From The Shadows

The story this week is different. It’s not Sci-Fi but is set in the very near future. I really don’t want to say much more because if I do I might ruin the surprise. It’s a shorter story again at about 10,700 words. I had intended to write something else I’d been working on but when this idea came to me I decided to run with it and write this instead. Think that’s enough from me now, so without further delay here is From The Shadows.

Eleanor is walking down the sidewalk with a hood pulled up over her brown hair, which is almost entirely hidden save for a small section around her hairline. The bulk of her hair is pushed back into the hood to stop it getting in her hazel eyes as she heads home after a long hard day of working as a waitress in a nearby restaurant in the big city.

Clouds fill the sky cutting off any hope of being able to get so much as a glimpse of the white glow that comes from the moon. As a result, on this night more than others, the glow of the street lights is essential to illuminate enough of the sidewalk so Eleanor is not at risk of tripping over its occasionally uneven and cracked surface. Why the city council insists on using slabs for the sidewalk she will never know as they never stay flat for more than maybe a couple years before subsidence and the uneven distribution of which are stepped on where cause the slabs to shift, raise and lower. A gust of wind whistles down the length of the street originating from somewhere ahead of Eleanor. Exactly where she has no way of knowing, yet it makes no difference as she raises her shoulders and braces herself moments before the gust hits her and threatens to push her back the way she’s come. Somehow she manages to hold out against the gust, but does pause for the briefest of moments before consciously pressing her pump down onto the surface below. The feeling of the cold as it hit her was biting and threatened, but thankfully failed, to pull her hood back off her head. If it had then her hood would now be messily congregated across her shoulders and the back of her neck. In turn that would have forced Eleanor to pull her chilled hands from her pockets and quickly fumble with the hood to get it back into place. It wouldn’t have been the first time she’s had to do that during her walk home, except no such thing has happened and so she quickly puts the thoughts of such inconveniences out of her mind. They serve no purpose if they don’t happen, she tells herself seconds before another gust howls her way. Too late she realises and fails to brace herself against it. As a result she is nearly knocked off her feet by the severity of the gust that actually forces her to complete halt this time.

The winds are getting worse, Eleanor thinks to herself before sighing and taking the risk to look up at the dark night sky. She can see nothing. With the light levels as low as they are and the clouds so high all she can make out is an endless mass of darkness. She wouldn’t quite call it black as to her that would seem a poor choice. Clouds at night aren’t black, they have black in them sure but also so much more like shades of grey and very dark blue. Perhaps it’s only her who imagines those colours but she doesn’t care. She’s always preferred to consider things and analyse them instead of simply make a snap judgment and move on. In her eyes there is little point in snap judgement, unless absolutely necessary, as they often result in lots of the beauty of the world being missed, and it is beautiful. She doubts anyone would be able to argue with that, but she can’t be sure seeing as there are always those that seem to be able to find negativity in everything.

With the wind no longer actively trying to blast her off her feet, Eleanor has managed to make it to the street corner. She turns left as she does every night, well six out of seven, on her way home. Her feet ache, as do her legs. The aches are from all the hours she spends on her feet, and while her job isn’t the one she would like it’s the one she’s got.

She adjusts the mask that is covering the bottom half of her face. It’s a necessity now for everyone in the world to wear with pollution having got as bad as it has. Eleanor doesn’t remember a time before having to wear the mask. Her best description of it would be that it is akin to a gas mask but somehow not at the same time seeing as a gas mask tends to cover your entire face and this does not. Eleanor hasn’t a clue how anyone could be comfortable in a gas mask. They look too light no matter who is wearing them and at the same time claustrophobic because of the limited field of view the lenses must force the wearer to contend with. This is especially so when you consider that the eye sections are raised away from the bulk of the masks surface. Just the thought of having to wear one makes her shudder, and yet she has never tried one on for herself. Not that she needs to. Such things aren’t required in her line of work, though she does understand how the older generation, who had masks introduced to them part way through their lives, would find it difficult to get along with them. Accurately judge facial expressions and emotions of anyone wearing a mask is always a nightmarish minefield.

In truth, it had taken the waitress a couple years, this was back when she was a young child, to grow accustomed to relying only on people’s eyes to judge mood and intent. Now she seldom has an issue at all, like most of her generation, but for those who had relied on seeing strangers’ facial expressions she can understand the pitfalls and annoyances of trying to adjust to something quite different.

One of the street lights above Eleanor’s head flickers. She smiles beneath her mask, not that anyone, if there was anyone present, would be able to see her smile. That is something that even she forgets now and again as it is so natural to just smile at things and people instead of always verbalising everything. Still, it can’t be helped with the world the way it is, and yet she has to admit that tonight the city seems exceptionally quiet. It’s odd but not to the point that it causes her any concern. It would her parents, if they lived in the city, but they don’t. They still live out in the fresh clean air, well it is compared to all cities air, on a small farm that her dad and brother, Gareth, run together. Her dad, Thomas, will be retiring in the next couple years. Whether they’ll move at that point Eleanor cannot say. A part of her hopes they do and find a place closer to her, but she doubts they will. They’re country folk, as her mother, Claire, says every time anyone ever brings up the prospect of relocating to the city. Still, Eleanor can hope. She has to. If she didn’t then she’d likely be crushed beneath the weight of everything going on in the world, like the wars, the murders, the natural disasters and everything else that are all a part of daily life on Earth nowadays.

Apparently, it had been very different once. Eleanor isn’t sure she really believes that as she crosses paths with a white cat that is sat on the bottom step of one of the old four storey brick apartment buildings meowing softly.

“Aren’t you precious?” The waitress in the dark green coat says to the cat. As those words pass her lips the cat looks up at her with its big round eyes.

Eleanor doesn’t stop to pet the cat however. It’s too cold. At night the temperature really drops, even in the city. It’s why she’s wrapped up warm in a big three layered coat that is zipped and buttoned all the way up to the top. In truth, the coat is a little too big for her but she bought it that way on purpose as she wanted something a little big so that more of her would be cocooned within its padded material. After all, her walk home is three miles and she can get very cold during the journey home in the evenings. Though, she would have to admit that she regrets having to wear it in the mornings on her way to work when the temperature, even a little after dawn, is uncomfortable due to the humidity. Then again that is what she gets for living in a city surrounded by desert.

The buildings around Eleanor are all old and predominantly built using brick. It’s not a material that is often used for normal buildings in the city anymore because it takes too much time to erect and demolish. And in this city things are frequently demolished to make way for the next tower of glass, or for an angular block of jagged edges meant to elicit some emotion of another. For the most part they quickly become forgotten, which is why they are torn down so frequently.

If she was asked, the waitress would gladly tell whoever that she prefers the boxy brick buildings of old. They’re pretty. Plus they age well. In comparison to the glass blocks anyway, which look disgusting once the filth in the air inevitably begins to adhere to its surfaces. Perhaps if it did so evenly it might not be so bad, but it doesn’t. It clumps together at seemingly random points and at a rate that would force the buildings to be cleaned daily if such issues wished to be avoided. Brick on the other hand changes shade over time and only really becomes noticeable, in regards to dirt and grime, when new bricks are put next to an existing wall, or when it gets into such a sorry state that it literally becomes black and mucky.

Eleanor is suddenly hit by another gust. This is one is significantly less severe than the last dozen that have assaulted her. She’s relieved about that even if it is pretty typical now that she’s turned the corner so that the wind is slamming into the other side of the buildings across the street from her. If only the waitress could say that she wouldn’t have to make another turn on her way home. Sadly that isn’t the case and she’ll be turning soon and in doing so will have the current cross wind shift back to being a head wind. To make matters worse the arrow straight street she will be forced to trudge down is the one she has to follow all the way home. She really isn’t looking forward to being buffeted for little over a mile, but it’s the quickest and safest route home. After all, this is a city and in the city not all paths are safe to be trodden. Some are risky while others are unbelievably dangerous. Those options seem to be getting more numerous and worse as days go by. Yet, she wouldn’t trade her life in the city for anything. She loves it here. It might not have been where she was born, but it is her home. She knew that as soon as she moved here into her first tiny studio apartment. That was six years ago and since then she’s moved twice. Still, her living space has barely grown. Her home now is still only a one bedroom apartment in a building called The Watchmakers Mill. It isn’t much progress on size but that is all she can afford. Still, she’s never understood the name of her building because she knows watchmakers never worked in mills. They worked in factories. So either the name is nothing more than that, a name, or at some time before or after being a watchmakers it was a mill. Eleanor has lived there for two years and still hasn’t checked the history of the building to find out. She keeps meaning too but then other, more important, things come up.

Suddenly, there is a noise of clanging metal. Eleanor jumps and whips her head round to look in the direction she’s sure the noise came from. Immediately her fears, she doesn’t quite know what she feared she might find, are squashed due to her catching sight of a couple rats scurrying away from a bin. Eleanor sighs relieved and then realising she has come to a complete halt, which she finds very embarrassing even though she is alone on the street, urges herself to resume the pumping of her legs. If the night were warmer, who is she kidding the nights are never warm, she might be willing to dawdle. But that is only a might. It’s never happened so she can’t say for sure, though she does feel on edge now and is why instead of keeping her head down, as she had before the noise, she now looks all around her. She knows it’s stupid and yet she can’t stop herself.

Eleanor reaches the street corner a few minutes later, crosses the empty road to the farthest side and carries on down what is the final leg of her journey home. The wind, now that she is walking into it again, is relentless and keeps trying, with increasing ferocity, to rip the hood off her head. Because of that she has one of her exposed hands clinging desperately to one side of the hood, desperate to keep it in place as the first spots of rain start to fall from the sky. A couple have already hit Eleanor’s hand, but the bulk of the smattering has, thus far, dripped noisily onto her hood. The sound is distinctive, unmistakable, and yet she cannot explain it with any greater detail or clarity than that. That realisation is strange and makes her chuckle, once, to herself. Something so simple being so difficult to unravel the complexities of humours her. Still, has hastens her pace. After all, there is no need to be out in a rainstorm longer than necessary. Especially when the rain is as cold and chilling as it is, and at this temperature could fairly easily turn to sleet or hail. Eleanor doesn’t fancy having her poor hand battered by sharp, stinging balls of ice. They cause no real or lasting damage, but they do sting awfully for a while, especially when they impact upon exposed skin at the rate they do and you have nowhere to shelter from them.

Eleanor isn’t alone on this street, like she had been the ones before. There are a few people milling about. They too are wearing masks and wrapped up warm against the biting wind. The difference between the waitress and those around her is simple; they haven’t got hold of their hoods desperately trying to keep them in place. Eleanor is jealous of that and wishes she too wasn’t forced to choose between exposing her hand to the rain as it continues to splatter droplets down at a now increasing frequency or risk exposing her head to the same.

The chill in her hand is made worse by the growing wetness she can feel across her skin. It makes her wish she could wipe it away. And she could, it’s just there is little point seeing as it will soon be right back to being slick with moisture once more. Plus, her keeping her hood up and head dry are far more important than the mild inconvenience of a rain soaked hand. After all, she doesn’t want to catch a cold. That is the last thing she wants in fact as it would mean a mandatory week off. That might sound strange but following a string of global virus outbreaks it was written into law that any employee showing signs of sickness would need to remain home for a week at minimum and then present the results of a test, that can be undertaken at home, to show that they are not contagious. Following that the employee is be permitted to return to work.

As a waitress Eleanor already doesn’t earn much, and most of what she does is from tips, so if she was forced to take an unintentional week off it could really negatively her ability to pay her bills and for food.

“Looks like miserable weather out tonight.” Eleanor hears a man say to a woman walking next to him as they pass going the opposite direction to the waitress.

Eleanor catches no more of the conversation, but from the single line she did she would have to agree. As if on cue the heavens open and what Eleanor can only describe as an endless blanket of water falls out of the sky. She groans and sighs to herself as she breaks into a jog. She can’t run, not in this coat, so either she has to find shelter or get home. She’d prefer it to be the latter but with almost a mile still to go she determines that shelter really would be the more appropriate option until this downpour lets up, even if only a little.

Sadly, there isn’t much cover on this street with its flat fronted buildings, most of which are cafes, restaurants or empty units that have long since had any sheltering overhangs removed to stop the homeless from sleeping in their doorways. Eleanor refuses to give up hope however and so begins turning her head this way and that until finally she spots the entrance to a narrow dimly lit alley. She’s passed dozens identical to this one on her way home, but this one, unlike others, has a fire escape which has a sheet of metal erected atop poles like a roof over the highest section of the outside series of zigzagging metal steps and levels. As a result the ground within the footprint is dry and out of the rain. Eleanor smiles, quickly calculates how safe she’ll be as alleys at night are not the best place to be lingering, even though it is only maybe a couple metres from the mouth to the edge of the street where she is stood, soaked.

Several tosses of her head from right to left and back again occur prior to the waitress concluding that it’s worth the risk to get out of this rain as it won’t be long before her coat will start to cloy to her if she stays out in this weather. I can’t have that because then I will almost certainly end up getting suck and being forced to take a week off without proper pay, she thinks to herself.

With her decision made, Eleanor makes the dozen quick strides that see her leave the hammering rain and dip into the sheltered area. Her first instinct is to exhale, relieved that she is out of the downpour, which continues to intensify. That sudden increase in the rainfall surprises her. Then she concludes that this has to be the worst storm she’s seen in the city in years. That alone suggests to the waitress that the city was long overdue something like this, yet she hasn’t a clue whether that’s true or not. It sounds good in her head she has to admit while wiping some of the water off her slick, cold hand that once only damp she shoves into her pocket. Her hope is that it will soon get some warmth, and proper feeling, back into it.

This is not how she wanted to spend part of her evening, lingering under a fire escape, and yet the waitress loves the sound of rain as it hits and bounces off whatever surface happens to be in the droplets paths. The sound alone brings a slight smile to her face, but the wind, still ever present, dampens that a little. However, Eleanor does take some solace in the fact that the wind cannot tear through her, like it had out on the street, because of the presence of the building to her right. The one the fire escape is bolted too, under which she is sheltering. Sadly, nothing can stop the cold she feels bleeding into her bones, chilling her as she stands on the spot.

A couple minutes pass during which Eleanor grows ever colder, but with the rain showing no sign of letting up she feels compelled to do something other than stand rooted to the spot. That’s why before long the waitress begins to twist the upper half of her body from side to side. She hopes the motion, as limited as it is, will generate some heat in her body to help push back the cold.

It half works she decides after a couple more minutes have elapsed, but still leaves her legs feeling cold. On top of that her knee length red skirt clings to the tops of her legs due to having got wet. The sensation is uncomfortable, though not as bad as feeling the cold air on the bottom half of her wet exposed legs. Had she known rain was forecast for today she would have brought a change of clothes, not that there is anywhere for her to change at work, except maybe the toilets. She curls up her nose at the prospect of having to get changed in those toilets. Not because they’re an eyesore of filth and decay but because she knows why most customers go in there and it is not to use the facilities, or be alone. The waitress isn’t judging the customers. After all, it’s their lives and their choice what they want to do, but doesn’t mean she wants to have her clothes touching any of those surfaces as a result.

OK, my legs are getting too cold now, Eleanor thinks moments before she starts to hop from one foot to the other to desperately halt the spread of the cold. As she does so the waitress takes note that the rain is hammering down at an almost past horizontal angle. She would have sworn that was impossible and still would if she was not seeing it with her own two eyes. And then she can’t because out of nowhere and with no warning the rain suddenly stops. Eleanor blinks confused by the fact that the rainstorm ended as suddenly as it did. Like a tap being turned off, she thinks. That seems too good to be true, which is why Eleanor makes no attempt to step from her shelter. The waitress fears that if she does the driving rain will return at the worst possible time, likely leaving her without shelter and forced to trudge home soaked and chilled to the bone.

“Hey! What you doing down here?” A male voice calls from out of nowhere making Eleanor jump out of her skin in the moments before she does a one eighty.

Having turned she finds a man wearing a big puffy black coat covering his torso, which ends roughly around his waist, as well as a pair of grey jeans. The bottom half of his face is covered by a mask, similar to her own, while his brown eyes are barely visible from below the brim of the blue cap on his head. He has his hands in his pocket and shoulders up to brace against the cold, but seems to be dry. Lucky him, Eleanor thinks wishing she could say the same.

If not for the rainstorm she would have been home by now, she thinks. She can’t be sure as she doesn’t wear a watch and is definitely not fishing about in her pocket for her phone in this weather. Risking that might see the flat slate shaped device slip from her hand and shatter against the hard concrete beneath her feet. The last thing she wants is to be without her phone and in need of a repair for it.

“Hi, I’m just sheltering from the rain.” Eleanor replies with a sweet smile that she quickly realises this man cannot see, though her tone of voice should be enough to convey that her tone is friendly and cheery.

“It’s not raining.” Is the blunt, slightly hostile reply that she gets from the man who takes a couple steps closer toward Eleanor, relaxing his shoulders as he does.

“I know. It just stopped. Do you live in this building?” Eleanor asks feeling slightly confused as to why this man is being hostile. If he does live in the building next to her that might explain his rudeness, maybe, as people in the buildings down this street do get a little tetchy about people loitering about encase they’re burglars. However, Eleanor can’t imagine that she looks like a burglar. After all, how many people have ever gone out breaking and entering with a skirt on? Her guess would be not many, if any at all. It just wouldn’t be practical.

“Where I live is none of your business, now move along.” The man pulls a hand from one of his coat pockets and gesticulates with a wave meant to reinforce his shooing words.

“Sorry, I meant no harm, I just wanted out of the rain.” Eleanor offers in explanation only for the man to take several more steps toward her. At that moment the waitress gets a bad feeling as a shiver runs down her spine. Something about him isn’t right, she thinks, but she can’t put her finger on what. Not that she has too with the rain having stopped. That’s why she begins to edge backward away from him, the shelter provided by the fire escape and the alley as a whole.

“Well the rain has passed now, so get.” The man’s brow furrows with deep ridges as he barks the words at her.

Eleanor agrees it’s time for her to leave and hastens her backpedalling away from the man who takes a few more slower steps in pursuit of her until the waitress finds herself back on the street having to apologise to a couple she almost crashed into. Right after she peers back down the alley only to find that the man is gone. Her brow furrows as her eyes probe the darkness. But she finds nothing and as the wind howls and cuts through her the waitress is reminded and compelled to scurry off heading for home once more.

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