“I want to help you make target,” said Galliardi.
Three flies circled the meeting room table. Smith couldn’t tell if the buzzing noise came from the flies or from the projector or was still there from the flight over. He held the white china coffee cup fiercely. The logo was turned away from him and towards Galliardi, who stood at the focal point of the room.
“I want to help you,” said Galliardi again, “so listen.”
He turned back to the whiteboard. The whole place was white and grey: flip-charts, tables, projector screens. There was some art on the walls and that too was white and grey. Smith’s head ached from the long flight over. The dawn had come fast. An iodine strip on the black-blue of space for thirty minutes as they raced towards the sun. The clouds below them held onto the dark, and just shone as the dawn came.
“Know why you never hit target?” yelled Galliardi to no-one in particular.
“I’m sorry,” said Smith, just in case.
“You’re asleep. You aren’t working hard enough. Wake up.”
On the flip-chart there were lines in red and circles in blue. The red lines were like the lines that broke through the cloud as the sun rose. Galliardi stood over him, bending slightly to whisper in his ear.
“I got plans for you, Smith. Your target had better be stratospheric. In your zone of proximal development. Heard of that? You’re clever, huh? I call it the zone of pain. You can’t quite reach it, not without my help. But I know you can do it.”
The coffee was cold by the time the meeting ended. The sky had been chromatography on a silk sheet as the dawn broke, as they landed. Smith’s eyes were lined with red now where it broke through the white.
“So where have you come from today?”
“London. Landed around seven.”
“A little. Not really.”
“Going back is worse. Just as you’re ready to sleep….”
“… time to wake up, I know.”
The white hour after dawn is irresistible through eye-masks and eyelids. White fire that illuminates the dark parts of the mind and chases shadows from there into waking thought.
Smith sat in an Italian-American cafe on Washington Square, a funk band on the stereo interlaced with the Chinese morning-music that washed around the groups of aerobicists. In places a lone old man or woman danced with infinite slowness and care while joggers and dog walkers moved about them. The fog had lifted early in the March day and a pale sunlight matched the washed-out blue of the sky. The walk down Stockton through the Chinese market had woken him up to some extent – pallets unloaded onto pavements while sharp-eyed women picked fillets of salmon from ice-filled bin-liners, bags of dried pike maw and sticky red chicken carcasses, soft piles of dim sum – but the cappuccino was still necessary to jerk him awake completely.
Yesterday ended in the way that those days always did. But this time Smith was complicit. His target was always impossible, but this time Smith had set it himself. Galliardi had nodded and muttered approvingly, looking over Smith’s shoulder all the while. They ate tacos and drank Anchor Steam beer. They walked past the City Lights bookshop on the way to the strip club. By the time it had all finished they were hung over as well as jet-lagged.
Smith did a double take at the wine bottle that stood next to his open laptop on the cafe table. It just held table water, probably. He’d been up at three thirty, four thirty, then given up and showered at five. The sales spreadsheet shouted at him to make sense, exclaiming at each fumbled equation, cross-hatched in a confusion of cells and lost references. Deleting this may delete data which may not exist elsewhere. Delete? Confirm?
There was at least more shape and shade to the colour out here in the real world. Murals decorated the sides of hospitals. He saw mosaic floors and neon tubes and painted weather boards. The hills rose and fell. He turned back to the pale spreadsheet. Somewhere he suspected there was, nested in layers of referencing, some immutable cold formula that meant he would fail. Or perhaps he had awoken some terrible simultaneity, and each of a million spreadsheets across the web had in a moment been linked to the other, triggering chaos, evolving some kind of –
Smith jumped as if the spreadsheet had spoken. Confirm?
It was the waiter.
When Smith woke the next time it was from the nightmare. Most times he closed his eyes, lately, it returned. He dreamt he was in a way-station airport, Dubai or Atlanta or somewhere like that, cavernous and unrelentingly glass and steel. He was in transit, clutching his passport with one hand and his left temple with the other, and the vein that throbbed redly there. A security guard with mirror shades barred the way.
“Not through here, sir,” he said in a Global-English accent, specific location unknown.
“But I’m in transit,” said Smith.
“Not this way,” said the guard.
Smith turned around to go back, but did not recognise the way he had come. The glass walls and twenty-six hours without sleep – or was it thirty two, or twenty? Which way did the timezones work on this trip? – conspired to befuddle him.
“But I can’t get back that way,” he said to the guard, giving up, “I’m in transit.”
“Not through here, sir, you have to stay air-side.”
Air-side? But hadn’t he just come off a plane?
He woke up. It had to be morning. There was no clock in the room and the blackout blinds were down. When was the meeting? The landline by the side of the bed rang violently, scaring the shit out of him. Why the fuck had he let himself set those targets? He would have to come clean.
“Where the hell are you?”
It was Galliardi, of course. He could picture him, pacing outside the meeting room, firing indiscriminate looks of rage. Galliardi would kill him if he admitted that the targets were bullshit.
“Get your ass down here. Everyone’s waiting.”
He crawled into his rumpled shirt and suit and stumbled down to the lift, trying to remember what time he was presenting. The labels on the lift buttons were incomprehensible so he jabbed at the one on the bottom row with a red circle around it. As he hit the lobby he saw with a start that it was evening. Galliardi and the team were lounging around in expensive jeans and designer shirts, holding heavy glasses of clear liquor.
“Planning to give us that presentation tonight, were you?” smirked Galliardi. “You could at least have ironed your shirt.”
Everyone laughed, the sound clanging off the walls like they were made of brass.
“Ah – shit, sorry,” said Smith. Where had the day gone?
“Relax, your boy Lucas did a great job with the presentation.” Galliardi pushed a large Maker’s Mark towards him. “And the SVP signed off on the targets. Not that it makes much difference what that loser thinks – he’s toast now anyway, did you hear?”
The thick, medicinal scent of the whisky made his head ache. Three hours later he was deeply drunk, stuck between Galliardi and Lucas while they circle-jerked at top volume. The noise of the place they were in was like the blood-roar of an aircraft cabin.
“We may as well power through,” Galliardi was saying, “the conference call is at seven; we can catch the late show at the strip club and hit the casino after that – breakfast at six, soak it all up and knock the new SVP in Hong Kong for six – you in?”
The hum of their approval ran through him like the rumbling of tyres on a hot runway, and Smith closed his eyes against the light. He should say something about the targets.
There was a shudder, and the plane started into agonising but irresistible movement, like a sumo wrestler pitching forwards and committing to a headlong charge across the dusty ring. The buzzing was there as always, and the weird electric light. It took a full minute for Galliardi’s cackle and the echoes of Smith’s fellow salesmen to breach the background level and bring him back to whichever airport he was leaving.
His head felt sluggish from the latest in a long line of big nights. He’d had more drinks before embarking, seeking to drop into the unseen shadows between the loudest of his colleagues and attain that state of invisibility that only the very introverted know how to attain. He could curl into himself, fold in the corners of his space-time until the whole awful scene vanished beyond the event horizon.
Now they were off to Des Moines or somewhere like that. Des Moines. Dakota. It didn’t matter where. Wherever they were going was where his career would end. Where Galliardi would shoot him for cowardice. Not that anyone would notice. The Project was doomed, busted, already counted as wreckage in the history of the company. The smarter executives had walked quietly away and handed it over to task forces, secondments, development opportunities and interns. Soon it would be broken up and hidden in an elephant-sized box, right in the middle of the boardroom.
“C’mon,” said the voice again.
Smith looked up and only at that moment noticed everyone moving, and that the voice had spoken to him before. Not another delay? Shit.
“Smith – coming?”
He stood up woozily and started down the gangway.
“Briefcase, you dick,” shouted Lucas, throwing it at him. There was laughter from the gang and a sea of upturned eyes from everyone else.
“I – I missed the announcement,” Smith mumbled, searching his pockets belatedly to check nothing was left in his seat or the locker. Not that he had anything with him anyway. Toothbrush, razor, underwear. He’d pick up a new non-iron shirt at Denver. Or wherever.
“Announcement? What, like, we landed?” said Lucas, looking around him for signs of appreciation.
“You are one dozy fucker, Smith.”
But I thought we were only just taking off.
The sign said “Welcome to Detroit”. As they shuffled through the parking lot Smith could already see the rusting of industrial capitalism. Empty warehouses, factories, drive-through multiplexes and suburban dream homes lined the road as the cavalcade of executive minibuses passed by. It was the end of the world. Smith stared out of the window with his hangover throbbing painfully.
Galliardi himself couldn’t stop talking, though. What was he on about? Smith tuned in and out, defenceless.
“Yeah, she’s hot, and she’s thin, like she smokes and drinks, really drinks, yeah?”
“Yeah, and like she’s Dutch, and she takes unnatural substances.”
He tuned back out. The Project was at that crisis point which inevitably meant flip-charts, facilitation and a relentless focus on arse-covering. It could now survive only by attaching itself to some unknowing new executive, or maybe an old lag working out his tenure, desperate for some real action. The wise ones having long vacated the scene there was now a frenzy of internal selling, with no longer any pretence at anyone external to the company having any interest in it whatsoever.
They pulled up at the Ramada Joy Plus.
“Drinks in two hours,” barked Galliardi, “then we put a couple of hours in and get ahead of tomorrow’s agenda.”
Whatever that meant. Smith stared into the abyss of the emptied minibar and felt his soul slipping away. It was going to be a long night.
Smith looked at himself in the shimming orange-lit aeroplane mirror. He looked like a day-old corpse. The whine of the machine that bore him onwards was his entire experience whenever he closed his eyes. There was a lurch. He staggered out of the bathroom and back drunkenly along the aisle towards his spot among the ungainly mass of bodies. What time was it? He wished he could sleep. Maybe then he’d forget the scene back in Detroit. He felt in his pocket. It was still there – two weeks’ notice, a P45, the end of a glorious career.
Maybe that lurch was the plane crossing the date line. The sound barrier, rather. That made more sense. Although did they even make supersonic planes any more? Smith shook his head and clambered gently past the motionless executives back to his window seat. He hadn’t slept for 72 hours except for the odd momentary phasing out, that moment when you felt yourself slip in and out of another dimension.
When would it be night? He’d lost track of the time. To sleep, to be really asleep, that must be glorious. Outside the cabin it was dusk, as close as the stratosphere got to dusk, anyway. He could see stars. His eyes ached to open, and to close. The world was a slit in the blackness.
Where was the night? An eternal dusk reigned. Were they keeping pace with the sun – would he never reach the darkness? The forms around him neither sighed nor moved. It was as if he were the only living thing on a ship of the dead, heading towards harbour. Or maybe he too was dead and this was Charon’s mode of transport these days, shipping them all over an oceanic Styx towards the vast underworld.
Was that a change in the light? He craned his neck to see around the wing and past the engine. He had lost track of the sun. But the light had changed, definitely. He wasn’t dead, or in suspended animation. He was almost asleep, finally. What it was to slip unresistingly into sleep, the death of each day’s life, the balm of hurt minds – to fold oneself in and curl up and exclude the external world. He would sleep for the next four hours. Then he would slip through the airport in a daze, and sleep again, a long winter of sleep, until he emerged and Galliardi and the rest all crumbled into dust.
He looked out of the window and searched for the dying of the light. He frowned. Something was wrong. The light was not fading. It was growing, spreading out of the sky ahead of him. A creeping terror seized him. He felt his breath stick in his chest, as if clutched by some icy hand. He felt his blood slow and his heart stop, his whole being suspended weightless like a puppet jerked up and at the top of its arc. There was no night ahead of him; no sleep, no darkness. He looked around at the men and women quickening around him, grey suited, ugly in the flickering-on of lights. He rose up and called for the attendant. He had not felt his heart restart. His mouth was dry as dust.
The attendant, when he arrived, his pale face staring with its dark-set eyes, put out one thin hand to steady him, to push him down.
There’s no reason to be alarmed, sir, he said, it’s just the dawn.
The dawn! The dawn!
Sam lives in Oxford, UK, with his wife and daughter. He runs an educational publishing consultancy and volunteers in education. He is a keen member of the thriving Oxford Writing Circle.
You can find and follow Marco at:
You can read more of Sam’s writing below:
“Annunciation”, short story published in Oxford’s Haunted (The Oxford Writing Circle, 2017)
“The Librarian”, short story placed 3rd in ChipLitFest annual short story competition, published online.
“Hurry Up Please, It’s Time”, short story published in Horla.
Photo by Gerd Altmann
This is the tale of a town on the fringes of fear, of ordinary people and everyday objects transformed by terror and madness, a microcosm of the world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. This is a world where the unreal is real, where the familiar and friendly lure and deceive. On the outskirts of civilisation sits this solitary town. Home to the unhinged. Oblivion to outsiders.
Shallow Creek contains twenty-one original horror stories by a chilling cast of contemporary writers, including stories by Sarah Lotz, Richard Thomas, Adrian J Walker, and Aliya Whitely. Told through a series of interconnected narratives, Shallow Creek is an epic anthology that exposes the raw human emotion and heart-pounding thrills at the the genre’s core.
Shallow Creek Paperback
Set of Horror Bookmarks
SHALLOW CREEK EBOOK
You can also purchase a copy of EXIT EARTH below!
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
Find out more about EXIT EARTH here…
Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.
Sign up to our mailing list and never miss a new short story.