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She didn’t like the café. It was cramp, often full to the brim with older women. The sweet cinnamon and fruit stench was overbearing, maybe it came from the selection of baked goodies on display by the counter, or maybe it was just the hags lathering themselves in perfume. She didn’t like to sit beside a window, because the afternoon light always blasted past her glasses and into her eyes. And from the reflection in the window, she worried her fair complexion gained no favours from the harsh sun. It was a place in the corner of an alleyway only a stone throws away from the main high street. A loud place, too loud to read her book in peace. So, it was a good thing she never intended on reading.
On occasion, if the need called for it, she glanced at a random page. However, her eyes always returned fixated elsewhere. Usually, she’d scan the room for any changes. Until some hunk of meat or stud strutted in, sometimes both. Then, her focus was on one thing. Two things—maybe three. She wasn’t fussy about which six-foot gym-short wearing economics A-stars floundered within her vicinity. The straight-shooting, clean-shaven pillar of society, or the ruggedly handsome rough stubble with dark features. Good while young, good at making her feel great for a while, and that’s all they were good for.
She never kept one around for longer than a month, and while on her haunt in the café, there was no reason not to partake in sultry samples. Choosing the right person to spend one’s life with, the rest of her life, after all, took time. Experience had to be in-depth and well-rounded. She glanced at the clock above the counter, youthful vigour fading with every second. There was a still steaming tea in front of her. She sipped the tea, it was Earl-Grey, and she waited. She didn’t remember ordering it though.
Peering out of the window at a couple holding hands and walking up the road, the clouds outside made her forget about the sun until it peeked from behind them and blasted her face with its rays. In the split second when it took her eyes to readjust from the blinding sun, some stranger sat opposite her. In the space of interior cleanliness and bright pastel hues, there sat opposite her a blob of brown coat and shaggy black hair with sprinkles of dandruff snowing from his head. A face a botched result of years spent in the smoker’s area of pubs; sleepless nights of low-wage stresses combined with a rash of pimples never healing post-puberty.
‘Hello there.’ his voice was deep, with some distant foreign accent which made his H’s and T’s sharp.
And he smiled, though she wished he hadn’t—a spec of pepper stuck in the middle of his yellowing front tooth stole her attention, or was it a cavity?
‘I’ve been coming here every day for a few weeks now, and every day I see you by yourself, sitting alone, reading…’
Closing her book, she stood up and walked away. Walked out of the place and onto the cobblestone street where her flat loafers somehow clicked with every step, they echoed across the whitewashed walls of homes and quaint storefronts. She escaped from there as fast as walking without running made possible. The door of the café squeaked open and slammed shut, then something ran up to her from behind.
That disgusting oaf followed her! Wheezing and gasping for air having run downhill for five seconds, with an expression of absolute indifference to her cringing mouth and watering eyes. In his sweaty palm, he gripped a book with his skeleton fingers. It was her book.
‘You forgot this.’ His smile as he handed her the book drew fears of an unwarranted expectation.
But the stalking creeper’s only reward would be the view of her backside as she wrestled the book from his clutches and speed-walked away from him without saying a single word. Turning into a corner, she looked back. No one followed her, but just to be sure, she still circled her neighbourhood for a while before coming near her home.
Her home, her temple, atop the tower that was the block of flats—well, on one of the upper floors. Her very own fortress, the outline of such a monolithic building protruded out onto the sky from behind the tops of leafy tree canopies and other houses’ rooftops. She, at last, rushed towards home. Not because it was getting dark, not because she was tired, though keeping up her trek across the town did tire her out a little. No. Originally she expected to be staying the night somewhere else, with someone else. Her whole day was spent thinking about it. Her mind pranced and pondered on frolicking naked on top of a sturdy bed, riding some specimen, some tall and brooding steed with nothing to compensate for. Now, it won’t happen, but her appetite still wasn’t satiated.
Perhaps it was too late. Maybe the abrupt interruption at the café spoiled her mood too much? With each step she neared towards the door into the building, all she wanted to do was get out of the sun, away from the steaming pavement, away from the windows of homes reflecting her pale visage. When she found the elevator—its doors were almost mummified in yellow tape with black text “Out of Order”, she was at least glad the steady climb up will be in a cool dark shade.
Around the 3rd floor, a cold draft brushed against her legs. She gazed down; a shadow moved at the bottom of the sun-drenched ground floor. Turning forward, she kept walking up, realising just how loud her shoes echoed across the walls. When there was a loud shuffling from below, she didn’t even bother wasting time trying to see what it was. Rushing the last couple of floors up, she saw the familiar chipped steps, the peeling paint flaking off the walls, and the quiet buzzing of the yellow lamp triggered into brightness by motion. Most importantly, she saw her door. Swiping the key from her pocket, it didn’t fit into the lock at first, she fumbled it between her free hand and the hand holding the book. Footsteps echoed from below, she couldn’t tell how far down but they were loud. She scratched the key into the lock, it fit—before it opened, there were more loud steps. Running into her apartment having slammed the door, they came from right behind her. She was silent, in an unexplained pause, frozen in the stuffy heat of her little apartment, staring at the door. Gripping the handle, she shoved the key into the lock and sighed when there was a click—it was locked.
But the door handle twisted.
Someone on the other side turned the handle, trying to open the door. When a calm, soft approach didn’t work, the handle rattled as it wouldn’t give way to brute force. She took a step back. Once the rattling stopped, the handle was still—there was a knock at the door.
She ran across the hall into her living room, onto her sofa, placing her feet on it and wrapping her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her knees, she stared at the door. After several hours, when the sun disappeared beyond the horizon and the cool darkness set in, there wasn’t nigh a single shiver from her.
Her book was still in her hand, after placing it on a coffee table next to her, she turned on the TV with a remote, never taking her eyes away from the door. When it was too loud, she turned it down until the words from the TV were too quiet. She gave up, switched it off, and turned the nearby lamp on.
Taking her eyes off the door set something at the back of her mind ablaze.
She stood up, walked to the kitchen, made some tea. In all that sliver of time, every action was followed by a quick run into the hall, checking the door is still locked, listening for any rattle or any squeak. Listening for something, hearing room noise. It turned out to be nothing, motion at the corner of her eyes just her own shadow. Breathing in deeply she whispered her mantra to herself: ‘I feel calm and serene. I am a great person. I am safe. I love my life. I believe in myself. My life matters,’ while taking a mug of tea into the living room and placing it on the coffee table. The book gave her an idea distracting her from the silence and the door.
A few moments passed, and she lit four candles surrounding the sofa and the coffee table. The lamp was still on, but there was an additional flicker of the candles’ whisps snapping at the shadowy corners of that quiet spot in her apartment. Then she sat down on the sofa and reading the book, immersed herself in it: in the characters, the love, the rivalries, the story…
Yawning as the prickly rays of dawn replaced the flicker of the candles, she put the book down. She placed her hand on her chest and could feel her heartbeat. Still calm. Throughout the night, nothing more happened at her door.