The movement of the clock measured Art's life not by the seconds but by their pauses. Those moments in the cracks of time, where the clock did not tick and seconds did not tock. His eyes fixated on the tiny hands, a spectator to time's passing. The day had only just begun, and already Art could see all the years of his life to come. The endless shuffling back and forth to his job, mothballed ties and cubicles of solitude. There would be no tomorrow in this life, only today and a thousand carbon copies of its motions.
Walls of ebon glass boxed into sectioned cubicles, their occupants rats in a corporate maze. Art sat in one such non-discrepant coffin, with his briefcase still sitting expectant on his lap. At nine the work-mill had begun and endless games of pass the paper stacks commenced. At six minutes past nine, Art had yet to surface from his exploration of time's moments in the cracks, when an expectant cough behind him returned the deviant white-collar to his purgatorial existence.
“Mr. Reese?” Arthur spun around to discover a twenty-first century take on Da Vinci's ode to Mona Lisa, all dressed up in the frills of post-feminist, corporate attire.
“Are you Mr. Reese?” asked the brunette with all too fashionably short hair, tight tits, prudent lips and a rigid posture. The woman held a file in her arms as she stared at him expectantly.
“Yes, uh... yes, I'm Arthur Reese. What do—how can I help you?”
Whilst the siren before him represented all of corporate America in it's glorious triumph over history, Arthur Reese did not; if anything he fast approached her tangent. A specimen of the dying Cro-Magnon apexed by the glory of the mighty Neanderthal with suits, ties and medical coverage. Of course, Art had been thrust heartlessly into the customs of this divergent species; the cheap suit of rough cotton too warm against the eczemic skin of his neck and the rough starch of his too-tight shirt itching at his chest. He wore a brown tie, dark enough to hide the stains of a hundred canteen lunches but not the weight he struggled with and shoes flecked with spots of mud from the daily forced march to work, dark stains upon his soul and a reminder of his servitude.
“My name is Dr. Mason, Mr. Reese. I'll be conducting your psychiatric evaluation today, given past events it will be deciding your future with us. We'll meet at eleven o'clock.”
“I see...thank you.” Art's nerves wracked his body with trembling waves.
'How did I get here? How did it come to this?' But he knew the answers that Silence whispered in his ear. 'The Incident.'
He couldn't forget what had happened, who could? He'd spent the past three months clawing back his fractured sanity in a private clinic just outside Manhattan. Art had been lucky though, the courts deemed the company liable for his breakdown and so they had sent him to a place where he would receive the best help possible. But it also meant that they had a duty to re-employ him when the time came for his discharge, subject to the results of a corporate psychiatric evaluation of course. And that brought them to today.
Dr. Mason had left Mr. Reese to his despairing thoughts some time ago. His chair still swiveled to face the cubicle entrance. But he couldn't see anyone. He turned to see which one of his morose cubicle neighbours had summoned up enough perverse courage to lean over and address him, but no one had. Instead, the computer monitor on his desk showed a beautiful valley, stretching away below him. The gentle slopes carpeted by verdant green grass, sparkled with violent blooms of yellow daffodils. The sky a perfect cyan blue, forbade a single wisp of cloud in its domain.
Art realised that what he could see wasn't a photo, the long stalks of grass were swaying to the rhythms of a gentle breeze. And as he realised that he saw a young woman step into the frame. Soft blonde tendrils of her hair danced in that beatific breeze. Her face long with sharp cheekbones, gave her a slender regality aided by her lithe movements. But that regality broke upon the banks of her smile, which radiated a warmth too bright to almost bare. Her dress was a plain, simple affair of lemon cotton, her shoulders draped in a silken shawl.
This queen of the valley kneeled on the knoll, her fingers lifting up one of the fair daffodils to add to the collection in her other hand. Suddenly though she looked up and more specifically she looked directly at Arthur Reese, which simply wasn't possible.
Art's chair tipped backwards in his panic to escape the impossible. It resulted in him lying spread eagle on the floor of his cubicle.
“Mr. Reese is everything alright?”
Art looked up and inwardly groaned. One of his supervisors stood at the entrance with a look of shock and admonishment.
“Yessir. I'm so sorry. I-I must have leaned back too...too far.”
“Do try to be more careful, Arthur. You're really not doing yourself any favours.”
And with that he left. Art immediately got to his feet, and trepidatiously looked over at the monitor. It stared back, it's screen damning him with a nothingness, black as hell itself.
'This can't be happening again.' These were the first words that flashed through his panic-strickened thoughts. Art knew with a terrifying certainty what the result of this hallucination would be if anyone found out. Sky-blue walls with puffy little clouds, a green garden full of flowers and a pill a day that really didn't keep the doctor away; a man who seemed to obsess over their endless little chats. And beneath it all, the constant stench of madness.
'Be rational, you're stressed out, not to mention exhausted. You probably fell asleep and dreamed it all up.' Art caught the deceptive 'probably' within his inner monologue, his devious subconscious slipping into his rational. Perhaps the madness came from believing one thing and knowing another, the painful divorce of one's head and heart.
He could feel the panic rising in his chest, threatening to suffocate his every breath. It sat in his stomach, a venomous snake, rooted in his soul. The shaking began in his knees, always the first to succumb to the bullying tactics of his terror but it quickly spread to his hands and chest until he could feel the hot sting of tears in his eyes, warm against his skin as they fell heavy from his lashes.
'I will not be afraid.' This elixir of strength failed in its quest to banish the fear that overwhelmed him, but it gave rise to a hope that in time it might. He didn't deserve this after all. Arthur Reese had never been a bad man, that kind of confidence had always evaded him. He had been a good man...not because it had been the right thing, only because it seemed the most comfortable path in life. He knew it came from his memories of church in his youth. He had listened to rapturous sermons, the very words of God, delivered to his ears by prophets and angels galore. They instilled a faith within him that had never lost his devotion. Life had given Arthur the merry-go-round of ups and downs, as it did with everyone but he'd stayed strong and faithful. Sunday was his favourite day of the week and he was always one of the early arrivals at his church's congregations.
Art never understood why it happened. He'd never put a foot out of line, and his life had been merely a series of A's to B's. No sudden deaths or upheavals in his life led to the incident that derailed him and as he contemplated once again the events that had brought him to this day, he stood upon the ledge again and felt the cold wind whipping at his chest.
“I don't want you to jump, Arthur.”
“Why not?” Art's voice screamed out in panic to the aging detective, leaning out the window.
“Because I don't think you deserve to die, son.”
“How do you know? You don't know me!”
The grey thread of underachievement had led Art through the labyrinth of life, until its monotony had carried him out into the wind and rain; thirty-five stories above the world.
“No one would want to die like this Arthur. Feeling scared and alone as they prepare to meet their end. Dying is hard enough, why not let it come about when it's ready for you?”
“I--I can't go back. I just-- I don't want it to hurt anymore.”
“Why? Where does it hurt?”
Art pulled up his left hand away from the glass window he held himself against for dear life. The wind howled madly, forcing the two men to shout just so they could be heard by one another. The damp mop of Arthur's hair streaked unfashionably against his balding head, his tie a writhing beast caught in the grip of this malevolent storm. Slowly, the hand pressed against his chest, against his heart. Art's lips gasped for each and every single breath between the ragged tears of his crumbling resolve.
“Do you feel the power of this storm, tonight, Arthur? That's how you feel inside, right? All the pain buried in your soul, overwhelming you with the unhappiest of thoughts. But son, this storm will pass. And I swear to you...if you do hold on, if you take just one step back...you will see the sun again. But you have to trust me Arthur, and I know it's hard. More importantly, you have to trust yourself and that's harder still. Just don't let your past define your future. You will see the sun again.”
Art looked closely at the detective's face for the first time. A glimmer of understanding penetrating the abyss of his turmoil. And for a moment, just a moment, he thought he saw his father's face.
Of course, there had been no detective that day, nor had there been a storm. But he had climbed onto the window ledge of the thirty-fifth floor and thankfully he had come back without jumping. The doctors at his clinic called it a psychotic break with reality, which basically meant he had imagined the whole thing. It meant he was crazy.
Neither of them spoke for the first few minutes. Art wringed his hands in dreadful anticipation as he sat in front of the desk. Dr. Mason on the other hand attended to the file before her, dark red lipstick etching out the shapes of silent words as the doctor read to herself.
The file snapped shut loudly, the sounds of the outside offices banished from these ebon walls.
“Do you understand why you are here today, Mr. Reese?”
“If it were up to the company, you would not be allowed to return to work for us. But unfortunately, the courts have declared otherwise. The company was found liable for your breakdown and as such we were charged with covering all your medical expenses, along with facilitating your return to work for us; pending a successful evaluation. We're here today Mr. Reese, to determine whether or not you are in fact capable of returning to work for us.”
“I see. Do I need to undergo any tests?”
“No, that won't be necessary. I want to talk to you about the incident.”
“The report states that the first person to notice you were out on the ledge was one of the Office Managers. When he returned with assistance you were found inside by the open window, curled up on the floor.”
“I...I don't remember.”
“What do you remember Mr. Reese?”
'The detective. The storm. My hand against my heart.'
“I-- I was scared.”
'Of living. Of never seeing the sun again.'
“The window-ledge of the thirty-fifth floor seems like a rather odd place for someone scared of dying, Mr. Reese.”
Arthur tried to pay attention to the words next formed by those red lips, but it became almost impossible. Behind the doctor's desk the exterior wall was made of dark glass. Through it Art saw the grey light of another dull Thursday, streetlamps turned on against the backdrop of a drizzled sky. But as he spoke with Dr. Mason, the light had begun to brighten, a break in a grey blanket wrapped above their heads. The light grew and grew until Art found himself forced to look away, the intensity of it too painful for his eyes. And yet the doctor kept on talking. It took him only a moment to realise the truth. 'Not again.'
“Are you listening to me, Mr. Reese?”
Her barbed tongue lashed him into the present and Art dared, just for a moment, to look up at her. 'Maybe....'
Behind Dr. Mason grass swayed beneath a summer blue sky. A fertile land rolled up the hill into the distance, flecks of sun-dance yellow painted on it's back. Daffodils soaked in the summer warmth, their petals spread in reverence. The smell of spring reached him.
“It's not possible.”
And then he saw her again. In the distance the young woman appeared atop the hill, her dress blustering in the wind. She raised her hand and waved, then began to run towards them.
"What's not possible, Mr. Reese?"
But Art didn't hear her, his mind lost to the wonder or madness he beheld. The girl had almost reached them now, her lips parted in an honest smile. Her eyes filled with light, her nose crinkled in genuine humour.
Art continued in this manner, lost in his vacant stare at the wall behind Dr. Mason, who had turned to see what could possibly have captivated his attention so completely; but she saw nothing. In frustration she brought the flat of her hand down hard on the desk between them. The blow brought Art back for a moment. His attention ripped from the visage, his eyes viciously pulled back into the world he knew and hated by the primal instinct of an unconscious need to fear. The world beyond lost as a result.
"Enough Mr. Reese, clearly your time away has done little to help you with your 'condition'. I'm terminating your employment with the company, effective immediately. I'll have security escort you off the premises. You can clear out your desk on the way. Goodbye Mr. Reese."
The sentence passed with the click of a pen; the doctor signing his death sentence. In an instant, phantoms appeared from the darkness around him; men with cold, hard stares dressed in execution black - a fashion statement that never went out of fashion.
Flanked by the ever silent golems Art walked towards his cubicle, his heart racing a hundred miles an hour and palms sweaty to the touch. Fear choked him as his mind raced to keep ahead of events around him.
At his desk he found a small box waiting for him, it's empty contents a prophecy of the days destined to come.
"Please pack up your desk, Mr. Reese and come with us downstairs." The guard to his right said, betraying the code of silence he and his compatriot evidently shared.
Almost afraid to approach the box Art timidly stepped forward and began picking up various personal items that were displayed neatly on the desk. Pictures of faraway places filled with light and laughter, a small cactus that Art sometimes imagined one day planting in a desert and a travel guide for Switzerland, which he'd found abandoned once in the offices' cafeteria. A life of half-dreams and wishes lay before him.
As he bent down to pick the book up, a flash of sunlight and blue sky caught his eye and there she was again. The computer screen showed a window into that world that could not be real, the world that his mind condemned him for envisioning and yet it felt more real than anything he had ever known. She stood on the hill nearby, her back to him. As he watched, she leaned down and picked a dandelion from the grass and blew on it, laughing in delight as the seeds carouseled through the wind.
Art's eyes caught one of the seeds coming towards the screen, languidly sailing on the breeze. Then it passed through and landed on his desk...
For a moment, he couldn't breath, he began to feel his chest constricting. Then when he remembered his need of lungs his breathing came ragged, anxiety pouring through his body, panic gripping him. Blindly he pushed away from the desk, backing into the golems waiting by his cubicle. They scattered before him confused. Then Art began to run - lines of white boxes everywhere he looked with little white mice in suits and ties, sitting in their chairs eating cheese. He ran the maze a man possessed, until he came to a door. Swinging it open, he threw himself inside and turned the lock.
Art slipped to the floor, tears streaming down his face, salty to taste. He was losing his mind, if he hadn't already. What was happening to him?
The minutes stretched by, their train caught by the muffled sounds of sobbing Art produced. When the banging started on the door he lay down, curling up. After a while the intrusions on his reverie subsided, leaving only the demonic howls of voices shouting at him from the world he'd locked away but they seemed far away and indistinct to him now. None of it was real, perhaps not even Art himself. For a moment that thought peppered through his mind, shattering perception and all sense of self. That he could be the fiction of another soul's pain, the cruellest joke he could imagine. But as with all flights of fantasy his mind moved on, settling into the gentle harbour of half-thoughts and empty dreams.
And so he lay there for a lifetime, catching the vaguest of thoughts every once in a while, giving him the notion of time's passage. Finally there came another type of knocking at the door - this one quiet, almost timid - a simple tap...tap...tap. Art didn't move but he heard the voice outside speaking to him.
"Mr. Reese, I'm Detective Halls. You've got a lot of people worried out here, Sir. Are you okay?"
'I'm losing my mind.'
"Leave me alone!" Arthur whispered.
"It's okay Arthur, open the door and I can help you."
"Stay away from me. I can't stop seeing her...it!"
"Whatever you're seeing Mr. Reese, you know it's not real, you said it yourself. There's still hope for you, son."
"How do I know this is real?"
"How do any of us? We live our lives as best we can and we hope that it carries some meaning and relevancy. But I've always believed that as long as we try it doesn't matter if we win or lose. Life isn't a scorecard Arthur...it's a painting, whose labour we all share in crafting. So whatever's happening to you Arthur, it's not your fault and I'm here to help you. Will you let me help you, son?"
For a long time Arthur pondered the man's words. His eyes fixed upon the ebon walls between him and grey world outside. Until he realised, he wasn't looking at ‘that’ world anymore, he was seeing the other place with only the glass separating them.
"What ever has happened Arthur, your past doesn't define your future."
The words hit him hard in the stomach; the stormy ledge, the detective. He had lost his grip on reality back then as well, but this...this felt different. There was something about this other-world, something peaceful and compelling.
What waited for Arthur Reese behind that door? Confinement to an institution, daily sedatives that made the world the grey place it had already become - endless drones of doctors preaching from their books. What waited for Arthur behind the glass? A new world? Death? Wasn't either preferable to the alternative?
Art stood up, rubbing the tears from his eyes. He grabbed a heavy office chair and pulled it into position. Like a tobogganist, Art began to push back and forward readying his launch until he suddenly burst forth and hurtled the chair into the wall, sending it crashing through.
In an instant, light poured into the office consuming Arthur. The light was so bright he fell to his knees, bowing his head in reverence; the sound of smashing glass ringing in his ears.
The pounding on the door began anew, heavy-handed now. Art carefully looked forward, letting his eyes adjust to what lay outside. After a moment, he caught sight of a gentle hill rolling away from the window, the grass brushing against the sill. A flower pushed up against the pane as brilliant sunlight poured down from an empty sky and high above he saw a kite, dancing with it's mate. Then he heard laughter and saw the girl crest the hill. She spotted him and beckoned.
Suddenly the door smashed open and a man fell through. As he got up Art recognised him and he knew he had finally lost all hold of reality. The detective from the ledge - the man he had imagined - stood before him, revealed as the voice behind the door. The ghost of his long-gone father.
"Don't do it, Arthur."
"You...you're not real."
"Perhaps, but you just smashed a window on the thirty-fifth floor and now you're seeing rainbows and daffodils, boy. Which of us is more sane?"
"I-What's happening to me?"
"You need help Arthur, you have to trust me on this."
"Don't you mean trust myself? You're not real, I'm imagining you," he snorted derisively.
"Then trust yourself son, because I don't think you deserve to die."
"You're wrong, I don't know what to believe. But what I see out there, I don't want to be here any more."
The girl had come half way down the hill by now, the look of happiness on her face holding Arthur in its grasp. Art thought intensely for the next few moments - his head furrowed, deep in thought. Finally the creases in his brow faded away and a look of calmness spread across his face.
“You were right you know. I will see the sun again.” He laughed gently.
With those last words and the first smile he had known in years spread upon his lips and soul, Arthur Reese jumped.