Miranda woke feeling sleep deprived, as per usual. The thin rays of the sun had barely managed to creep through the blinds drawn in the lone window of her sparse apartment. She showered and dressed with haste, ate a meager meal of dry granola that she barely tasted and was out the door before another minute had passed. Her briefcase bounced painfully against her leg with every step she took, but there was no time to adjust it – every second counted.
She bounded downstairs, the elevator deemed too slow long ago, and bolted past the man behind the front desk without even a cursory response to his “Good morning.” There was no telling what might happen today, and if she was late she could lose her job.
By the time she arrived at her blue compact, parked on the bottom-most floor of the parking structure neighboring her apartment complex, her suit-skirt was askew, wrinkled, and soaked with sweat. But again – there was no time to adjust it. There could be – and usually was – heavy traffic on the way to work, or her car could break down, or God only knew what else.
The car door held fast as she attempted to wrench it open, but with a series of curses so foul they would have made a gangster turn chartreuse she finally got it open and hurled herself inside.
There was indeed traffic on the 51, as there always was, but it seemed especially bad today. The clouds above were a harsh gray and began to release rain in a deluge, spattering the windows and the asphalt outside.
Miranda checked the clock on the dash and let loose with another layer of obscenities. 5:02. The traffic up ahead had budged scarcely an inch in the last minute. She glared at the rows of cars, willing them to move with her mind. They didn't.
She didn't get off the freeway until 5:32. In her eight years of working at Harris & Swift, she had made it to work after 5:30 only one time, and had no intention of ever repeating the situation that had resulted from it. Her stomach engaged in some rather complicated gymnastics as she considered the implications of her current situation – she might be as late as six if her current luck kept up.
She jammed her foot on the accelerator, proceeding far beyond the speed limit into a range few out of muscle car rallies would have dared to enter. At her current speed and level of preoccupation, she failed to notice the figure on the crosswalk up ahead. Her eyes finally alighted upon it, and with a screech she slammed on the breaks, her vehicle howling like a banshee as it thudded to a stop, its bumper a few inches from the man on the road's pelvis.
Miranda looked up – it was a green light. She stuck her head out of her window, giving herself a better view of the fellow. He was tall and scraggly, though the majority of his abdomen was hidden by a bulky ski jacket. From beneath it a filthy pair of pajamas peppered with Hawaiian flowers extended. On his feet were two once-white bunny slippers, now a disgusting grayish-brown from abuse. Over his mouth and nose a red bandana was stretched, and a pair of cracked orange ski goggles rendered his eyes invisible. A gray beanie hid his hair from the world. No belongings were kept in his arms, but Miranda had no doubt that they were stashed in a shopping cart or suitcase under a bush somewhere nearby.
“Get out of the road, dickhead!” Miranda barked out the window. The man obliged, taking the few steps to the sidewalk seemingly as slowly as he could. As Miranda glowered at him, she became aware of the police cruiser looming in the parking lot to the right of the traffic light – it had been hidden from her view by a weeping willow planted in the growth on the side of the road. It had been lucky that she stopped where she had – if she hadn't, she definitely would have been pulled over and ticketed.
That in mind, it still took every fiber of her self-control to keep from pounding down on the gas pedal again when the intersection was out of sight.
It was 5:41 when she arrived at work. The parking lot was empty – save for a small black sedan on the far side. Miranda's blood froze. She'd been too late.
Perhaps the situation could still be salvaged – that didn't look like a car that would belong to Harris or Swift (the former preferred sports cars, the latter rarely came to the office at all and certainly never this early). Quickly she pulled her car into the other side of the parking lot and walked toward the building.
It was still dark within the carpeted halls of the office, which meant that whoever had arrived certainly wasn't Harris. Harris could never tolerate anything in the office being out of place, whether it was the lights or cluttered offices. Or late employees. She shuddered again at the memory and crept onward.
She'd been doing pretty good – hadn't seen a flicker of movement as she ascended the stairs. But as she opened the door to the second level, she walked directly into Tony Gregori from accounting. It was as if he had appeared from the shadows like a specter. He made a noise like a horse falling into a ditch. “God, you scared me! I didn't know anybody else was here,” he laughed, taking a step back from the heavily-breathing, disheveled woman before him.
While he relaxed, Miranda tensed, sizing up the situation between a silent, harsh expression. Gregori chuckled nervously. “D-did I do something wrong?”
She closed the distance between them, grabbing Gregori by the lapels of his shirt collar. “Please, Tony. I need your help.”
Gregori looked terrified.
The words came out in a babble. “You know how Harris gets, and he's had it out for me since I was late one time two years ago – told me if he ever caught me trying to sneak into work late, he'd make sure I never worked in the state ever again. So I need you...” she leaned in closer, “...to pretend like you never saw me here. I'll do anything you want.” She paused. “Anything.”
Removing her hands from his shirt as gingerly as he could, Gregori proceeded to take another several steps backwards – this was turning into one hell of a morning. “L-look, that won't be necessary. I g-get your situation – Harris can be a bit of a hardass sometimes.” He began to trek backwards down the hall, palms splayed outward as if expecting her to strike at any moment. “I've got some reports-”
“Thanks, Tony,” Miranda said, honest gratitude coursing through her. She took a step forward and Gregori quickened his pace. “It means a lot to me!”
He muttered something in apparent response and disappeared down the hallway. Only when Miranda returned to her office did she close her door, lean against it, and allow herself to sink to the floor, sobbing. She was no corporate whore – no, she was supposed to get by on hard work alone. If Harris had learned what she'd said to Gregori, if he had lied and news spread, she'd be in an even worse place than she would have been if she'd just ignored him in the hallway. Hell, she'd be in even more trouble than if she came into work at lunch. She'd completely misjudged the situation – but to be too complacent could have been just as dangerous.
After a while Miranda managed to regain her wits about her, and the day passed much more uneventfully than she expected it to, considering the morning. A few times her fears came to a head as Harris or one of the other executives passed by her office, but as per usual they scarcely paid her any mind as she sifted through the mountain of paperwork at her desk. Most at the firm summarily rejected every paper that came to them, rubber-stamping each without so much as glancing at the work to separate the honest applications from the scams and the lies. But Miranda remained vigilant, even as the work threatened to crush her (both literally and metaphorically) and each name on the printed white sheets began to run into the next. Eventually it became too much for even her resolute attention, and she leaned back in her chair. The hour was late, but not late enough to go home – nor did she feel as if she deserved to go home yet, considering the episode this morning and the depth of work on her desk. It was 5:00 pm – another 4 hours, then she would begin the long, laborious drive back to her apartment.
Her stomach gurgled. There was no choice but to take a bit of time off for dinner – she had to mark whether or not she worked on the hour sheet the firm gave out, and if she lied about taking time off to go eat when actually working instead she risked a confrontation with Harris.
She left the building, purse in hand, and walked to Phil's, a dive located in the run-down part of town a few blocks away from the office.
It was a dark, dank building, lit by crooked fixture hanging crooked from the ceiling. Stale cigarette smoke hung in the air as if attached to the place. There were two booths on the far side of the room as well as one more next to the door, their leather worn off and cracked in every place, and a counter took up the rest of the room.
Eyes traced Miranda, in her light-colored suit-skirt, as she slid from the doorway into the booth in the corner. The eyes didn't leave her as she sat down, and she gave a sidelong glance to the bar. A man with badly crossed eyes sat at a stool facing her, a ratty tweed jacket garbing his thin frame. Next to him sat a portly man in overalls who sported a raging beard but no head hair. Miranda felt her scalp prickle. Only did they finally lower their gaze back to their drinks when Phil appeared from a double door in the back of the room.
“Heya, Miranda,” he called, his harsh features softening without changing expression. “What are you buyin' tonight?”
One of the men at the bar, the one in the tweed jacket, turned his head toward Miranda, leering, and winked one myopic eye.
She gulped. “Might just be coffee tonight, Phil. I've gotta go back to work.”
Phil sighed. “Look. I know this place don't look like much, but I've been working to try to kinda bring it outta the dumps. And believe me, the food's good, even though you wouldn't think it just by looking around the place.”
Tweed Jacket muttered something to his cohort, who snickered and glanced over his shoulder at Miranda.
“Honestly Phil, I'm fine. In fact, I think my boss just paged me, I really should get going-”
“Nonsense. You're skinny enough as it is. Here – I'll have Jose hook you up with something you can take on the road. Won't even charge you for it. Just give it a chance.” As she looked up, trying to ignore the men at the counter, Miranda realized that Phil wasn't going to take no for an answer.
“Alright, Phil. Just – I really do have to go.”
“I get ya, gal. Don't worry your pretty little head.” There was still no change in expression, but he seemed to have a bit of a spring in his step as he vanished into the kitchen.
Silence fell over the room. Miranda pretended to rifle through her purse, watching the men at the corner out of the corner of her eye.
Where the hell is Phil? Her mind hissed as he remained in the kitchen for some minutes.
As she glanced sidelong at the two men, the one in tweed stood, crossing the dive to her table. His friend followed, a slight stagger marring each footstep.
“Mind if we sit?” Tweed wheezed, giving her a toothy grin.
He sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. His friend sat across from them.
“Say, baby, you look pretty fine. How 'bout you and I and my buddy here find ourselves a little quiet time, away from this dump?” His breath reeked of whiskey and tobacco. Across from them, the bearded man's breathed loud.
Miranda's throat was bone dry. She opened her mouse to respond but instead of words made a small, high sound, like someone misplaying a flute. “I – I really can't,” she choked out eventually. “I have to get back to work.”
Tweed frowned. “Work at this hour? I don't buy that – pretty late for a suit to still be on yhe job. No, I think you think you're too good for us.” He turned his focus to his friend. “Hey, Kenny! This bitch thinks she's too good for us!”
Kenny's mouth opened wide between the bristles of his beard, and his brow downturned. He jumped up, grasping her wrist from across the table and letting loose with a machine-gun of words. “You-think-yer-better-than-me-I'll-show-you-”
“HEY! What the hell do you think you're doing?”
Miranda turned her head past the man in tweed to see Phil brandishing an empty mug. Kenny's brow furrowed; the blazing, animal rage behind his eyes seemed to dim. “We was just-”
“You 'was' harassing one of my customers, weren't you?” Phil barked. “Get the hell out of my restaurant.”
Tweed stood, approaching Phil until their faces were a few centimeters apart. Kenny didn't release Miranda's arm, but his focus wasn't on her. Tweed spoke. “Oh yeah? Who's gonna make us, old ma-”
Phil punched Tweed right above his crooked nose with a strike that hit like the bite of a rattlesnake. The men fell to the stained and dirty floor, and Phil let his foot fall on Tweed's esophagus.
“Now I'm only going to say this one more time. You and your bum friend better get the hell out, or I'm getting my shotgun from under the counter and making sure you can never bug anybody ever again. You understand me?”
No one spoke a word. Phil took his foot off the man's throat and Tweed stood, brushing himself off and glaring with his crossed eyes at both of them. Then he left, wordlessly, Kenny trailing in his wake.
“And if I see either of you assholes ever again I'll fill you fulla holes!” Phil shouted out the door.
He turned where he stood, expression softening. “You ok, sweetheart?”
“Right as rain” Miranda lied. Phil didn't buy it. “Look, I'm sorry about those jackwads – seen 'em here once or twice before, but they never made any trouble before today.” He sighed, and picked up the mug that he'd been carrying before the commotion. “I tell ya, it's hard to make enough money to make this place good enough to attract decent folks, but there's no money from decent folks to supply it.” He chuckled weakly.
Miranda sighed. “Look, Phil. I know you're doing your best here. Good that you have a dream.” She mulled over her thoughts for a moment. “My dad used to be like you.”
“Oh really? How do you mean?”
She shook her head. “Always wanted to travel the world – never made enough money, though. Not working as a car repairman.” She glanced down at the table. “Think that was what made him turn to alcohol. Never had a chance to do what he loved.”
“Aw hell,” Phil muttered. “I'm sorry about that. What's he doing now?”
“Aw hell,” Phil muttered again.
“It happened a couple years ago. Wasn't like he and I talked much any more anyhow.” With nothing more to say, she stood. “I've gotta get going, Phil. I appreciate you scaring those guys off.”
He gave a weak smile, his mind obviously elsewhere. “Yeah. Yeah, ain't nothing.” As he turned back toward the counter, polishing the mug, Miranda slipped a fifty dollar bill onto her booth and left the building.
She felt... odd. Shivery. Generally she avoided talking about Dad whenever she could. But Phil honestly did remind her of the Dad from her childhood, the fond memories of closeness before he became a faraway figure. She shook the thoughts off, instead thinking about the fifty she'd set on the table. Didn't have a lot of money left since her last rent payment, but it felt good to give, even if she wouldn't have much for her own consumption.
Suddenly she was blasted out of her thoughts by a rough hand that grasped her by the back of her suit. She tried to cry out, but a paw clamped over her mouth and something sharp and metal prodded into the side of her neck.
“You din't think I was just gonna give up, didja?” Tweed's voice. And he was dragging her backward, into an alleyway. “Wouldn't just let a tasty little thing like you go on by.”
With a burst of energy she tried to free herself, but something blunt hit her in the side of the head. Stars swum. “Quit fidgeting,” the man Tweed had called Kenny swam into the corner of her vision, illuminated by a small gas light attached above a doorway. “It'll all go quicker if you just... relax.” Kenny let out a throaty chortle.
Her mind raced, trying to formulate a course of action but failing. But it was certainly better to die than let her body fall pray to scum like this. She pressed her neck more forcefully into the knife, trying to be subtle enough to escape Tweed's notice, blood beginning to trickle down into the collar of her suit...
Then Kenny disappeared from her view with a half-gasp, half-yelp. The knife went slack against her throat and she threw an arm up, knocking it away. But she needn't have bothered.
Low moans escaped from the shadow out of the lamp's range – a foot that belonged to one of the two attackers protruded into the light, and a crowbar gleamed, discarded against a stoop. She felt the side of her head, where an egg-shaped lump was already beginning to grow. Only luck had prevented a more dangerous concussion – and from her violation. She glanced up, to the other end of the alley, and saw a flash of fabric disappear around a corner.
“Wait!” she called. She tried to break into a run, but swooned and had to steady herself against a wall. By the time she reached the other end of the alley her savior was gone, the street on the other side completely deserted. But as she turned to look for whoever it was, something caught her eye.
An envelope was positioned at waist-level, sticking out of a trash can. On the side was written “To: Miranda.” It was lucky she'd seen it.
Carefully she stripped it from the trash can and opened it. At first she thought it was empty, but then she saw the green paper, folded a thousandfold and crammed in the far corner. Retrieving it revealed it to be a fifty dollar bill.
She smiled. Phil. Phil had followed her to give her back the tip and had arrived in time to save her. She'd have to thank him tomorrow.
The night air was warm, but Miranda shivered nonetheless. She didn't want to think about what those men had almost done to her back in that alley – didn't want to think about what she'd almost done in response.
With no appetite any longer, she returned to the office. But when she arrived, she found the front door to the building locked like a safe. It seemed no early to close up today, but short of breaking in there was nothing she could do to work any more tonight.
The drive home was uneventful – and remarkably free of traffic. Her favorite radio station was playing some weird song, so she flicked it off. The sound of the city beyond and the wind whispering past the car replaced the flute solo, but quickly she became unnerved by the forced exposure to her own thoughts and the irregular silence and began began to fidget with the radio again.
She still hadn't settled on a station by the time she entered the parking structure, and the signal began to waver before dying quietly into static. She gave up on it eventually and walked out of the parking structure back into the apartment complex. The watchman glanced at her as she walked by and tipped his hat, but again she wasn't sure how to respond, and thus didn't.
The happenings of the day flickered in and out of her mind as she walked up the stairs to her apartment. A lot had certainly occurred, but not in the productive way that she liked. It had been filled with dangerously close calls and far too little actual work for her taste.
The hour was still far earlier than Miranda was used to coming home from work, but she decided to try to catch up on sleep. But as she lay on her couch, desperately trying to calm her frayed nerves and staring at the ceiling, she realized it was a lost cause.
She got up. She milled about. She fidgeted. She started to tidy up, but there was little to clean. She didn't own a television – didn't see the point. In fact, her apartment was barren, save for her bed, the kitchen appliances, the couch, and a few pictures of Mom and Dad.
She looked over them but turned away, unable to stem the rush of feelings that tore through her as she looked upon her father's face. If it were up to her the pictures on the wall would just have been Mom, but on her mother's few trips to the apartment she'd fretted over every little detail, be it the rumpled sheets or the dusty floor or the disturbing absence of a significant other (she'd ignored Miranda's protests of “I don't have time for love”). To remove Dad from her room would just give Mom something else to grill her about – but that did give her an idea to alleviate her current boredom.
“Miranda?” Mom said after only one tone. “It's so good to hear from you! We haven't talked in months!”
“I know, mama. I've been busy with work.”
“Honey, you're always busy with work,” Mom crooned. “But I understand how it feels to live alone.” Even in the static of the phone line, she could hear the bitterness in her mother's voice.
“Alright.” Miranda was beginning to remember why she never called her mother any more.
“I know how Matthias was to you toward the end – and I know that was ignoring all you'd done for him. But he didn't used to be like that. It was the alcohol that did it.”
Right, it was the booze, not the fact that he was drinking it, Miranda thought to herself. She knew in her heart that Mom went well, but...
“Look, mama, can't we talk about something else?”
“What else is there to talk about? I'm in an old bag's home.” There was another touch of bitterness. “Everyone here's about as lively as a dead horse. The interesting stuff's supposed to be happening to you. You're in the prime of your life – you should be out making yourself a family. Finding yourself a man.”
Miranda's teeth grit into one another. “I told you. I just don't have time.”
“You mean you don't make time. You just-”
“Mom, I've gotta go. Talk to you later.” Without waiting for a word of assent, Miranda slammed the phone down on the receiver. She could feel her breath come in sharp, angry gasps. Her mother's voice buzzed in her ears, like hornets, like the Devil. She wanted to curl into a ball like she used to when she was a little girl, to cup her hands over her ears and blot out the noise and the yelling and the breaking glass. Trying to ease her breathing Miranda lay back on the couch, but the images of her mother and father swam from the pictures on the wall across from her, accusing her. Her Mother's words roared in her ears. Eventually, unable to stomach them any more, she took the pictures from the wall.
After what seemed like an eternity of wakefulness, she finally fell asleep a few hours later, draped across the couch. Her dreams were an insane whirlwind of confused images – the man in tweed, the dank city streets, the dark, empty office cubicles, and especially the man in the ski goggles. When she finally awoke a film of sweat covered her entire body – and she had slept through her alarm.
As she found herself in traffic Miranda's eyes glazed over – extra time at home or not, it felt as if she had barely slept at all. When she finally arrived at work she barely flinched at the veritable army of cars lined up in the parking lot.
As she wandered through the hallways to her office, the other workers, used to seeing her in her office or not at all, regarded her quizzically. So oblivious was she that she walked directly into Harris himself, bowling him over, and continued staggering down the hall without so much as acknowledging it. Harris, confounded, lay on his side and watched her disappear down the end of the hall.
Miranda tried to focus on her work, but it was as if the figures and numbers had formed a coalition against her and would not yield. With a short, angry sigh, she threw her pen down on the stack of forms and ran her fingers through her hair. Just then, there was a knock on her door.
“Come in,” she groaned.
Harris' pressed suit entered the room, wearing his body lithely. “Hello Ms. Rieves. I noticed you were in a bit of a panic this morning. Is something the matter?” She could see the grin in his eyes, the smile hidden behind the thin businessman's line of his mouth.
Miranda looked on her employer like he was about to bite her. “I...” Tears sprung to her eyes as she realized what was about to happen, and before she knew it she lost all control. “Look,” she sobbed, “I've been here eight years, and I've been trying to do the best I can with what I have – I know I'm not the most qualified for the position I have, but it's all I've got, and I was trying to send the money I had been making to my Dad so he could save it up for his trip around the world but he just drank it all away-”
Harris looked taken aback – to her surprise. “Ms. Rieves... I know I-”
She looked up at him as if remembering he was in the room. “You know what? No!” she shouted, brushing the tears away angrily. “You don't know anything about me!” She stood up, slamming her chair backwards and knocking the mountain of papers to the floor. Her eyes were bloodshot. “You told me that if I wasn't the earliest person here every day I'd be out on my ass – those were your exact words, if I recall.”
“I don't expect you to care,” she spat, barely listening to what the stuttering man was saying. “You obviously don't, not with how you acted. You started coming in early just like me for days on end, just to make sure I was heeding what you said. You're just as bad as my fucking dad – doesn't matter what I did for you, how hard I worked for the company. I'm just another body, easy to get rid of, easy to replace.”
“You have me all wrong.” His expression was a mask of sympathy.
“I don't care. I quit. Go find another flunky.” The adrenaline coursed through her as she pushed past her now ex-boss.
The blue compact whizzed along the highway at a hellish speed. There were no cops on
patrol at this hour, as few were using the highway at times that weren't rush hour. Miranda probably wouldn't have cared enough to stop even if she was apprehended – her thoughts flew in every direction as her father's image swam in her mind's eye and the angry, hateful memories struck her and her pace beat so rapidly she feared her heart would fly from her chest.
The car took an off-ramp of its own accord, but Miranda was glad it had, for the empty swathe of the road she had been traveling was only beginning to intensify her thoughts. She needed to be out – with others, anybody else.
She parked her car at a meter on one of the sidewalks and left it there without putting any money in – she could worry about tickets later.
Even at this hour, throngs of people wandered the streets, enveloping her in their hordes. She struggled against the wave of bodies like a drunken wrecking ball, drawing quizzical looks from some of the passerby who marveled at her running, patchy makeup, but most in the city were used to oddballs trying to impede the flow of traffic and paid her little mind.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea, and suddenly Miranda stood alone on the hot asphalt. Something ticked in her mind, telling her to get out of the street, but her legs had grown roots or maybe just grown lethargic and would not budge. She let her body relax as a truck, the driver focused on the buildings racing by to his left, roared towards her. Perhaps... Perhaps this was for the best.
The distance between her and the truck closed. So did her eyes. But the fatal moment never arrived – instead, she jerked backward, the collar of her suit firmly gripped by someone's strong hand.
“What? Who's there?” she choked out. Her muscles were now tensed with inexplicable terror.
She was back on the sidewalk, and turned to face her “savior,” and found herself face to face with a pair of cracked orange ski goggles.
“You!” she shouted, drawing the gazes of a few people passing her on the sidewalk.”What the hell do you want?”
The man said nothing. His arm protruded forward, and as she glanced down Miranda realized he was holding an envelope out to her – an envelope just like the one she'd found last night.
The man nodded.
She took it from his hands, her own shaking slightly as she tore it open and removed the contents.
A wad of bills tumbled out – hundred dollar bills, all tightly bound by a rubber band. She marveled at it, but only for a moment. For there was something else in the envelope. A rectangular piece of paper came out. On it were the words “You're free now.”
Miranda narrowed her eyes at it, confused. Then she turned it over. Her mouth fell open.
It was a picture they'd taken on her twentieth birthday, the year before she'd started working at Harris and Swift. They were standing in front of a snowy cabin – her, Mom, and Dad. And around her father's neck hung a pair of orange ski goggles.
“Dad?” she called, looking up. But there was no one. Not a soul in sight.