You clip your briefcase shut with a perfunctory snap – clear-cut, direct, and orderly. The entirety of your adult career could be summarized in that single, routine click of the briefcase clasp. Everything in place, everything succinct. The epitome of a stable lifestyle.
Not everything is as tranquil, you often lament, as the reassuring clack of a briefcase. The insurance workers in the office suite across the floor, for instance – oh, that can get messy. That sort of squabbling, bickering pursuit really isn’t for you, not at all. You stick to your cubicle, with the calendar and the bulletin board and the lap top, the magnets and the pushpins and the sticky notes… Orderly. Beautiful.
You are satisfied; on the continuum of chaos in this life, ranging drastically from insurance to accounting, you are smugly perched in the tier of secretarial realtor work. You live in a world where adventure is the morning spreadsheet, serenity is the air you breathe, and order is inherently woven into the very fabric of your universe. Every sticky note has its reminder, and every coffee cup has its saucer. Even the squeaks and grunts of the elevators making their way to the third floor have a regulated charm to them.
You have always loved working on the third floor. Three, the most stable number, the basis for efficient structural support. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that there even is a fourth floor.
It’s easy to forget, sometimes, what lurks in office suite 450.
A shiver runs down your spine unprompted, but you shake it off. Briefcase securely latched, held loosely by your side, you nod to your well-groomed coworkers and make your way over to the fogged glass door. Polished black shoes click against the stone floor with every step – further reassurance. The sound is snuffed on the hallway carpet, but even the rustling of high grade suit fabric brushing against itself serves to calm.
The elevator doors open as you step up to them. Out walks a man on his way to the insurance suite. You exchange nods. The lobby button is waiting for you in the elevator. It illuminates with a familiar glow when you press it, a friendly, industrial wink to all the inhabitants of the Mayflower Office Suite Building. 3, 2, L…
The doors open. You take one step, lift your eyes, and –
It’s a girl, a teenage girl. Dulled brown eyes under an unbrushed swathe of dark hair, shoulders slumped under a low-hanging blue backpack, paint-smeared jeans, ratty tennis shoes with holes and dirt splatters of epoxy coating, earbuds trailing out from a loosely clasped fist…
You could’ve smell the adolescence before you’d taken one look. But you were distracted, and now you’re rooted to the spot. She glances up at you, intelligent eyes clouded with lethargy and exhaustion; she’s waiting for you to leave the elevator, you realize, but you’re frozen rigid. Your eyes flicker to the plaques in the lobby, listing the businesses on each floor – you see it now, all too clearly, what you never should’ve allowed yourself to forget – Lena Franklin, Psychiatry, MD. When you look back at the girl, you sense the Teenage Angst rolling off of her in tangible waves, prickling at your skin and raising the hair on the back of your neck. It’s burning at her, you can see it now, piercing every bone in her body.
The longer you look, the more you see it, the harder it is to look away – you see the angst in her, festering underneath her skin like a mottled bruise permeating her entire underdeveloped existence. You see the smoke behind her eyes, the embers smoldering within her skull. Suddenly, you are inclined to doubt that she’s a girl at all – that she is anything, anything at all beside pure, undiluted adolescent suffering.
Your gut lurches and your throat constricts. Ever last shred of tranquility is snatched forcefully from your fingertips as her gaze traps you. You are suffocated by a merciless, unrelenting question:
Has she lived life?
There is an aged quality to those eyes, to the corners of her mouth. There is a depth there that you couldn’t have anticipated, ragged and murky though it may be. How much validation does her suffering merit? How much must one suffer, must one endure to have lived? Does she even have the capacity to qualify as a Person, underneath all the standardized testing and the procrastination and the screams of her comrades?
You are now beginning to realize that they have always been screaming, they have never stopped screaming, not once even since you left high school yourself has the screaming stopped -you can hear it now, from across the park, and oh god, you can’t escape the wretched shrieks. You had blocked it out for so long, warded it off, but your shields are crumbling. The angst is with you now, as present in your world as you are in hers, and the insatiable vines of pain and confusion creep up your mental battlements and tear them ravenously to pieces, laying waste to the marble walls that for so long have obscured from you huge expanses of Hell…
A Hell that burns not with brimstone and demons and lakes of fire, but a dark room, murkily illuminated by shreds of light filtered under doorways, through windows – a prison, and the walls are constricting, closing in on you, crumbling around you – something is there, something waits for you in this pinnacle of torment, you see it in her eyes, you see it in the void opening up before you, something is there-
And suddenly you are running.