She stretched out her muscles as far as they'd go before getting up from the couch. The apartment's only illumination was from the television but Alisen was reluctant to turn on any lights - in part because it was late and she didn't want her eyes to overload but equally because she couldn't afford to use any extra electricity. Besides, the TV - even just static - provided comfort in a way that a simple lightbulb just couldn't.

By instinct alone she navigated through the floor's detritus: dirty clothes were okay to step on, empty potato chip bags were okay to step on, old newspapers and magazines were okay to step on. Books were not. Compact discs were not. Sharp things were likewise not okay to step on, although Alisen still managed to catch the lead of a mechanical pencil in the sole of her bare foot.

She reached the window and drew the curtains. Late as it was, the room instantly brightened. Sodium lamps thirteen floors below shone onto the thin patches of snow covering the streets and reflected up at the clouds, turning the whole sky into a weird orange radiative blanket enveloping the city. It never gets dark, Alisen thought. Not really. She wanted to look at the stars but there weren't any.

Now with a little extra light to work with Alisen stepped back across the floor into the adjoining kitchen. Some water was left in the kettle so she plugged it in. No need to tempt fate by trying the faucet. A teabag lay drying on the countertop, only used once, so she picked up a mug from the dishrack and dropped it in. Stale water and previously-used teabag would make inferior tea but she couldn't be bothered. She went to the cupboard in search of sugar and something to help with her headache.

Sugar she found with little trouble; it was in a pretty distinctive container, a ceramic bowl that had probably been an early Twentieth Century pharmacist's mortar. She'd found it at a garage sale for ten cents. The word HEROIN printed on its side. The other thing wasn't as easy. A number of little white pill bottles populated the cupboard, and even with the additional light from outside she couldn't quite manage to make out the words typed on their labels. Her eyesight wasn't what it used to be and glasses were expensive. She removed two likely suspects from the cupboard and went back over to the TV set to inspect them more closely.

Holding the little bottles up to the screen she could now see by the static's glow that the one in her left hand said Ibuprofen and in her right said Diazepam. Just as the kettle began to steam she returned to the kitchen and laid down the bottles on the countertop. She unplugged the kettle and poured water over the teabag in the mug. If you really wanted the tea to infuse properly that was the way you had to do it. At so many coffee shops they could never seem to understand that. Such a simple thing, she thought: just pour the water over the teabag, rather than dipping the teabag into the water. Yet they always give you that look if you request it be done that way, like you're being so unreasonable. Of course, loose tea is the far superior option. As she watched the reused teabag stain the old hot water a light orange like the lamps outside, the irony of her tea snobbery did not escape her.

Her teapot had broken several weeks ago when she'd elbowed it off the table.

After precisely four minutes she removed the teabag from the mug with a spoon and set the bag back down on the counter. She used the same spoon to shovel up sugar from the bowl, thousands of white grains adhering to the wet metal, and tilted it into the mug, enjoying the enjoying the sound that each of three spoonsful made as they hit the hot tea's surface. Foof, foof, foof. She stirred counterclockwise, the same direction as the rotation of the Earth. Watching it whirl, she poured into her palm four cylindrical white tablets with their bevelled edges, two from each bottle, threw them into her mouth followed by a gulp of hot tea.

In a few minutes she'd be feeling much better.

Back to the window, she opened it a crack. Wind blew into the apartment - cold, but not freezing. A wind perfectly suited to cooling down her tea. Winter had been mercifully mild. Snow outside was melting. There was actually rain in the predictions this week, although it had thus far failed to materialize. Inaccurate forecasts annoyed her and, irrational as she knew it was, it took effort not to hold personal grudges against professional meteorologists. The future, she had to repeat to herself, was not so easy to know, was not written in tea leaves. The future was a chaotic system. All that Jurassic Park kind of stuff.

She looked out the window, down the thirteen floors from her fourteenth-floor apartment to her car, parked under a lamp post on the street beside the building. Even from this distance it failed to impress. She took another sip from her mug. Beginning to get a little dizzy. Pleasantly dizzy.

A sudden sense of confinement descended. If she remembered correctly, the tank still had some gas. Why not take a nice long drive while the car still belonged to her? There was the small matter of the little bottles having advised against operating heavy machinery while under their influence but she could think about that later.

✩✩✩

Neil Manson woke up for the third or fourth time that night, just like when he'd been an angry, crank child, but now there was no one to comfort him. Ideas for his dissertation marathoned in his mind, and he was too tired to catch them. What he really needed was sleep. Restless, he tossed in his bed, turned his blanket by forty-five degrees, flipped over his pillow, which was just as hot on the other side.

In his mind a vast screen flooded, expanded; he watched his internal word processor compose sentence and paragraphs in their rawest form. But the last thing he wanted at that moment was to get out of bed and write. He'd taught a seminar that morning, the last before the end of the semester and beginning of winter break, and he'd spent the rest of the day packing, preparing for this working vacation. A couple of hours' drive to get out of the city and to his family house, where farms and fields surrounded him rather than lights and cars. Now he was here, alone, and all he wanted was a good night's sleep.

He groaned and pleaded with himself: Tomorrow! Bright and early. But for right now, just a little sleep. He envisioned himself the next morning, as if to convince his brain that he was serious: rested, invigorated, leaping lion-like from his bed, sprinting to the computer, swimming through piles of notes and tearing open books -

Wait. Oh no.

In his mind he saw his primary reference text, the great big shiny blue book on which he was basing most of his paper. He saw it on his desk. In his bedroom.

In the city.

In recognition of his own stupidity Neil slapped his hands over his eyes and was startled by the volume of the sound it produced. He just couldn't believe what he'd done. But he knew it was true. He'd actually left the stupid book at home, hours from here, and he simply couldn't start writing without it.

He drew a deep breath.

No other choice, he'd have to go back into the city and get it. If he sped he could be back here before sunrise. Then a few hours of power-sleep and he'd be rested enough to start writing. That was it. A plan.

Both Neil and the bed creaked as he got up out of it.

He went to the window and gazed at the shadows of trees, the somber lake, everything out there in nature that slept while he couldn't. Only a few of the brightest stars were visible through the labyrinth of clouds coiling across the sky. On a really clear night, from this window you could see to the end of the universe. Neil contemplated driving. He did not look forward to it.

Looks like rain, he thought. Then he thought: what is it we're referring to, exactly, when we say that "it" looks like rain? The sky? But the sky doesn't look like rain. The clouds? They don't look like rain either, though they basically are rain, just in its vaporous state. Just the general sort of state of existence, then. There must be a grammatical term for that. What is it?

This was a fairly typical thought process for Neil.

Admitting defeat, he began to dress for the long ride home.

✩✩✩

19 awoke.


Pretend to FeelWhere stories live. Discover now