Another day on the verge of something. If that something was good, bad, or on a totally different spectrum, Heather had no idea.
She was walking to work, Friday morning.
On the way there, the city spoke to her quietly through different proxies. She zeroed in on them layer by layer while she walked.
The busses whirred and groaned with hunger, lumbering clumsily to the waiting curb, too large and too old for grace, seeming numb to the world. The buses were whispering: We are grumpy, we are tired and are still driving in endless loops through this city in service of those we care nothing about. She crossed an intersection, sidestepping another lonely bus as it took a left behind her and lumbered past with a low, rude reverberation.
“Fuck you too, BUS,” she whispered to herself, stopping and staring sharply at it for a moment before continuing.
She kept walking, her boots clicking on the sidewalk, and let more layers of sound come forth. Cars commuting. Gurgling, spurting cars drowning in a sea of traffic. The cars sounded sportier, slightly more cheerful but also psychotic, squelching past and veering around things with a certain nihilism, honking in childish impatience. She heard their song, like a mindless mob hungry for the blood of the city, racing to the heart to feast like a roving band of vampires. She thought of them like poisoned addicts, addicted to the edge of death.
Other sounds mixed into the symphony of the city. Walkers, zombies with blank stares and averting eyes. Scuffling feet, random bits of music and flapping layers, shoes clicking in a Morse code from the outer reaches of pedestrians’ bodies trying to communicate back to base: We are afraid, yet we walk on with the urgency of your command. Voices wafting up in the middle of it all, a rainbow of tones all desperate for something. Beautiful actually, and heartbreaking too.
With the voices came the smells, changing like a conversation as she walked. She could imagine them like a rainbow, the good, the bad and the smells from other dimensions blending and shifting. They said: We are here. We exist. You can not deny us. The familiar mix of fresh bread and rot permeated up through the sidewalk cracks, and she felt as if the skin of the city was baking and blistering with infection, blooming up under the sun into a new formation of what it was meant to be.
She sighed and sipped her coffee, trying to block out the invasion of the outside world as she walked a long but familiar path. She awkwardly fished out a pair of large headphones from her shoulder bag and fit them on her head, and as she did the voice of the city dimmed. She loved the safety of them; there was less of a threat that people might speak to her, and if they did she could plausibly walk on without reaction. She wore them without sound or music coming through. They gave her a small island of peace in a roaring ocean, softening the edges of the city.
Armed with her headphones, she walked to work.
If you were to see her, you would think she was a beautiful mess. Some people have that quality about them, that the messier they look the more attractive and endearing they are. She had large, messy dark brown hair, fluffing in waves around her face. She tied it back and wavy strands flew in inexplicable directions the air around her, like electrons orbiting a nucleus.
She strode quickly to work. She was of average height. At least, that’s what she thought of herself as, although people kept trying to accuse her of being small or short. Not true! I’m super average, she thought fiercely whenever it came up. She came in at five foot and four inches.
That morning she was wearing the usual uniform: all black. It made her feel like she was rushing to a funeral everyday. She was a waitress. Nothing too exciting or fun, not a profession that people need to study for. But she enjoyed it. It was one of those jobs that you really do get as much out of it as you put in. Yes, it was gladless work. But it was work, and work she did well.
She worked at a diner. Not one of those greasy spoons, more like one of those re-imagined faux-rustic hipster brunch joints that appealed to the wealthy young foppish masses. They made small and preciously decorated plates of ridiculously expensive food. It was a la carte style, so you had to get a ton of little dishes if you wanted a whole meal. One of the dishes was $15 for literally three radishes and a pate of butter. It was wildly popular.
When she got close, she saw the gold on black sign hanging into the sidewalk clearing, exuding expensive, handmade elitism. She rushed to the side of the brick building into the back door, slammed it behind her and put down her coffee near the employee lockers. She was late again. Janice was already there, holding a gold apron in her hand and grinning like a full grown Chucky doll.
“Good morning, Heather!” Janice said cheerfully, her shining brown eyes and smiling face beamed at Heather.
“Hi Janice,” Heather said, throwing her bag into her locker. It smelled musty. Janice looked at her intensely. Her smile somehow grew bigger, and she looked almost predatory.
“Ahhh, dude you’re creeping me out. What’s up?” Heather said, fishing out her apron.
“I’m fired!” Janice said, throwing the apron on the ground with vehemence.
Heather could now see her eyes were full of tears, and her usually glowing ebony skin was dark with flush.
“WHAT!?” Heather shrilled out, a quaver in her voice. Janice was her rock. Janice trained her. She was the only reason Heather hadn’t quit this job years ago.
“Yes, yes it’s true. I’m free! You’re free!” She laughed hysterically. “Five years of my life and now I’m free.” She sobbed, laughed with a yelp that drained her lungs. She coughed, choked back another sob as her eyes filled with water.
“What do you… but what do you mean I’M free?” Heather gently put her hands on either side of Janice’s shoulders.
“Heather. Go home. You’re fired too. We are all fired.” Janice moved out of Heather gentle grasp, stepping onto her apron over to the supply rack with her satchel in hand, and started filling her bag with toilet paper.
“But WHY!?” Heather looked down onto the apron in her hand.
In the pocket was an envelope with Final Paycheck neatly written on it. This job was all she had right now. After her break up with Lee six month ago, she had been paying double rent in her large one bedroom apartment and was almost out of savings already.
“I don’t know, they fired everyone. Something about how the owners want to liquidate their assets, investor pressure or something. I think they want to sell the restaurant. I don’t care, those thankless assholes can go fuck themselves.” Janice zipped up her backpack and put it on, squaring her shoulders.
“That doesn’t make sense, it’s so profitable,” Heather said, sinking to the bench in front of the lockers. She ripped open the envelope and scanned it.
“Maybe it was but they want to gut it for profit now, I guess. Fucking bloodsuckers.” Janice disappeared for a moment, and reappeared with two bottles of whiskey. They looked pretty fucking fancy.
“What are you doing?” Heather said, gesturing at the bottles.
“Getting our severance package. Come on, dude, let’s get out of here.” Janice strode out back into the sunny, dirty street.
Heather sighed, gathered her things out of her locker and rushed after Janice.
They spent the rest of the day in the park, drinking, smoking pot and recounting stories of the Floor Manager. His name was Roger. He was a tall lumpy man with a kind smile. He was an alcoholic. But the thing is, if you’ve ever worked at a bar, restaurant, retail store or any other service job where you sell alcohol you know: everybody is. It’s an unspoken prerequisite for the job. You’re drinking after, before and during work. But the catch is some people get more far along in their alcoholism them others. Roger was one of those people. He couldn’t stop. And everyone else was too much of an alcoholic themselves to intervene, seeing their future in his eyes and denying as much for him as for themselves. Heather felt bad telling stories about him, a good man lost in poison.
Heather was an alcoholic, too. She wasn’t a hardcore one. She didn’t wake up and drink. But she was smart enough and self critical enough to know that she had a problem. Lee knew. Lee left. So she kept on drinking every day. She waited eagerly for noon most days so she could have a drink. It was a sweet relief to her overflowing brain.
Today, her excuse came early.
She spent the day drinking whiskey with Janice in the sun, feeling the familiar warm glow hug her brain, a replacement for love and affection. It was like a friend, a lover. That is, if your lover was an anaconda, wrapping warmly around you, making you feel safe and loved and embraced but slowly strangling the life out of you.
The whiskey did its dark work, worming its way into her body and brain, now a pulsing floating thing. She wasn’t drunk – it wasn’t an effort to get drunk anymore – but she did manage a buzz of some kind and it was enough to push her problems away, leaving only basic demands and desires, as it brought her deeper into a dark pool of sadness.
She said goodbye to Janice and went home to pass out. She thought: I’ll figure it all out in the morning. It was late. 11 o’clock. She came home to her empty one-bedroom. Her cat mewed, stretched luxuriously and pattered over to the front door to greet her. She was a short haired grey cat, quite large and very smart and affectionate. She had this way of meowing softly while yawning that broke Heather’s heart every time.
“Grace! You’re so manipulative, you know I already fed you,” Heather said, scooping up her cat and holding it’s purring body close. “When you getting a job already?” Grace purred and slowly closed and opened her eyes, kneading the air with her paws in response.
“You’re all I got now, Grace.”
She sighed again. She had sighed so much today already. What to do. She set down Grace and sat down at her kitchen table. She could call Lee. NO! Her heart strained toward her former lover.
“Heather, you can’t do that, ok,” she said aloud to herself. “It’s over, Lee is going their way, and you are going your way, and that’s that.” She slammed her hand down on the table and stood up.
She was hungry. Starving. She took out a frozen pizza from the freezer and popped it in the oven. The quietness of her apartment was oppressive. It was in clear contrast to her morning: the absence of sound heavy with gravity, like a black hole sucking something indescribable from her. She sat in her kitchen quietly, staring at the table… letting her thoughts swirl and churn. She could start applying tomorrow. More restaurants. Coffee shops.
Whatever, she’d make it through somehow.
She looked at her hands for a while. When she was young, these kinds of setbacks would quiet her also. There was something calming about loss of control and chaos. When everything became fucked up, she went the other direction to balance it out.
Just a few more shots to make it ok. She pulled the whiskey bottle out of her bag and poured the last of it into her mouth. Who needed cups when you live alone? No one to impress with self control.
Her head lolled.
“Duty calls,” she said to the kitchen. Sleep came.
She laid her head on her arms, and slowly gave in to sleep.
She was cold. She dreamed she had travelled to another world, inhabited by a snow monster and a burning stick man. They were helpful though, very helpful monsters.
“It’s only cold here, and no one visits us,” the snow monster said, frowning. He held a small kitten version of Heather’s cat Grace in his hand. Grace had a miniature horn like a unicorn might, and was smiling. Monster’s other hand held a lunch box with a rainbow on it. In the way you know certain things in dreams, Heather knew it was full of strawberry fruit snacks.
“If only I could warm you up, but all I can do is make smoke and soot. And shoot laser beams out of my berry eyes. Which is pretty lame, but then you get to eat berries,” the burning stick man said sadly and looked at Heather. She opened her mouth and pointed at her tongue. The stick man obliged and shot lasers onto her tongue with his eyes, which deposited delicious berries onto her tongue.
She tried to eat them and coughed. They were smokey.
“Wake up,” said her tiny dream kitten. “Meow.”
Heather coughed and her head jerked as her eyes jolted open. She was still in her kitchen, head on her arms. Something was burning. She blinked. Her head ached with a shallow pounding. She sighed and closed her eyes, sucking in sooty breath.
Oh no, the pizza! Her eyes blazed open. Her head leaned back. She was surrounded by black. The kitchen window was broken. Black soot covered almost every surface in the kitchen. She looked at her hands: black as death. She bolted up. The chair she sat on was charred and tumbled over as she stood up.
Her body was stiff and cold. She looked around. How was she alive? The sun shown through the broken window. The pizza. She inspected the oven. It was utterly decimated. No pizza left.
What happened? She had to figure out what happened. A fire, clearly. But why was she ok, just fine, and everything was burned? She shivered, and looked down at herself. She was still in her work clothes from the previous day, all surfaces of skin dark, and she was freezing. She walked around the rest of the house. Everything looked charred. Her bedroom. The bathroom. Everything. She found a hoodie she had tossed into the corner the night before. Lee always got annoyed when she threw her clothes on the ground, but since Lee moved out she had thrown her things around as much as she wanted.
She got the smokey hoodie on and coughed a few more times, the sunny air thick with soot and miasma from her movements. Grace. Where was Grace!?
“Grace! Grace!” she called searching through everywhere. She coughed again, and began to feel panicked. Maybe she got out, maybe she’s outside.
She continued calling for her cat, wandering outside of the apartment and saw that the whole building was charred.
“Grace!! Gracie!” she shouted, wandering outside the building to the sidewalk.
Grace trotted up to her and mewed. Heather bent down and and picked her up. She held her purring body and sigh with relief, burying her face in the soft fur. She heard a strangled noise in the distance.
Heather saw this bedraggled looking woman, running after her. The woman had brown hair exploding all around her face and bright blue blazing. She squinted. What a weirdo. The woman arrived, face sullen and distraught.
“Unhand my cat!” she screeched, hands clawing toward Heather as she ran. She looked oddly familiar.
“This is my cat, missy!” Heather said, turning her body away from the strange woman’s approach.
“No it’s…” The woman got closer. “You’re just a dirty vagabound and… but… who do you think you are? You’re… are you me?” She stopped short and squinted at Heather, covered in soot.
Heather looked closer. Those eyes. That mole. The hairy one right on the left side of her neck. I have the same… is that me? She looks hungry and insane. Do I look like that? Am I still drunk?
The woman was staring at her too. “Um, are you my evil twin or… am I still dreaming?” Heather said, looking at this empty husk of herself. It was like looking in a circus mirror. A warped reflection of herself. She had that fierce look, those eyes. She has my exact gross witch mole. No way she was a twin, that’s just impossible. Must be a clone. I’m not important enough to clone. What the FUCK. As she thought this she could see similar expressions going over the face of her double. The OTHER Heather. It was Heather but it wasn’t Heather. She looked closer.
“You’re me. But you’re not me,” Other Heather said, reaching a hand out to Heather’s face.
“And you’re dirty as fuck.” Other Heather’s hand came back covered in soot.
“Well you look like shit too,” Heather said, indignant.
“You mean YOU look like shit. Jerk,” Other Heather quipped.
“Clone!?” they both said shrilly and simultaneously, expressions lifting in a question. Except the other Heather looked dumb with her eyebrows popping up. Heather was sure she herself looked way cooler doing it.
They shook their heads at each other. Heather decided to take charge of the two Heathers situation.
“What happened… I put the pizza in, and woke up to a burned house. Oh, and also a clone or not a clone!” said Heather, as she let a struggling Grace out of her arms.
“You put the… pizza in. But that was a week ago.” The other Heather scrunched up her face in thought, fists on hips.
“No, that just happened. Got fired. Pizza. Sleep. And now YOU!” Heather yelled.
“Calm down. You sound like a hyena when you yell like that. I’m not sure what you are but that happened to ME exactly one week ago,” Other Heather said, clearly also trying to take charge.
“There was a fire. The pizza started it. I was wasted… we were wasted, maybe? Shut up, don’t answer that. Grace woke me up pawing at my face at about two in the morning. We got out.” Other Heather made a face.
“But all the shit was gone. Burned to the ground.” She crouched down and started petting Grace the way Heather always did it, giving her a mini cat backrub.
“So what now I’m… you’re homeless?” Heather said, zipping her hoodie up, and staring at herself.
“Yes,” she said. “But not really.” She looked at Heather.
“It was the–” Heather started to say.
“Yeah, I know. It was the pizza’s fault.” Other Heather nodded, picking up Grace.
They started walking down the sidewalk.
“Do you wanna–” Heather started. She struggled for the right words.
“Yeah, let’s do it.” Her other self responded.
“Cool,” Heather said, and they walked on together in silence.