(Contains some strong language)
It was the longest the hallway had ever been. An oblong dungeon. Stale, musty with the scent of aged spills and my own perspiration. No one was back there. I tensed, eyeing the light that blared through the swinging doors at the end of the tunnel. The soles, though soft, ricocheted slaps of sound off sealed concrete. Every corner shadow looked like an outline of the bastard's egg-shaped head. Any noise could have been him. I could never be sure if the slapping sounds were me, or he flying up from behind. The ticks of my human clock grew into thumps.
I heard the late night machinery back in the distance. Noise pollution. Beeps and clanks ravaged my sanity for one final time. The air between myself and the exit doors thickened, taking on the properties of water, then mud. My concrete-ravaged knees convulsed, giving unnecessary reminder of years of abuse. Helpless anger heated my face, bringing sweat to a simmer.
Get to those doors. Get there, and the battle is half over; get to the main entrance, the battle is won; get to the road, the war has finally ended.
Then what? As is usual with war, freedom, like everything, always comes with a price. I panted as shallow as excited lungs would allow, refusing to let the glaring rectangles of glass out of my sight with so much as a blink. It no longer mattered. I would pick up the pieces of my shambled adult life later. Whether or not any could be salvaged into something at this point was the nagging question.
The price sticker I had failed to scrape screamed at me in its green fluorescence. Everything comes with a price, and so would sticking it out yet another year. My steps advanced in speed. I could almost hear the mud sloshing.
What would he say when they asked about my character? That I was slow? That I didn't pay attention to details? That I didn't even bother giving two weeks notice?
That was the whole thing: I hadn't planned on it when the alarm went off that evening. I thought I could tough it out. Five more years. Five more, and I would be set for life. Little did I realize how close to the breaking point I was. One more rant from Egg Head about something ridiculous, and the switch would flip.
I jabbed at the sticker with the scraper's rusted blade. It was obstinate as usual. The blade snapped clean in two. I clawed until my fingertips turned raw, abandoning it as a torn, wadded remnant, visualizing him standing over it later with a twitch in his throat.
The doors flung open, and I marched through. I didn't care if anyone was on the other side. If they asked me where I was going, I'd ignore them. The light at the end of the tunnel was artificial. It joined everything else swirling inside my skull as I picked the name tag off the left side of my chest like rotten fruit. My heartbeat was visible where the tag had been. My vision strobed under the torture of the ceiling's phony luminescence as it had for the twenty-two years leading up to this moment.
It seemed eons, waiting for the time clock to accept the final swipe of the bent, jagged plastic bearing my first name.
Successfully clocked out.
My arm pits turned cold as they began to dry. I'd done it. The piercing whine of Michael Bolton's voice could no longer hurt me. It muffled to white noise along with the throngs of midnight shoppers meandering through the aisles beneath the omnipresent loudspeakers. I was one of them now. But not for long; only long enough to traverse this ten-acre disaster zone to my newfound freedom. I would never return.
Cleanup on Aisle Three! Immediately!
I detoured through the camoflauge of the clothing department. Someone else's problem now. Six-foot three or not, Egg Head would never notice me here because he'd never dream I'd dare venture into the face-coloring territory that was Lingerie. It was all a pink and white blur in my peripherals anyway.
The glass doors slid and closed beyond the registers every couple seconds like the only thing in the whole building providing enough ventilation to prevent this boxed, fiery Hell from exploding. I remained crouched at the edges of carpet and shiny tile, the adrenaline sharpening my focus to hawk quality. Maybe the rest of the crew got called to the office for another long-winded bitching session.
No one of concern in sight. Just customers and new cashiers.
Opportunity knocked. I eased my way toward the group of eight who were heading for the doors, joining them from behind. I whispered a thanks for their acting as a shield. A puff of fresh night time caressed my ancient hair. Bolton's voice went silent behind me, and Chariots of Fire played in its place.
Still, I knew it wasn't over. This was a beginning, not an ending. The concentrated Cumulus was dissipating, but now a thick blanket of black emptiness above me had been revealed. The literal nightmare was done, but how long would the ones in my head go on? This place was inescapable. The decades, permanent. Once in, no matter where I tried to go, the mark of the beast would forever be implanted in my brain and tattooed on my ass.
The blank in "blanket". My new reality. A new chapter, thus far having pages lacking words. I stretched my neck searching for one lone star in the sky through the windshield as I started the engine and rolled in slow motion across the parking lot. I sank into the seat as the tan, tyrannical face of the building grinned at me, wondering if it truly was the sensation of tons being lifted from my shoulders, or that of my soul going under to a place far worse. No...There was no such place. For now, my Number One priority was throwing that alarm clock in the garbage.