Floating Spirits of the City

Submitted into Contest #59 in response to: Write a story that feels lonely, despite being set in a packed city.... view prompt


Drama Mystery

What we cannot see, touch, or hear aren’t necessarily nonexistent.

And despite the small and big chores that constantly tear the mind away from these things we don’t know what to name, they always find some gaps to creep into our life. A gentle nudge at our deepest recess, fresh from the abyss, while gradually increasing into more urgent whispers.

Omit them, you say. Brush them off as the subconscious playing its trick, disturbing the rhythm of your busyness. Nobody has time to listen to the nonsensical matters from the dark, not when the light enjoys the throne before the bowing mass. To each person their life and day lay ahead to worry about.

Like today in the single-person household of Anne.

Open the blinds. Wash face. Brush teeth. Do her business. Pray for ten to fifteen minutes. Braid hair. She then makes a beeline to the kitchen, turning the faucet, letting the water run freely filling the kettle until half of the capacity. Her hand settles the aluminium body on top of the heating base. Plug the cable in. Switch on the kettle. While the unmistakable noise from the kettle tells her that the water is almost boiling, she prepares the notebook and pen and then jots down some tasks in her to-do list. 

Book a hotel room. Why does she need a hotel room? Because of her upcoming job interview that is going to take place somewhere in the next province. Why does she want to take a job that will require her to leave her current accommodation? Because she needs to be away from this city. Why does she need to be away from this city? Because she. . .

Her words fall apart before getting formed in a coherent sentence in her mind. Shaking her head, she continues to hunker down with the list, adding buying a carton of milk and some lettuce under calling her client as soon as she arrives at the office. From the fixed line of the conference room Lemongrass. Who names a conference room Lemongrass? Her management of course, who names all the meeting rooms in their office, situated in a high-rise building, with names of spice. Lemongrass, Rosemary, and Fennel are among the rooms on the same floor as her desk. Luckily no one names something Basil. 

The kettle automatically switches off with a ‘pop’ sound, breaking her thoughts. She gets up. Pouring the hot water into the mason jar, submerging the teabag that colourises the water brownish. The smell of freshly-brewed tea wafts to the air. Nothing else. Not even cookies. No sugary treats in the morning. Just a cup of tea. She fills the cup to the brim as if to reanimate the dead leaves. Lies, like water, keep filling the empty container until the light is distorted through its glassy liquid. No one can write their names on water, not overly dissimilar with attempts to leave a meaningful story on top of the lies.

The clock hands point at 7.25 am. She packs her laptop, umbrella, and water bottle. Her tote bag is ready. Its faded cream faux leather needs a wipe. She runs out of polishing wipes. There is no time to make some smoothies to go. So she leaves, as leaving always gives her a sense of new forthcoming reality. A new day, a new chance. But in her case, it’s always about leaving this house to face something less dreadful outside. This house is never worthy of being called home.

So she gets on the bus which stops by her neighbourhood every 15 minutes. The driver’s old, the same guy she sees every day from Monday to Friday. She never takes the same route on the weekends. Weekends are reserved for more adventurous endeavours. Going to the big open markets, for example. Sipping hot tea at one of the cafes nearby and munching on the scones and strawberry jam while skipping the cream cheese. The cafe has horrible cream cheese, but the strawberry jam is lovely. But this morning is not those days. No cafe, no open market. She has to sit inside a rocking, wobbling and sometimes pausing grey-white vehicle of which the interior is plastered with dead skin cells of passengers from a decade. The bated breath of the people in the past filling the air, their enthusiasm permeating not unlike the gas of diesel fuel emitted from the tailpipe, the red and yellow trees outside giving a nod for witnessing inconsequential events for years.

Isn’t that how people are supposed to live their lives? The golden and maroon hues become scenery for the daily commuters crammed in the buses; their eyes looking in awe, mouths aah- and ooh-ing in regard to the natural beauty. But for the trees experiencing the umpteenth cycle of autumn in their long life, we are the scenery. People leave this world at an age younger than the trees, but the footprints left are deeper, the impacts are greater than what the trees do.

The screech almost hurls her forward. Something bad happened at the driver’s house before he leaves for work? Home, she corrects herself. It is not as usual. But nothing is prominent enough to pay attention to, at least on the bus. An elderly couple gets on slowly, the man stretches his forearm to guide his lady up. Coins clinking on the deposit tray as they pay. Both step inside, a pregnant lady shifting her body so the new couple can sit next to her. We move on.

And that’s how we move on. By giving place to the new things coming to our life. People will see that as the minute stops, all other responsibilities are forgotten. But some will not pay heed to the ongoing events, their heads down watching a different world packed inside their phones. Some others still get absorbed at the natural view where colours blend into a mesmerising scene, a new reality unfurls. A new day chock full of hope, like all on this bus brimming with excitement. A second chance.

Her phone slides out her bag as she shuffles in her seat. She fixes the cream bag on her lap, catching the device promptly. The sleek black phone, albeit the newest model, lays sad. Phones become only so important as the information inside. And hers, not so much. No texts. Her home screen shows full of notification bars of the news apps. No social media installed. Promotional ads from the travel apps. Huge cut on the international hotel prices this year. Maybe later, when she recovers fully from the last traumatic experience when travelling alone to Ginza. 

It’s cold this morning. She erases her text.

It’s cold this morning like Bandung when it’s at the hottest midday. She deletes it again.

Or maybe it’s just this part of the city. What about the industrial districts? Probably scorching.

It’s cold.

She tweets to no one and everyone all at once. To the nameless swarm of individuals with eyes flocking the internet. To everyone. The mundane everyone. The people who will just pull their phone, open the app, and read the news headlines. Their fingers scrolling up and down endlessly, minds sucked to an endless vortex of information. The newsworthy becomes the banal or the other way around. Her tweet will soon be forgotten.

What about this? Ah, just a random tweet, she imagines someone reads her tweet then shrugs and continues scrolling, probably.

The North Business District stands tall as they pass it. Thousands of workers with their sharpest attire flood the district’s entry points by cars. What are they thinking inside the four-wheeled metal boxes? Anne wonders. Probably in a rush to make it to the early meetings, just as she on ordinary days. What is the point, though?

The ghosts. She has to avoid the ghosts, because one time she lets her mind be empty like a new canvass supported by an easel, a dark artist sees an opportunity. The spirits float in the air of pollution and navigate their lithe matter amid the honking of cars in a traffic jam. Nobody can see or hear them. But the spirits exist.

They see, with their watchful eyes, whose minds are like a clean slate that time. Then, they proceed to make it their house, their home. Their brush will dance on a palette of grey and black. The wispy tendrils impart the dark tone on the white canvass. If you watch how they impressively create the art on a speed-painting video, you will see their real faces in the end, sketched beautifully contrasting with the white background. One face can be an abstract round object with two holes positioned rather at the top to illustrate the eyes. Nothing resembling the nose in the centre of the picture. No mouth at the lower one-third part, either. Because the artist does not have a mouth. Does not need a mouth to spit venomous words. Their dark presence is enough to occupy your mind. It’s your words that become venomous.

So, in the speeding and halting vehicles, you feel floating. In the dragging meeting, you can hear ringing in your ears on top of the droning presenter. And when you put down your phone, you will come back to their ever-present existence minutes later. 

Because you run from the spirits by doing actually anything else. You are like a hamster running in a wheel, being kept stationary in the position with something to do so the emptiness will not push from the inside, making your eyeballs pop out. You burn the mind calories, you set the spirits ablaze. But they keep coming like a miasma. 

One day they will establish a longer grip in your mind. And that day is going to be the day you relinquish control. On that day, everything will become nothing. And the day you become their host, they will spread out of you towards more people.

She gets off at the next stop. The east entry point of the business district. She counts her steps. Swipes her employee card at the gate. Says good morning to the security officer. Punches the lift up button. Steps in and maintains a correct posture inside a crowded metal box. Steps out at her floor. Sets her luggage down on the chair and desk. Moves to make some coffee at the pantry. Grabs the now-warm cup to the Lemongrass room.

Her currency today is another nine hours to spend before crawling back to the packed bus. Before winding down hushes the conversations into merely static noise. Before solitude rears that ugly head back and allows the floating spirits to seep in.

Somewhere amid the running tasks today, she wonders if she needs to change jobs or accommodation. Perhaps, she wouldn’t pursue the interview. How long will she need to run from the spirits? Forever is a long time. One day she will blend into the background as the spirit itself.

September 18, 2020 01:38

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