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York,'' he says. Even the words themselves have a magical sound, Jack thinks. He rubs his shoulders and shivers. Is it his imagination or is it the light filtering through the trees. Hand,'' says Front-Page McGuffin. And now there is just one person sitting on the bench in Central Park, breathing in the fine mist and watching the lights twinkling through the trees.
Summary Bibliography: Peter Crowther
Jack sits there for a while like that, his arm around Front-Page McGuffin's shoulder and Front-Page's head leaning against his own like a sleeping lover, just watching the city and listening to its sounds. Two hours in which he has re-lived weeks and months and years of memories. When he arrives at the familiar entrance at the corner of 23rd and Fifth, it's raining hard and Jack is already sniffling. Jack walks across to the counter and lifts the hatch. A wind blows down the stairs and swirls around them, a wind so strong that the five of them shield their eyes.
Then, as quickly as it appeared, the wind drops. The lights return to their full intensity. And a solitary shimmering figure stands at the foot of the stairs. He is currently working on a third collection of weird fiction; after which he plans to catch up on a voluminous amount of reading, and then perhaps begin work on a short novel. Suddenly all my disparate thoughts coalesced and I knew exactly what the tale was about, what should happen in it and, most importantly, how it should end. T he subway car pierced the darkness, rattling along its thin track and filled with faces carrying a burdensome weight.
Philip Kirk had managed to find a seat for the ride in but he regretted taking it once bodies filled the space around him and stole oxygen from his lungs. He adjusted his rumpled jacket, trying to alleviate its restrictiveness and find a few extra inches in which to move. The yellow lights of the car buzzed and flickered intermittently with every power surge, and they drew the shadows that confined him closer.
The jittering train came to a stop at Carlton Street Station. Philip peered through his window at the sullen people moving like auto- matons across the opposite platform. They seemed to have already conceded failure; it was in their stances, in the way they walked. An eruption of movement caught his eye. A vagrant covered in grime ran erratically across the platform, clutching at himself, ripping his tangled beard and unkempt hair. He screamed, his mouth a dark and bottomless pit, but the noise was ineffectual; no one but Philip appeared to notice, and even then it was inaudible over the roar of the train unsteadily moving forward.
The filthy man reached the end of the platform just as the train passed before him, and Philip only caught a glimpse of arms from the shadows stretching to catch the man. When Philip finally arrived at the Eastside Mission he found he had the place to himself. He sat at his desk and ran wrinkled hands over case reports and worn files, re-reading the data that he had already memorized. The grey words of each report read the same: there was nothing more that could be done for any of them, no magic wand to be waved that assimilated his clients back into the world they left so long ago.
No one wanted to bear the trouble. No one wanted to do anything but forget. Philip noted it with suspicion but said nothing. Clients arrived in a steady flow, their amorphous shadows dar- kening the translucent window to the waiting room. The two men took turns using the counselling room that sat through a door on the right wall, though Allan's sessions often ran overlong. He was still enthralled by all the pains and troubles that flowed through his clients like darkened blood, but for Philip they were merely further evidence of a rotted world that tainted its cowed populace.
Those eyes clouded, however, upon the conclusion of his after- noon session. Even that wasn't very peculiar, yet Allan appeared disturbed. He just kept warning me about something. I'm not sure he ever told me about what. Philip noticed and turned, but saw only amassing rain clouds through the glass. Allan eventually excused himself, rubbing his eyes. By the time Philip finished with his last client Allan and his topcoat had already disappeared for the day. Philip left a short time later. His ride home was not as cramped as the morning's commute, but even so an empty seat eluded him.
He stood near the doors, looking for some respite from the crowd, and too late he realized the pole he grasped for support was soiled by a murky slick film. He was revolted by the filth that seeped from those around him and fouled everything they touched. He scrubbed his hands raw once safe within his dingy apartment, watching the bowl of the sink tint pale brown as the world washed away from him, but nothing he did could remove the feel of grease that had crept between his fingers.
The lumps of his bed resisted his weight as he lay down, but he was far too tired to fight them. His head throbbed from exhaustion, and he closed his eyes to avoid seeing the walls he could not escape. He dreamt of himself fixed to a seat at the end of an empty subway car, watching passing stations flicker in the windows like a silent film. Their light illuminated the entire car, exposing the mosaic of muddy footprints, thick and dark, that were scattered along its length. Murky shadows gathered at the opposite end of the car and Philip noticed wisps of movement within the darkness, like a black pool beginning to swirl.
Two pseudopods gradually formed from the shadows, then grew larger and stretched across the floor towards him. He struggled, but his feet were caked in black muck and fused to the floor. The shapes formed a pair of figures that closed in as the subway sped faster. Philip's first session ran long, and thus he was unaware of when precisely Allan arrived at work. The young man was simply there, sitting at his desk uncharacteristically withdrawn and contemplative, seemingly unaware of Philip until he spoke. Deal with all of this day after day after day?
You're young. I keep thinking about everything the clients say. Sometimes I find myself lying awake at night thinking about it. Forget it all. Philip sighed and regretting what he was about to ask. Yet no one does. All you'll be doing is passing time. At best, you'll help a few people to suppress their fears and pains and desires for a little while, but soon it will all come bubbling back up stronger than before.
Your only job is to get them in and out with as much paperwork as possible. You'll see for yourself once you've been around a little longer. Philip returned to his paperwork and pretended not to notice the young man's pain. Allan would have to make a choice: either accept it or burn out trying to change it. There wasn't a third option. The ring of Allan's telephone interrupted the silence. He answered it and put the receiver to his ear.
In his hand he held his blazer, and it trailed behind him as he darted out of the office, the door closing firmly in his wake.
His dark shape faded in the translucent window, and then rematerialized a moment later with another. The two shadows moved to the right and disappeared into the counselling room. Their mumbling soon penetrated the walls. It was unlike Allan to act so secretively about a client, and Philip feared he had pushed him too far.
He approached the counselling room with care. He wanted to hear the session without betraying his presence. Allan's voice, dry and shaky, spoke only briefly, interrupting the fragments of babble delivered by his client. He reached his desk just as Allan emerged from the counselling room, and realized immediately that he had forgotten to close the door between them. Philip could feel the error had been noticed, but he refused to acknowledge it. Allan and his towering client stood in the waiting room and spoke quietly.
Philip now recognized the man from the previous day, yet in that time he seemed to have acquired a year's worth of filth. His pants were torn completely away below his right knee, exposing a leg smeared with dark grime. His coat, too, held together only by dried stains, hung from his shoulders as though soaked through. From where Philip sat an odour, like ammonia, burnt his nostrils.
Finally, the tall man left. Allan still seemed agitated, wiping his hands repeatedly with a handkerchief. He took his seat, exhausted, eyes red and puffy as though he had just been crying. Philip felt awkward and discreetly left to fill his mug with water from the waiting room cooler. Once there, he saw the series of dirty footprints that made a trail across the carpet and into the hallway. Familiar faces crowded the subway home, each passenger staring ahead with dull dark eyes as he or she passed the time without a word.
Upon their collective sagging shoulders was borne the weight of all their troubles, and Philip felt the same heaviness as it coursed through his withering veins and wrapped around his soul. Hidden among the sex-shops, his building stood squat and lifeless, its bricks stained by the filthy air. He discovered the broken light bulbs as he emerged from the stairwell. They left the entire corridor in darkness, yet what seemed to be his shadow remained cast on the wall at the opposite end, traced impossibly by the remaining lights behind him. He watched the uneven mass roll towards him as he approached his apartment.
It seemed wrong somehow, as though it were actually growing as it advanced toward him. He stopped at his door, but for a moment thought the shadow continued, its movements slightly out of time with his own through some illusion of the lowered light. He felt a chill but he shook it off, and inserted his key into the lock. He woke the next day with his head throbbing and his stomach burning its way into his throat. He struggled to the washroom and took a long drink from the rusted faucet, replacing one sour taste with another.
His yellow, sagging face stared at him from the mirror, and with clarity knew that he had been forsaken. His hopes and dreams had been surreptitiously drained, leaving nothing but sorrow to fill the void. He stuck out his tongue and was horrified by the grey filmy protrusion. Just above the reddish stubble that outlined his cheekbone he found the mark. Black, about an inch in length, it stretched further when Philip put his thumb to it, leaving a greasy smudge across his cheek that soap and water could not completely eliminate.
The passengers there were pressed into the far end of the car. Between him and them lay the bulk of the seats, empty and coated in a brown viscous substance that infected the entire car with a foul stale odour he could not stand to breathe. When the next stop arrived, he hurried off and stood gasping for air on the edge of the platform as he watched the subway train leave the station, the hazy shadows of its passengers fading into the darkness. The platform was nearly as empty as the train. Only a few commuters were left along the narrow stretch of concrete, their faces weighted down, eyes cast blankly upward.
Along the periphery, Philip saw shadows disappear quickly behind the commuters, those new arrivals looking for a place to stand. He could feel eyes from the small crowd upon him, but when he turned he saw nothing but blankness. The next train could not arrive soon enough. He sniffed his sleeve and coughed. His jacket smelled foul. He aired it out as best he could at the office, but the odour proved too resilient.
Just a whiff of it sent his stomach churning. Allan's desk was vacant, his coat-hook bare. Philip frowned. The man was becoming increasingly tardy and unreliable. Fortunately, Philip had no trouble handling things alone; his morning was devoid of clients. They simply failed to show up. Instead, he caught up on paperwork still pending. A fine drab mist covered the streets outside, making uneasy shadows of the obscured pedestrians. Philip began to get fidgety by noon, his anger over Allan breaking his concentration.
Unable to sit still any longer, he paced the room, growing more enraged by Allan's unexplained absence. He swung open the office door, half-expecting to see the young man there with an arm wrapped around the water cooler and acting as if he'd been at the office all along, but instead Philip found the waiting room empty. The door to the counselling room, however, was closed, and its tiny window was lit. Within the room, pressed into the far corner, sat Allan's bearded client, dirty and bloodied knees pressed tightly to his chin.
He shook as if with fever, head pressed sideways into the tatters of his blackened clothes, the grime of his face streaked with tears. He blubbered uncontrollably. The man's head turned, his one exposed eye bloodshot and filled with terror. The room became startlingly quiet. The entire left side of the man's face was covered in a thick oily mud that clogged his orifices and disguised what lay underneath.
It caked his greying beard and stained his clothes and skin. Philip retreated to the door as the man scrambled to his feet, leaving marks across the wall while sounds gurgled from his fouled lips. He pushed past Philip, leaving a long smudge across the counsellor's chest, and Philip could do nothing but watch him escape. After he'd gone, Philip retreated to the office shaken, and sat quietly at his desk. He'd never seen anything so bizarre and upsetting before. His hands shook and he placed them upon the desk hoping to steady them. Underneath his fingers, Allan's files stared up and the sight of them began to transform Philip's fear into anger.
Where was Allan? Of all the days to skip work, he chose this day? Philip dialled Allan's home number and at the sound of the answering machine hung up. Loathing filled him. He sat facing the front window, and watched the dark tunnel advancing upon him. Lights ran across the few passengers who sat like gargoyles, heads hung low, waiting for life to pour from their drooping mouths. Each door opening brought a glare that blinded them, and they squinted until their stop arrived. They then trudged with difficulty onto the cold platform, leaving Philip further alone.
He looked back through the rear window along the line of cars behind him. They all seemed empty, passengers having departed them one by one until only Philip remained. As his train took the turn at Union Station and Philip realized he was wrong: near the other end of the train, he saw the briefest shape of someone sitting. Immedi- ately the figure was gone, hidden behind so many empty cars. The distance between the penultimate stop and his own stretched for an eternity.
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When Philip stood to collect his things he noticed, upon his seat, a black gelatinous streak. He craned his head, looking for a stain upon his clothes and found it spread across his leg. Brushing only made it worse. He stepped from the car annoyed. The train hurried off, leaving him in his filthy clothes alone on the platform. The exit was bathed in its orange light, and as he walked towards it a strange sound followed. Like the suction of a foot leaving mud, it repeated, echoing off the walls. He looked around but the platform was empty. The noise continued and he wondered if he was really alone, or if someone else had left the subway train while he was too preoccupied to notice.
He looked back again, and then moved faster towards the orange stairwell. Light spilled from it and flooded the blotched tiles. Philip saw illuminated a dark stream of footprints that curled around the concrete walls and into the stairwell. From the first stair he could just barely see the surface level above and the dark night that already clogged the sky.
He climbed the stairs, anxious to escape the shrinking walls and the awful sound behind him, and tried to ignore the feel of the railing, still slick with the sweat of an entire city's hands. A pair of figures crested the top stair. They stood side-by-side, silhouetted by the pale light behind them. They filled the width of the stairwell and began to descend towards him.
He stood to the side, unsettled by their approach, to let them pass. But when they were almost upon him, Philip recoiled in horror. Philip found the first stair behind him, and then the next, and soon scrambled back down them to the platform. He needed to escape from those barren faces and find his way free.
He turned the corner and there were more faceless shadows awaiting him. They grabbed his shoulders, black stuff swimming frantically over their hands, and touched his face. He felt numb instantly and his legs crumbled, dropping him to his knees. Philip's stomach constricted, muscles convulsing, lungs filling, and he coughed up a thick, viscous fluid. With a shudder, his gut exploded, and a torrent of black grease poured from him like blood, covering the ground.
Dark figures stood around him, their faces a swirling mass, black sputum pooling at their feet, as one by one Philip's muscles failed. His whole body revolted, liquid spilling out, and he collapsed onto the drowned square tiles. Slowly, the world stopped moving, and for a brief moment threatened to never resume. Then, drop after drop, the congealed oil crept back towards Philip's lifeless body. It crawled onto his chest, into his hair, through his clothes. More followed, faster, coating his body in a layer of sludge, of bile, of everything that had filled him for so long.
It covered him, flowing thick like a river across the surface of his cooling skin. Eddies swirled in his eyes, finding banks in the angles of his bones. It was a torrent flooding over him, a tumultuous sea, as silent as the shadows that looked on. Eventually the waves subsided, and the liquid began to calmly move beneath the dull orange lights of the deserted subway platform, swirling in odd patterns.
Then, something stood, and one more shadow joined the night. Her fiction has also appeared in Black Static and Super- natural Tales, among other magazines, and she has a story in the forthcoming anthology Apparitions, due out from Screaming Dreams Press in C old rest is the name of this hard town scratched out on the side of a Georgia mountain ridge, so far to the north it's bleeding over into North Carolina, really, although it doesn't seem much to belong to either place.
I have always known that there was something wrong in Cold Rest. People round here laugh when they say, something in the water, but it's true that the community my wife was raised in is not like other places. It hasn't been a perfect relationship; in twenty years we've had plenty of opportunity to hurt one another. I think Sarah still gets the occasional note or e-mail from the man she thought about leaving me for though she never would have five years ago.
You learn to overlook these things. Here in Cold Rest, things are different, as I have said. That something was always waiting in Cold Rest we all knew.
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You often had the feeling that you were in a room with someone, even when alone, who was getting ready to speak, making barely audible noises prior to forming actual words. You felt it sometimes like a seismic rumble deep in the earth. When you dreamed it you never could remember the following day, just a kind of uneasiness like something had crawled into your brain in the night and left the faintest of markings behind, a gloss of breath where your own thoughts used to lie. She came forward and touched the robin I'd been carving as gently as if it had been alive.
Dusk had descended while I was out there in my little workshop at the back of the house. I had lost track of time. Sarah frowned when she saw what else I was working on, an abstract sculpture about half her height, rusted wire twisted into irregular angles broken by slivers of mirror. Everywhere that the robin whittled out of oak was warm and comforting, this seemed designed to inflict a kind of wound upon the observer.
I worked on the robin when I got blocked on the other piece. And Gary's here. He lived a couple of hours away, so it wasn't as though he'd just stop in casually. I looked over the robin I'd been carving, ran one finger along its breast, felt something stirring. It seemed finished. Gary prefers to think of himself as a regular guy.
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I know because he's told me so many times. I mean, I'm sure I could get you on at the yard, but why in hell you want to go and do something like get a job? And why here? I've been getting these damn fierce headaches. I don't have any health plan and I'm scared to see a doctor. Something's really wrong, I could be paying them off for the rest of my life.
Gary tried to laugh. Imagine getting paid to lie in bed all day and puke! Neil's carvings come to life under his hands sometimes, but it's not any- thing he can control. You can't use it for your own purposes. I have told that you Cold Rest is not like other places. Sarah changed the subject. Her hair was black as pitch that night and falling across her face.
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The week before it was emergency-red. It was as though someone different sat down to dinner with us every few nights, although even without the outlandish hair I felt like I didn't know her any longer. She's grown so tall in the last couple of years, and her hands are long and delicate, pianist's hands, except she hasn't touched Sarah's grandmother's baby grand in the living room since she reached her teens. She has dark eyes and her mouth is sulky, at least around Sarah and me. Sarah said she was sure Emma and her boyfriend were having sex, but that she didn't know what to do about it.
I said, I'm sure you'll handle it, because I didn't even want to think of it, and I didn't know why we had to do anything. That boyfriend of hers, Sam or Simon. What kind of a name is Simon anyway? I tried not to look at him when he came to visit. He had soft, puffy hands. She seems like a baby to us but at sixteen you think you're all finished growing up.
She still looked like a child. There's not much in town in the way of rentals. We walked out there while Sarah was brewing coffee. Evenings in Cold Rest are beautiful. There's a special way the sun slips down the mountain and leaves everything glowing. Tonight we were just in time to see the sky deepen and blaze in all its twilight glory. Gary didn't touch any of it like he usually does.
He stood back a bit and pointed at one of them. Gary always liked what I did. He was younger than me, but I treated him more like an older brother, anxious for his approval. I'd never been real proud of my woodworking before, mediocre stuff I could've sold at inflated prices in some of the tourist towns to folks who didn't know any better.
For the first time, making these sculptures that came to me in dreams, I felt like I was doing something that mattered. Had we argued? I shook my head, to show her I didn't know. The following evening, when I got out to the shop after work, I found the robin with its neck broken. I'd forgotten to set it outside before I closed up for the night, and it had flown repeatedly against the windows.
I cradled it in my palms and carried it in to show to Sarah and Emma. I felt so bad, like I'd taken it up in my own two hands and dashed it against the wall. Like I'd created something just so it could suffer and die. We buried it in the backyard because it didn't seem right to just throw it out, and Emma set a little ring of stones round its grave. Sarah teaches English at the local junior high school in town.
At night sometimes, to help me unwind, she reads me poems. I like the ones that rhyme. I know that's not very sophisticated of me, but there it is. My favourite poet is Robert Frost. I'm just saying,'' and I didn't say anything at all. Instead I repeated lines of poetry to myself. I like the one about miles to go before I sleep. Sarah had Emma's boyfriend in her class a few years ago. Sarah writes poetry, just for herself. Once in a while she'll read one to me.
They don't rhyme, and I don't understand them, although I pretend like I do. I think this is one of the things she liked about the man she had the affair with. I remember how she was for a while afterwards. Not better, not worse, just a different Sarah; their intimacy drew out dormant parts I'd not known in her. She used words and turns of phrases she hadn't before. Her mind strayed to subjects I was unaccustomed to. They weren't his words, his subjects. They belonged to Sarah, but it was all hidden geography in the context of our relationship. Maybe that was why she and Gary didn't like what I was working on.
Maybe it was as simple as that, the unaccustomedness, the fact that they were used to seeing me work with wood and blade to make cosy scenes like fox families or spring fawns. I told myself that while she read to me that night by the fire, got lost in the words she was speaking till I fell asleep dreaming of the bird pitching itself against the glass, trying to get free, until it shattered the bones in its neck, and she had to wake me to send me to bed. I knew that Emma was gone almost before she actually left.
I woke covered in a bad dream, and I felt something wrong in the night. Something gone out of the house. Later, when I talked to Sarah about it, she said I must have woken up earlier, unknowing, when Emma closed the front door, or heard the engine of whatever car swept her into the night and away from us. I told her she must be right. But I knew what woke me was the simple fact of her absence, unnatural and complete.
The house fairly vibrated with the lack of her. Had I known, in my dreams, that she was going? Had I let her go, to find out how far away she could get? I was right all along not to trust that boy. I showed him round a little bit, and he went to talk to Human Resources, a phrase which has always had a little too literal a turn to it for my liking. I can't blame him for that. It gets unbearably hot in the yard in summer, and in the winter the ground freezes hard.
I've seen folks felled by heat stroke and frostbite and worse things, because of what it is we're digging out of the ground there. And we sink mine shafts deep into the earth, even though it's getting harder to find people willing to go under the ground like that. Mostly just the old-timers'll take that kind of work. Gary moved into our spare room, and he got up and went to work every day, and locked himself away when he came home, only venturing out for dinner. I figured he must be getting a lot of writing done. It got so we were seeing more of Emma than him, and that's saying something.
I didn't pay him much attention, to be honest, because I'd been dreaming again about what I wanted to work on next, and the dreams were strange and left me with a taste in my mouth like cold metal. I didn't have clear pictures in my head of the devices I needed to build next, but the designs seemed etched into the movement of my hands. And then Emma was gone, and the work was all that could soothe me, take my head somewhere it wasn't worried sick about what was happening to her.
The police said they'd do all they could, and none of her friends knew a thing. I headed out to the shop. After a while Gary joined me. I was painting sheets of tin in coat after coat of black paint. I wanted to get a deeper black than I'd ever seen in nature. I asked Gary if he thought it was working. He didn't answer me.
Also, I write letters for some of the executives. I know one in town'd see you. I didn't know how to ask him if he had any money at all, but I didn't need to; knowing Gary, he'd have offered to pay us for room and board if he'd been able. Do you ever think maybe you wind up in a place and everything in your life has been about moving you to that moment, preparing you for something momentous even? Like your life's work? Anything moving you toward something here can't be good.
My family's here. Emma would come back to us. It was simply not possible to acknowledge any other outcome. That sounds fucked up. In a dream. I thought about trying to put on some kind of show, you know, like a real artist, and I pictured that title printed up on little cards and hanging above them. Anyway, I'd have to hold it out here in the shop.
Cold Rest isn't much for art exhibitions. He's kind of a half-wit, though. The Colds always ran it. Town wouldn't be here without the company. What are y'all digging out of the ground all day? I think it's time I cut my losses and hit the road, but there's something I haven't told you and Sarah. They've been doing that for a while, actually. I wondered if he was going to try to borrow some money; we didn't have anything to give him. Sarah says at least in Cold Rest we can get at the edges of something miraculous.
Emma called us last night. Her voice sounded so far away on the telephone. Sarah started crying. She asked Emma if she needed anything, if we could send her money, if there was anything at all she'd let us do. Emma said no. She just wanted to let us know she was all right. I couldn't sleep after that; I'd be dropping off and I'd think I heard her voice. Then a storm moved over us, thunder and lightning and wind to wake the dead. I got up and prowled around for a while, looking out the windows like I was waiting for something, and finally I braved the torrent of rain to make a sprint out to my workshop.
I tried to work on a new piece. Sarah had stopped going out there at all. She said she couldn't even look at them, that she had to look around them, because they just seemed like objects gone wrong somehow. I could leave. I could just disappear and put Cold Rest behind me. I could make the last twenty years of my life vanish just like that. Start anew. I was still young enough to have another family even. At the same time I had a funny feeling I'd missed the chance to do anything like that, that whatever was set in motion couldn't be stopped any longer.
We have always known in Cold Rest that we were waiting on something. We didn't know what, or if we'd see it in our lifetimes, but without ever talking about it among ourselves we all knew we were preparing for something bigger than any of us could conceive. There is not much of a social life in Cold Rest except among the teenagers. Sarah and I had never had any real friends.
I wondered what kind of devices other people were constructing behind the walls of their homes. I wondered what kind of poems Sarah was writing that she wasn't showing to me. Gary found me in my workshop just as dawn was breaking. The storm had blown over but the sky had a tattered look about. Sure you don't want to join me? I think something's bad wrong. I just want to get somewhere bright and warm. Thinking of heading down to Tybee Island. Remember, when we were kids? Crab legs at the restaurant with the red and white checkered oilcloth where you threw the shells into a hole in the middle of the table.
The steps to the top of the old lighthouse and the rumours of pirate gold. I had a couple of twenties on me, but he wouldn't take them. It seemed important that I try to do something for him. In the gathering morning light they glowed and seemed to sing to me. Sarah was fixing breakfast when I went in, pancakes and sausage. I nodded anyway and helped myself to some coffee. The clock above the sink that played West- minster chimes on the hour struck, and went on striking, and both of us counting and trying to look like we weren't.
Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. I have never tasted a meal less than I did that breakfast.
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I looked out the window toward my workshop, and I kept seeing things. Holes in my vision like Sarah describes when she gets one of her migraines, only my head felt fine. I think I said I better head on to work.
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