The Disappearing Girl (v2)
Iopened my eyes to darkness. The chimes of my alarm hadn’t sounded, and the girl had neglected to wake me from oversleeping. The television was blaring. One of the shopping channels judging by the cadence of the presenter’s voice. I wandered from the bedroom to the kitchen, following the delicious aromas of a freshly cooked meal, only to find a mess of pots and pans, a half-empty glass of wine, and no girl.
“Hullo?” I called in a hoarse whisper. I wrinkled my brow, trying and failing to recall the girl’s name. “Princess,” I said instead. “Are you home?”
I entered the front room and turned off the television. Oddly, the outside door was ajar. I peered into the night, looking down into the small walled garden at the front of my apartment building, and saw nothing amiss. I shut the door and made sure that it was locked.
The girl must have returned home, prepared dinner, and left again in a hurry. Had she been disturbed by somebody? I imagined that I had heard raised voices and a slammed door as I slept, but I was unable to remember anything more than that. Goosebumps prickled my skin.
I returned to the kitchen and ate what remained of the girl’s meal, which was still warm, and drained her wine glass. Why would she have have left the apartment in such a state? Where could she have gone? I pondered these questions as I showered, dressed and made preparations for my journey to the factory.
On my way out of the bathroom I noticed a book laying on the bedside table. Uncertain of how it had come to be there, I picked it up to get a closer look at the girl on its cover. She was familiar. Great waves of relief washed over me as I realised that I had finally found the princess I was seeking.
Smiling broadly, I set off for the factory, the strange book firmly in my grasp.
The night was gloomy. Humidity amplified every sound, and transformed every streetlight into a glowing bloom. I walked through the silent streets, my footfalls flat and echoless, sucking the warm, damp air into my lungs as my legs scissored through its thickness.
I rounded a corner, and there it was. The library stood dark and quiet, a dim light shining from somewhere within. Slowly I walked up the pathway toward the slotted door, intending to deliver the book to the lady within, the first step on my quest to rescue the princess.
A leafy bush rustled in surprise at my trespass, and a large black cat sprang from its belly. The animal stood and hissed at me, blocking my approach, slitted yellow eyes betraying a lack of emotion.
I blinked in astonishment and the cat momentarily appeared to be dead, its head crushed upon the pathway, its pink brains splattered. Bile rose in my throat as I was overcome with feelings of shame and remorse. Doubling over I coughed and retched, my palms suddenly slick with cold sweat. I raised my head to look the poor creature in the eye.
“Sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry!”
The cat stood its ground and mewed forlornly. Panicking, I turned and fled.
I stumbled through the front entrance of the factory later than usual and rushed to take my place at an anonymous work station. The others cast angry scowls at me as I wiped my chin and steadied my laboured breath.
The pile of incoming requests had grown significantly during my absence. Hands shaking, I resumed my shuffling from the night before, rushing to make up for my tardiness, the immediacy of the task before me pushing away all conscious thought.
Under the harsh gaze of the others I mustered a speed and dexterity I had thought unattainable. The rate of growth of the pile of work before me slowed, then stopped, then reversed. I was satisfied with my progress, confident I had recovered from my late arrival.
The supervisor approached me, his face a frowning mask of hostility, and slammed a rejection notice from compliance on the desk. I mumbled an apology and stopped what I was doing to correct the oversight as the supervisor hovering around me, visibly unimpressed. I finished the rework and handed over the results, which were snatched from my grasp without a word. Chastened, I resumed my shuffling.
I toiled steadily throughout the night, making sure to check and re-check my results before submitting them for approval. This slowed me down somewhat, but I was glad to find that I was still completing my tasks more quickly than new requests were arriving. In fact, very few new requests had been added to my pile of work since the supervisor’s silent reprimand.
Delicious smells of hot, fresh food filled the room. I looked up from my work, my stomach growling, and waited for the cart to pass my station. When it did I ordered a plate of rice and pink, fatty meat, along with a tall glass of iced tea. I began devouring my meal, pushing aside the paper pill cup placed beside my plate, choosing to forego these artificial aids.
I finished my meal and took a long drink of the tea, glancing around the room as I did so. The clock on the wall indicated that I had five minutes to spare before resuming my work. I needed to use the bathroom, and as I arose my fingers brushed against an unfamiliar object resting beneath the surface of my work station. I pulled out the strange book, memories of princesses and black cats flooding back as I did so.
I sat in a bathroom stall and regarded the book, properly examining the illustration of the girl embedded on its cover. Something about it bothered me. The spartan white sheets that draped her body weren’t patterned deliberately, but had been flecked with something. Blood? No, too dark, more like splashes of black ink, like some kind of Rorschach Test.
Opening the book, I flicked through its first few pages. One of them was stamped with a blurry purple logo and the address of the library. I was pleased at this discovery, and resolved to return it on my journey home. I turned the pages to the beginning of the first chapter, and began to read.
“‘Follow me’, she beckoned,” the book began. Such words held little promise.
My phone rang loudly, its shrill voice echoing around the bathroom. I fumbled for it and answered the call.
“Hullo?” I whispered. “Who is this?”
A voice sighed loudly.
“Why do you keep doing this to me Jay?”
Jay. That was my name, I remembered. The girl sounded flustered. Her voice was distant, and there was a faint echo on the line, as if she were sitting at the bottom of a deep well, speaking to me standing far above her.
“I think you might have the wrong number,” I offered.
“Listen to me,” the girl replied. “It’s over. Over!”
I stared at the black-and-white tiles between my feet. The borders between them blurred into grey smears as my eyes unfocused. The door to the bathroom slid open with a faint hum. Had someone just entered, or had they just left? Hard to say.
I whispered into the phone. “What is it? What are you talking about?”
“You never tell me anything! You wander the streets all night, ignoring me, sobbing in your sleep. I can’t take it anymore!”
A toilet flushed and, soon afterwards, a faucet hissed into life only to be abruptly silenced again. Footsteps passed my stall, and whomever it had been exited the bathroom, their business concluded.
I spoke freely now. “What do you mean? Do we know each other?”
“Know each other? I’ll say we know each other!”
I glanced at the book, now closed and resting on my knee. “Follow me,” the girl on its cover seemed to say. I thought of the library and the cat.
“Princess,” I said. “Is that you?”
“You bastard,” the girl said, her voice cracking. “Don’t you dare do this.”
“Don’t leave,” I pleaded, tears welling in my eyes. “Please!”
“It’s too late, I already have. I’m gone.”
I started sobbing, unable to accept what I was being told.
“Why, princess? Why? I don’t understand?”
The girl answered quickly, her tone businesslike.
“Stop calling me that. My name is Julie. And fuck you, get out of my life.”
She cut the call before I could reply. I fell forward onto my knees, the book and my phone dropping to the tiles and skidding underneath the gap at the bottom of the toilet door. My quest had failed. The princess was lost.
I bunched my hair in my fists and cried in anguish.
Taking a few deep breaths I pulled myself to my feet and opened the door of the stall. The supervisor stood silently before me. He held my book and phone in one hand, a thick wad of rejection slips in the other. A scowl sat upon his face. How much had he heard, I wondered?
I brushed past him, turning toward the sink, where I washed my hands and splashed my face with cold water. I grabbed a bundle of paper towels from the slotted dispenser and dried myself off as best I could, then stared at myself in the mirror, brushing my fingers through my dishevelled hair in a vain attempt to neaten my appearance.
I avoided the supervisor’s gaze in the reflection as I straightened the security pass lassoed around my neck.
He approached me from behind, the rejection slips now pinned under his arm, his hand outstretched in silent demand. I made no protest. I turned, lifted the lanyard from my shoulders, and held the security pass out to him. He snatched it from me, offering my book and phone in exchange.
I walked out of the bathroom without a word, glad to finally be free of my prison, yet hopelessly crushed by the loss of the princess.
I wandered home, tired and frustrated and dogged by a deep feeling of ineptitude mixed with a desperate desire to make amends.
A poisonous cocktail.
I passed the chocolate-biscuit library. The sprinklers were on, a gentle breeze was blowing, and a glint of orange sunlight from the rising sun lit the water-jeweled front windows. I considered the strange book in my hand. It belonged here.
I walked slowly up the pathway towards the return slot, zig-zagging to avoid sprays of water, on constant alert for black cats and the sudden onrush of hidden gorilla-men. But my progress was unhindered.
As I neared the door I noticed something pinned to the weeping window. A bright, colourful poster that advertised a writer’s workshop or something of the sort. It beckoned me. Curious, I made a small detour from my intended route to inspect it in detail.
“Everyone has a story to tell,” it declared excitedly. “Now it’s your chance!”
I heard the library door swing open. I turned quickly to see the lady of the library standing there, arms folded neatly in front of her, regarding me with welcoming sympathy. She was alone. My heartbeat quickened.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m so glad you’ve decided to come at last!”
I held up the book in front of me.
“I… I seek the princess. This is she.”
The lady held the door open for me. I walked toward her slowly, still on my guard, offering her the book as I approached. She accepted it gratefully, taking it into her stewardship, and welcomed me into her realm.