The tall, blonde woman was lying on a narrow bed. It was 6:21am, and she knew that soon she would have to get out of bed and get ready for the day. For now, she was staring at the ceiling tiles. There were twenty-four whole ceiling tiles above Erika’s bed – six rows and eight columns. Technically, there were more. The six columns had not been quite enough to cover the entirety of the ceiling. Several additional tiles had been cut into thirds and used to make up the additional space. Even if the builder of the room had only manage to get two third-tiles from each whole tile, the ceiling would have only used a maximum of twenty-nine tiles.
Erika spent a minute counting the tiles on the ceiling. She knew that there was meant to be a maximum of twenty-nine tiles, but she wanted to make sure that they were all still in place. She counted, and she was right, there were twenty-nine tiles. She began counting again though just to make sure.
Something jumped onto Erika’s chest, and she yelped.
Two eyes like yellow headlights stared into hers from a grey-furred face. The face meowed insistently.
Erika pulled the cat onto her and stood up, cradling it in her arms. She padded precisely across her room to the section of the bachelor apartment that constituted a kitchen. She had to walk precisely. Erika was taller than average, and the low ceiling of her apartment meant that if she wasn’t careful, she was in serious danger of banging her head every step of the way.
Once in the kitchen area, she placed the cat down, and poured him a bowl of dry cat food. Nicholas meowed appreciatively, and then buried his face in the bowl.
Nicholas taken care of, Erika pondered whether or not to have breakfast. After long deliberation, she decided that after what she had been through the last week, as well as the stresses of so much communication with the other eight, having breakfast was a good idea. It was exactly what someone who was going through a trial like she was would want.
She pulled up a recipe on her computer for pancakes, and followed every step. She measured out each dry ingredient to the gram, sifted them together, then mixed in the wet ingredients, and began stirring them. The recipe stated that she should stir them until light and fluffy, but she wasn’t sure when that would be. She decided that fifteen minutes of stirring seemed like a good enough length of time.
She cooked the pancakes and ate them dry with a glass of water. As she did, she spoke aloud to Nicholas about her plans for the day. ‘It will take me twenty-two minutes to get ready for the day, then two minutes to leave the apartment and fourteen to reach the bus stop. The bus departs at 7:41, if it isn’t late. I will get on the bus which will arrive at Midtown at 9:17. Then an eight minute walk to the office, which will give me five minutes to go from the ground floor to the office so that I arrive at work at exactly 9:30.’
Erika felt the comforting familiarity of the numbers. The way that they slid neatly into one another. She looked expectantly at the cat, who had finished eating and was looking up at her with the happy expression of a creature to whom numbers, dates, and times were an entirely alien concept.
She found herself smiling at him, before scratching his ears, which he enjoyed.
Erika’s apartment was tiny, little more than a closet with different flooring to mark the boundary between imagined kitchen, living room, and bedroom, with a small shower and bathroom near the front door. The one advantage that she had to the tiny space was that it was on the seventeenth floor, meaning that when she looked out of her window, she was greeted by a spectacular view. To the left was the greenery of Breezy Point tip, to the right was Sandy Hook and the rest of New Jersey, and between them, was the bight of the Hudson. The centre of her view from the window was dominated by blue. By the seemingly infinite Atlantic. She looked out at it now, eating her pancakes. Erika loved the way that no matter how far her gaze could reach, all she ever saw was the blue of the sea, the grey of the sky, and the abstract line of the horizon that separated them.
She finished the pancakes and got ready for work, showering and then dressing in a sensible grey dress over a button up white shirt. Her blonde hair was in a short enough style that she didn’t need to alter it, and she never wore makeup.
She picked up her handbag walked to the front door. 7:24. She was a minute ahead of schedule.
Erika walked smoothly down the drab corridor, and past the elevator door, instead making her way into the stairwell. The regularity of the staircase and the repetitive motions were pleasant, almost like the beat to a song.
At the ground floor, she made her way across the lobby, but before she could reach the front door a small, wizened old man entered.
Most people were shorter than Erika, but the man would be considered small compared with anyone. His balding head was marked with liver spots, and he wore thick glasses that made his eyes seem huge. In his hands, he was holding a shopping bag with today’s newspaper sticking out of it, and in his mouth was a large, unlit rollup. The old man looked at Erika with heavy lidded eyes, but didn’t smile. He did remove the cigarette.
‘Ms Volkov, my dear, how are you?’ he said in Russian, pausing in the doorway.
‘Fine, thank you Mr Tarasovich,’ she responded in kind with a slight smile. She kept walking, quickening her pace slightly as she did. She was hoping to get around Mr Tarasovich so as not to be late.
Mr Tarasovich however had other plans, and reached out a hand to grab her forearm. ‘Where’s the fire?’
‘There isn’t a fire,’ she said, before catching his meaning, ‘Oh, no, I’m heading to work.’
7:25, she thought.
‘I won’t keep you long,’ he said, with the leisure that comes to the very old, ‘I wanted to ask you about something.’
Erika’s breathing was increasing in pace, and she felt her hands go clammy. Anxiety was beginning to roll over her, but she didn’t know the source. She just knew that she didn’t want to be there. She did her best to not let any of that show on her face though.
‘Of course, how can I help?’
‘I’ve been hearing something in my walls at night. Sometimes during the day. Do you hear anything in your room above?’
Erika shook her head, ‘I haven’t heard anything unusual.’
‘You think maybe that it is this old dummy just getting older. Hearing things,’ he said, fixing her with a steely-eyed stare, and poking her in the chest with the hand that held the cigarette, ‘But I know what I know. Either there is a rat or a mouse or something, or someone is keeping an animal.’
Erika’s heart felt like it was going to explode, but nothing of her feelings showed on her face. ‘Maybe. I will try to listen for anything unusual.’
7:26. She was now, officially, late.
Mr Tarasovich grunted dismissively. ‘Also, you never come to see me anymore,’ he said, ‘You seem awfully busy these days.’
Erika saw her opening to leave the conversation, ‘I have work and other things that take up my time.’
‘”Other things.” You used to bring me the paper in the mornings,’ he indicated his plastic bag with an expression of mock hurt, ‘And now I have to go down in the mornings myself. I have to purchase them myself.’
Erika’s hands were gripping her handbag’s straps tightly, and she was nodding, trying to appear contrite, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Tarasovich. Can I get you anything on my way back from work?’
Mr Tarasovich, with slightly too much satisfaction, scoffed. ‘I already have my newspaper now!’ he said, with a humourless chuckle, ‘Buying it again for me wouldn’t be much help.’
Without meeting his gaze, Erika matched his false smile, ‘Of course not. Sorry.’
7:27, she should be heading off by now.
Mr Tarasovich’s brows furrowed for a moment. He started looking at her face from different angles. ‘And how have you been since the accident? You didn’t get hurt or anything did you? Nothing knocked out of place?’
Still not looking directly at him, Erika shook her head. ‘No, Mr Tarasovich. I wasn’t hurt.’
His expression said that he didn’t believe her, but he nodded. ‘Good. You know to come to me if you have any problems, yes?’
‘Yes, Mr Tarasovich,’ Erika said.
He began walking towards the elevator doors. ‘You take care now, Ms Volkov.’
‘I will, Mr Tarasovich. Have a good day.’
He barked a short, dry laugh. ‘I will try!’ he said, without turning back.
7:28. That meant that she would almost certainly be unable to reach the bus stop in time.
Erika walked out of the reception and out onto the street. The day was grey and dull, but she barely noticed. She was walking north as quickly as she could without running, her breathing coming hard and fast.
It will have already gone past, she thought, It will have already gone past. There’s no point in going to the bus stop now. The next bus won’t be for another ten minutes, and that will get you there late.
Erika knew that that was the case, but she found herself unable to stop walking. She felt that if she could walk fast enough, she could somehow go back in time and catch the bus.
At 7:41, she came to a stop. She was in a small park, on the edge of the water. It looked to be a memorial of some kind, and though she had walked through this park almost every day for work, she had never stopped long enough to know what it memorialised. She knew that the bus would have passed by now.
Erika looked ahead of her, then looked behind her. She tried to keep her face passive, but she was aware of her quick, hard breaths.
There was only one way, Erika knew, that she would be able to get to work on time. That was the subway.
Abruptly, she turned on the spot and starting walking back the way she had come, back towards the subway station.
Erika had to fight the urge to walk slowly, putting off the nightmare, or even to just turn tail and run back to her apartment, climb the steps, go back to her bedroom and just bury herself in familiar surroundings. Despite this, she made it to the subway station in less than ten minutes.
Erika knew that the subway was faster than the buses. She in fact knew that it would actually cut her commute time in half. But she never used it. She avoided all subways as much as she possible. During rush hours, she never took them.
It was above ground, a fact for which Erika was thankful, but that was small consolation. Erika knew that the station would be packed. She climbed the stairs, as if walking to her execution, and caught sight of the figures that loomed at the top of them. Their backs were to her. Erika felt a small noise of anguish building in her throat, but she pulled it back before it became audible.
Erika reached the top of the stairs, and a small amount of relief wash over her. The station was crowded, but it wasn’t as packed as she’d feared. There was enough room to stand a little apart from one another.
Weaving her way through the statue-like people, Erika tried to reach the far end of the station, where she knew it would be less crowded. Even up here, there were more people than she felt comfortable with. She reminded herself that taking this step would mean that she wouldn’t be late for work. That she wouldn’t disappoint her boss. That she wouldn’t have to be told off again.
Erika reminded herself that all she had to do was get on this train, ride it out for fourteen stops, and then she’d be there.
As she walked, she heard the train approaching from behind her. It was a comforting noise, and one that only intensified her relief. Though she never took the subway, she loved it when they were regular. When they were on time.
She kept walking, wanting to make sure that she caught the subway in the very end car, where it would be the least crowded. The train creaked to a complete stop, and only then did she turn to enter it.
The doors opened on an ocean of humanity. People pressed shoulder to shoulder, arm to arm, staring at anything and nothing. The train was far past capacity with a mass of human beings. Faces looked out towards her and around her, all with the same expression of ignorance. It was as if by pretending that they weren’t trapped in this space, they could somehow rise above it.
Erika felt sick.
She hoped someone would step off the train and make more space, but nobody did. To her astonishment, several people around her actually stepped onto the train car, somehow folding their bodies into the mass of people, finding space where Erika could see none.
An older man with a red face saw her and shuffled his feet a little, indicating a tiny quarter-foot wide square of space for her to occupy on the subway car.
Erika somehow found it in her to force her mouth to smile. She shook her head, in a brief, almost violent gesture.
The man shrugged, and reclaimed the space.
The doors slid closed, and Erika wondered how they didn’t cut anyone’s extremities off.
The sick, rolling feeling in her stomach was getting worse. It was as if someone had left a pot of water on the stove for too long.
The train slid away from the station.
Erika’s breathing slowed to a more manageable level. When she was confident she could breathe normally, she rushed as fast as she could for the exit to the subway, down the stairs, and onto the street.
Erika decided that she would run for the bus, and hope against hope that it got her there on time.