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Shades of Gray
There were seven steps on the staircase of her building. Each step was wooden, worn, and didn’t actually look like wood anymore. They were faintly grey in color, with little splinters coming off where soccer shoes and high heels had carved into them.
The stairwell itself was tiny and narrow. It made her stoop as she ascended and always left her feeling as though she should be holding onto the railing and hauling herself up instead of simply walking.
Every weekday at exactly four p.m. she would climb up those horribly dull stairs with the horribly low ceiling and walk down the dingy hallway at the top. She would stop at the second door on the left and stare towards the other end of the hall, lost in her aimless daydreams.
But then she would shake her head and rummage in her backpack for her keychain and upon finding it she would stick the only key on the ring into the door. Here she would pause again, this time to stare at the chain.
It was a colorful collage of all the places she had ever been and all the places she wanted to go. Brightly colored pictures covered in tape to make them shiny and waterproof hung amidst plastic flip-flops and tiny beach balls that clacked hopefully whenever she moved.
Once again she would shake off the spot of reverie and turn the silver key in the metal lock. With the solemn click that most locks seem to cultivate so carefully the door would open and she would step over the threshold.
Here the steady routine was prone to improvisation. On this particular day she shut the door behind her, and then looked despondently at the interior of the apartment. Everything in it seemed to be painted in shades of grey, or a tan so old that it was beginning to look grey. To her right was the kitchen, a tiny room with all the classic appliances crammed into a third of the classic space. To the girl’s left there was a mirror, followed by two doors, the first leading to a bathroom and the next to a bedroom. Ahead of her was a two foot long hallway to the living room, wherein there lay another door leading to a second bedroom.
All in all, the place gave the girl the impression of a nursing home. It was gloomy, dark, damp, and depressing. Even the carpet was musty and smelled of old potpourri, which made no sense to the girl as potpourri had never inhabited the apartment, old or otherwise.
Sighing, she bent down to pull off her muddy trainers, dumping them in the corner by the door. As she stood up she caught a glance of herself in the mirror. Frightened blue eyes gazed out at her from an oval face, her skin pale to the point of seeming ethereal. Blond hair puffed out in frizzy waves around her head, defying any hope of a hairbrush.
She turned quickly away from her reflection and shuffled into the smaller of the two bedrooms, the one nearest the bathroom. Her backpack fell to the floor with a thump, followed by a similar thump as she sank onto the bed which took up most of the room. For a moment the entire apartment was deathly still.
The quiet was all too soon broken by the shrill blaring of a train whistle outside the window. The L94 thundered by, shaking the walls and making thinking impossible.
When at last the noise had died away, the girl’s moment of solitude was over. She rose from her prone position and went about the house doing menial tasks and chores. Homework, dinner, shower, all followed in consecutive order.
As the ten o’clock train rumbled past, the girl hauled the covers over her shoulders, and then lay awake, waiting. Ten thirty, then eleven passed, and still the girl lay unmoving. At eleven fifteen the front door opened and the thud of heavy boots filled the silence, only slightly muffled by the carpet.
The door slammed shut and the boots stumbled to the bathroom. Alone in her room the girl didn’t move, stonily silent as the boots stomped through the apartment, crashing into things. Muffled cursing could be heard as the boots connected with a wall in the living room.
A voice yelled to the girl as the thumps continued.
She shoved aside the covers and walked towards the door of her room, pausing at the window to look out. The moon was hidden behind a bank of clouds and no light reached the concrete below. In the distance city lights glowed with faint resolution, blurred by the rain pattering against the glass. Slowly she let the curtain slip out of her fingers as she turned and walked into the living room.
The man who awaited her was rough and bearded, with a workman’s clothes and mannerisms. His eyes were bloodshot and his voice was slurred. The sharp reek of alcohol drifted off him in tidal waves, surrounding her, drowning her with drunken confusion.
He glared at her blearily, accusing her of everything from causing him to fall down to forgetting to put away the soap in the bathroom. He shouted and raged and gestured. She stood there silently, staring at the wall, her face blank.
He stopped for a moment and looked at her. He yelled that she was rubbish, useless, she wasn’t worthy of a name. His insults splattered against her, covering her so that she was no longer a girl, no longer an individual, she was anyone and everyone he had ever hated. She was a scapegoat for the world.
His whiskey soaked breath filled the air as she swayed on her feet, biting her lip, tired of his insults. One last stage of this torture was coming, and as he raised his hand she hunched her shoulders, disappearing into herself. She knew it was almost over and then she could go to bed, lock her door, and drift into nothingness.
Day chased away night with gleeful vengeance, forcing the girl to rise. She crept quietly into the bathroom, and stood in front of the tiny mirror. Her shoulders were covered in purple bruises, and her lip was swollen from where she’d bitten it the night before. She turned away and dressed quickly before grabbing her backpack and shutting the door behind her.
Once in the hall she sagged against the door and gazed sightlessly at the wall opposite. One day she would leave and never come back. One day her father would come home and she would be gone.
But not today. Today she had school and today she was late.
The bell rang for the first class, sending students scurrying into doorways. The girl hurried down the hallway, sinking into her seat at the last moment.
As the teacher called attendance the girl shifted uncomfortably in her seat, trying to find a position that wouldn’t grate on her bruised shoulders. The class droned on, chalky outlines blurring before her eyes, melding into a dusty mush.
A piercing shriek came from overhead as the next period was announced. This class, too, slogged forth, as the girl drifted on the edge of consciousness.
For the third time the bell rang, sounding in her ears like a seagull’s cry, raucous and loud. She gathered her books, shuffling to her locker. As the combination clicked into place the space next to her was filled with a presence. She stiffened, her breath catching in her throat as she sneaked a glance at the figure.
Tallow colored hair fell over one luminous green eye as it gazed back at her. The girl jumped as the boy smiled, then slammed his locker. She tentatively smiled back, and then felt a rush of air as a vision, a goddess of long legs and waving hair passed her, grabbing hold of the boy’s arm as the girl realized the smile wasn’t for her.
That day she climbed up the stairs with loathing, pounding out her anger at the world. It wasn’t fair and she was tired of it. She was through playing an extra in her own life.
She stomped down the hallway and into the apartment. The cabinets rattled as she came into the kitchen, yanking open the refrigerator with reckless abandon, looking for something on which to vent her anger. The shelves were filled with beer, whiskey, and wine, anything that could induce a drunken stupor.
She stood still for a moment then grabbed one of the beer bottles. Holding it carefully she positioned it over the sink and smashed it. Beer flew everywhere. Glass rained down with a clinking sound, like quarters in a jeans pocket. It sounded good.
The girl pulled another bottle from the fridge, this time it was whiskey. Smash! It shattered in rainbow patterns on the floor. The whiskey was followed by wine, then another beer, then whiskey again. Slowly, methodically, she smashed every bottle in the house. By the time she was done the entire place reeked. Her shirt was stained and she was walking through puddles of liquor.
It wasn’t enough. What she wanted was to see him on the floor, licking up every drop until his tongue was cut and bleeding. To hear him beg for mercy and to have her walk away from him, pretending not to hear. It wasn’t enough, not by a long shot, but it would do for now.
She grabbed her backpack from the floor where she’d dropped it and walked to the door, hand raised to grasp the knob. Then she paused and smiled to herself. Carefully she turned to the mirror and lifted it from its peg, then walked back to the kitchen and smashed that too.
Closing the door behind her, she stood in the hallway, breathing. Then deliberately she turned and walked down all seven of the stairs to the street, not holding the banister. The day was sunny and the bright sky looked crystal clear after last night’s rain.