“In just a little while I’ll be back in my bed, under these same, warm blankets with a full night of sleep ahead of me,” thought Alex as she opened up her phone to turn off her third alarm. It was a Tuesday at 7:50 am on October 10, 2017. She lay in her bed for a few extra moments, staring at the ceiling. “I could call in sick. I can feel a bit of scratchiness in the back of my throat, could be the first signs of the flu which could lead to doctor’s appointments to hospitalization or worse if I don’t get my rest now.” This was the kind of logic that time after time led Alex to make poor decisions that trickled into the rest of her day. She didn’t believe any of the exaggerations she came up with while hovering in a half-awake-half-asleep stupor. Really she feared the unpleasant feeling of the cold morning air jolting her to consciousness once she had to stretched her arms and legs out from under the comforting embrace of her fuzzy pink blanket and extra thick comforter. She feared the reality that she’d spend the next eight hours in a little gray cubicle, staring at excel sheets and avoiding questions about market trends and the Dow Jones to which she didn’t know the answer. She took a deep breath of the morning chill, iciness permeating her to the core. She grabbed her glasses, spectacles with huge, square lenses and a thin gold metal frame. She took a peak at her email to gauge how screwed she’d be if she missed work that day. Three of the 16 emails she had already received that morning were marked with an angry red exclamation point which signaled ‘URGENT’.
“Fuck,” she thought.
She threw the blankets aside, like ripping off a band-aid and headed to her bathroom, shivering and dancing around since she hadn’t done her laundry the night before and was without any clean socks. She had somehow managed to whittle down her morning routine to the bare minimum of ten minutes. It consisted of going to the bathroom, brushing her teeth, washing her face and throwing her long, brown hair, every morning a comically disheveled rat’s nest, into a semi-presentable top not. She lived in a tiny, 350 square foot studio in a building over a century old in the twinkle-light covered Northwest part of Portland, Oregon. Her bathroom was so cramped, she was grateful for her short, stubby legs so she wouldn’t bump her knees on the sink every time she sat down to use the toilet. And yet somehow, even in this tiny space, she was unable to find sufficient bobby pins to hold up her sloppy bun. She ran out of the bathroom, got on all fours on the sticky, wood floor and started scoping out stragglers under her bed and tv table. She found three little suckers and stuck them into her hair. She had no time to pick out a cute outfit so she grabbed her last minute go-to, a black t-shirt with skinny jeans and her oversized, green, plaid flannel shirt. She picked off some green fuzz from her cheap Urban Outfitters carpet that had stuck to her bare feet and threw on some flat, brown leather mules. She ran out the door with two minutes to spare before the streetcar rolled away without her.
The morning was foggier than she had seen that fall. It felt eery, like she she was in an episode of Twin Peaks or Stranger Things or one of the other shows in the gambit of creepy, nostalgic television she liked to binge once the leaves started changing color. It gave her a sense something awful would happen. Maybe not to her, but it was not a going to be a good day for someone out there. But I guess you could say that about every day. The sidewalk was blanketed in soggy, bright yellow leaves. Follow the yellow brick road, Alex thought to herself. It had rained the last couple of days as is the norm in the gray season of October-May in the Pacific Northwest.
“It rains a lot but it’s actually kind of romantic in a way,” Alex remembered her company recruiter telling her during her interview.
“Romantic my ass,” she thought. “This fog smells like dingy, toilet tank water.”
But even in the dense fog, Alex caught a whiff of her neighbor’s chrysanthemums. They’re aroma always had a lifting effect on Alex. They were vibrant little bursts of deep purple and powder blues and rich pinks. When Alex breathed them in she felt a tingle in her chest like when you see your sweetheart as they approach you before a date.
She heard the metallic roar of the streetcar rounding the corner and broke out into a sprint. She reached it just in time. It was a short trip to the office which was a blessing and a curse. It was convenient of course, but sometimes she preferred a longer commute so she could ease into the day with some soft folk music or the ramblings of the latest viral true crime podcast. Today it was Chapter 4 of ‘Dirty John’, a podcast about a deviant man who deceives every women he’s ever been with. She knew it was terrible but listening to these relationship horror stories made her feel not so bad about being single. Better to be alone than dealing with a garbage person’s issues.
Alex looked around the streetcar. The usual commuters were there, bundled in scarves, beanies and fleece pullovers. The homeless guy who always carried stacks of DVD boxes wandered from one end of the car to the other. Alex was always curious about what he had in there. She wasn’t naïve enough to think this older looking gentleman with slicked back hair, a constant 5 o’clock shadow and a leather jacket presumably from the 90’s was running one of the world’s last Blockbusters. She figured it was drugs, maybe cocaine. Or maybe she was just judging a book by its cover. She didn’t care to find out.
Just under fifteen minutes later, the streetcar pulled into the building where Alex worked. The office was located in the heart of Portland’s well-to-do Pearl District, peppered with corporate offices, boutique shops, luxe carpet stores and high-rise apartment buildings for rich retirees and their greyhounds. She had arrived 20 minutes late and was hoping no one would notice her as she walked nimbly and quickly to her cube. The office was as quiet as it usually was before 10am. However, you could still hear Todd, one of the investment counselors, talking loudly to a client. “Now Hilary, I really feel that with your excellent health and your long term goals, we should get you better situated for the future. I just want to look out for you, your children and your children’s children. But that will likely require some further investment. Is that something you’d like to explore with me?”
“What a show off”, Alex thought to herself.
Once Alex did another inventory of her emails and mentally categorized what would need to be taken care of that hour, that day and maybe by the end of the week, she grabbed her favorite mug and prepared to make a dash for the coffee machine. The mug was her personal souvenir from her excursion to Toledo, Spain, a medieval town not far from Madrid. She had spent a full day wandering there, exploring on her own and pretending she was a lady-warrior like Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. The reminder of that day along with coffee, God’s gift to all those whose bodies reject mornings, made Alex crack a smile. For Alex, this cup of coffee, a Peet’s medium blend with one sugar and one hazelnut creamer, was the first moment of warmth since the last snuggle in her bed. It was the boost of energy that she needed to bang through her pre-lunchtime work. It was her life’s blood. But just as she was getting up, Nancy from accounting popped her head into Alex’s cubicle.
“Good morning sunshine! How are you today?” Nancy was always like this. So full of enthusiasm she could piss off the Wiggles. Her tight red curls bounced as she titled her head and gave Alex the largest smile she had ever seen. She was wearing a houndstooth dress with a bright red belt and matching red ballet flats.
“I’m alright Nancy, how are you?”
“Well I’m great. I made this incredible blueberry cobbler last night from a recipe that I found on a website. I think it was by that woman that was arrested? No wait, I think it was the woman who used the ‘n’ word that one time. Or maybe it was Ina Garten. Can’t recall. One of the big ones.”
“Oh it was, I ate half the thing all by my lonesome. Do you bake?”
Alex thought for a moment, if she meant bake like cut up those take and bake Pillsbury sugar cookies with the designs that get all melty in the oven, then yes.
“No, not really,” she responded.
“Oh that’s too bad. It can be real fun. Goodness, I also need to tell you about the Voice last night.”
Alex wasn’t sure how this happened but she thinks she told Nancy a story a while ago about how she knew someone from college who auditioned for the Voice and ever since Alex had become her confidant for all things television karaoke related. Alex had not watched an episode of the Voice in four years. When this happened she tended to zone out and nod when Nancy said things with conviction.
“Ugh and I just love little Ray Ray. Her name is Rachel but Cee Lo started calling her Ray Ray and I just think that is the cutest thing, don’t you?”
“Yeah, it’s cute. But hey, Nancy, I think I’m going to make a coffee run upstairs. I’ll catch up with you later?”
“Of course honey, go get your coffee!”
Alex was getting up from her chair.
“Oh wait!” Uttered Nancy. “I forgot the reason I came over here in the first place. I’ve got these liability reports for you to audit.”
Alex reached out to grab the stack of papers and accidentally grazed Nancy’s hand. In that moment Alex felt a jolt like the shock you feel when someone shatters a glass and you don’t see it happen but your body senses the alarm. As she sat back down and caught her breathe, she had a vivid mental image of Nancy lying on the floor, gasping for breathe and grabbing at her chest. It was strange, because there Nancy was, squatting in front of her looking concerned. At this level, Alex could see the gray roots of Nancy’s hair.
“Are you alright Alex?”
“I’m okay. I think.” Alex paused, “are you okay?”
“Of course. Honey, you gave me a little scare. Maybe you should lay off the caffeine a bit, it can give you heart palpitations.”
Shit was Nancy right? The thought of having to give up coffee was more than Alex wanted to cope with this morning. However, she knew she had been drinking more than her usual 2 cups a day as of late and maybe she did need to lay off a bit. She was a petite woman at 5 foot even. More than two cups and she was wired for the rest of the day. She headed up to the coffee bar and reasoned she would settle for decaf this morning, hoping the placebo effect would take place giving her the same boost without the weird side effects.
Alex prayed no one would be up there. She didn’t need any more pre-coffee, corporate small talk. She jogged up the stairs, feeling hopeful until she saw Sean fiddling with the Keurig. Alex’s chest tightened up realizing she’d have to chat with the last person she cared to see that morning, or ever.
“Hey Alex, how are you?” He asked as he looked up from the machine, spewing hot coffee in fits and spurts. He got some on his right hand and sucked it off. Alex tried not to focus on his mouth, his full lips, his slightly unkempt pompadour. Bad memories.
She kept her eyes focused off towards the staircase while she replied, “fine, how are you?”
“Uh, can I get through?”
“Yeah, yeah of course,” he said.
Alex awkwardly squeezed past him to the less-used, standard coffee pots. She wasn’t about to wait around until he was done fixing something that was clearly broken beyond his control.
“Dammit!” He murmured sharply. Alex jumped at the exclamation. “I got some on my shirt. Guess I didn’t pick the best day to wear white.” He grabbed a napkin and tried to scrub out the coffee. He was donning a long sleeve white and black striped sweater. Alex always had a thing for that look, even before she met him. It was probably stupid, but the stripes felt European and sexy. When he walked into a co-worker’s birthday party in that shirt, with dark wash slim jeans and that just-tousled-enough hair, she knew it was over.
“Yeah, that’s too bad, it’s a nice shirt,” she said.
Alex had secured her coffee and was making the awkward squeeze back through the coffee bar. She didn’t care to feel her body against his. The physical touch made her sick to her stomach.
“Have a good one,” she said.
“Yeah, you too,” he responded, still laser focused on the ugly brown blot on his sweater.
Just as Alex was about to head down the stairs, she heard a woman’s scream from the floor below, “someone call 911! She can’t breathe!”
Alex shot a concerned glance at Sean. He put the napkin down and they both ran down the flight of stairs. There was a group of about 12 people huddled around something. As the group shifted, Alex caught a glimpse of the houndstooth pattern of Nancy’s dress. Alex pushed through them feeling like she knew exactly what it was she was about to see.
And she was right.
There lying on the ground, gasping for air was the woman who had just minutes ago been prattling on about baked goods and Ray Ray. She was clutching her chest and mouthing one word over and over again, “HELP.”
Alex’s mind was a mess of confusion. How did she see this? How did she know? Was it her fault? Could she have done something? She started hyperventilating. Sean, now next to her in the crowd noticed her look of panic.
“Alex, are you okay? They called 911, there’s nothing we can do.”
Alex looked at him, his bright eyes. He grabbed her by the wrist and in a moment she felt an overwhelming swell of pain, rage and fear starting in her stomach and rushing to her head.
And then the world went black.