost nine years. She was like a teenage sister to me, and she had taught me a lot of what I know. Like how to fend off strange guys on trains.
I stood hesitantly by the door. I never understood why Sylvia took such a liking to yoga. She was certainly not calm, and it in no way seemed to have any positive effects on her, but she did it anyway. I think if she didn’t, she would be even meaner, and I wasn’t too keen on finding out what that was like.
I sighed and paced down the hall as quietly as I could, not wanting to disturb anyone.
A door opened, and Sam Pleach peeked out. When he saw me, his blue eyes broadened and he hurried out.
“Essie!” he said in an urgent tone. “Is she there?”
I rolled my eyes. Sam was one of what I called Sylvia’s unrequited suitors. There were three in the building, and two lived in our hall. For some reason, Sylvia’s spunky attitude and uncanny social skills made her extremely alluring to men. I mean, she was very pretty, that I knew, but it was more than that. It was like there was a glowing ring surrounding her wherever she went, this mysterious aura that followed her everywhere around the building.
Unfortunately, however attractive she seemed, she was still Sylvia. And I knew better than anyone that no matter what the men said, it was doubtful that she even remembered their names. Sylvia was forgetful when she wanted to be.
“Yoga,” I replied in a hushed tone, putting a finger to my lips. “Shh.”
Sam shot me a look of sly realization. “Oh,” he said, smoothing back his sandy blonde hair. “Do not disturb. Right, I get it.”
I was about to turn away when he grabbed my shoulder and spun me around.
“Did anyone else come see her today?”
He asked that same question every day. I gave the same answer. “No. Now go back to your apartment, Sam. You know there’s no use knocking now.” Or any other time, I wanted to add.
Sam paused for a moment. “I think I’ll just wait. Want to come over for a drink?”
“No,” I said, even though I had no other place to go.
“Are you sure? Just a drink.”
I shook my head, because I knew what he really meant was, Do you want to come over so I can ask you every single possible question about Sylvia? Truth was, Sam wasn’t a bad guy, he just got on my nerves. I tried to be kind to him. Being in love with Sylvia Bauer must be pretty tough.
“All right.” He let go of my shoulder and crept back to his apartment.
The second he was out of sight, I contemplated where to go. I couldn’t enter our apartment for another twenty minutes, so I decided to just awkwardly hang around the building and try not to be noticed.
It wasn’t that hard, since Sylvia and I weren’t the most liked in the complex. I didn’t need to read anyone’s mind to know what they thought when we walked by.
Ten minutes passed. I was so bored I even considered calling Daphne, but I beat that idea out the park pretty quick. Seeing Daphne out of work was like watching a fish leap out of water and high-five everyone in the room. It didn’t seem possible.
After what felt like hours, Sylvia’s yoga session was over. I trekked up to our room, knocked twice, and then entered.
She was doing her final stretches. Her head was somewhere behind her ankles and before I could stop to wonder how that was even possible, she popped up to stare at me.
“Sam asked for you,” I said, dropping my bag on the counter and opening the refrigerator. As usual, it was practically empty. Sylvia didn’t like to go to the grocery store very often.
“Who?” Sylvia asked grumpily, her arm now twisted in some unnatural shape.
“Sam Pleach. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Lives in 3D.” I had explained this to her more than twenty times, but for some reason it never seemed to sink in.
“Ugh,” she groaned. “Which way did he go?”
“Back to his apartment. I told him you were busy.”
“Good.” She leaned her elbows on the counter. “Lock the door.”
I did as she said, then plopped down on the couch and closed my eyes. Silence. But that was natural. She didn’t ask me about my day, and I didn’t ask about hers. Not like I did anything noteworthy.
Finally, Sylvia spoke. “It’s your turn to do the dishes.” Then she stalked off into her room.