The alarm screams, jolting me awake. I wrestle the phone to silence and then lay, joints stiff, thinking about the day ahead. The kids Zoom with their teacher at nine, right? If I get them settled, then maybe I can go over the notes for my report. My chest constricts. Ugh, I told my teammate that I’d review his report too. My cheeks burn — I guess it’s my report or his. And not to mention, I still haven’t called those potential clients back — I’ve been meaning to for days now. Will they even remember who I am?
Each task settles like stone over me. I am buried alive.
The heaviness of expectation squeezes the energy out of my body. It’s as if, under my flesh, I’m just a hollow of air. Each new thought of some new thing opens me up and leaves me breathless. I feel as if I’m being devoured, piece by piece, by some invisible being.
I need a few minutes. I think and reset the alarm on my phone, Just a few more minutes and then I can get up and do it all.
The phone harps at me some time later. I’ve overslept. My mind is mud. I lurch out of bed like a freshly reanimated zombie.
The next hour is a blur, a race against the clock, where I struggle to regain control, to revive. Some of it gets done: the kids are placed in front of the webcam – I swallow a few bites of soggy eggs – and by the time I beat back traffic and lumber to my office, there’s no time to help myself or my teammate look over our reports. He smiles weakly. I struggle to breathe.
The meeting flurries ahead. If you didn’t pay attention, you’d think it was normal, but everyone sits around the conference room like a restless murder of crows. Each person has their own idea of what’s important. They squawk ideas at each other that don’t easily connect. As they preen and cackle, those clients I should have called back creep into my mind, and it’s as if the seconds become hours.
God, if I could do one thing right now, I would get on the phone, I think. That one thing, the thing I wish I could do just to make my life a little easier, it hangs over me on a frayed string, drawn tight, waiting to snap. But it doesn’t give. It taunts me as it holds firm, just out of reach. The crows continue to gabble and peck at the table. Apparitions now stand beside them. Each one a missed client — an opportunity wasted. They wait silently, staring at me. My teammate, restless from sitting, stands and unwittingly walks through them. They vanish and seem to take some of my soul with them.
I need time, but the office has other plans. As soon as the crows fly off, my teammate asks if I could still review some of his work. Another pops up and wants to talk about a project I did last quarter and still another is asking me where some files are. “Yes, yes,” I tell them. I want to say no, but I don’t have it in me.
I rush back to my old, wooden desk. My office is no bunker. The door is closed, but the deadbolt is rusted in the open position. Every minute a new face pops in with a “quick question” – only those quick questions are really just chaos and quicksand. As I field each one, I sink farther and farther down.
The clients I should be calling – that ONE thing I really need to do – I feel them standing behind me, staring. Each question I answer for someone else takes a little bit away from them, so they in turn take a little bit away from me. I get the feeling that it is inevitable. There are too many interruptions – too many distractions. Soon, I will become one of them.
I resign my eyes to the floor and meet a small, faded sticker with the words “Just Say No!” wrapped around the leg of my desk. A relic, a monument to a simpler time. It was easy then, I thought. No is hard as an adult. It hurts to say it, to squeak it past the lips. “N-n-n,” I mutter, struggling to push the word out. “N-n-n-oh-n-no—”
I look up to meet another co-worker standing in the doorway helplessly. My nerves feel shot. How long have they been standing there? Will they think that I’m selfish? Am I abandoning them? The weight of each stone presses against me. I’m being crushed, buried alive again.
“Oh, sorry. I’ll try again later.”
It feels like taking an extra step at the top of a staircase; expecting to meet resistance and bracing for it only to have your foot go swirling through the air. I could stumble, almost, but instead I breathe. All of that crushing weight is gone.
So, I close the door to my office as best I can, and I start dialing the prospective clients. It turns out to be a great conversation – they are looking forward to working with us, we’ll get a contract together to review – and I feel amazing.
Then, I notice in the corner of my vision, the faint outline of someone standing, staring. But wasn’t I imagining the silhouettes all morning? The rusted deadbolt snaps shut. I look up to see a tattered green folder sitting on the floor where the shadow stood. It’s my teammates report. How did this get in here? I think, just as something—him?—grabs me and the world goes dark.