Head cocked to one side, Chase stared at his computer screen with vacant disgust. ‘EATING A BALANCED DIET IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF MAINTAINING A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE’, blinked at him, in offensively cheerful green font. Stuck in his stifling office cubicle at Dean Smith and Associates, Chase was not expecting the reaction he was about to have after witnessing management’s ‘inspirational’ quote of the day.
He was still sitting in idle disgust when Steve, the fool in the adjacent cubicle, leant back on his chair and peered into Chase’s space. ‘Nice quote hey Chase? Sure I maintain a balanced diet – food balanced with beer!’ He snorted with laughter and disappeared.
Chase leant back on his orthopedically sound, high backed chair, and ran his hands through his dark brown, curly hair and down his face. Closing his eyes, he prayed for another reality as he furrowed his brow in frustration. When he opened his eyes again the cheerful green words were still smugly staring at him. Irate heat began to well up inside him. It sloshed like a mounting tidal wave in the pit of his stomach, and rose into his chest, antagonising his lungs. He drew in a long, deep breath and held it, trying to fight his anxiety. But it was too strong, and it was rising at an alarming rate.
Chase’s fingers tightened into fists, his nails digging into his skin, which responded by displaying a nasty pattern of red and white. Suddenly he lurched forward and grabbed his desk forcefully with both hands. His face loomed ominously toward the screen that continued to have the sheer audacity not to change its content. Hunched over his computer, face to face with the offending quote, Chase lowered his head and challenged the screen with intense ferocity in his deep brown eyes.
Biting back the overwhelming compulsion to attack the bestial box, he collected his temper and muttered under his breath, ‘I can’t take this anymore. I can’t take it! Go away. Just … go a-w-a-y.’ He waited a moment. Nothing. Chase leant back in exasperation, flinging his hands in the air, shaking his head. ‘This is a fucking joke!’ he mumbled.
After swinging his chair back and forth in short fitful bursts for a while, he sat back and gnawed on his fingernails in desperation. He clenched his fist in front of his mouth to block the stifled whimper that was threatening to escape. He was going to explode. Explode or die. Would that really be so bad? He favoured dying over exploding, but either seemed preferable to staying in this cubicle of hell for a moment longer. Fury was mounting an expedition into his core. Without really realising it, he found himself lunging at his computer and shaking it violently as he twisted in his chair, stamping his feet, with his face contorted in a silent scream.
Abruptly he stopped his tirade. Without any consideration or thought process whatsoever, Chase surprised himself by calmly standing up. He retrieved his brief-case, adjusted his jacket and tie, and walked out of his cubicle with quiet purpose. In a most collected manner he got into the elevator and pressed the number 14 with extra emphasis. The doors beeped and opened. Chase strode briskly up the narrow corridor, and ignoring the receptionist’s feeble enquiry as to what he wanted, waltzed into his boss’ over-sized office.
Aaron Dean was a well-respected and powerful man. He had spent most of his life climbing the rungs to the top of the corporate world. Now that he was happily perched at the top, his primary focus was creating a sense of foreboding awe in his inferiors. He was a strict and methodical planner. He did not like surprises – in fact he preferred to control most things, and most people, in his life.
This is precisely why he was not expecting the unusual event that occurred at 9:23 this Monday morning, and consequently found himself in a most unsettling position of not knowing quite how to react. It was exactly at 9:23am that a man, who Aaron Dean could only assume was an employee, though he could not place him, walked into his office unannounced, whilst he was in a meeting with the also very highly respected Nigel Wilson Senior. Dean and Wilson stared in mild shock and confusion at the unexpected visitor. Chase, on the other hand, simply walked over to the desk at which the men sat, and placed his brief-case emphatically on it. He opened his mouth as if to say something, and then closed it again, not knowing quite how to put his thoughts into words. In no fit state to make verbal sense anyway, Chase walked over to a glass cabinet on the left wall of the office. From it he withdrew an inconceivably expensive bottle of cognac and a glass. Placing the glass on the desk he poured a generous shot and drank it swiftly, letting out an emphatic ‘Ahhh.’ He then picked up his brief-case and started toward the door. A thought occurred to him and he momentarily turned back and grabbed the bottle of cognac with a giant swoop. He stalked out of the office with the pilfered item, and shut the door behind him, leaving Aaron Dean and Wilson Senior staring after him in a state of utter bafflement.
Hope ran a comb carefully through the hair of her second client for the day. A middle-aged woman, probably in her fifties, Hope had finished dying her hair and was about to start cutting. Mary was a new client. That meant a lot of superficial chit-chat. Hope had already established that the woman had three kids, all grown up now, a granddaughter and another grandchild on the way. Hope feigned interest in the woman’s life. Usually she was happy to chat to her clients, and enjoyed the social banter of her job. However, in the last few months she had found it rather annoying and stifling, for reasons she couldn’t identify. It was as though she no longer cared about what these women did or thought. Before she had been genuinely interested, and hadn’t even minded talking about herself a bit – it helped to pass the time. She was a friendly person. So what was happening to her?
As she gently cut Mary’s hair, Hope heard the woman’s voice echoing in her head, but she did not fully register what she was saying. She found herself wishing that Mary would just be quiet and let her do her job in peace. Why wouldn’t she shut-up?!
Suddenly Hope realised that Mary was looking at her in the mirror and had stopped talking. Shit, that meant she had been asked a question. ‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’ she asked politely.
Unperturbed, Mary repeated the question, ‘I said are you married love?’
Hope chuckled. ‘No, no I’m not. I have a boyfriend though, been together for just over four years now.’ It was the standard answer to the standard question. This place was full of standard questions and answers – there was never anything deeper than the ordinary chit-chat, though that seemed to be the case everywhere you went now days.
In response Mary raised her eyebrows. ‘That’s a long time. So when is he going to pop the question?’ She smiled at Hope with stranger-like affection.
Hope felt herself internally shudder at the question. ‘Actually we’ve never even talked about marriage, so I don’t think he’ll be popping the question anytime soon.’ God, she hoped not anyway.
Mary seemed slightly perplexed by this explanation. After a slight pause she said, ‘Do you mind if I ask how old you are love?’
‘Twenty-five’ Hope replied politely.
This time there was no hesitation. ‘Twenty-five, my goodness when I was that age I had already had two kids and I’d been married for seven years! How times have changed, I can barely keep up nowadays! Still you don’t want to wait too long to put a bun in the oven love, it’s the best thing you’ll ever do.’
There was innocent warmth in the comment, but it bothered Hope nonetheless.
As she continued to cut Mary’s hair during the welcome break in conversation, she considered the idea of having a child – with Dean. With Dean? Ridiculous! She couldn’t imagine it ever happening. Sure, she did want those things – a marriage, a family. Yet, try as she may she could not summon up a clear image of a family with Dean, or a future with him at all she realised. This realisation disturbed her deeply. Well if that was the case, then what the hell was she doing?
Chase sat on a bench by the water’s edge in his suit of deceit. He took a nonchalant swig of his near empty bottle of cognac, the very one that he had stolen from his boss’ extensively large liquor collection. Catching his distorted reflection in the glass, he mused that the distorted image was closer to the truth of who he was.
He began to feel insufferably hot. He yanked at his tie, hoping for some kind of welcome release – from the heat, from himself, from this useless planet devoid of meaning. His thoughts were torturous in their clarity. Sinister couplets of self-doubt and fear erected themselves proudly at the forefront of his brain, and effortlessly began to stifle the new, foreign feeling of freedom that had taken up residence there. The feeling of freedom had come from his unexpected morning activities. Yet it was short-lived. The far more familiar feeling of self-loathing thumped through his head, equipped with its brazen machete, itching for a fight. Hot. He was so damn hot. It was stifling. Suffocating.
What a waste of time his life was. This job – this ridiculous way to spend his days – was a fucking joke. There was yearning in him. A deep yearning for more. An indigo coloured, soul driven yearning. Liberation was far beyond necessary. Yet any kind of self redemption seemed impossible to him. At that moment, with those thoughts, Chase believed that his death was inevitable. He had such raging thoughts! Furious wrath was mounting within him again, but stronger this time – much stronger. It was forging its way from his very essence through the confines of his chest. Consuming him. Eating him alive like a pack of merciless piranhas.
Chase couldn’t stand it any longer. Without warning he grabbed his briefcase, which up until this point had been nestled in arrogant comfort by his side, and forcefully threw the unsuspecting item to the ground. The case seemed to him to represent everything that he loathed about his life. It bounced with a great thud, yet audaciously remained intact. Its intactness fuelled Chase’s increasing rage, until it became seething anger that transcended red and smouldered to white ash. Mad, with black, hot pokers stabbing at his insides, Chase ran to the victimised briefcase, picked it up emphatically with both hands, so that his fingers whitened, and violently shook it. Tossing it once more, Chase circled it calmly like prey, panting, with his hands on his hips.
What the fuck was happening to him? The thought of the life he had created for himself manifested a sudden surge of incandescent pure hatred within him. With a muffled squeal of frustration he grappled with the briefcase and slammed it repetitively into the tidy lawn. Still not satisfied with his efforts, the torrent of hatred still pouring out of him like blood, Chase jumped atop the briefcase and crushed it by jumping upon it with all his weight and strength, time and time again, his face contorted with rage. He was, of course, quite oblivious to the curious, disturbed looks thrown his way by the many passers-by, all who did what the rest of humanity would do in such a scenario – briefly surveyed the situation, momentarily considered intervening, thought better of it, and kept walking.
Abruptly ceasing his tirade Chase stood up straight and looked at the water, puffed from his endeavours. A moment of serenity shuffled past in a whisper. Removing himself from his briefcase he examined the damage. There really wasn’t any. If anything the surrounding lawn had suffered more. Chase carefully picked up his abused case and brushed it off gently. Collecting himself with an icy coldness he walked calmly into the water until he was knee deep, submerged the offending case, and stood very matter-of-factly atop it, folding his arms. His eyes drifted out to the horizon. Right … now what?
On her lunch break Hope sat on a bench in the park, thinking about the dinner that had been planned for this coming Sunday. Why had she agreed? It was such a stupid idea! Her family, her real family, and her new ‘biological’ father, all coming together to eat a friendly meal – wasn’t that absurd? It was all Dean’s fault with his stupid optimism! Now she thought about it, she honestly didn’t know if she could go through with it. Why had her dad even suggested it? Why was her dad – or Ian she should say – okay with this new dad coming to his home? And why on earth was her mum going along with it?
It really bothered Hope that her mum was so shady about Jack. She could never seem to extract any kind of meaningful information out of her about what had happened or why neither she, nor her real father, had been told sooner. She practically knew nothing. It was just like, all of a sudden, oh by the way, Ian’s not your real dad, this other guy I had a fling with is, and he doesn’t even know you exist.
It had taken Hope a long time to bring herself to ask her mother to tell Jack the truth. But one day she had woken up and it just seemed like the right thing to do. After all, she had been so resentful at having been lied to for all these years, so surely Jack shouldn’t be kept in the dark any longer. Of course, Hope hadn’t anticipated Jack’s reaction. She thought maybe he would start emailing her – if he wanted anything to do with her at all that was – or maybe come and meet her sometime in the future. She knew he lived in New York, and that had sort of made it easier to tell him the truth, because he was so far away. The last thing she expected was for him to move over here indefinitely. And now that he was here she didn’t know if she wanted him around at all. He seemed so awkward and cold the few times she had met with him. Her mum had come with her the first time, but she had extracted herself from all further meetings under the guise of ‘not wanting to get in the way.’ Hope knew her mother well – Audrey was hiding something, probably lots of things.
Yes, the dinner was a very bad idea. Hope felt sick about it and she wondered why her mother had suddenly shown a change of heart and agreed.
It was long after the water had taken his anger before Chase noticed the boy. Chase had slowly begun to take in the reality of his surroundings – people walking and chatting about nothing, dogs on leads, ambitious joggers in the superficial pursuit of the perfect body, weird meandering birds – and then this kid. Something about him made him stand out like a sore thumb. No, that wasn’t right – more like a diamond in the rough. Chase studied him from afar. He only looked about eighteen, maybe pushing twenty at most. He was leaning against a tree in the dirt, furiously scribbling on some paper. He was barefoot, with scruffy hair. Odd jeans with what appeared to be writing all over them. But it was the intensity of his focus that really caught Chase’s interest. The kid was completely transfixed in his task.
Chase felt the sudden and inexplicable need to approach him. He wouldn’t normally have done so – approach a total stranger for no real reason, let alone a kid – but after the events of earlier that day Chases’ compulsions had lost their ability to surprise him. He was walking over there before he even fully realised what he was doing.
At a safe, respectable distance, the picture the kid was drawing came into focus. Chase became even more curious. ‘Nice picture’, he said nonchalantly.
The kid kept drawing unperturbed. ‘Thankyou. It’s the river.’ He held it up so Chase could see it properly. Chase cocked his head to one side and looked at the myriad of lines, colours and shapes that abstractly danced over the page. Then he glanced over at the very normal looking, placid river.
As if reading his thoughts the kid resumed his work. ‘You’re thinking it looks nothing like the river.’ Chase began to formulate a protesting response, but the kid cut him short.
‘What’s your name?’ The boy asked, as his gaze returned to his art.
‘Hello Chase. I’m Tanner. And yes, to answer your thought, it looks nothing like the river that’s true. But I ask you Chase, does it feel like the river to you?’
Chase was bamboozled. He hadn’t been given a chance to rebuff the claim that it didn’t look right in the first place. In answer to that he would have said that somehow it did look right, that somehow it made sense to him, though he didn’t know why. In fact, it seemed like the only fucking thing that had made sense that day. But the kid’s response really threw him. Does it feel like the river? That was deep.
Rather than answering the question, Chase found himself having to ask the obvious. ‘How old are you?’
Tanner looked up and met his gaze. There was a frightfully intense brilliance in his blue eyes. ‘Eighteen.’ Chase raised his eyebrows in genuine admiration at such depth for so few years.
After a few moments the kid asked, ‘Do you usually swim in a suit?’
The question caught Chase off guard, until he looked down and realised he was in fact soaking wet due to his murderous encounter with the briefcase, which now sat self-righteously at the bottom of the river. Hmmm, how to reply to such a comment? ‘Uhh, no, no I don’t … its just, there was this sort of incident … I just … normally … I think I quit my job today,’ he blathered.
‘You think or you know,’ Tanner said promptly as he kept drawing.
‘Well I stole a bottle of my boss’ finest cognac right in front of him, stormed out and drank the said bottle before I tried, in vain it would seem, to murder my briefcase by beating, battering and drowning it, so … yeah, I’m fairly certain that I quit.’
Chase expected a look of horror or possibly polite dismay. He got neither. Instead Tanner smiled. ‘Magnificent’ he said.
He found himself smiling back. ‘I’m glad you think so.’
Tanner kept making the final touches to his picture. Without looking up he said, ‘Why don’t you try?’
Chase’s reverie of doubt and regret was somehow inexplicably broken by this strange interaction. ‘Try what?’
‘A picture. Not of the river of course. Maybe of your new found sense of freedom.’
Chase laughed. ‘Maybe next time mate.’ The kid was out of his mind – great, a refreshing change – but still out of his mind.
Tanner started packing up his stuff. He got up and threw his backpack over his shoulder. ‘Same time next week then?’ His brilliant blue eyes burned into Chase’s.
Chase stared at him and furrowed his brow in confusion. ‘I’d ask you if you were studying to become a shrink, but by the look of those pants your interest is in history … just a guess, I could be wrong.’
Tanner stared intently at him, no, not at him, into him. ‘Do you need a shrink?’ There was no judgement in the question.
Chase considered it. ‘Man, yesterday I would of said no, but today … a think a whole team of shrinks would love to get their greasy mitts on me and I’m not sure I’d be able to stop them institutionalising me.’
Tanner smiled as he turned away to leave. As he was walking away he looked back and said, ‘Okay, I’m a shrink then. See you next week, same time. I’ll bring extra red pencils for you – I feel there’ll be lots of red involved.’
After the kid had gone Chase stared after him with an exceedingly odd mixture of fascination, insecurity, amusement and confusion. He looked at his watch. One o’clock. One o’clock next Monday? What exactly had just happened here?