Saturday, November 2, 2019

Tap

by Lisa Kwan

***


The crying. Non-stop crying. Where is she?

Brendwyn realizes she’s in an empty room. It isn’t any room she is familiar with though; there are no walls, no windows, just nothing. But she hears the crying. Her heart is pounding, and cold sweat forms on her forehead, in her palms.

Suddenly, she sees her. She’s there, in a corner of the room, if there were a corner. A small bundle, completely wrapped in swaddling cloth, dark, unmoving.

The crying.

Brendwyn moves forward, slides to her knees beside her, absolutely terrified to pick her up. She leans in, but hesitates. She wonders why. Guilt creeps in.

The crying.

She lifts her up, and the crying intensifies. What’s wrong? She hastily unwraps the cloth from her covered face. She pulls the last of the folds of cloth free to reveal her baby...with her eyes gouged out.

She screams as she drops the bundle, and watches in paralyzed horror as long slimy dark tentacles snake out where the baby’s arms and legs should have been, and as they creep up her legs, grip her abdomen, slide around her shoulders, and clutch her neck, tightening their grip. They draw her closer, closer to face the eyeless face, its mouth now rounded in an “O”, as if surprised.

She screams.

***

Brendwyn jolted awake. Where am I? She looked around at the messy desk, the bright orange couch, the cabinet, the fake potted plant near the virtual window that was indicating a very bright morning. The large numbers on the wall showed 10:03AM.

Her body felt like it’d been crushed by an anvil, very much like the one in that old, almost ancient cartoon with the coyote--what was it called again?--and she was emerging from a similar cloud of dust. The shooting pain in the left side of her head had resumed, and she could barely move, she was so exhausted. She attempted to adjust how she was sitting, groaning.

It was then that she noticed quite a number of eyes peering at her over their virtual screens through the transparent walls, feigning ignorance, but betraying nosiness. She swiftly waved her hand, and the walls became opaque, emitting a soft glow. She bit her lip, appalled by what the others must have seen, or worse, heard.

A petite bespectacled female assistant appeared, her eyebrows in a furrow. “Ms Abedeen,” she started, but then she disappeared and instantaneously reappeared with a glass. “Have some,” she offered.

Brendwyn stared at the glass as if it were completely alien to her. Eventually, she wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand, and took the glass and drained its contents. The effervescence was both soothing and calming, and her shoulders relaxed. “Thanks, Triss.”

She nodded at Triss, gave her a small smile. “I’m...sorry, again.” She ran her hand through her hair, which felt rather oily. When was the last time she’d washed her hair? She sighed. “I’m kind of a mess.”

Triss’s smile mirrored hers. “Let’s get you ready for that meeting.”

The walls of her office lit up with her presentation, one that she’d been preparing for the past two months, ever since she came back.

As she stared at them, she felt the familiar prickling of cold sweat in her palms, at her temples. Why did these look foreign? She knew she’d been working on them all day yesterday. Or was that the day before? Was it Saturday? Monday? Wait, what day is it today?

Triss reappeared. “Everything alright, Ms Abedeen?”

Brendwyn swallowed. Swallowed hard. “Yes, everything’s fine.”

***

Brendwyn stared, her mouth slightly agape, her mind gears stuck, and painfully silent. The wall displaying the slide she was on blinked, the words blurring, as if telling her, "You're on your own, honey." She looked around at the others sitting around the conference table helplessly. In fact, a number of them looked away, embarrassed.

"Ms Abedeen? You haven't answered the question."

She opened her mouth, and closed it again. "I-I'm sorry," she managed.

Minutes later, after the haunting whoosh of the holograms disappearing, Brendwyn slumped over on the table. Mr Melvedant hadn't said much. Rather, he had been uncharacteristically civil and sympathetic, which meant she was almost certainly in deep trouble. She wasn't sure if she would come back to a job tomorrow.

Her ear buzzed. She tapped on her right ear, and sat upright, wiping off a stray tear, absentmindedly wondering if the new eyeliner she'd purchased would streak.

"Yes, Melyssa."

"Brendwyn, good morning. How was your meeting?"

"Melyssa, get straight to the point. I didn't pay for you to beat around the bush. I pay for you to take care of my house."

"Sorry. Just wanted to update you that we had a slight situation earlier in the morning. Although Aurora's fever has come down from last night, she threw up a bit just now. I managed to calm her down with some songs and music, and at the moment, she's sleeping. For now, I don't think it's necessary to call the doctor yet."

Brendwyn sighed. "I've told you before, when I'm at work, you're not to disturb me with anything unless it's really important. This is an example of something that doesn't make the top of the list, Melyssa."

Brendwyn paused. "I really don't want to have to recall you," her voice lowered.

"I understand. I just thought I'd update you."

"This didn't warrant a call," she snapped. "Next time, just send me a FaceNote. I'll listen to it when I have the time." Brendwyn tapped her ear again.

"Ms Abedeen?" Triss’s voice appeared behind her.

"What?" Brendwyn swung around to face her..

"Private holocall from Mr Melvedant."

Brendwyn closed her eyes, pressed her forehead. Inhaled. Exhaled.

"Okay, Triss. Thank you." She waved her hand, and Triss disappeared.

She adjusted her suit jacket, and sat up so straight until her back hurt. Plastering what she hoped was a confident yet apologetic smile on her face, Brendwyn tapped her ear once more.

Mr Melvedant appeared, seated opposite her, his face grim. "Mr Melvedant, first off, let me--"

But something in his face made Brendwyn stop mid-sentence. All her fire dissipated, and instead, she stared at her clasped hands before her, praying he wouldn't see them trembling.

It was the longest five seconds of her life.

"Ms Abedeen, you have been our top-achieving executive for the past four years. But I must say that your recent performance after a certain…recent development, has been rather disappointing. It is one thing to make such unacceptable mistakes within the company, but with our most important clients? Do you have any idea the damage you've done?"

"I'm sorry, Mr Melvedant, I--"

"I gave them to you because I trusted you. I thought you could handle it. But from what I've seen today, I may be very wrong."

Brendwyn's heart broke a little. And she fiercely fought the tears and sobs that were threatening to escape from her. She fought once more.

"Mr Melvedant, I assure you, I can. Today was a rare, I mean, a one-time thing. It will never happen again." Brendwyn leaned forward, locking her eyes with his, willing him to give her another chance.

His gaze faltered, and he cleared his throat. She drew a sharp breath.

"Please, Mr Melvedant. You have seen my work. You know what I'm capable of. You know I can do this, no matter what the circumstance. I'll redo the presentation. I'll speak and apologize to each of our clients today personally. I'll fix this. Not only that, I'll make sure this project will be our most profitable one yet, and by the end of the year, you'll be rolling in so much money, you'd even feel like giving half to your ex-wife." Brendwyn hoped that teeny little personal bite she'd slipped in would work in her favour--they've known each other a long time.

Mr Melvedant leaned back in his chair, and crossed his arms. He didn't blink, and neither did she.

Finally, he nodded. Her heart leapt, then sank to its knees in relief. "Thank you," she whispered. And he was gone.

"Ms Abedeen?" Brendwyn jumped out of her seat. "My God, Triss. Stop scaring me! What is it?"

"Sorry, Ms Abedeen, but Sasukinawa san is on hold for you. He…wants to speak to you about the earlier meeting."

Brendwyn looked up. Here goes, she thought.

Just as she was about to tap on her ear, her ear buzzed. She hesitated, and then tapped.

"Brendwyn, Aurora's worsened. I'd given her Acetominophen, but her fever's spiked. I've called Dr Ameella, and she highly recommends her coming in. Would you like me to transport her, or…" Melyssa drifted off.

Brendwyn sank into the chair.

"Brendwyn? You there? What would you like to do?"

Yes, indeed. What do I do?

She leaned back, looking up at the ceiling, and grunted in frustration. Resigned.

"Melyssa, I'll be there. Just give me a few minutes." She tapped her ear once, and tapped again.

"Sasukinawa san, gomen-nasai…"

***

Brendwyn sighed as she finally arrived at the familiar ash grey door with the tiny gold ladybug. She had always had an inexplicable fondness for the ladybug, but staring at it this time brought no comfort.

She stood at eye level in front of it, and the door clicked open.

"Welcome home, Brendwyn," Melyssa chimed.

Brendwyn stepped in, took off her jacket and shoes, put them on the moving belt that silently swallowed them into the recesses of her closet.

"You look like you need a hot beverage. Would you like one? We have coffee, or tea, or maybe some white pearls white tea?"

Brendwyn waved Melyssa away. She headed to the bedroom. The door slid open, and the bed rose from a platform to catch her as she fell onto it, her right arm falling over her eyes.

Something about returning home, the solace of her bed, unravelled everything she’d been holding together for so long, like a loose thread. Against her will, she sobbed, tears flowing down the sides of her face into her ears, snot filling up her nose, choking her a little. Before long, it turned into full-on howling.

Melyssa stood by, solemn.

"Brendwyn?"

"What now, Melyssa? What now?!" Brendwyn flung her arms out, and sat upright, the tears tickling warm in her ears.

Melyssa pressed her lips together. And in the background, muffled crying.

"Ugh!" Brendwyn groaned, stormed through Melyssa and out of the bedroom into a smaller, tiny room. In the middle of the room, a bare cot floated, surrounded by blue light beams.

As she soundlessly approached and moved past them, the lights disappeared. She stood there, looking down at what lay in it. There she was, crying so hard, her face scarlet. Her bawls were practically ear-piercing.

In a second, Brendwyn had picked her up and was shaking her, to which she responded by crying even louder. “Why do you never stop crying? You’re always crying! Stop crying! JUST STOP IT!”

Aurora shrieked. An alarm sounded, and red lights flashed. Melyssa appeared. “Brendwyn, put the child down. You’re acting in a very unsafe manner. The child may be harmed.” Her voice was soft but icy.

Brendwyn blinked, with Aurora still held up in mid-air. As she collapsed to the floor, Aurora fell onto her lap and rolled off onto the floor where she continued wailing. Melyssa wordlessly observed as Brendwyn pulled her knees up and sobbed into them. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this…”

The alarm went dead, and the red flashes ceased. Melyssa vanished. And only the cries of a baby, and the sobs of a broken woman, were left.

***

Brendwyn awoke on the floor with her back stabbing her, and her feet numb. She had no idea how long she had been sleeping there. She got up, and found Aurora asleep beside her, her face peaceful and angelic.

She gently lifted her off the floor, tucked the corners of her swaddle in tightly, and placed her back in her cot, still sleeping. Her head throbbed. The world around her spun for a moment, and she swayed a little, held the cot to steady herself.

When the world stopped spinning, she gazed down upon her sleeping baby. There was an ache in her heart and entire body she could not describe, but she knew she had no choice. She exhaled.

She tapped the air above the cot. A screen materialized. She tapped on a few more buttons. The words in front of her felt absolutely despicable. Yet, she knew this was for the best.

RECALL THE ITEM?
YES            NO

The words flickered there for an eternity, and her finger was poised above them, uncertain.

She tapped.

ARE YOU SURE?
YES            NO

She tapped again before she could change her mind.

The portal opened up beneath Aurora as she slept, unknowing. Brendwyn only just managed to plant a soft kiss that barely touched her cheek before she was gone.

She propped her elbows up on the cot, and held her head in her hands. She didn’t even try to stop the tears, and they fell like rain on the spot where Aurora had been, still warm.

A tiny audible beep made her look up.

SEND NEW ITEM?
YES            NO

She blinked quickly, pulled the words into focus. She held her breath.

She tapped once more.



Author’s Note: Written for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2019, but missed the deadline (1st Nov, 11.59pm). Nevertheless, this is the first attempt at something a little futuristic, but on an issue quite close to heart.

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