- This piece was written as part of a course I am taking on the FutureLearn online study platform: Start Writing Fiction. As a means of getting feedback, I have decided to publish my first piece for this course on my blog. This short story and the characters in it could be the basis for something longer. I haven’t decided yet where this will go. Any constructive feedback is welcome!
With a protracted and desperate inhalation and jarring sense of terror, Kevin’s eyes spasmed open as though it was a matter of life and death. Upon realizing he was awake, he sat up on his futon to revisit his novel, yet ennervating, surroundings.
He had arrived in this city with very little to his name; some clothing and toiletries, a dark navy suitcase that his parents had given him, a pack of cigars that he had bought at the gasoline stand back home, a used wooden chair whose varnish was resisting the urge to peel off in its struggle against the passage of time, the type of standard issue blue, BIC ballpoint pen that one would usually get given at a government office or DMV to fill out some bureaucratic form, a mattress, some pillows and some sheets all in tacky pastel and floral colors, and a fifty page notebook that he purchased at the convenience store across the road. The room he found himself in emblematically dovetailed with his material shortfalls.
The walls in his apartment’s lounge room were straining to be the ebony white they were intended to be, but failed to do so against the enveloping mist of periodic tobacco stains, oil splotches and mildew that adorned them from tenants past. They resembled river banks hugging the brown lino floor that felt like a rippling, dirty river flowing towards the curtainless sliding patio door window which in turn connected to the balcony that peered out to the grey, ad hoc collection of garages, welding shops and girly bars that was his new home. The once resonant and purifying natural landscape had now metastasized into rivers of concrete the color of week old meat with weeds growing like hair sprouting out the end of a wart on a witch’s nose poking intermittently though its sporadic cracks.
Kevin was someone you hoped that fate would be kind to. His friends often used him as a benchmark for their perceived financial, and by extension, moral superiority, but here was always a need to connect with others ingrained in him that was endearing to them. His pale blue eyes pulsed with a hesitance that was juxtaposed by the unconvincing smile that he constantly maintained. His outward bearing was one that pleaded for harmony from those he encountered. For conciliation. For acceptance.
His fight to be loved was a battle he wanted to quit for years, but one that he had been psychologically incapable of abandoning. The struggle he’d been waging internally was now being manifested in his external appearance. His clothing was anodyne, conservative and mostly new, yet often mismatching and rarely ironed. Pale, balding, ginger haired but with a rat’s tail growing at the back that was starting to give Riff Raff from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ a run for his money, partially bearded and ruddy faced, the years of stress had invaded his face in a tide of redness and wrinkles. His preferred escape route from the battlefield in his head, alcohol, had contributed to his accelerating decline into physical old age. And the drinking culture he had embraced since moving here had allowed him to pull the cord on his escape chute with a regularity he wasn’t used to.
However, he was here for a reason. His life back in his longtime hometown had been one of torment. Of victimization. Of self-doubt and self-loathing. Life experiences had bestowed upon him a subliminal desire to make sure that others need not suffer as he did. It’s why he chose to move here to complete an undergraduate degree in law with the aim of becoming a criminal prosecutor. The reason why he chose a place so far away was apparent to him, but not one that he could consciously acknowledge. It was white noise to his existence
It wasn’t until he stepped off the train and headed towards the nearby bus station that his mood started to perk up. The change in environment, as well as the accompanying enigmatic company it provided, armed him with a momentary burst of positive energy.
She was always there, reliably standing beside him in the line of deflated humanity for the bus he took to work.
Kevin was sure she must know who he was. How could she not? They’d spoken once when the train they both took prior to getting onto their connecting bus was delayed. But that was almost like an unspoken yet belated acknowledgement of their shared commute and their mutually acknowledged existence in this geographical space and historical epoch. After that brief exchange, every day afterwards saw her engrossed in her ever present smartphone, housed in its dark Vivienne Westwood case, to listen to music, skim SNS or to do whatever people do to distract themselves from the hum drum that holds urban commuting together.
She looked very prim and proper, and wore her hair short and her dresses like a slightly updated version of an American midwestern 1950’s housewife; save that she dressed in dark, conservative colors. But there was more to her than she let on that was obscured by the aura of ice emanating from her. Was this instinctual or inculcated? The frustration of not being able to answer this question was heightened by her COVID enforced wearing of a disposable surgical mask for as long as they had rode the same bus together. Kevin had never actually seen her totally unobscured face. He’d heard her demure voice, noticed her curvy figure adorned in the generic office friendly fare she wore, observed her slavish submersion in her phone. Yet the picture was still incomplete. She always took a seat in front of him, allowing him only a view of the back of her head. Upon sitting down, she inexorably proceeded to remove her mask and wipe away the sweat that had accumulated during the humid summer mornings from around her mouth and lips. It felt surreptitiously provocative; as though she didn’t want him to glance upon the final piece of the puzzle; as though she wished to obscure the final humanizing and vulnerable piece of her. Kevin’s imagination could only extemporaneously fill in the blanks, but his curiosity couldn’t be satisfied.
In Kevin’s mind, she was likely married. A husband, or male companion of greater gravitas and nobler bearing than he, occasionally accompanied her to work, thus making her an unlikely conversation partner for a humble university student, albeit a mature age one, like him. She, like much of humanity, was to remain at arm’s length; a mystery unsolved. He could never take the next step to put his feelings on the line. Every time he opened himself up to someone, he had gotten burnt. All he could do on this occasion was re-open the Irvine Welsh book he had brought with him, and wait for the stop that delivered him to campus.