The air smells like wet dog. From across the platform, I hear the screaming of a child I cannot see. I adjust the straps of my backpack and swallow repeatedly, trying to get the taste of something bitter and phlegmy out of my mouth. A bird swoops down low in the slate-colored sky. Its freedom is an intolerable affront. I imagine the fat of its gamey flesh melting over coals.
At work, I try to be closer to myself. In the bathroom mirror, I loosen a few strands of hair from the shellacked crown of my head, out of a desire to retain some part of the lacy, frizzy, misshapen quality of young, dumb identity. I try to protect my small and insignificant interests. I don’t smile back, even tepidly, at the people who have gone out of their way to hurt me. Instead, I sit perfectly still, swallowed up by the pylons of an office chair, and stew in the filthy miasma of my feelings. I stare at the keyboard as though it were within my power to write a prayer that could save me. Pain comes to a roiling boil and blasts my mind apart. What’s left behind is a pillar of cold, dark smoke.
In the desert of a dream, I scavenge for something I have lost in the sand. Fleeing the forest, my face wet with rain, I fall to my knees in the dew-dotted grass. Every passing glance, a sign. Every mark on the land, a symbol. Every rash on my body, a sigil.
We need the document by the end of the day, he says. I trek across a cool blue expanse of light to produce 100,000 words that no one will read and that will eventually decay into digital dust in a distant server-on-a-lake. Still, I persevere. I make the tiny, dead things I do bigger than they are. Responding to an unnecessarily cruel message with the right tone—a balance of frosty imperiousness and fatherly mercy, because I seek to forgive, I always want to forgive—takes on the importance of a holy mission. I close my eyes and dress myself in chainmail. Then I open my eyes to find an email chain dressing me down for a lack of confidence in internal meetings.
These are the rules, he says. I count to five slowly in my mind. This is the way things are, he says, and there are rewards in store for you. But rewarded—for what? If I answer that, I crumble. I truly don’t want the prize of his recognition. What do I want, then? The heights of this profession are not heights I want to reach. Every step is injurious to my self-respect. Every step takes me farther away from myself. From across the platform, I see her standing there, with my crudely made-up face and bloodshot eyes, holding out a trembling hand that I would have to leap across the tracks to reach. But what if I tried? What if I could know what destiny is available to me? What destiny for a determined but misguided paladin of the heartless 2030s, what fragment of fate reserved for an oversensitive career girl with zero ambition but every desire to sacrifice everything, if only it could mean something?