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The fire alarm sounded more like a foghorn, a blunt and continuous column of brutal noise. At 2:30 AM, most of the apartment building’s residents were asleep, and had to jump up with a start out of bed. Rick, however, had gotten caught up in an intense (and lengthy) online argument about the viability of interstellar colonization, and was looking up material to use in his next salvo when the sudden droning broke into his private thoughts. In truth, this was his usual sleep patterns, staying up until the small hours, then dropping dead on his couch and waking up a bit after noon. He rarely slept in his bed, for reasons that didn’t make much sense even to him.
It was the third fire alarm of that year, and Rick assumed that it was caused, like all the others, by drunken late-night cooking or a forgetful smoker or a duplicitous fog bank. Still, he went through his carefully-prepared routine, trying to stick the alarm in the back of his mind as he neatly packed his laptop case full of his most cherished possessions: computer, external hard drive, smart phone, a slim case of rare Magic: the Gathering cards, and a signed copy of Snow Crash. With that bag slung over his shoulder he began calmly making his way down the stairs, passed the alternately panicked and sleepy people jabbing at elevator buttons.
There was a crowd of people in the cold courtyard of the building, in various states of underdress. One joker had wrapped himself only in a towel, but seemed to be currently regretting his attempt at humour. There was this strange sociality caused by the alarm. People gathered in groups, caught up with neighbours they hadn’t talked to in a while, made jokes and pressed together for warmth. Many of them were even smiling.
And then there was Rick, on the outside. He didn’t know any of these people. It seemed tremendously silly to make friends with people he had nothing in common with, simply because they happened to live close to him. He kept to himself,, and as long as he could get to his apartment he would be fine. He had an endless array of entertainment there — the Internet, of course, as well as a constant stream of the latest video games and movies. Rick went out occasionally, to tournaments and conventions and the dreadful parties of polite ex-coworkers, but he could go for weeks on his own without ever longing for company.
Here and now, with all those entertainments taken away, though, he discovered a strange feeling of loneliness. Even if the nattering of all the moms, with children pressing into their knees, was totally vapid and dull (as he was sure it was)… he wanted to be in that conversation. It was stupid. It was a fire alarm. It wasn’t a goddamn social occasion.
But he felt it, and the stupidity of that feeling made him even more frustrated. Tiring of the cold, Rick waited for a place to take shelter and wait until the firemen came to declare the obviously not-burning building a false alarm. The street was a patchwork of apartments and stores, but the only window with a light in it was the all-night Shopper’s Drug Mart half a block down. He headed towards it.
Evidently Rick wasn’t the only one with this idea, as the aisles of the store were jammed with the same chattering groups of stranded people as there were in the courtyard. Rick sighed and contented himself with the warmth. Some people had bought snacks from the store, one cluster of hipsters ravaging a box of granola bars, but for the most part they loitered. The store attendant looked on the sudden crowd in a daze, as though she was trying to determine whether or not she was in a dream.
Rick paced the store. There were a few other singletons there, generally strange-looking men with haunted eyes, although those might have been vagrants off the street. They didn’t make Rick feel better. Ah well. Who cared what these people did or thought, anyway?
There was a small stand of top 40 books across from a sale on shampoo. Something to read would help pass the time. Rick picked out
(if it was
, it had to be good, right?) and sat down on the dirty white floor to read it. He tried to find a way to lean against the precarious cardboard stand without knocking it over completely.
“I wouldn’t bother with that one. The author’s a hack.”
Rick looked up. It was a woman, and clearly not one who had gotten out fully prepared. She was wearing a brown bathrobe that looked as though it had seen better days, with the hint of a black nightgown beneath it. The loose ends of the robe swished in front of Rick’s face. Up past that woolly expanse was the face of the middle-aged woman, wrinkles just beginning to show, a few streaks of grey in her curly black hair. A quartet of dimples was arranged in her right cheek like a constellation. She looked entirely interchangeable with the moms grouped in gaggles that Rick had consciously done his best to ignore.
The woman kept staring, and rick realized that she was expecting an answer. “Oh, um, thanks. I wasn’t expecting much, really, but I thought it’d keep me escort kocaeli amused while we waited for, you know, the alarm.”
“You’re from my building?” said the woman. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to tell. You look like you’re ready to go out to work.”
“I guess I am,” he said. “I work from home. Freelance.”
“That must be nice.”
Rick shrugged. “It has its advantages. I mean, no one’s watching the clock or anything — I just have to get stuff done. Beyond that, I’m free.” He stopped suddenly. Why was he telling this woman he didn’t know about his life? She probably wasn’t even interested. “I’m sorry. Why are you talking to me?”
She looked a bit taken aback at the question, but not angry. “Why? I dunno. To make conversation. You looked kind of lonely and, like you said, you gotta kill time.”
“I wasn’t lonely,” Rick said quickly.
“My apologies then.” The woman extended her hand. “My name’s Jackie. Room 809.”
“Rick. Room 807.”
Jackie’s hand hung in the air for a minute before she let it fall to her side. “Wow, you’re two doors down! I can’t believe we haven’t met.”
“I don’t really socialize much.”
“Me neither, to tell you the truth.” Jackie moved her pinky to subtly point to the mom group cackling about something. “I’m not really the PTA meeting type.”
Rick was beginning to get annoyed at this woman. The conversation seemed maddeningly superficial. He was sure he would never see her again, so what was the point of introductions? Still, he saw no plausible excuse to extract himself from the situation.
“What do you think is the story with all these alarms?” Jackie said, watching the flickering fire-truck lights give the darkness a strange red tinge.
Rick shrugged. Another pointless question. “They’re too sensitive, I think. I had the same thing in my dorm in college.”
Jackie crouched down next to him, and Rick instinctively shifted away. Her flabby, stubbly legs repulsed him in a way he couldn’t quite define. “You want to know a secret?” He shrugged again. “One time it was me. I was kind of hung over, and I was trying to make oatmeal, but I forgot to put the water in. Next thing you know, the place is full of smoke.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much, then.”
“This was one time, okay? It was after my girlfriend’s birthday.”
“You’re a lesbian?”
Jackie looked taken aback, which had been pretty much the goal of the remark. “No. Girlfriend, as in my best friend. It’s just an expression. Not that I have anything against, you know, gay people…” She trailed off.
Awkward silence, Rick’s kingdom, reigned. He flipped through the pages of the paperback bestseller. It really did look like a piece of shit, he thought.
Jackie stood up abruptly, and in the process her bathrobe flared up. Rick couldn’t help but look up to catch a glimpse. He could see her bare thighs, and a glimpse of a puffy triangle of brown hair. He hated when women grew out their pubic hair like that. Keep it bald, or just have a little landing strip, like everyone else, he thought. But then, the only time he saw anything like that was in porn that thought it was being au naturel or whatever.
“I think we can go back in now,” she said.
She pointed to the crowd down the block, which was slowly filing into their building. If Rick turned his head to an awkward angle, he could see the bored firemen piling into their vehicle. He got up and grabbed his bag.
“You going to sleep after this, Mister Night Owl?” said Jackie.
Rick didn’t like her teasing tone. It sounded too familiar, like she hadn’t just met him five minutes ago. Or maybe it was ten by now. It was hard to gauge time within awkward silences. “Maybe. Probably not. If anything, this probably just woke me up more.”
They shuffled out of the pharmacy’s automatic doors. “Me, I need to be up at six to get to work. Hopefully I can get back to sleep… normally I take a pill, you see, but I already took one this evening, and I don’t know if it’s okay to take two…”
God, how could she be talking about her medication and intimate habits? They had just met. You didn’t share your personal habits and embarrassments with someone you just met. If you could help it, you didn’t share them at all.
Of course, since they were on the same floor they were together until they got to their rooms, much to Rick’s chagrin. Jackie reminded him of the middle-aged students from university (there was one in every class) who never stopped talking about their lives and their kids. They did a strange little dance when standing in the mob that had formed in front of the elevators. Jackie suggested taking the stairs, Rick said that he would wait and tried to wave goodbye, Jackie decided to wait with him because she really didn’t feel like taking seven flights in her robe, Rick said he would take the stairs then, and in the end they both ended up pulling themselves up the long stairwell with its stucco halls and flickering white lighting.
“You know,” kocaeli anal yapan escort said Rick, as he hauled his flabby body up the last flight. “If we had waited for the elevators we would be there by now.”
“I guess,” said Jackie. “But this feels so much more productive than waiting, doesn’t it?”
Rick grumbled some guttural rebuttal and wheezed his way up to the top step. A rush of dizziness hit him, and he was afraid he might fall down, but he managed to stumble his way towards the door to the eighth floor. “I need to exercise more,” he said in between pants.
“Me too,” said Jackie, who was less sweaty but looked equally winded. They both laughed.
They were back in the comfortable and generic off-white hallway, where their doors sat nearby. The floor was quiet save for some faint laughing, presumably at the circumstances, from behind a closed door. “Well,” said Jackie as she reached room 809. “After all of this excitement and exercise, I’m sure I won’t be able to get any sleep.”
Rick shrugged. “Well, hopefully you will. Good n–“
“I gotta take all this energy out on something, I guess.” Jackie jerked her head towards her door ever so slightly.
Rick blinked quickly. Wait, was she — no, she couldn’t be. It was just his imagination. But was she– no. No way.
“Well, good luck with that. Bye.”
Jackie was halfway through a suggestion that they should talk more sometime, be neighbourly, when Rick sidestepped quickly into his apartment and swung the door shut behind him. He felt as though he had escaped a savage predator. But of course, she hadn’t wanted to fuck him. That would be gross. Honestly, did she think he was that desperate?
Well, he was that desperate. But not for her. He wanted a pretty young girl, someone who was smart and soulful and would accept him for who he was, virginity and all. And that girl had to be coming along soon. He had been waiting for decades.
Jackie’s heart was spasming as she let herself into her apartment. God, as if she hadn’t made enough of a fool of herself running around on the street in just her robe. At her age she had imagined she was past spontaneous flings with younger men. And to be rejected, not just then but through all her attempts to make conversation… she felt ugly. Monstrous.
Of course, Rick was no prince himself. He was known around the apartment complex as a weird loner, a pudgy geek-boy growing into a fat boy-man. Antisocial in the extreme, and rather obnoxious about it.
But there was something about him that drew Jackie to him. Maybe she sensed some kind of untapped potential. Maybe he was the closest thing to a bad boy she could find in her relentlessly polite social sphere. Or maybe it was just the weird tumblers of her libido doing their usual spinning.
Jackie tried to shake it out of her head. He wasn’t worth getting upset about, no matter how strangely cute she found his acne scars. What she needed to worry about now was getting more than three hours of sleep for her shift tomorrow. Being the manager meant that you could doze off a bit in your office, but it was still better to be up and at’em. The problem was that she didn’t feel tired at all.
She went over to Dante’s cage and offered him some food. The iguana, appearing to be disturbed by the loud noises, immediately got up and trod over to the pellets. “All I need is you, right?” said Jackie. “No stinky boys necessary.” Dante looked up at her skeptically, as if aware that she had left him to possibly die in a fire.
She had been living like this for twenty years, she thought. Every year she thought that soon she would get married and move into a big house and start pumping out babies, although that had become biologically unlikely. But every year it just didn’t happen, and she contented herself to this. It was a nice way to live, she thought. Screw what other people thought. If living independently was so great when you were in your 20s, why did that have to change as the years went on? And the years only seemed massive in hindsight — when lived through, they had seemed to slip through her fingers.
But it didn’t comfort Jackie. She was sure that was just the weight of societal expectation bearing down on her, the arbitrary pain she felt whenever she did something un-feminine. In any case, now was not the time to be pondering the direction of her life. Now was the time to go back to bed.
She lay there, under the covers, hands pressed to her side as if to make her a smooth missile to fly to the land of slumber. But the thoughts just kept coming, no matter how hard she mentally batted them away. It was a reckoning, a self-confrontation like something out of a banal nightmare.
The next time Rick and Jackie ran into each other was a few days later, when they both left their apartments at the same time. Rick looked at her suspiciously. How was it that you could be unaware of people for months, and then they just suddenly kept izmit yabancı escort showing up?
“Good morning,” Jackie said. “Where are you off to?”
“The bank,” Rick said stiffly, choosing not to give any details.
“I see.” Jackie’s lips pursed for a while as if searching for something interesting to say, and failing. “I’m going to work.”
Rick nodded and stared at the elevator door. The creaky metal box began its slow descent. Rick had always wished that the elevator went faster than its gentle chugging, but never so much as now. There was something about this woman that really got under his skin.
“Do you know Jeff and Don?” she said.
“They live in 802. Anyway, they’re having a floor party soon — I forget what the occasion is, but they always manage to find one whenever things get too dull. You wanna come?”
Rick instantly thought back to his first year of college, when he had been foolish enough to sign up for a dorm in hopes of making friends and transforming himself into a cool college guy. He had ended up with a boisterous jock roommate, constantly chasing him out of the room so that he could score with drunk chicks. Rick had wandered those floor parties in a haze, sat in corners watching beer-pong games silently, and occasionally been roped into conversations where he was the unacknowledged butt of every joke. They didn’t bully or insult him like the idiots in high school — they just treated him like a joke, a comedic character who had been by stroke of good fortune placed in their lives. The girls, identical in their bleach-blonde hair and trendy clothing, had looked at him like a cute pet as he silently lusted after them.
But most of the time he had spent his parties curled up in his hard dorm bed, staring at a computer screen, trying to ignore the raucous sounds outside. Sometimes he would make snide commentary in his head, subjecting the moronic conversations of his alleged peers to the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment. How many times could they play the same song, for instance? And why did someone always end up having to be talked out of the bathroom at 3 AM, when he had class the next morning? He had decided, in the end, that college was just the same assholes from high school all over again.
And he suspected that if he got to know his neighbours, the “average Joes” of the “real world”, it would be yet another iteration of the same assholes. So, in short, he did not want to go to a “floor party”.
“I think I’m busy then.”
Jackie smiled. “I haven’t even told you what time it is yet.”
“Oh. Well when is it?”
“Tonight at 8.”
“Like I said. Busy.”
Jackie smiled. She looked like one of those do-gooder teachers who was always encouraging him to join some kind of club. “Yeah right. I’m going to drag you there, I hope you know.”
“Joy.” His voice was sarcastic but, for some stubbornly illogical reason, Rick felt a genuine tinge of relief, and maybe even happiness, within his chest.
The truth of the matter was, Rick didn’t work that much anymore. In college he had invented a time-saving algorithm while fooling around during one of those late lonely nights, and had the good sense to patent it. It was a bit of code that didn’t do much on its own but made everything a bit easier — a bit of universal lubricant, as he described it, which in turn optimized output. It was now widely used, and the residuals from that were enough to keep Rick afloat by themselves, especially given his generally low expenses. (All he really needed to live was a small apartment, a good computer with a good Internet connection, and a supply of instant food. He wouldn’t know what to do with more luxury.)
He took a couple freelance programming jobs here and there, and tooled around on a role-playing game that was and would probably forever remain a pet project, but for the most part his life was easy. Once upon a time, he had thought that a life like that would be heavenly, and he did enjoy most of his days. It was only when he looked back on months and years that he felt a kind of hollowness, or perhaps just a sense of waste. It was like that one Star Trek episode with the flowers that drugged you.
Rick had just spent twenty minutes in a meeting with a banker younger than him, one of those preppy types who expected to rule the world in a couple years. Rick explained over and over again that he just wanted safe investments, but the banker had kept trying to sell him some sketchy high-profit derivatives, until finally Rick had to threaten to literally just take his excess cash and shove it under a mattress. God, he hated dealing with people.
“Rick? Rick Dinsmore?”
He wheeled his head around, and caught his breath. It had been — God, it had to have been a decade since he had seen Megan, but he knew instantly that it was her. She had let her dark hair grow out long, and filled out her previously scrawny form a bit since he had last seen her. That had been at an end-of-summer LAN party where their weird band of dorks and outsiders had played FPSs all night, desperately trying to fuse together before the gravitational forces of college scattered them across the country irrevocably. She looked more conventional now, but maybe that was just because she was at the bank.
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