Dara Thomas Higgins
Editor’s Note from Janice Leagra: I’m drawn to Dara’s writing, in part, for its sly, deadpan wit and strong voice. Dara’s sharp observations of human foibles make for entertaining reading. His stories can often be dark in subject, yet somehow life-affirming – the reader sees him or herself in Dara’s characters. I appreciate their often self-directed, mordant humor. He’s adept at squeezing comedy out of ordinary life, even amid dark events such as the one featured in this story. From its title to its last line, this story delights.
The first time I saw her I wanted to blurt it out right then and there but it was totally not a good time. It was lunch.
She’d just started here on the 15th floor and we met in the kitchenette. She was waiting for the kettle to boil and I was getting my Muller Light from the fridge. I was entranced, straight off. Like she was a trap I’d stumbled into. Everything about her bit into me, held me fast. Basically I was fucked from then on.
Her skin was pale but soft-hued, even under the harsh fluorescents leaching life from the rest of us. She seemed so very alive in this deadening place, but yet also like some kind of apparition; a dream made flesh. She said “Hi, I’m Annalise,” and held out her hand to shake. It was so small in my paw, her bones felt delicate and hollow. I wanted to tell her I was beholden, but that wasn’t the time, not over a hurried Fruit Corner the very first time we met.
A better opportunity to come clean was when she came along to a work night out in the pub on the corner, a wet Friday evening. The pub was a regular happening. A few of us from the department scoffing crisps for dinner and pouring booze down our necks, bleaching the week from our minds. We laughed at the songs on the jukebox, Abba and Dolly Parton, but we sang along regardless. She told me about her synaesthesia, how Jolene looked blue and Dancing Queen tasted like liquorice. When Ace of Spades came on I thought it would be black or something, but she said it was creamy white, with a rising hum of ochre, the scent of lilies left in the vase too long. My heart flipped, blood pumped in my head. If I don’t say something now, I thought, will I ever? But I went to the jacks and when I came back she’d gone to get the last train. Declarations I’d concocted in my mind dissolved in the dregs of the next fizzy pint.
Another time in the pub (Friday, raining) we spoke at length and were so caught up in the conversation everyone else went on to a club, leaving us on our own. Alone, we delved into the depths of our conversation. I could tell it was an important chat, like one of the few big ones you get in a life. She told me about her ex, who sounded like a prick. If he cured cancer or saved kids I’d still think he was a prick. But he’d cheated on her with a woman from HR, and went a little stalker-y after she’d dumped him. I nodded like I sympathised, but I was loving it. The psycho was off the scene. The cops had a little word. He wasn’t even allowed look at her Facebook. “But it’s like you’re ripped open and everyone can look in,” she said. I wanted so badly to look in.
Reciprocating, I told her about how I’d come home to the flat one day to find my ex, Emma, just gone, as if she’d never existed. Her drawers empty, her toothbrush absent, the CD pile halved. All that was left were circles of hardened makeup on my dresser, like ghostly footprints. Annalise looked empathically into my eyes. I neglected to mention I’d met Emma by chance on a Tube a year later and she asked me why I never called after she’d gone. I didn’t understand what she was getting at. You left, I said. You didn’t even want to know why? It never occurred to me to ask why. You’re so passive, that’s why. You’re so careless, she said. You don’t notice things, she said.
When Annalise asked why Emma left I sighed, like it was too hard to get into. Our love, such as it was, withered like a neglected houseplant. Poor maintenance lacks the romantic weight of simple, visceral absence. “I don’t know,” I said. Did it seem mysterious? Or just thick?
We overstayed, the last train long departed, so I offered her my bed and said I’d sleep on the sofa, living as I did a short walk away. I lay on my lumpy, grease-shiny couch, in a sleeping bag redolent with mould and damp and stale drink from festivals past. She was close, in the next room, in my bed which I hastily remade with cleanish sheets. I could almost see her spreading into my grooves and craters like a luscious liquid. Right then if I were to get up and knock on the door and call her name softly, I’d come across like a creep. Unless she wanted me to? What if she was lying there waiting for me, wondering if I was into her? What if she was asleep, and I was dead wrong? What if I just got up and looked through the keyhole? Would that be super-weird? Probably.
This was my dilemma. It was like some algebraic equation on a whiteboard that’s been there for years, unsolved, even by the gifted, temperamental janitor. How on earth do people get together? Emma and I met at a gig, drunkenly snogged and somehow ended moving in with each other for six years. Like she said, careless.
Nothing was said that night. It wasn’t the right time.
A few days later we met “accidentally” in the break room. I followed her, of course. “Hey” I said, as nonchalant as a virus. “Thanks again for putting me up,” she said. “C’est rien,” I said and my stomach burned with embarrassment. I thought a declaration of undying love, even if ridiculed, would be less mortifying, and steeled myself to say the words. What I had inside me needed to get out, and I was sure, sure as I could be, our lives were about to change. I love you, bubbled in my stomach like indigestion, rose up my trachea, covered my tongue and touched my teeth. I twitched with anticipation and I was sure she could feel the electricity I was producing, but Jeff From Sales burst into the room and the tension broke.
“You have to see this!” he shouted, his face shiny with cold sweat, wild fear in his eyes.
The news showed amateur phone footage from Paris, where the first outbreak occurred. People, terrified and aimless, running down famous boulevards. The flitting bodies, the screams. A man chasing another man. Blood. Cut to an astonished anchor staring into the camera, aghast. “What we are witnessing ..” he started, but could not finish. I realised we’d been watching for an hour, work all but forgotten. Annalise was holding my hand in both of hers. Elfin fingers digging into my flesh. Later, there were mezzaluna of cuts where her nails punctured my skin, but I didn’t mind. It was our first contact.
She looked at me, bewilderment in her eyes. Those eyes. “What’s happening?”
I love you, I wanted to say. But it wasn’t the right time. Not with so much death about us.
And now, we’ve been barricaded in the office living off snack machine sweets and some Muller Lights in the fridge, until it clicked off along with all the lights and computers and the news and the constant government warnings emanating from the televisions. Stay indoors. Help will come. Isolate the infected. Et cetera. Help has not come. The barricades have been breached. We heard the echoes of feet and howls, screams, coming up through the stairwell, the voices and agony booming around the concrete atrium. We ran through the office, pursued. Jeff From Sales, always macho, tried to swing a fire extinguisher at the face of one of the infected, and his ensuing, messy annihilation gave Annalise and I enough time to run into the disabled toilet and lock the door.
We can hear them outside. The wet slap of Jeff’s useless corpse being eviscerated against the wall, the insistent idiot thump of mangled fists against the door, the gurgling, dead breathing. I look at her. Annalise, her eyes, her depth, her small hands and tiny, porcelain body. The line of freckles at her crown, like an archipelago. Her tangles of doodled hair.
She falls against the cold tiles, as far away from the door as it’s possible in this tiny, windowless box. The smell of blood from outside, fear and disinfectant in here, drains. Her eyes (those eyes!) are wide, pupils dilated. Her breathing, like mine, shallow and urgent, a persistent reminder we still have lungs. My heart thumps in my chest, the sound of it in my ears, booming in my head like a bell.
She squeezes a fist, and puts it to her mouth. A sound from her, like something small a cat might say.
“Annalise,” I manage between snatches of breath. “This might not be the best timing, but there’s something I have to say.”
In her eyes, it’s as if the terror has yet to begin.
Dara Thomas Higgins writes for reasons he cannot comprehend. When not doing this he dreams of cake. Follow him on Twitter @Diplah.