My alarm buzzed on time that morning. Three o’clock A.M.
I yawned dramatically and fumbled for the snooze button. I probably had the worst alarm in the world. It sounded like a dying chipmunk on steroids, with just a pinch of Michael Jackson. Not exactly what I needed to hear first thing in the morning.
I pulled the curtains open and sat in my bed for a second, eyes half closed as light bounded off the ivory walls with no mercy.
My bedroom wasn’t anything special. In fact, it was barely anything at all. The length of my bed grazed both walls and my dresser took up the rest of the space. I could stand up in it just fine, but that might have been because I was pretty short. Sylvia had never entered the room, but I assumed if she did she would have to crouch.
Then again, I didn’t have very high standards for that sort of thing. As long as it was quiet and belonged to me, I considered it a blessing.
A headache began to spread as the events of the day before rushed back to me. I hadn’t told Sylvia or anyone else about what had happened, and I didn’t plan to any time soon. After all, how would that conversation start?
Oh hey, Essie, how’re things with you?
Well, Sylvia, you know, my boss thinks I’m bonkers for talking to an invisible coworker, so now I’m off to therapy, but other than that, same old, same old.
I didn’t know which was weirder about that scenario: me answering so casually or Sylvia asking me anything in the first place. Obviously, you can probably guess Sylvia isn’t the curious type. Or the talkative type, either.
Well, I didn’t have to worry too much about that, since Sylvia was already gone by the time I wandered into the kitchen. Where, I wasn’t exactly sure, but I wasn’t worried. Maybe she was off on one of her yoga retreats. I always forgot the date for those.
As usual, the only thing in the refrigerator was a jug of milk that was now the consistency of aged cheddar and a tomato that was hairier than a chimpanzee. Mm, delicious.
I gulped down a glass of water and locked the door behind me, looking both ways first just to make sure I wasn’t going to run into any of our oh-so-pleasant neighbors.
Once the coast was clear, I raced into the elevator, which was now back in order. I sighed with relief as the doors closed. Other than my apartment’s food supply and the fact that my entire life had been turned upside down thanks to some stupid security tape, the day had been starting out pretty well so far. In fact, under other circumstances, it might have been the best morning in weeks. Which, of course, terrified me immensely. By now, I had learned that whenever I saw a tiny glimmer of happiness, it usually meant it was about to be followed by weeks of dreadful, horrifying death and destruction, and this was the happiest I’d felt in a long time. So what was next? War? Famine?
I got out of the elevator and started my cautious walk to the train station, looking out for any potential ways for me to be fatally injured. Surprisingly enough, I made it with all of my body parts still completely intact. Very strange, indeed.
Stranger still, I wasn’t assaulted by anyone on the train or run over by speeding cars in the street. I made it all the way to the doors of the office without falling into a pothole or tripping over a piece of trash. I didn’t even slam the door on my fingers. Now it was just getting annoying.
All right, I thought. That’s enough. Just hit me with it. I’m ready.
“Essie! I’m so glad you made it in today!” chirped a voice.
I stopped in my tracks and turned around just in time to spot an over-dressed, brown-eyed girl approaching me. Today she was wearing a giant raincoat with pockets so big you could raise a family of swine in them, and hiking boots that reached her knees. “What’s today?” I asked without much enthusiasm.
Daphne seemed confused for a moment. Then she grinned, and her brown eyes shone. “It’s your first therapy session, silly. Didn’t you talk to Harley?”
That caught me off guard. What, did everyone in the office know? So now, not only was I a psychopath, but I was a famous one? “Did she tell you?” I asked, sighing.
Her grin spread wider. “Of course she told me. Essie, what a funny thing to say, considering—”
“Considering I’m your therapist, and all.”
I was silent for a moment. I didn’t even have the strength to react. It wasn’t like I expected anything less. Of course. Of course this would happen. Of course my therapist would have to be the most annoying person on the planet. Of course.
“Oh my gosh, this is going to be so much fun!” she shrieked, bouncing up and down. “Well, come on, then. I’ll show you to my office.” She gave me one quick, excited shake before heading around a corner.
It took a few seconds for my legs to start working, and when I had finally started to follow, Daphne was almost completely out of my sight.
“Essie,” she scolded, once she noticed. “Keep up. We haven’t got all day.”
“Sorry,” I called out, not precisely sure what I was sorry for. Most likely for myself, and what I was about to get myself into. Daphne? A therapist? Might as well check myself into the loony bin now, since even if I had any traces of sanity left, spending my mornings with her was going to send me right over the edge.
I should have turned around right then and left the building for good. It seemed the rational thing to do, considering my present choices. After all, this job had never been exactly fulfilling. So why keep it? Why put up with all of this? Because of Sylvia? Because of the rent? No, those were stupid reasons. If I really wanted to throw in the towel, none of that was going to hold me back.
I stared ahead, where Daphne had already taken another left turn. It was pointless, staying here. It was stupid. It was the wrong thing to do. Just leave, Essie. You know that’s what you want to do.
I stood there for a while, eyes closed. Then I groaned, shrugged my shoulders, pinched myself, and thought, What the hell?
I had never been in that part of the building before. The only way I could describe it was that everything looked the same. The walls, the doors, the lights, even the people. Eventually it all just seemed to fuse together, and telling what was what seemed to be impossible. I struggled to keep up with Daphne, but the décor was making me question which way was up, and if she hadn’t been periodically calling my name there was no way I could have ever stayed behind her.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably about thirty minutes, Daphne began to come into view.
“There you are,” she said with dramatic relief. “I was beginning to worry you had passed out somewhere.”
Unfortunately not, I thought. “Fortunately not,” I said. Then I observed that we had stopped in front of a brown door, much like the other three thousand and twenty-three brown doors I had seen on our journey there. “That your office?” I pointed to it hopefully.
Daphne smiled. “You look surprised,” she noted cheerfully. “This isn’t, of course, my Executive Assistant office, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
I wasn’t wondering that at all, but I figured I had better not say that.
“Come in, come in,” she squealed. “Oh, this is so exciting!”
I stepped in through the door and snorted quietly. The room was everything I imagined it would be: inspirational posters pinned randomly over a steel desk, a cabinet, most likely stuffed with anti-depressants or dolls that you squeeze to get your anger out, and, last but certainly not least, a long recliner for the lucky patient to lean back in. The whole scene was perfectly ordinary, almost cliché. I felt like I had walked right into a movie set. If I had my camera I might have gotten an autographed photo.
“What do you think?” Daphne asked, twirling around in her chair. “Fancy, huh?”
I chuckled a bit at the sight of her. It was like watching a child play around in her mother’s office. “Sure is,” I muttered.
Suddenly, Daphne’s expression turned serious. “Take a seat, if you please,” she commanded, gesturing to the ridiculous chair.
I took a seat, even though it was absurd and dumb and I felt like it was the last thing I wanted to do.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” She was grinning again. “I mean, how amazing that my best friend happens to be my first patient! Can you believe it?”
“Nope,” I said, and I really, really couldn’t. “Look, Daphne, I don’t mean to be rude, but, well, how can you be a therapist? You’re Harley’s assistant, aren’t you?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Don’t worry, I’m not offended. And yes, you’re right. But in my first few years of working here, when we met, I was also devoting myself to the wonderful world of psychology. And let me tell you, it opened my eyes to so much. Luckily, and thanks to the most incredible boss in the nation, my knowledge doesn’t have to go to waste.”
Lucky me, I thought, then I paused for a second to take everything in. The truth was that I just couldn’t believe it had turned out this way. Daphne was the hyperactive, exuberant girl I spent lunch with every day. I know it was selfish, but part of me never really believed she would amount to something. It wasn’t like I had any more faith in myself (I had long discovered I was a lost cause), but Daphne was like a little puppy that followed you around, not someone that was going to help me with my problems. I guess Harley disagreed with me, since according to her, I was sitting across from “’the best therapist we’ve got.’”
“Oh, would you look at the time?” Daphne squealed. “Best we get down to business, don’t you think? Well, good then,” she added, before I could reply, “let’s get started.” She fumbled around in the desk for about a minute, before settling on a clipboard and a pen. She cleared her throat, clicked the pen, and nodded at me. “Well, go ahead,” she said expectantly.
I stared. “Excuse me?”
“I said, you can go ahead now.”
“Um…go ahead and do what?” I asked weakly.
She cocked her head at me curiously, as if it was so shocking that I didn’t know. “Do that thing people do.”
Daphne exhaled slowly. “That thing where you lie down on the chair and close your eyes and tell me your life story, and then I go, ‘Hmm,’ and, ‘That’s interesting’ and all that. That is how these things usually go, isn’t it?” She giggled heartily. There was a silence as I tried to wrap my mind around what she had just said. “I can see this is hard for you,” Daphne said, scribbling something on her clipboard. “Take as much time as you want, but we’re only here until twelve.”
I rubbed my temples. “Daphne, are you sure this is the way to do this?”
Her brow furrowed and she started to fidget. “Oh, gosh, it isn’t? Essie, I’m so sorry, I’m…” Her voice trailed off and I watched, in horror, as she began to cry.
I stood there awkwardly for a minute, pondering what to do. First of all, are you kidding me? I was supposed to be the crazy one, right? And now I was patting my therapist and telling her everything was going to be all right. Even a million perfect mornings couldn’t have prepared me for this.
Meanwhile, it seemed like Daphne had enough tears to fill an ocean. “Oh, dear,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry, I—”
“Shh,” I whispered. “You’re doing great.”
“That’s nice of you, Essie, but…” Finally, it looked like she was pulling herself together. “Thank you, really. It means a lot.”
“No problem,” I mumbled.
“I’m fine now,” she announced, sniffing so loudly I had to take a few steps back. “I just got a bit…emotional for a second there.”
“All right, well…” She wiped the last of the tears away. “Where were we?”
“Um, Daphne,” I began, biting my lip, “What kind of degree do you, uh, have in psychology?”
For some reason, that seemed to be the most hilarious question in the world. “I don’t have a degree, silly.”
“But surely you took classes or something?” I tried hopefully. “Like, in college.”
“You did go to college, right?”
I sighed. “Of course,” I whispered. Suddenly, a bell rang over the loudspeaker. I flinched so hard I nearly fell over. “What…was that?” I choked, clutching my chest.
Daphne hadn’t moved an inch. “Lunch bell,” she said. “I guess it only rings in this side of this building. But gosh, how time flies, huh?” Before I could open my mouth, she chirped, “This was fun. See you again tomorrow,” and pushed me out into the hall.
“Wait!” I called, knocking on the door. But it looked like for the moment, getting a wise word from Daphne was going to be harder than finding a five-star restaurant in the middle of the desert.
I sighed and started walking. I decided that it was better than standing still and wallowing in my despair, even though I was pretty sure at this rate, I would starve before I found the exit to this place. I tried to ask any employees that I passed, but they just threw me that blank smile and kept on walking, and eventually they stopped passing and I found myself alone. It seemed like this oatmeal company was run by robots. And I thought having Daphne as a therapist was bad. What was next? Were the janitors zombies?
I whipped around so hard I could have broken my neck, and not even for a worthy reason, since the hallway was completely empty.
“Hello?” I called out without much zeal, turning my neck again to test if it was all right. It was. But so far my head wasn’t looking too good. Or someone was just being an ass. I guessed the second explanation was more likely.
“Is anyone there?” I asked, a bit more impatiently. No answer again. I looked around to see if there were any doors the person could have slipped through. Oddly enough, this was the only hallway in the entire building where there wasn’t a single door. Or window. Or vent. Or crevice.
This was getting tiring.
“Look, whoever you are,” I hissed, taking a step forward. “I’m not really in the mood to play games, so just give up the charade and tell me how to get out of here.”
“Did you hear me?”
I groaned. So maybe I was hearing voices. So what? It was probably from hunger, or exhaustion, or Daphne.
“I’m not crazy, okay?” I blurted out, then sighed as I realized just how crazy that sounded. I began to walk again, although at that point I had pretty much given up on ever finding the way out. At least I still had that sandwich in my pocket in case I got hungry. If I had a bite a day, how long would it last me? A week?
“Oh, fuck this.” I pulled it out and stuffed the whole thing in my mouth.
“She’s feisty. I like her.”
I almost choked as I spun around again. Like before, it looked like I was alone. But I had definitely heard it this time. I tried to say something, but my surprise mixed with the chunks of egg salad in my mouth weren’t so keen on the idea.
“Would you stop it? You’re scaring her,” another, higher voice said.
“Oh, come on, Monica,” the other voice replied. “Don’t pretend you’re not curious.”
“She’s a person, Jeffrey, not a traffic accident.”
“Who’s there?” I managed to ask once I had swallowed. My eyes darted across the room, looking for the source of the conversation, but as far as I could see, I was the only one in the hallway for half a mile.
“Not too bright, though,” the voice called Jeffrey remarked. “It’s not like I expected Charles Darwin, but—”
“Hey, shut it!” I yelled, my frustration finally taking over. There was a moment of silence as my voice boomed across the corridor. I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. “Thank you. Now, I would usually consider myself a relatively kind and gentle person,” I said, gritting my teeth, “but if you haven’t guessed, I’m not exactly feeling very sing-song-y right now. My boss thinks I’m a crackpot, I just had to spend an hour with a shrink who still believes in Santa Claus, and I’m stuck in this hellhole until I shrivel up and die.” I exhaled and shrunk back, my chest still heaving. There was no response. “Plus it’s my turn to do the laundry,” I added.
“Well, why didn’t you just say so?” the high-pitched voice (Monica?) asked. “Of course we know the way out. And dirty laundry is a terrible thing, right, Jeffrey?”
“Your poor roommate,” Jeffrey agreed. “Sylvia, isn’t it? Nice girl, so I’ve heard.”
I wanted to reply, You haven’t heard right, but there were currently bigger things to think about. Like how I still didn’t know where the hell the voices were coming from. “Okay, great. Now that we’re all best friends here, would you mind showing yourselves so I don’t have to talk to the wall?”
Monica laughed hysterically, a horrible laugh that reminded me of my third grade English teacher Mrs. Gertrude.
“Something funny?” I demanded, searching the room once again. Where were they?
“I don’t think she was kidding,” Jeffrey said quietly.
“What? But surely, she knows—”
“Knows what?” I shouted, starting to panic. “What the hell is going on here? Why can’t I see you?” I buried my face in my hands. “Oh, God, am I going blind?” I murmured. “God, I knew it, I just knew—”
“For goodness sakes, stop whining,” Jeffrey interrupted. “What are you, five years old?”
“Don’t be so cruel, Jeffrey,” Monica snapped. “You were the one who wanted to see her in the first place, remember? I wanted to stay home, if you recall.”
“Home?” he scoffed. “Oh, please. Now you’re just being ridiculous.”
“Help!” I screamed, to anyone who would listen, even if they were just robots. “My name is Essie Spiros, I’ve gone blind, I’m lost, and…” I stopped short and my breath caught.
The room had suddenly become freezing cold, like I was just grabbed by the ankle and dropped right in the middle of Antarctica. I closed my eyes and wrapped my coat tightly around myself, but it was no use, there was nothing to do but relent. My skin was burning, it was going to peel off, I was freezing, I was going to die, and in this bloody office, too, what a way to go—
My eyes snapped open. I sat there for a few seconds, cross-legged on the ground, my heart racing.
Then I remembered how I was dying of frostbite, and I jumped to my feet, panicked.
But I wasn’t greeted by a blizzard, or an angry polar bear. In fact, the room was pleasantly warm. Had I passed out? I was still by myself, so there was no way to tell. And the more I thought about it, the more it started feel like a distant dream. I looked around suspiciously. How did I know I wasn’t still dreaming?
“Hello?” I called out. There was no answer. “Great,” I pouted, stuffing my hands angrily into my pockets.
I froze. There was something in my pocket. Something that hadn’t been there before.
Slowly, I squeezed it out and peered down. It was a balled-up scrap of paper, and my name was printed in big, clear letters on the top in a very distinct handwriting.
I blinked and turned it over carefully. There was more writing. Although I knew it couldn’t possibly be me that wrote it, since I distinctly remembered shivering on the floor a few seconds ago, not whipping out a pad and pencil, I had to admit that whoever did had got my style down to the letter. That was how I crossed my t’s, and dotted my i’s. The person even did that thing where they meshed the letters together so you could hardly make out what was an “e” and what was a “c.” Mrs. Gertrude had always hated that.
I quickly stifled my thoughts and began to read.
Sorry we had to do this. I didn’t want to but you were starting to become hysterical and we were getting worried. Truth is, I never really liked the whole ordeal, and it just gets a bit awkward, especially on our side. I realize it was sudden, talking to you at your office and all, but Jeffrey was only curious, and you wouldn’t believe how fast word travels around here. We’re really not bad people, Jeffrey’s just grumpy because he hasn’t had his morning Tai Chi yet. (Joke, obviously.) Any who, it’s been an honor to finally meet you. If you ever need our help, you know where we’ll be. Ha, ha. Say hi to your mother for us.
Monica and Jeffrey Lawrence
P.S. Turn left twice and then make a final right if you want to get out. Honestly, I can’t blame you. It’s rather bleak in this building. I don’t know how you can put up with it, but whatever pays the rent, I guess.
P.P.S. Sorry for breaking your pen. You have a strong grip.
I frowned and stared at the letter, then reread it and frowned again. After the third reading, it began to come back to me. Jeffery and Monica. The people I had met before I woke up sprawled on the floor. Well, kind of met. I hadn’t exactly seen them, had I?
What the hell?
That was my initial thought as everything started to sink in. This day had just been a series of events that made absolutely no amount of sense. Sure, it had started off remarkably well, but what did that matter? Not even waking up looking like Megan Fox could possibly make any of this okay. But that hadn’t happened, either. Thanks a lot, God, I thought.
I took a deep breath, checking off my mental list. My therapy session with Daphne. Not a trip to Fiji, but tolerable enough. Then hearing voices, which would have been fine except for the fact that voices belong to people, people I should have been able to see, and I hadn’t had that particular pleasure.
I might have been about to pass that off as well (maybe they were just shy or something), if it weren’t for the fact that Jeffrey and Monica knew an unnerving amount of information about me. For one thing, they knew my name. And my roommate’s name. Not to mention where I worked, how strong my grip was, and apparently my mother as well, though they clearly hadn’t heard the news of how she had up and left when I was fourteen.
So they didn’t know everything. I guessed that was a bit comforting. But not comforting enough.
The only way I could possibly put my mind at ease was by talking to them again, and by the looks of it, they were long gone, if they had even been here at all.
No, I thought. If you start doubting yourself, there won’t be anyone left to keep reminding you that you aren’t crazy. For now, I was inclined to believe that I had met Jeffrey and Monica. They had been behind a door somewhere I hadn’t seen. I didn’t know the building very well, so how could I be sure there was no place for them to hide?
I supposed that after I had screamed out for help one of them had snuck up behind me and bashed me on the head, knocking me over and causing me to have my little delirious episode, during which they had ravaged my coat pockets, pulling out my pad and pen and writing me that bizarre note. It was a long shot, but it mostly made sense.
The one thing it didn’t explain was how the letter had been in my own handwriting, although since they knew all that other crap about my life, how hard was it to figure out the way I signed my bills as well? Or it could have just been a simple coincidence. It wasn’t impossible that two people in the world had similar writing styles. It had probably happened hundreds of times. What did I know?
I let myself relax. Everything made sense now. There was nothing unusual or strange about any of it. In fact, it was the best thing to happen since I came into office this morning, because if it weren’t for any of this, I would have never found the way out, and now I had the way out right in my hands.
Following Monica’s instructions, I was on the street in a matter of minutes. It was definitely not the end of the workday, but I figured Harley wasn’t going to let me listen in to any calls if she was under the impression I was a wacko. Good for me, because after being knocked unconscious by a man who had missed out on his morning Tai Chi, and spending the morning with a psychiatrist whose best skill was holding a clipboard, I wasn’t really in the mood to hear the blonde woman say, “You bet, Michael,” one more bloody time.
According to the schedule that was illuminated over the station, the next train was due to arrive in two minutes, but for once in my life, I didn’t really feel like going home. After all, had the day off, didn’t I, free to spend it any way I chose, and didn’t that mean getting away from my three-foot bedroom and empty refrigerator? Maybe crazy people didn’t have it so bad after all. Joke, I reminded myself quickly.
Most of the shops were closed (not like I had anything to shop for), but there was a little, run-down bar at the end of the street called The Spirit that I had seen a few times when I passed by. I wasn’t one to go to bars, or any other restaurant for that matter. The last time I had left my house for a refreshment was probably back before I even lived at University Creek, but something about The Spirit seemed to catch my eye, and there really wasn’t anything else better to do.
As I made my way to it, it suddenly struck me how much my mother would have hated a place like this. She could never stand restaurants that weren’t spick-and-span. She definitely would have disapproved of my going here, especially since I wasn’t armed with gloves or a convenient bottle of hand sanitizer. It was one of the only things I knew she cared about, but then again, you would have thought her own daughter was another, and look at what she had done to me, so I guess that I truly couldn’t be sure.
The bell on the door jingled when I went in, and warm air rushed to meet me. The place seemed to be even smaller on the inside. The walls were a dark red that looked almost black in the dim light. There was only one window, and it was smothered by a brown curtain that reached all the way to the floor. A cheap, blue chandelier hung precariously over every table, and tall candles served to illuminate the very unstable-looking bar. There was a woman hunched over at one of the tables, but it was too dark to make out anything about her. If it were any other day, I would have probably thought the scene was rather dreary, but solitude was exactly what I needed right then.
The bartender glanced up and smiled crookedly. He was tall and frail, probably at least seventy years old, judging by the wrinkles that cascaded down his face. It was difficult to tell exactly the color of his eyes or hair, so I just assumed they were both black.
“Hello there,” the man said, in a low, raspy voice. “What can I do for you?”
I stared at him for a moment, transfixed by something about him. Perhaps it was the way he spoke, his words slurring together as if they were all one, endless thought, or the fact that his right eye seemed to be just a tiny bit darker than the other—
“Miss?” he prompted sharply.
“Oh, right,” I stammered, realizing I had almost forgotten why I was there. “Can I, uh, see the menu?”
The man’s grin widened. “No menu,” he said simply. “What can I do for you?”
I sighed. “Whatever’s on tap, then.” I could just imagine my mother, shaking her head. “Something strong,” I added.
He laughed, kind of a cross between the winds of a hurricane and an injured banshee playing the violin. “Coming right up,” he said with a glint in his dark eye.
It had been almost a year since I had ordered a drink. Sylvia hated the stuff with a passion. (“Alcohol is for idiots who want to believe they’re smart,” she once told me.) I pretty much took her word for it, until I was offered a sip at one of our office parties. Well, maybe not offered directly, but it was sitting on the table looking lonely and I was bored.
But no matter the reason, all I remembered was waking up the next morning with a headache and no memory of the night before. Daphne told me I had called a cab and gone home. Apparently even when I’m smashed I’m no fun.
But it had been a rough day, one I needed to let loose from, and who knew? Maybe this time I would end up on top of the table with a lampshade on my head. It was worth a shot.
“Hey, you’re new,” said a voice with a thick Brooklyn accent. I turned around. The woman who had been hunched over a table moments before was now in the chair next to me. She was about my size, and was wearing a beret and a long, black dress. She was one of those women who was clearly thirty but was also just as clearly trying to make herself look fifteen. Her eyes looked green, but it was impossible to be sure.
“I guess so,” I murmured. “I don’t go out often.”
“I can tell,” she remarked, scanning me up and down with terrifying precision. Something about her was disconcerting, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“Do you, uh, come here a lot?” I asked, to end my agonizing examination.
The woman smiled, an eerie, hair-raising smile that made me dig my nails into the bar counter. “You could say that,” she crooned. “Who told you about this place?”
“Nobody,” I said, confused. “I was just walking by, and—”
“You really are new,” the woman smirked. “What did you say your name was again?”
I studied her suspiciously, and suddenly it hit me why her appearance was so disheartening.
She didn’t have any eyebrows. Not even a single, lonely hair. Where they were supposed to be there was this giant, barefaced gap that seemed to be calling out for help.
Well, I reminded myself, it could be a lot worse. And at least now that I knew what it was, I could put up with it.
“Hey,” she snapped, scowling. “Did you hear me or not? I asked you your name.”
I hesitated. Even on the slight chance she wasn’t a serial killer, giving my name was kind of pushing it. Since when were people so nosy? “How old are you?” “What’s your name?” “Why are you taking so long in the bathroom?” It was like nobody had any privacy anymore.
“Barbara Winters,” I answered.
Her eyes narrowed, and for a second I feared that she could read my mind or something, but then she grinned again. “Pleasure. Haven’t seen any Newbies since the dawn of time. Isn’t that right, Alfie?”
“That’s right,” agreed the bartender, who had somehow appeared between us like some kind of genie. I jumped, and bar stool wobbled uncertainly below me.
“You okay there?” Alfie asked me, the amusement annoyingly apparent in his tone.
“I’m fine,” I assured him, a bit shakily and a bit more crossly. “You just surprised me.”
They both burst into laughter, making me flinch once more. “You would have thought nothing could surprise you by now,” the woman with no eyebrows said in a low voice. There was a solemn silence, and then they started laughing again, even more exuberantly this time. I glared at them, but they didn’t seem to notice.
Suddenly, I heard the door jingle. The woman turned around and the smile disappeared from her lips. She raised her eyebrows, or the place where her eyebrows should have been and then glared at me frantically. Before I could ask what was going on, she and Alfie grabbed me by the collar and practically threw me behind the bar counter.
“Hey—” I protested, but Alfie put a finger to his lips, and I was silenced by the voice of the woman with no eyebrows.
“Never thought I would see you again,” she said, obviously trying to be calm, but still trembling a bit.
I lifted my head just enough to get a glimpse of whoever was important enough to make two seemingly normal people (except for the eyebrows) chuck an innocent girl behind a bar. It was a tall, thin woman, that much I knew. I could just recognize that she had red hair, but that was it, and it wasn’t much to go on. I squinted, hoping to see her face, but it was just so damn dark in there—
“Trust me, I didn’t want to come,” the tall woman replied. I stopped dead. The voice sounded so familiar I could almost taste it. Bland, serious, solid, and yet—
“What do you want, Sylvia?” Eyebrows growled.
My stomach dropped. The more I reviewed the facts, the surer I was. It was Sylvia Bauer. My roommate. But what on earth was she doing at The Spirit at two in the afternoon? More importantly, what was her connection to these two people, and why had they panicked so much at the sight of her?
“I need to contact someone,” Sylvia said calmly.
Eyebrows chuckled. “Oh, really? And what makes you think we’re going to help you?”
“Because if you don’t, I’ll destroy you. And this bar, or whatever you people call it now.”
I put a hand over my mouth to stifle a snicker. That was Sylvia, all right. If she wanted something, you had better believe she would kill to get it. Even if that something was a smoothie or another bar of soap for the bathroom. She once tackled a cashier at the grocery store for spilling a carton of orange juice. Needless to say, I feared for these people’s lives.
“You seem pretty confident,” Eyebrows said, her anxiety now evident in her voice. “May I ask who you want to contact?”
“Sure you can,” Sylvia replied. “But I’m not going to answer.”
“So then what’s in it for us?” Eyebrows asked softly.
“Let me think…” Sylvia paused. “Not dying?”
“Good enough for me,” Alfie cut in.
“Oh, shut it, Alfie,” Eyebrows snapped. Then there was a silence, and I could hear her breath catch. “Wait a minute. This has something to do with the girl, doesn’t it? Your sister?”
Sylvia has a sister? I wondered. She had always told me she was all alone in the world. Then again, it wasn’t the worst thing she could have lied about. What if she had Herpes?
“What do you know about her?” growled Sylvia, her voice rising. “Have you been following me?”
“Word gets around,” Eyebrows said cheerfully. “She’s found out, hasn’t she? Someone’s told her. And you don’t have the guts to finish the job.”
“That’s a lie,” Sylvia hissed. “You don’t know anything.”
“Don’t I?” I could practically feel the repulsive smile on Eyebrows’ face. “I know a lot of things, Sylvia. And something tells me you aren’t willing to take the risk.”
Sylvia was making this noise I had never heard her make before, like a low, purring sound in the back of her throat, a tiger preparing to pounce. Truth was, it scared the hell out of me.
“I’d watch your mouth if I were you. Your sister isn’t as safe as you think she is. Now you’d better start taking orders from me, or we’re going to have a real problem.”
At that moment, it hit me that I was essentially crouched behind a bar counter with two people who I didn’t know at all, one of which didn’t even look completely human, and could, at any time, pull out a gun and shoot me in the head. Furthermore, it was getting a bit damp down there, and my knees were starting to hurt. Now, I realized, would be a pretty decent time to call for help.
“Sylvia!” I yelled, jumping up.
Three startled heads swiveled in my direction. Everyone froze, their eyes locked on me. Then Sylvia’s jaw dropped.
“Essie, what the hell are you doing here?”
To my horror, I felt myself blush. Really, Essie? You’re shy now? “Well, I uh…” My voice trailed off, and I tried again. “I was off of work, and I…” Third time’s a charm. “I felt like getting a drink, and so—”
Eyebrows’ eyes were so wide I thought they might pop out of her head. “Barbara, I told you to hide behind the bar.”
“Actually, you didn’t tell me anything,” I argued, my ability to form sentences finally returning. “You tossed me behind the bar like a sack of potatoes.”
“What did she just call you?” Sylvia asked. Then her face changed, and she turned on Eyebrows. “You planned this.”
I almost felt sorry for the woman. She looked genuinely confused. “What are you talking about? You know Barbara?”
“You vile, wicked bitch,” Sylvia snarled, and then she punched Eyebrows in the face.
Shocked, I watched her fall to the floor, along with her hat, and soon enough the chair as well. Alfie looked from me to Sylvia to the heap on the floor before racing out of there like a cat out of water.
About thirty seconds passed where neither of us said a word. In my case it was mainly because my entire body seemed to have turned to Jell-O, but I couldn’t speak for Sylvia. She frowned at Eyebrows’ lifeless body for a while, sighing loudly.
“Well, this wasn’t what I expected,” she said. “But that’s life I guess.”
I gestured hopeless towards the pile on the ground.
Sylvia looked puzzled for a second. I pointed again, and then she followed my gaze and shrugged. “Oh, she’ll come to. Eventually. I just gave her a little tap on the nose. No big deal. I really should have done more. That little bitch was getting on my nerves. Plus, she looks terrible without eyebrows.”
Eventually, I found my voice again, although it was still having a bit of trouble. “B-But, I, and she, and they, and—”
Sylvia turned to me. She paused, as if considering what to say. Then she leaned forward and flicked me on the ear.
“Ow!” I yelped, glowering at her. “What the hell was that for?”
She shook her head. “That was for forgetting to do the laundry. Don’t think I didn’t notice.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but she had already grabbed my shoulder and shoved me out into the street, leaving the door jingling merrily behind us.