Shadow Men

A new prescription always left her feeling as though her future course had been altered. Her doctor’s face was always kind, always empathetic, and yet consistently full of concern.

She knew it was hard – there was no diagnosis after all, just an attempt to control the symptoms. Imagining the years it took to become a doctor, she could understand the frustration in still navigating a system where they had so few actual answers on the human body. She was grateful though, knew she was lucky that this doctor still tried, still tested, didn’t take the easy diagnostic out. It didn’t make it easier.

It had been a few years now, popping pink pills to get through the day. A mix of white and blue and yellow to handle any symptoms that arose. At the start it was a nice aesthetic, all the colours melding prettily together. Now it was just routine.

Today was a good day, her head felt clear and she smiled to strangers on the street, only realising she had when they beamed back at her. She loved the way the light filtered through the trees, and the way the dirty cement was greeted by walls of impassioned graffiti. This grey city was so different to the country she had grown up in, and yet she found glimpses. Even in the city square she could find a rainbow lorikeet sucking sweet nectar from a low hanging tree, and the occasional dog – although these wore coats with silly sayings and diamond set collars. She wondered what the dogs back home would think, their coats rough and muddy, leather collars worn from getting stuck in fences and bushes.

She was on her way to the chemist to stock up on medicine. She always went an hour or so before closing time. It was late enough that the shopping centre wasn’t too crowded, but early enough to not stress about rushing. It was also the time for cheap treats at the bakery, although she usually skipped them for a matcha green tea with black pearls and grape jelly. Her best friend got her onto them before she’d left to work in London. She called them magic, happiness in a cup, but she was also fussy, drinking only Gong Cha and never Chatime. She remembered her order by heart, green tea, no ice, no sugar, with white pearls and red bean. Now she drank them mostly because they were a comfort, a reminder of all the tea’s they’d had together. The buy-ten-get-one-free offer also was an incentive, even if it showed math wasn’t her strong point.

The shopping centre was bigger than seemed necessary, filled with stores she had never entered, and probably never would. The chemist had the strange smell it always did, as though it had recently been cleaned and yet never seemed properly clean. She submitted her script and wandered the aisles. It was odd, she noted, that there was nobody else waiting for scripts. The store seemed empty other than the odd customer and the store workers. She distracted herself from the idea, looking at Star Wars band-aids and wishing they came in adult fabric form, instead of the kid’s plastic that washed off with minimal resistance.

There was no queue at Chatime either. There was no Gong Cha in this centre, and anyway, Chatime was cheaper with their student discount. She was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, but she pushed it away. The stores were open another hour, so she decided to go and browse some shelves. It was a good day, after all, and while she had the energy, she might as well enjoy the luxury of wasting it.

It had just gone 8.30pm when her head began to niggle the way it did when a migraine was on the way. It was beginning to fade, blurring a little before it focused, starting to get sleepy. She took a blue pill from a container in her bag. Her stomach felt a little sick too, white pill for that. Pills seemed more fun when they came in a bottle, which was childish to think, perhaps. But joy isn’t a currency to short change.

She headed for the door, the electric ones that always made her think of that funny clip on YouTube with the dog that kept running into the glass door, clearly unable to tell there was anything there at all. Of course that particular dog wasn’t blessed with the accommodating sensor that stopped embarrassing errors in judgement on most occasions.

She was just a few steps away when the lights went out. Her heart lurched a little, but she calmed herself, allowing her eyes to adjust as she continued towards the exit. The automatic door refused to open. She stepped back, trying to prompt the motion sensor into action, but the light had gone. She felt the wall, looking for an emergency exit button, but there was nothing to be found.

Surely someone else was around though, she thought, a security guard or something. Someone would be there to check the power, or maybe there’s a backup power source or something? So she sat, waiting.

Twenty minutes went by and she sat still in the dark, in the silence. Nobody had come, only the greenish glow of the dying fluorescent bulbs lit the linoleum corridor. She followed the corridor.

She felt unnerved, on edge. It seemed ironic really, that usually people were her biggest anxiety, and yet, now, the lack of them was stressing her out.

In front of her was the food court, she could tell, even in the darkness. The glowing McDonalds ‘M’ had died and now glowed a dim fluorescent green. The corridor opened into a square. It was a little lighter here, and it suddenly occurred to her how nice the food court could be at night, if under other circumstances. She could picture the stars glimmering through the giant skylight, cute red and white checkered tablecloths and hot chocolates with the tiny marshmallows. Tonight it was raining, she could see it flooding the glass, and while the sound would usually comfort her, tonight it seemed ominous.

She shivered, suddenly realising the lack of heating in the place. The cold seemed harsher on the tiled floor, despite her thick socks and sneakers. She could make out the shape of people ahead, and she hurried towards the table at the far end of the court with a speck of hope in her heart.

As she crossed the court, they didn’t look up. They were silent, and she found it odd that they had not yet noticed her.

Lightning flashed outside and she gasped, the food court lighting up for a second, enough to make out the people ahead. As the light flashed they dissipated, as though they were shadows. One wore a top hat, a duster jacket. The other was non-descript.

The image burned in her brain as she sucked in tight to the wall. The echo of her own footsteps seemed suddenly agonising out of place.

She focused all her energy into becoming silent, following the wall back as far as she could, desperately trying to remember exits and bathrooms and corridors that could work as a hiding place. She was aware of a pricking in her skin, as though something was watching her. She felt hunted.

Her head swelled, and her soft and carefully taken steps seemed agonising. The tiled floors were no longer pretty, but a trap, echoing each step no matter how gently she tried to take it. It felt like forever, but eventually she came to a corridor that branched into bathrooms and a stripey green and white emergency exit door.

Heading quickly towards the door, she heard footsteps. She ducked into the bathroom and locked the door, holding her breath, straining her ears to make out the threat. They came closer, and closer, and then they disappeared entirely. She could feel something there, on the other side of the door. Her head was light and she tried to breathe out consciously, tried to slow her hammering heart. She unlocked the door, stepping slowly, feeling a presence she couldn’t see watching her every move. The anxiety became too much, and she ran.

A screech erupted from the speakers, and she felt her body throw itself against the ground before she really was aware of her reaction. Within a second or two it dialled back to background music, a kind of lilting, smooth jazz – the kind that isn’t specific enough to remember a title, but common enough to be familiar. She crouched, her eyes making out a metal gleam from a door handle at the end of the long corridor.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a shadow move behind her. Her heart pounded and she sprinted for the end of the corridor.

She felt her hands go numb, a slow chill creeping through her spine. Not now, she begged herself, as though will and body worked together. She reached for the door.

She awoke, slowly, feeling as though her head was heavier than her neck could support. Her eyes blurred as they adjusted to the bright overhead lights. There was no bedside table, just blue pleated curtains, made disposable, a kind of mix of cheap cotton and plastic. The floor was white lino, with scratches on the floor from the wheels on her bed. It was a hospital bed. She drifted back to sleep.

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