That morning, the motorways filled up again. The queues outside the city’s coffee shops were back, the Monday morning radio shows blared from everyone’s car stereos. Downtown, the train station echoed once again with the endless tap tap tap of high heels and dress shoes, in an ebbing sea of smartly dressed men and women. But this Monday morning was different. This Monday morning, nobody was talking about the Auckland Blues losing again, or the new restaurant they had tried on Saturday after reading a review in Metro, or even the funny Netflix documentary they’d been watching all Sunday afternoon. Instead, everyone was talking about a little accounting firm, down on the corner of Fanshawe Street and Victoria Park.
They were talking about us.
Now that the city was back to life, we were surrounded by even more police cars, and more orange cones, and more yellow tape, and more cameras. People wandered by on their lunch breaks, as close as they were allowed, just for an Instagram photo and a quick glimpse of the drama, down on that little end of town that nobody ever went to. If you had asked any of us, in our wildest of wild dreams, if we thought being an accountant would somehow bring us fame, we would have called you a fool. And we would’ve been right. Because here we were, the most popular news story in the country, maybe even the world, and still nobody knew our names. Nobody knew our faces. Nobody even knew we were here.
From the moment we woke up that morning, Chocolate was back to his role as the group’s news anchor. While Sienna laid out a breakfast spread of raisins, canned pineapple, bagels, and water in empty wine bottles, Chocolate cycled through every newspaper he could find, reading the headline aloud, proudly, like he’d written them himself.
New Zealand Police claim to know identity of shooter.
Chief of Police refutes claims of mishandling “complicated” shooting situation.
New Zealand reeling from racial attack at popular Persian restaurant.
Siege continues for third day at prominent New Zealand office tower.
Steven Black rolled his eyes.
“Bit of a stretch calling our building “prominent”, don’t you think?”
“What are they supposed to say? Shooting at…a little office building in Auckland? That nobody’s ever heard of?”
Sienna glared at me, and I laughed, sucking on a pineapple cube.
“Why are these so sweet, anyway? Do they put sugar in them or something?”
“They’re in syrup.”
I took another one, balanced it on a piece of bagel, and popped it in my mouth.
“How long you guys think before we lose the front page spot?”
Darsh looked up from his laptop, thinking.
“Probably depends if we die or not. If we die, we’ll be front page for a week. If not, the All Blacks will probably get our spot, in a few days.”
“They’re playing this weekend, right?”
“I think so.”
“I wonder what pictures they’ll use of us. Better not be our GW mugshots.”
“Oh man!” Chocolate laughed. “My one’s terrible.”
“So is mine,” Steven Black nodded, battling with a mouthful of bagel.
“I think what they do now is they go into your Facebook and find a good one of you,” Sienna said, finally sitting down to eat. She slid over next to me and grabbed a bagel from the bag.
“Better tidy my one up, then,” Chocolate said, swiping on his phone.
“Don’t post anything stupid,” Sienna warned. I’d noticed she’d been becoming more motherly these past few days.
“Just gonna delete the drunken ones. I want New Zealand to know I was a good Christian boy with a nice smile.”
We all giggled at the silliness of it. It was like he was choosing his funeral photo. Then after a few more bites of bagel, we all started doing the same, realising it might not be so silly after all.
With the help of six or seven bottles of red wine, the day once again passed in a flash. Steven Black had also made a winning discovery – two bottles of whiskey and a dozen beers in the boardroom fridge, which was disappearing quickly. By the time night fell, even he was struggling to finish a beer.
“What’s wrong with truth?”
Superintendent Delowe had called only twice, with the usual disappointing update we’d gotten sick of hearing. We’re working around the clock. We’ll have you out of there soon. One of his calls, we’d almost avoided answering, until Darsh – the voice of reason – pulled himself to his feet and went to grab my phone from the lunchroom bench. In three short days, this had somehow become our new normal; living on junk food, alcoholism, walking on tip toes, whispering every time we spoke.
“We need to have a rule man, like, if you say truth three times, your next one has to be a dare,” said Darsh, now losing his voice from the constant whispers.
“That’s a South Auckland rule bro.”
Chocolate and Darsh both giggled, and Steven Black laughed drunkenly, loud enough to be heard on the floor below. We scowled at him, and Chocolate, also long lost to the whiskey, picked up an unopened beer can and threw it at him. Steven Black dipped his head, and I winced, Sienna cupped her hands over her mouth, Chocolate said “Ooh!” and we all watched it zoom past Steven Black’s ear, hit the floor with a resounding thud, and then roll, painfully loudly, along the wooden floors almost to the door.
Finally it hit the wall and clunked to a stop, the trail echoing so loudly we clenched our jaws, and sat frozen, silent, as if waiting to hear a barrage of terrorist footsteps clammering up the stairs.
“Gonna get us killed, nigga…” Darsh said finally, rubbing Chocolate’s shaved head with a violent scrub.
“Yeah, nigga,” Steven whispered.
Sienna glared at him.
“You’re not allowed to say that.”
“Because you ain’t black, nigga,” Chocolate laughed.
“Neither are you!”
“My name’s Chocolate. How much blacker could I be?”
“True!” Darsh said, laughing, holding out his hand. Chocolate slapped it and they grinned at each other.
“That’s ridiculous. Neither of you two are black,” Steven said, scoffing.
“Look at me!” Darsh rolled up his sleeves. “I’m blacker than Tupac.”
It was true. He was.
“Well, Chocolate ain’t,” said Steve, laughing. “Chocolate is peanut butter colour.”
“Pssht, mate. I’m at least blacker than Obama.”
“You’re about the same,” I laughed.
“Yeah, so if Obama says nigga, I can say it too.”
“Obama never says that word,” Sienna said, still serious.
“Man I bet when Obama’s in the shower, he screams it. He said he loves Biggie. If you don’t know, now you know, nigga.” He bopped his head as he sang it, and Darsh joined him, and for some reason it was the funniest thing in the world, even Sienna couldn’t help but laugh.
“When did that become a bad word, anyway?” Chocolate put the bottle to his mouth, gulping down wine like it was mineral water.
“We used to say it all the time as kids,” Sienna said.
“They never even censored it on the radio.”
I nodded, thinking back to primary school, when kids used to play Ice Cube on their Walkmans, and none of us understood a thing he was saying.
“I didn’t even know it was a bad word, until I was like, fifteen. Every time you saw it in a movie, they say it to everyone. I just thought it was how you greet friends. You know, like how Samoans say uce? Then that lady said it on TV and lost her job. I was like, huh?”
“Strange place, America.”
“Is it a bad word in Europe?”
“What about Africa?”
“Do they speak English in Africa?”
“Yeah, haven’t you seen all those South African rugby players? Talk perfect English.”
“But that’s white South African people. What about black South African people?”
We all thought about it silently for a moment.
“I reckon they have their own native language, you know, like their own version of Maori,” said Sienna.
“Yeah!” Chocolate said, pointing at her. “For sure they do.” He pulled out his phone and started typing.
“The most common language spoken as a first language by South Africans is Zulu. 23 percent. Followed by Xhosa, 16 percent, and Afrikaans, 14 percent. English is the fourth most common first language…”
“Alright, enough Wikipedia,” said Steve. “Whose turn is it?”
“I said truth!”
“This nigga…okay fine. I’ll give you one,” Darsh said, sitting up. “How many GW girls you slept with?”
“Oh my god.” Sienna covered her face.
“You said truth,” Chocolate shrugged, gulping more wine.
“And you took the oath,” Darsh laughed. He had his own bottle of wine, and sipped on it as well.
Steven Black looked at each one of us. But looked especially long at Chocolate. He opened his mouth, silent for a second. Then spoke.
And we don’t know if it was the answer, or Steven’s face as he said it, but we all burst out laughing, as quietly as we could, Sienna cringed, her hands still over her face, and Chocolate was now on his back, kicking his feet in the air. I just smiled.
“Who was it?”
“That wasn’t the question.”
“Nigga just tell us! We all gonna die soon anyway.”
“I reckon Amy,” said Chocolate.
“Me too,” I grinned.
“Me three,” said Sienna.
“Fuck off bro…”
“Well who else would it be?”
“Is she in the rat-pack?”
Steven Black smiled. He was a terrible liar.
“Oh dude, then it could only be one person!” Chocolate laughed. Steven laughed back at him, and shook his head, and Chocolate pointed at the sky, like he’d solved the Da Vinci code, celebrating like he’d finally decoded the riddle of all riddles.
Sienna looked at me and mouthed it silently.
I shook my head. Not because I didn’t know. Just because it still felt like Steven Black’s secret to tell.
“Since we’re all gonna die anyway,” Chocolate said, recomposing himself. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
He took a deep breath.
“I slept with her too.”
Steven Black’s mouth dropped.
“I knew it!”
“Oh god,” I mumbled.
Darsh was now finding it hard to breath between laughs. Sienna’s face had been out of her hands for just a few seconds, but she sank it back in to hide her smile. Chocolate and Steven Black were in their own world now, both rolling with laughter, and both drunk, and not looking like they’d stop any time soon. Sienna left to go toilet, and I left to get another drink.
When she came back, I was sitting on the floor by the fridge, with a Coke and a fresh bag of pretzels. Chocolate had started falling asleep, Darsh was on his phone. I had no idea where Steven Black was.
“Who were they talking about?”
I sucked on my bottom lip, wondering if I should say anything. But they were probably right. We were all gonna die soon.
“Well, there’s only two girls in the rat-pack, and one of them rarely stays to go out. She usually leaves before you. So work it out.”
She thought for a while, then mouthed the name silently. I nodded.
“Oh. But doesn’t she have a boyfriend?”
She lifted her eyebrows and sat against the wall next to me.
“I guess she is always hanging around you boys.”
“Yep. Anyway, it’s your turn.”
“Truth or dare.”
She took my Coke, took a sip. And then another, longer one. Then she swapped it for the pretzel bag.
I didn’t know why I had asked her to keep playing. I didn’t have any questions for her. At least none that I thought I needed an excuse to ask. But I did have something I’d been thinking about.
“Okay…you know how, sometimes you meet a girl, and say she’s learning French right, or German, or whatever.”
She glanced at me sideways, wondering where this was going.
“And then you ask her, why you learning that? And almost every time…“
I slowed down on the every, and the time, and stabbed the air with my fingers as I said each one – every time. I seemed to do that a lot, but noticed it especially at that moment.
“She says she’s doing it for, I mean she might not admit it straight away, but every time she’s doing it because…”
“Of a guy.”
“Yeah!” I laughed. “See, even you know.”
“Yeah, and what’s wrong with that?”
“Wrong? Nothing’s wrong with it. I’d say it’s the opposite. It might be the best reason you could have to learn a language – so you can talk to someone, or love someone, or whatever. What would be a better reason? So you can get a better job? So you can go be an accountant in Germany or something? Fuck that.”
She snorted, in the cutest way possible, and a bit of Coke ran down her chin.
“You’re such a hater. I mean most people don’t love this job…but you…”
“Anyways, the question is, was that the same for you? Like with your drama school, plays, and all that? Was there some boy you liked back then, and he acted or something, and so you went and got out a A Streetcar Named Desire from the library. You know, so he’d notice you?
“It just seemed so random. Playwriting. I was thinking about it. You’re the first person I ever met who talked about plays as like, a hobby, or a job, or I dunno. As anything.”
She pulled a handful of pretzels from the bag and started eating them one by one, chewing as quietly as possible, as if the crazies downstairs could hear the crunch.
“And you’re also the first person to eat your pretzels whole. Like, you’re supposed to bite them first man, what the hell.”
“What? But they’re so small.”
“Look how they’re made though! They’re all separated into little sections for you. You’re obviously supposed to bite each bit off on its own. See that part, bite that first, and then you get a little stick there, bite that off, it’s like an Oreo, there’s a proper way. You don’t just put the whole thing in your mouth.”
“It’s not even close to an Oreo!” she glared. “Each part of the Oreo tastes different. This whole thing tastes the same.” She waved one in front of her before placing it in her mouth, theatrically this time, the whole thing, as always.
I shook my head. “That’s disrespect, to the pretzel inventor. He’d be rolling.”
She grinned, satisfied.
“But no, it wasn’t.”
We both fell silent, and I looked across at her. I noticed how oily her hair looked. Freckles on her face I’d never noticed before. Three studs up on the top of her left ear I’d never noticed before. She didn’t seem to mind or even notice I was looking at her, so I didn’t stop. Slowly her mind drifted away, I could see it, like those times when you’re staring at something, anything, it could be a plant, or a latch on a window, but you’re not even seeing it. Your mind is just away, painting a memory of something else.
“How much longer, do you think, until we get to walk under that night sky again?” she whispered, nudging her eyes toward the window.
I turned and followed her gaze to the sky outside. I always dreaded it in winter, but now, I missed those long walks back to my car in the evenings. Especially the winter ones, where the bite in the air left your cheeks chilled like ice packs, and you shivered as you climbed behind the steering wheel and cranked the heater up to high.
“I don’t know, but for one long breath of fresh air…I’d give every last dollar in my bank account.”
She looked over at Chocolate and Steven Black, now snoring beside each other. Darsh had fallen asleep too, sitting upright in the corner. Then she looked back at me.
“You wanna do something stupid?”
Her eyes were brazen, but alive. I stared into her pupils, beaming right back at me. But I didn’t say no. That was all she needed.
With newfound zest, she rose to her feet, grabbed her sweater and tip toed towards the door. As I watched, confused and wondering if I should follow, she looked back at me, cupped her hand around her mouth and pointed.
“Bring the pretzels.”
I rushed after her down the hallway, all the way until the elevators. She was up on her tip toes, peeking around the corner into reception, like somebody might be hiding, waiting for her.
“Stay here,” she said softly, resting her palm on my arm. Then she pulled her sweater on, like a cape (it was black), dropped to all fours and crawled towards the reception desk.
I couldn’t guess what she was doing. Fetching something, obviously, but what? Then as she crawled behind the desk I flinched, ready to scream as I listened to the painful creak of a drawer opening. She was now right in front of two huge windows opening out onto Victoria Park, in full view of anyone down below who might be looking, and suddenly I understood what she meant by “something stupid”. But she was only there for seven or eight seconds before she started crawling back. Even then, all she seemed to have was a stapler in her hand, and a splatter of sweat dripping down her forehead.
“What the fuck!” I glared.
“Hey, I did it for you.”
“One long breath of fresh air, right?” she huffed, pulling a set of keys from her pocket. “And it won’t even cost you a cent. Let’s go.”
Nothing made sense. No windows were able to open in office towers. It had been that way for years. That’s why the air conditioning was always on. I guessed she was finally going a little crazy. One of us had been bound to, eventually.
Before I could ask questions, she was back on her knees and crawling again. I followed her, this time to the door to the stairwell.
“We can’t open that!” I whispered.
Without breaking eye contact, she grabbed the handle, slowly, and pushed it down even slower. It squeaked loudly, and I pressed my eyes shut and gritted my teeth, somehow thinking that would make it quieter. Then she nudged the door with her hip, ever so softly, until it broke from the frame and cracked open.
“Sienna, fucking stop, Jesus. The card system is off, if we go out there, we can’t get back in.”
She held up the stapler, and blew a kiss playfully in my face.
Then she pushed the door open a little wider, stepped out, and held the door open for me to follow. As I did, I could feel my stomach drop through the floor, my heart thumping so fast, I could feel the pounding down between my toes. Then as she eased the door shut, she wedged the stapler in the door frame, so it wouldn’t shut completely.
“We can’t be too long,” she said, grabbing my hand.
I looked down the stairwell, expecting to see bombs, bullet holes, shells, something. It was like stepping out into the jungle, naked, where danger lurked in any direction. My feet trembled and I shuffled, rather than taking proper steps, scared someone might see or hear us. Had she not had a hold of my hand, pulling me along, I’d have turned around and rushed right back to safety.
We tip toed just past the toilets, and just a few metres along there was another door I’d never seen before. It was a smokey grey, the same colour as the walls, and blended in seamlessly. Obviously, it had always been there, but when in the stairwell there was never any reason to walk any further than the toilet door, so I never had.
Sienna pulled the keys from her pocket, fit the key into the lock with a zoink, and then pulled the door open.
Behind it stood a narrow hallway with nothing but a long stretch of stairs, a couple of storeys at least. All I could see at the top was another door, with a small window. And moonlight. It was the way to the rooftop.
She cradled the door shut behind us and we climbed the stairs, quiet as possible, but swiftly. Again at the top she fiddled with the key and slotted it in, less mindful of being quiet this time, and pulled the door open.
My knees buckled as I felt the first surge of wind swirl against my face. I held my palms out, not sure if it was real, the night air almost choking me as I breathed in gasps, faster and deeper, afraid it might run out, or disappear. I’d never seen the night sky so velvety, so thick. So near. Only a few stars were out, but they were never brighter and never more beautiful. Sienna grinned as she watched me, then stepped out onto the rooftop, and spun around, her arms outstretched, like a toddler dancing in the rain.
“Remember when you told me, you didn’t know what a play was?” she asked, putting another pretzel in her mouth.
For some hours, we’d been sitting up against one of the metal vents, in the centre of the rooftop. It was the deep of the night now, and the cold was starting to bite. Though we hardly minded it. After four days inside that lunchroom, we would’ve stayed sitting out there on any night, even in a hailstorm. She laid her sweater over our knees.
“Well. I have a confession.”
Her gaze stayed fixed as she talked, staring out into the distance. So did mine. It was like every time we looked upward, we couldn’t peel our eyes away. I’d never imagined I could miss the sky so much.
“I didn’t know either. What a play was. I thought I did. But I didn’t. At least not in the beginning.”
She ate the last pretzel in her hand, then dusted her palms off against each other.
“You know what the first play I saw was?”
I didn’t say anything. Just looked at her.
“I was eleven, my cousins were in town, and we decided to go to the theatre. We’d never been to the theatre, but my mother thought it would be good to take them somewhere. So we went to this play. It was called A Raisin in the Sun. And I thought I knew what a play was, but we got there, and there was this lady up on the stage. And she had on this bright sunflower dress, and it was like watching a movie, but it was real life. And she was so passionate and real and I remember I didn’t even really know what was happening, but I looked to the side of me and everyone in my row was, they just couldn’t move. They were…enchanted or something. And then in front of me, a woman was crying, and I don’t know. I realised then, people come to plays to see things and hear things you can’t hear anywhere else, not on TV, not in the movies. It’s a different kind of power, you see up on the stage. I just remember thinking, I want to do this. I’m not much of an actress, but I want to do this, I want to make something like this. I want to make something people love this much.”
“A Raisin In the Stars?”
“A Raisin In The Sun.”
“What’s it about?”
“Maybe you should read it.”
“Yeah, I will. I really will.” I meant it, too.
“Anyway, it’s your turn.”
“Truth or dare.”
“Oh!” I rubbed my hands together, and breathed into them long and deep. They felt like ice packs. “Dare.”
She screwed up her nose, like she’d wanted me to say something else.
“Okay. I dare you…”
Her voice trailed away, and she rolled her eyes playfully. Left, right. Like she had two options in her mind, and she was scrolling between them, like a multiple-choice exam.
“Here’s my dare. I dare you, when we get outta here, to go to the Civic, put something nice on, some nice clothes, all that, and go watch whatever play is on that weekend.”
“Yeah, sure. That’s easy.”
“And you have to take a friend. Someone you haven’t seen in a long time.”
“What, like from high school?”
“Okay…” I took a second to think, but nobody obvious came to mind. “But why?”
“Because when you go to see a play, it’s an experience, and that experience becomes a memory. And if you share it with someone, especially someone you don’t see often, it becomes a lasting one. Like my cousins. Even now, ten, fifteen years later, they still talk about it – remember that night? The night we went to the play?”
“I’ll take Sam Drewlove.”
We both closed our eyes and cackled together, extra joyously, as we could laugh normally now. The sound drowned in the wind, nobody could hear us for 1,000 miles. As another gust blew past, she linked her arm in mine and shuffled closer, laying her head on my shoulder. Her hair brushed against my cheek. Somehow, it still smelled of expensive shampoo.
“I mean, I’m gonna say yes, obviously. I’ll do your dare. I really will. But you know what’s gonna happen, right? All of us have been sitting here, talking about how ‘when we get out of here we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.’ It’s all bullshit. Like when someone you love dies, and you start saying life is short! I’m going to make a change! Life is going to be so different! And it is, for two weeks. And then all that emotion goes away and everything goes straight back to normal.”
I crumbled a pretzel between my fingers, watched the dust sprinkle on the floor in front of me.
“Things don’t change that easy,” I said. “When I’m back at my desk and you’re back at your desk, and all this is over. We’re going to forget all these conversations. Just like we forget every other conversation. And life is just gonna go right back to the way it was.”
Chocolate came storming into the lunchroom. He couldn’t shout, obviously, but you could tell he wanted to. He was so close to blowing, if someone just flicked his shirt, or looked at him the wrong way, he wouldn’t have cared if the crazy man downstairs heard every word. He would have screamed the whole building down.
I was still only half awake, barely conscious enough to reach and grab my water. Steven Black was sitting with his knees up, staring at the floor. Darsh and Sienna were still sleeping.
“What do you mean they know?”
“They fucking know man! It’s on the front fucking page!”
He held his phone screen out, and I crawled up close enough to read.
BREAKING: Several staff trapped inside Grant & Woodson Tower, hostage situation likely.
Sienna’s eyes opened, obviously sensing the nervousness. She saw the look on my face and sprang up.
I hesitated a moment.
“What do you mean they know?”
I pointed at Chocolate’s phone. She crawled up to him and read it.
“The only way they could know is if someone told someone.”
I shook my head quickly.
“I didn’t say shit.”
Sienna shook her head.
We stole a glance nervously at each other. But for a split second and no more. We knew what had happened. Someone had seen her crawling behind the reception desk. Or someone had seen us on the roof. My heart sank as I replayed the night in my head. It was so stupid. Of course they saw us. This was the biggest story in the world. How could we have been so stupid?
By now Darsh had woken up too.
“What’s going on?”
Everyone ignored him. We were staring at Chocolate, his face boiling.
He slowly turned to Darsh.
“What do you mean, they know?”
He held up his phone again, and Darsh poked his head forward to read it.
“Steve?” Chocolate said.
Steven Black’s head was hanging between his knees. He looked up, shook his head.
“Didn’t say nothing.”
“You’re the fuckin’ worst liar in history. I saw your face when I walked in. Who the fuck did you tell?”
I couldn’t let Sienna take the blame. I’d say it was me. I’d say I got drunk and walked past the window.
Then just as I was readying to open my mouth, I caught Steven Black look nervously back at Chocolate, then at me, then at Sienna. He took one deep breath. And then it was as if he knew there was nowhere to hide; that he couldn’t hold in whatever secret he had any longer.
“I just thought my Dad might…”
“You’re fucking joking…” Chocolate fumed. I’d never seen him angry before. His face was so red, you could almost feel the heat coming off it.
“Look, I just thought my Dad can pull some strings and get us out of here okay? And I bet it wasn’t even him that leaked…”
“Pull some strings! What the fuck kind of strings, bro? Are you fucking retarded?”
Steven punched the floor and sprang to his feet. It was like he bounced across the room in two steps, suddenly his face just inches apart from Chocolate’s.
“I’m not dying in this fucking place, okay!”
“What you think your Daddy’s money is going to buy a SWAT Team to come flying in here? Your Daddy can’t do shit except get us killed even faster, you dumb ass white boy!”
“My Dad knows exactly who to call, and the police downstairs aren’t doing jack shit! So I told him, yes, okay! Police don’t do shit, and none of you idiots did shit! So you dumb ass niggas should be thanking me for…”
Bang. It felt like I heard it before it even happened. Even louder than the gunshots we’d heard on that first day. It was almost like he moved so fast, the floor shook, and everything moved in fast forward for a moment. I looked first at Chocolate’s fist, no longer clenched, but shaking. Then at Steven Black on the ground, holding his cheek. Then at Sienna’s hand gripping my arm, like she was on a roller coaster. Then at Darsh’s face, his eyes larger than marbles, staring up at Chocolate. He stood there, his eyes fiery, staring through the floor. That definitely wasn’t the first time he’d punched someone. But it certainly looked like the first time Steven Black had taken one. He ran his tongue over his lip, then spit out a blob of blood, twice, three times. Chocolate took another deep breath, stared at him for one more painfully long second, and walked out of the room.
Superintendent Delowe called barely five minutes later.
“Who did you tell? What did you tell them? When? Why? Where are you now? Have you heard anything from the stairs? From the elevator tube? From the windows? Stay off the phone! I’m gonna have to call you back.”
I didn’t know where Steven Black was. I didn’t know where Chocolate was. It was just Darsh, Sienna and myself, sitting silently in the lunchroom. We were too afraid to move now. Too afraid to even speak. Now that everyone knew we were here, it felt like we were just waiting. Waiting for this building to blow up. Waiting for someone to come up the stairs to load that door with bullets. Any second now.
Then I pulled myself to my feet. It didn’t make any sense anymore, just waiting for our fate like this.
“If this guy…if he’s really just one guy…what are we doing? If he comes up those stairs, he can’t kill all of us, can he? There’s five of us!”
Darsh looked around the room.
“Three of us.”
“I’m serious. We shouldn’t be sitting here like this, just waiting, right? We die fighting? No?”
Darsh scratched his head viciously, then looked up at me.
“Okay. So what do we do, Batman?”
“I dunno. We make weapons and stuff. Have a plan. Smash him in the head, with a laptop or something. That’s better than just waiting to get blown up. Right?
He thought to himself for a moment, nodding.
“I guess so. Yeah.”
“Alright, cool. You’re in! GW Army. Let’s go. Sienna?”
We stood there staring at her, lying on the floor, curled in the fetal position. She looked up at us, unmoved. Then finally sighed at us both.
“He has a gun, guys. Bombs. What do you want me to do?”
“Something! Anything! We’ll figure it out. Turn this place into a fort. If he’s gonna kill us, we’ll make it hard for him.”
She sat up and sighed again, pulling her hair into a ponytail, before shaking it a few times and letting it fall free.
“Honestly, all I want is a big box of chocolates and these bloody cops to come in here and get us already.”
“Yes, chocolates. A girl’s best friend, chocolates.”
Of course. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of that yet.
“What? What are you smiling at?”
“I’ll make you a deal. I’ll get you the biggest box of chocolates you’ve ever seen. Then you join our army.”
She smiled, sensing it was my turn to do something stupid.
I marched out of the room, down the hallway. Instead of turning right toward the elevators, I turned left, into the east side. At the first sight of windows, I dropped to my stomach, army crawling so fast my knees and elbows grazed through my shirt and pants. When I got to Korean Amy’s desk, I ripped out her bottom drawer. It slid out easily. Pushing it in front of me, nudging it along with my head, I army crawled back towards the lunchroom. By the time I got back, my shirt was drenched, and sweat drops fell from my nose like a running tap. I was gone barely ten minutes.
“OH MY GOD!”
I stood over the drawer proudly as Darsh and Sienna rummaged through it.
“Who’s is it?”
“Oh my gosh, Amy. I love you.”
I pulled one of the snacks out and handed it to her.
“Here you go. Choco pie. It’s like a Korean mallowpuff.”
I grinned as she took it from me and examined it, the same way I’d done with my first one just a few days earlier. She ripped it open and took a bite, then groaned with pleasure with tightly closed eyes.
“You can’t be serious.”
She pulled another box from the drawer, but this time, I snatched it back off her.
“Thissssss,” I smiled. “Is Pepero. The most famous snack in Korea. Strawberry flavour too – that’s the best one. But you only get it, if you join the army.”
She took another bite of her Choco pie and smiled brightly, before plucking the box gleefully from my hand.
“I’m all yours, Mister President.”
Two seconds later, Steven Black and Chocolate walked in. It didn’t look like either of them had been punched again. I guessed they’d been out by the double window, talking. But it seemed they were more than just back on talking terms. They were…smiling?
“Where the hell did that come from?” Chocolate gasped, rushing over to the snack drawer. “What is this? Chinese chocolates or something?”
He ripped open a Waffle Mate and ate the first one in a single bite.
“Yo! This shit is serious!“
Steven Black grabbed the packet from him and took one for himself, moaning with delight as he chomped on it noisily.
“Dude. Serious. Who’s is all this?”
“Mine,” Sienna smiled.
“Amy’s,” I said, swiping at her.
“So, Stevey and I were talking,” Chocolate began, his mouth still half filled with waffle. “He was right. We’ve been doing nothing. Instead of sitting around here drinking all day, we should’ve been getting prepared. I mean, he’s probably only one guy, right? And there’s five of us! He can’t kill us all.”
Darsh and I winked at each other, and just as I was about to speak, Sienna pulled a Pepero stick from the box, took a single bite, and looked at me. A dash of sass sprinkled across her face.
“That’s exactly what I’ve been saying to these two,” she smiled.
We were exhausted by sundown.
With the elevators off, we concluded the only way into the floor was through the stairwell door. The one that looked like a nuclear bunker. The one Sienna had wedged with a stapler the night before.
Darsh and Steven Black spent the day building a barricade in front of it that resembled an obstacle course, with several tipped over desks and shelves from the mail room. I was able to climb over it with ease, but Steven Black claimed it would be “way harder for a guy holding an assault rifle.” It garnered a laugh from us all, but we agreed with him in the end.
Sienna, Chocolate and myself spent the day collecting an array of weapons from the mail room and across the east side; several planks of wood, some cables we’d tied staplers to as makeshift ball-and-chains, a cricket bat and wickets from under Joel’s desk, a golf putter and seven golf balls from Peter Mack’s office, and a diverse collection of knives from Chef Margot’s kitchen.
Chocolate stood looking proudly at the collection, laid out over the lunchroom floor. He picked up a golf ball, tossed it up and down in his hand.
“When he comes through that door, just watch. While he’s climbing over Steve’s obstacle course, I’ll blast this thing right through his skull.” He lifted his front leg and winded up, like a baseball pitcher. “He’ll die instantly.”
“You’ll miss and hit the elevator,” I said.
“Nah, he’ll hit one of us,” said Darsh.
“More like it will bounce off the wall and you’ll hit yourself,” said Steven Black.
“I bet he’ll throw it so slowly, the guy will just catch it and throw it right back,” Sienna laughed.
“Ha ha,” Chocolate’s eyes simmered as we fell into fits of laughter. “Let’s see if you’re still laughing after I save all your lives.”
The quiet jingle of my phone broke us up.
“Delowe,” Sienna announced, grabbing it off the table beside her. We hushed and she answered it, holding it up for us to hear.
“Everyone okay?” he asked. “Nobody gone crazy yet?”
“Far too late for that,” Sienna said, eyeing each of us one by one.
“I hear you. As you’ve probably seen, the news is going wild about you. Everyone wants to know who you are, if you’re safe, if you’re suspects, where you are. We’ve been getting pressured to let them know, but we haven’t given them anything. It wouldn’t help our cause, much. Though we’ve decided this – you can tell your families now. We think…we owe you that much.”
I peered at Chocolate. I caught him stealing a glance at Steven Black, who was looking at the ground.
“The only condition is, you tell us who knows. And we’ll talk to them too. Explain the situation, not to do interviews, that kind of thing. To keep it just between us.”
We were all silent, talking with our eyes for a moment. Just between us. Then we hummed in agreement.
“The stakes have changed a bit too, now that everyone knows you’re up there. But we think he’s definitely not leaving that ground floor. As soon as he does, we’ll have bomb squad all over him and our boys will be in position. That’s a good thing. Just stay up there, stay far away. That’s where we can keep you safe.”
We heard someone call his name, and he muzzled the phone for a second.
“We’ve got some developments here. I’ll call you again in an hour or so. Hang in there, guys.”
We sat staring at our collection of weapons. It looked impressive, laid out like our own misfitted armory. I snapped a photo of it. But despite all that work, it seemed like now we wouldn’t ever have to use it.
“That’s true, you know. If he comes up here, police are going to come raiding right in. He can’t come up,” Chocolate said, assuredly.
“How do they know if he’s coming up?” I asked. “You can’t see into the stairs from outside.”
“They gotta have some SWAT level cameras or binoculars or something.”
“What? Nah, man, they don’t have SWAT level anything,” Steven Black grumbled. “That’s why we’ve been stuck up here forever. If they had a real SWAT team, Colin Farrell would just come up here with a helicopter, smash this window open and pull us all out. Then this guy will blow all his bombs in desperation, we’d all go flying away while the building goes up in flames.”
“Shucks, too much Hollywood, this guy. This is real life, bro!”
“If we were in New York right now, that’s exactly how it would happen!”
“Nah, you see those school shootings in America? The cops just sit outside too, waiting for the guy to come out. Just like Delowe.”
“Then how come those are always finished in one day?”
Chocolate pouted his lips, thinking it over.
“Because they’re not real terrorists. They’re just schoolkids, they can’t plan these things properly. This guy downstairs, he’s an expert.”
“Yeah, like the Taliban,” I added. “They’re experts. It’s been like a million years, and they’re still hiding away in those caves, all the best armies in the world still haven’t beat them.”
“Yeah, damn. That’s true.”
“So this is a Taliban guy downstairs?” Steven Black blurted out. “We’ll be in here forever! We’re gonna grow old up here.”
We all laughed at the thought.
“I’m marrying Sienna then,” I said, shooting my hand up. “We’ll live in Meeting Room 2.”
“That means I gotta marry one of these two?” Chocolate laughed.
“Yeah, that’s legal now, you know,” I winked back.
“True, alright I choose Darsh.”
Sienna hooted with laughter.
“Stevey looks like you’re growing old alone.”
“I’ll just have an affair with Sienna.”
“In your dreams!” she snapped.
“How about you two have a daughter then,” he grinned, pointing at us both. “I’ll marry her, Hugh Hefner styles.”
“Ewww,” Sienna wailed with disgust.
Chocolate was still playing with the golf ball. I picked one up myself, rolled it around on the floor between my knees. I didn’t quite know how to say it, but it seemed like a good time.
“Guys, I’ve got a confession.”
Almost in unison, they all stopped fidgeting and stared at me. I could feel their attention, but I didn’t look up. Just rolled the ball in a circle, listening to it purr, over and over.
“You know how he said we could tell our families?”
I picked the ball up and closed my palm around it. Then finally looked up at Chocolate, in the eye.
“I already told mine. I told my parents. A few days ago. Before Steven told his.”
Not knowing what else to say, I shrugged, apologetically.
“I couldn’t not tell them. I couldn’t.”
“What did they say?” Chocolate asked. I guessed he might be angry, but his eyes were soft. He knew my parents. They’d met once or twice, briefly.
“They understood, you know. I told them not to tell anyone, and that I hoped I’d be safe, and I’d call them every day. And they understood. That it had to be secret. They understood.”
“I also have a confession,” Darsh said humbly. “I told my parents too. And my wife.”
“Wait. You’re married?”
“A few years.”
“Shit dude. You’re like the most unmarried married guy I’ve ever met.”
“This whole time, you haven’t mentioned your wife once.”
“I talk about her all the time. To myself. In here.” He tapped his temple. “It’s a private thing, marriage. Love is a private thing. To me.”
“Anyone else tell anyone?” Chocolate asked.
Sienna looked at him sullenly. “I told my Dad. And my brother.”
“Sheezus! I guess I’m the only one who cared about not getting killed up here!”
“Man, that was a fucking stupid thing for them to ask anyway,” I said. “We can’t tell our families? Really?”
“And besides, our families want us to live too, you know,” Darsh added. “If you tell them it needs to be secret, they’ll keep it secret. Obviously.”
“Yeah…” Chocolate mumbled, the golf ball now hanging loosely between his fingers. “I guess so…”
“So is your wife the one who makes all those nice lunches you have?” Chocolate continued.
I laughed at the question, as did Sienna. As did Darsh.
“Yeah, of course. She’s the best.”
“Fuckin’ smells like it. Shucks. I hate eating lunch next to you. My shitty tuna next to your royal Indian food. Stacked all nice in those fancy steel lunchboxes.”
“I’ll ask her to make one for you next time.”
“Sure, she’d love to.”
“Me too bro!” I interjected.
“And me!” Sienna blushed.
Darsh smiled at us, surprised.
“How about you all come over for dinner one weekend? Pratha loves to cook for people. It’s her favourite thing.”
We all moaned at the thought of it. Chocolate almost whimpered in agony, holding his stomach. I closed my eyes and raised my face to the ceiling, imagining the spread of freshly cooked rotis and dahl and curry chicken steaming on the dinner table. My stomach churned, loud enough for everyone to hear, and Sienna slapped my belly lightly and laughed with amusement. So many times we’d experienced the scent of Darsh’s food wafting out of the microwave and through the lunchroom. We’d all wanted to try a spoonful. Just none of us ever felt entitled to ask. Now that we imagined it, it was pure silence, and none of us could stop salivating. If that was the only thing we got out of this disaster – a freshly cooked homemade Indian feast in Darsh’s dining room – maybe, just maybe, it would all be worth it.
That night I fell asleep in my usual spot, on the red couch in reception, facing the double window. Luckily I’d never had to fight anyone for that spot. The couch was about a centimetre shorter than I was tall, and Darsh, Steven Black and Chocolate were all half a head taller than me. They found it far more comfortable to sleep on the carpet in the hallway, or on the long bench in the lunchroom. Only Sienna joined me in reception, usually sleeping on the yellow couch opposite mine.
Sienna always fell asleep before me, halfway through our nightly banter. I would spend the next few hours restlessly awake, staring at my usual spot on the horizon out the double window. It was always right where the harbour bridge hovered an inch above the skyline; that spot always shined the brightest, the way the lights funnelled through the tiny gap in the bridge panels. But that night, I fell asleep almost instantly. Perhaps it was due to our long day of army crawling up and down the east side, searching for timber and cricket bats. But the sleep was deep and instant, and once again, I dreamed in 4K, and 3D, and five senses, the smells and sounds so rich I could have sworn I’d entered not a dream but another dimension. In this dimension, Sienna walked in front of me, and again I couldn’t see her face, but I knew it was her, from the straightness of her hair, and the shape of her legs, and the paleness of her skin. She carried something – a box – the same box from my previous dream, and I knew so because of the red stain on the side, the one I had guessed was jam from a jelly donut, or a squirt of tomato sauce. Then she turned around, and I saw the box was half open, the lid hanging loosely off to the side.
“Open it,” she said.
“But I’m afraid.”
“What do you think is inside?” she asked.
“I have no idea.”
“Then what is there to be afraid of?”
She smiled, and now I knew for sure that splotch of red had been jam from a jelly donut, because I saw some on her teeth, before she ran her tongue across them and held the box up to me again.
I could see her eyes were fearless, and her smile was warm, which told me the box was nothing but a gift. She nodded peacefully as I grabbed the lid and pulled it off. Inside there were firecrackers. They hissed loudly and then went off even louder, bang bang bang, but she didn’t move, because she was unharmed, and I didn’t move, as they gave me no harm either. We just looked at each other, and laughed like children, as they fizzled out between us.
“There’s one left,” she said, dropping her eyes.
I looked inside, and indeed there was one lone firecracker left sitting inside.
I reached in and grabbed it, holding it out in front of me. It rumbled violently, and burned to the touch, but it didn’t hurt, so I didn’t let go. And then, it disappeared with a final bang.
My eyes opened so suddenly even the moonlight hurt them. I guessed it was about 4 am. I reached for my phone. As I sat up, I rubbed my face long and slow, twice, three times. It felt so good, for some reason. Then peering through my fingers, I noticed Sienna’s couch was empty.
I had vaguely remembered hearing her get up in the night, I presumed to visit the toilet. I peeped behind me at the boardroom door. It was still open.
“Sienna,” I hissed.
Craving water, I shuffled into the lunchroom to fill my glass. The back bench was empty. Our usual circle on the floor was empty. As I made my way to the sink, I peered around the tables we’d stacked in the centre, and that’s when I saw them. Darsh, Steven Black and Chocolate, all lying beside each other, surrounded by wine bottles.
“Chocolate,” I whispered.
He didn’t move.
“Chocolate!” Still nothing.
I threw a bottle top at him, and finally he stirred, staring at me with a single wrathful eye.
“What happened? Something wrong?”
I shook my head.
I quickly checked the meeting rooms, then went back to the couches and set my water on the coffee table. I rested my head in my palms, and as I stretched out the kinks in my neck, my eyes landed on Steven Black’s obstacle course several metres away. It looked different.
I took another mouthful of water, then wandered over to look. It was hard to say, if it had been fiddled with. Of course, the tables hadn’t been perfectly straight to begin with, but when I got close enough to look, that didn’t matter anymore. The door into the stairwell was ajar. And on the floor, jammed in the frame, was a black stapler.
A cold shiver crept down my neck, and suddenly pieces of a jigsaw started to form in my mind. That’s when I knew. The red stain on the box wasn’t jam from a jelly donut, or a drop of tomato sauce. It was blood.
At 5:29 a.m. on Wednesday 24th August, we finally emerged from the Grant & Woodson tower. We were shielded from the media and taken straight to the police station, where we were reunited with our families. We spent some hours undergoing medical checks, gave statements, some questioning, and then were allowed to return home, returning for more questioning the following day. I stayed with my parents that night, and we ate the same corn soup I’d eaten so often during winters as a kid.
I didn’t go to work the Monday the office finally reopened, or the day after, or the day after that. I didn’t call in sick, or send an email. Nobody called to ask where I was. Not even Sam Drewlove.
The days all molded together. I spent the mornings waking up early, ironing a shirt, putting my suit on and driving into work (on time). But I never made it to the office. Just parked my car, sat there for an hour or two and drove straight back home again. That was my way of feeling normal without having to be normal.
I didn’t go to Sienna’s funeral. I heard it was nice, and many people showed up. I just didn’t feel ready to say goodbye at the time. I knew she wouldn’t have minded, if she was indeed watching.
Mid week the office did finally call. It wasn’t Sam Drewlove. It was the HR lady. She said the firm was arranging us all counselling, optional of course, and that I could “take as much time as I needed”. They understood this was a “very challenging experience”.
Chocolate emailed me during the week. “Just thought I should check on you” was the opening line. I’d found it odd how all the boys were back at the office, as if nothing had happened. And then I learned, they weren’t. Darsh and Steven Black hadn’t been seen. Chocolate was the only one. I suppose, he was the only parent out of all of us. Maybe he was used to putting on the everything’s okay face and getting on with it.
It was exactly thirteen days after the incident that I finally walked out of those elevator doors in reception again. The first thing I saw was Sienna’s replacement, a fifty-year old British woman, sitting behind the reception desk. She seemed nice enough, but it jarred me to see her there, sitting in Sienna’s seat, a big rosy smile on her face. I had imagined Sienna’s seat would be retired, like a star player’s jersey in the stadium rafters, or that her replacement would maybe sit on the other end of the desk, at least for a few weeks. Just as a sign of respect. And then I thought, no, of course not. That was silly. If you retired someone’s seat after they died, there’d be no seats left after a while. She was just the receptionist, after all.
I went and said hi to Chocolate first, who seemed to be doing okay, and then walked straight into Drewlove’s office. He was on a call but he saw me and shifted in his chair quickly, like suddenly I was the most important person in the world at that minute – “sorry Ann, let me call you back, okay?” – and jumped up to close the door behind me. I sat down.
“Sorry I haven’t been in. It’s just…”
“No need to explain. We know.”
I stared at the ground for a silent moment, but it felt like he already knew what I was going to say.
Shaking my head, I looked up at him, quickly. He was staring at me, but his eyes were curious. He looked at me differently now, like for once, he wasn’t rushing, like we weren’t on the clock. For once, I was now the most important person in that office. For once it was my job to talk, and his job to listen.
“I don’t know when I’ll be able to…you know. Be here again.”
He nodded but said nothing. Just looked at his screen and pressed a few buttons, perhaps just to break the silence.
“Well…what’s important to us is that you’re okay. And you’re healthy. You’re an important part of this team, I want you to know that.”
Even now, his voice had that little whip at the end. He always had to sound so diplomatic, like it was hard-wired into his vocal chords.
“Thanks,” I said, almost whispering.
“Why don’t you take the morning off, take a walk, have an early lunch. Gordon’s covering your urgent jobs right now, so there’s not much to catch up on. Come back in the afternoon, and we’ll talk it over.”
I didn’t say anything, just stood and nodded and walked out. I wasn’t feeling hopeless, even though it may have looked that way. It just felt like I was supposed to be sad and fragile, so I behaved sad and fragile. It would have felt strange, to act normally. Though I could have done that too.
I went back to my desk and sat erect in my chair, still, feeling the split second stares of everyone who walked past. I flicked through emails, but couldn’t escape the eeriness of Chocolate sitting on the other side of the shelf, working away, as if nothing had happened. As if everything we had been through had simply been erased and forgotten. All I wanted to do was roll around to his desk and say to him, “She died, man. I saw the body. I held her. She’s not coming back.”
I wanted to know what he would say. I wanted to know if he thought about her as much as I did. I wanted to know if people had asked about her. If people missed her. If people had complained that there was already a fifty year old replacement at reception, sitting right in her chair, as if she’d never existed.
I opened my top drawer to get my bag of peanuts. Not that I felt like eating. I just needed something to do with my hands. There was an orange piece of paper in there, folded neatly into a square, sitting on top of everything. My stomach fell when I saw it, and for some reason my first instinct was to look around to see if anyone was watching, like I’d just discovered a looted bag of diamonds or a suitcase full of cash. I grabbed it, gently, and as I brought it closer to my face I could see the shadow of writing inside. A letter.
I slipped it in the inside pocket of my blazer and walked hurriedly to the bathrooms, the first place I could think of for privacy. But as I came to reception and saw the door into the stairwell I halted violently, suddenly frozen. I felt the new receptionist behind me look up and heard the opening squeak of her voice, probably about to ask me something like, “Are you okay?” or “Is something wrong?” but remembering who she was talking to, stopped herself and thought it better to stay quiet. I hit the elevator button instead – it was already on our floor so I wasn’t forced to wait – and as soon as we hit ground and the doors opened I rushed out into the park, where it wasn’t raining, but the wind was damp and there was still the smell of leftover rain in the air.
Pulling the paper from my pocket, I already knew what was waiting inside. I didn’t know how I knew, but I did, and as I opened the folds and saw the first words I recognised the handwriting, likely from all the Friday nights I had stood opposite her at that reception desk, looking at the sticky notes that collected up the side of her screen and across the top of her keyboard. To this day, I don’t know if that letter made things harder, or easier. But I do know, I wish I’d never had to read those words. I wish she could have spoken them to me, over pretzels on a Friday, over that reception desk. But maybe that’s why they became the words that they did. The words I told you about. The ones that changed my life.
When I was five, maybe six, I was watching a movie with my brothers one night. My Mum was there too. I couldn’t tell you what movie it was, or what it was about, all I remember is there was a dead person at the end, and her eyes were open. I asked my Mum, “If she’s dead why are her eyes still open?” And my brother told me it was because there was a ghost inside her. I asked my Mum “Is that true?” and my Mum smiled and shook her head, but she still didn’t answer the question. More than twenty years later, on that Tuesday night in the Grant & Woodson tower, I finally understood why. Because I was the same age as my Mum was back then, and I didn’t know the answer either.
That’s the first thing I thought about when I saw Sienna’s eyes, still open, glinting against the light of my torch. Once I saw them, I couldn’t look away. They just drew my eyes back again and again. Because it wasn’t the blood, or the way she lay, but the dullness in her eyes that told me she was never going to wake up again.
They spent almost three whole days questioning me down at the police station. Superintendent Delowe was around, but it was mostly Detective Tung I spent those days with. He asked me a lot of questions. Why I was in the stairwell. Why she was in the stairwell.
“It was Tuesday night,” I told him. “I woke up, I looked at my phone. I remember the time. 3:41.”
He was scribbling furiously, even though I was being recorded.
“Sienna wasn’t there. She’d been sleeping on the couch opposite mine, in the reception. I thought I had heard her go to the toilet, but that was hours ago. I looked out the window, saw all your cars and stuff out there set up on the sidewalk, as usual. Nothing new. I figured, what the hell, I’ll go look for her. This crazy killer guy isn’t going to be awake at 3:41. And we’d been becoming comfortable up there, you know? You stop being scared after a while. So I checked the boardroom, which was our toilet. She wasn’t in there. Checked the lunchroom, she wasn’t in there. That’s when I started feeling uneasy, like, you know maybe something had happened, but I couldn’t guess what. Because if this guy had somehow found her and done something to her, surely he’d have found all of us too.”
“Everything was dead silent. All the boys were asleep. No sounds at all. All seemed normal. Well, not normal obviously, but you know. So I came back to reception and saw the big barricade that Steve had built in front of the stairwell, and it just didn’t look right. I went over there, and I saw the door ajar. That’s when I got this chill down my spine, like something had happened. Something not good. But after a second I tried not to think about that, I just told myself it’s most likely nothing, she probably just went up to the roof again.”
“And how often did she go up there before? Or any of you?”
“Just once, as far as I know.”
He nodded calmly, still scribbling.
“So I climbed into the stairwell. Then I crawled – literally crawled – towards the rooftop door, and by now I’m fucking terrified, but for some reason I just didn’t want to turn back yet, it felt wild to be out there alone, you know? And I looked around, and saw nothing, heard nothing. It was pitch black in there anyway, but I had my phone with me, that’s all the light I had. I’m still crawling, towards the door to the rooftop. I’m not even sure why I crawled, I probably would have made less noise just tip-toeing or something. And the whole time I was thinking, terrible idea, terrible idea, but I got to the door to the rooftop and it was locked. So I thought, that’s weird, if she’s up there, shouldn’t it be unlocked? But maybe it’s one of those doors that locks on its own. I don’t know. Anyway, I wasn’t going to start banging and screaming for her to come let me up. So I just thought, okay I’ll go back.”
“Then as I’m crawling back, I shine my torch on the stairs down to the sixth floor. No reason, you know, just to look. And at the bottom, on the landing, that’s where I saw her. I mean I didn’t know even know if it was her, but I just knew it was her.”
My voice croaked slightly, and he stopped writing and raised his eyes up at me. I looked back at him. As if we were waiting for each other to speak.
“Take your time.”
“You need a drink or anything?”
“No, I’m okay.”
“Hey, Jamie, get us a couple of coffees in here please.”
I looked over to the door and saw an old guy look at me and nod. I guessed he was Jamie. I also guessed it wasn’t the best time to tell him I didn’t want coffee. I’d prefer a pineapple Fanta, or a Secret Milo. But I simply drew a long breath and looked back at Detective Tung. He did the straight lipped smile.
“Just when you’re ready.”
Neither of us talked for a while.
“I crawled down to her. That’s what I remember.”
“I crawled down to her and I don’t know why, but I was relieved. I just assumed she was asleep. I was almost laughing actually. Like, she really fell asleep in the stairwell with this wackjob just downstairs? It just never occurred to me that she could be…yeah. I almost took a photo. And I just whispered her name – Sienna, Sienna – and as I got closer I could see the way she was laying, it was so unnatural, and then I put my hand on the ground next to her and felt it was damp. That’s when I shone my phone up to her face and I saw her eyes. I saw the blood on my hands. I looked down at her clothes, and there was blood all over them, I never saw so much blood in my life. And then I just looked back at her eyes, and I knew. I don’t know how long I was there, thinking what to do. I just sat there staring at her not knowing what to do. I dunno. I cried, I think, I’m not sure. I was in shock maybe. Is that what happens when you’re in shock? But it was probably quite a few minutes, maybe even ten minutes, twenty minutes, I would guess, I don’t know. And then luckily I heard all those footsteps coming up the stairs. I mean, it wasn’t lucky right then, because I thought, okay I’m going to die now too. But luckily it was you guys.”
“You were sitting there with her for about an hour.”
“Yeah. Little under an hour. You would have heard shots, maybe some shouting a few floors down, doors opening and closing. You don’t remember that?”
I shook my head.
“Not at all.”
He picked his pen up and scribbled some more.
What we hadn’t known, what Superintendent Delowe hadn’t told us, was CCTV was still working through the entire stairwell. He hadn’t told us because he said until we could be questioned properly, we’d all been treated as suspects, too. When they’d seen Sienna and I go to the roof together, we’d even become “possible accomplices”.
Once in questioning, they cleared us within a day. Detective Tung refused to show me the part of the tape where she was killed, but he did show me the part where they found me with her. He said he didn’t mind doing so, since I had co-operated and everything I had told him “lined up just fine”. It was odd to watch, I could barely recognise myself. Three or four officers came tip-toeing up the stairs, pointing guns at me, and I’d just backed up against the wall. There was no sound, and I didn’t remember what they’d said. But from the tape it looked like they decided pretty quickly I wasn’t one of the guys they were looking for.
It was Superintendent Delowe who came in and shared the rest of the story. The shooter was a young man who had somehow gotten an access card for the building. That didn’t surprise us; we used to lose our access cards all the time. After he’d attacked the Saturday gathering that morning at Pride of Persia, he had holed himself in the building, but nobody knew what he wanted. Then after four days, he started moving.
“It was sudden, that night. He just armed himself up, and started heading up the stairwell. We figured he’d do something erratic eventually. Not sleeping, probably going crazy. CCTV had eyes on him, and as soon as he moved, we moved. We had bomb squad on that back entrance immediately, but they took a little while. And then in we came. Middle of the night.”
“We’re guessing he was trying to get to the roof. Not really sure why. Maybe to jump off, throw something off. You never know with these guys. But he got to your floor, saw your friend on the stairs and just…”
He paused. Rethought his words.
“It was dark, you know. I don’t think he expected anyone in there, definitely not a young girl. Once that all happened, it ruffled him a bit, we think. He tried for the roof, door was locked. He came right back down, started barricading himself in the second floor landing. We hadn’t gotten that far yet. He had explosives, everything. All were duds, but the boys spent a long time trying to sort those out. And we had to clear every floor on the way up. Just protocol. That’s why we took a little while to get to you.”
I asked again to see the moment it happened. I felt like I needed to see it. But they wouldn’t show me. “Confidential” was the word they used.
“Was quick,” he told me, after I pressed him for the third or fourth time. “She came down from the roof. He was coming up the stairs. He saw her and…just did it. Three, four shots. Really quick. Like a reflex.” He spoke calmy, as if to soften it for me. “Even looked like he regretted it afterward, when he saw who it was. Flustered him, we think. I can tell you though, she would’ve gone instantly. Probably didn’t even see him. Didn’t suffer at all.”
After we’d taken a short break, Detective Tung called me in for one last meeting. He had a folder in front of him, and his usual notepad, now covered in an array of neatly arranged notes and scribbles.
He set the notepad to the side, and opened the folder in front of me. It was full of pictures. Small ones, like Polaroids.
“You recognise this guy, right?”
It was Chocolate.
“You know him well?”
“How long you known him?”
“Three, three and a bit years.”
“You think that’s long enough to know someone well?”
I shifted in my seat, feeling discomfort for the first time. His tone had changed, into something more calculating.
“Are you trying to say Chocolate had something to do with this?” I asked, laughing. “You guys are insane.”
“No, no, we’re just…you know. Getting an idea of how you guys are all related.”
I nodded, skeptically.
“What about this guy?”
It was Darsh.
“Yeah, I know him.”
“Works with you, right?”
“You know him well?”
I looked doubtingly at him, like it was a trick question.
“Before, no. But now…yeah. I’d say so.”
He scribbled a few words, then held up the next photo.
I scratched my head, starting to feel impatient.
“I don’t know, I just know him, okay?”
“Spend much time with him?”
“Quite a lot.”
“He ever, say anything strange to you? Even jokingly?”
I shook my head slowly, thinking.
“No…not really. Why?”
He held up another photo.
“You recognise this car?”
“Been in it before?”
It wasn’t the best picture, but I knew those forest green panels anywhere. We all did.
“Yeah. Lots of times.”
“When’s the last time you saw it?”
And as he stared knowingly at me, it was like he ignited my mind to run. There’d been so many memories in that car, but the most recent, I didn’t know. I thought back to going for dumplings, for our long lunch on Thursday, and seeing him bring it into the carpark late on Friday night, and then… I wanted to say I’d seen it on Saturday morning, but I hadn’t. Maybe it was the endless flow of beers we’d had that Friday night, that had my memory fogged. But a replay of me walking past the carpark played over in my mind, on the way back from the French bakery, the big box of croissants in my hand. As I’d walked past the carpark, had I seen it? I had, I remembered it, vaguely. It was parked there, right in the back. Nothing would’ve looked odd about that, I saw his car in there almost every Saturday morning; I suppose that’s why I’d glanced right over it. But now it struck me: Jeffery the Scotsman wasn’t with us that morning. He’d driven home. Why was his car in the Grant & Woodson carpark?
Detective Tung put the photos away, pushed the folder to the side.
Hiding a frown, he pulled his notepad back in front of him. Tapped his pen a few times. Looked up at me with sad eyes.
“You’re trying to tell me that he…?”
“We need you to tell us everything you know about him.”
It is a hard thing, to be told that you don’t know someone you thought you knew. That the idea you had of that person was a mirage, that something very different was hidden under the surface. All the conversations you had, were they real? All the laughs you shared, were they real? All the times they showed you kindness. Real?
Often, we assume people are good. We stand face to face with a stranger, having not yet known them for even a full minute, and we shake their hand. So many bad things could be done in that moment, but that never enters our mind. What a nice guy, we say. So nice to meet you. After one night, we may even consider them a friend. After a week, we may even invite them into our home. For a drink, a meal. A conversation. But who is that person really? Like Detective Tung said, is three years enough to really know a person?
For all the years that followed, that was a question that I would never stop asking. And would continue to do so, for the rest of my life. All because of him. All because of those four days.
We found out exactly one hour before the nation did. For the next few days, Jeffery S. Docherty was about to become the most famous name in the country. Terrorist. Murderer. White supremacist. Demon. That was the hardest part. Seeing how other people talked about him. For the rest of our lives, we would wonder. What went through his mind. If we could have helped him. Why he had called us all that one afternoon, when none of us had picked up, not wanting to lie to him. Now it ate away at us, knowing he’d been just seven storeys below, needing us more than he ever had. But he was gone now. None of us would ever find out why he did it. What he wanted. Who was responsible, for putting such a horrific idea in his head. That made it especially hard, and even harder to hate him like everyone else. It was reported later, though we only half believed it, that he’d had some kind of personality disorder or drug issue, and a few other flimsy sounding things. But we stopped paying attention to all that. We decided to remember him just as we knew him. We had to, for us and for him. It was the only way we could ever live with it, and ourselves. We only knew him as Jeffery the Scotsman, and we remembered him that way.
I quit my job a week later. It was no drama. Nobody dared to talk me out of it. I showed up in the morning, told them I couldn’t be there any longer, and collected my things and left. I told Chocolate we’d meet that Friday, talk things over. Said bye to Korean Amy. Gave a goodbye hug to Buck.
As I walked out through the carpark, a tall, wiry man had just exited his car and was heading to the building entrance. He had a box in his hands. Looked like a cake.
I noted it was a nice car, jet black, and small. It wasn’t odd to see those kinds of cars in the Grand & Woodson carpark, but it didn’t stop you from noticing them and how expensive they looked. As I got closer, I caught a glimpse of the little silver jaguar shining on the bonnet.
Then I saw the number plate.
The man walked towards me, slowly, as if waiting for me to look at him. I did.
“Excuse me. Young man. You look like an accountant,” he laughed. “Grand & Woodson office, through here, is it?”
He was a vibrant man, with perfect hair and young wrinkles. Large smile. Boat shoes.
I nodded at him.
“Yes sir. Right through there,” I pointed at the door behind me.
“Gosh, my wife would faint if she heard you call me that!”
“Sir. She cringes any time someone calls me that.”
“Oh, right, I said, managing a smile. “Nice car, by the way.”
He turned and gave it a little nod.
“Yeah she’s a good little thing. It’s my wife’s car, actually.”
“Oh yeah? Wouldn’t have guessed. You’re a client, are you?”
“Yes, sorry. Joseph. Joseph Finch.”
We shook hands, and I introduced myself.
“I recognise the name, actually. Sam Drewlove’s client, right?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking a little confused. “You work on my accounts?”
“No,” I lied. “Just seen your files around the filing room.”
“Oh, right,” he laughed.
“Yeah, how’s business? What are you in?”
“My wife and I are both lawyers. I used to be her boss, actually,” he laughed. “I’m retired now, but she…she loves it a bit too much. I said we already have plenty of money, but she can’t stop, won’t stop. Good for her, I guess. She’s still young…ish.”
I smiled politely.
“And what keeps you busy, then?” I asked. “Another childhood in retirement? Playing some video games?”
“Funny you say that! I actually can’t stand those game things. But tell you what, I feel like I should pay attention, because it can’t be a bad business to get into. My kids run up my credit card on this Xbox Live thing like crazy, you heard of that?”
“Yeah, had one, a few years ago.”
“Gosh I thought you just bought the game and that was it! But they seem to buy something new for it every darn day. They keep saying they’re buying new levels or items or something. No idea how that works. No, for me, I just do a bit of fishing, cycling, that sort of thing. Get in the garden a bit.”
“Yeah. That’s nice. Good for you.”
He paused for a moment, smiling hesitantly.
“Say, I hate to ask but, how is it up there? After, y’know…that whole…thing?”
“It’s moving along.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I just thought I’d bring something in, to lift the spirits.”
He held up the box, that looked like a cake.
“My wife baked them.”
“That’s nice of you. I’m sure everyone will appreciate it.”
We smiled at each other again, now both wondering how to say goodbye.
“Anyway, I’ve got somewhere to be.”
“Yes of course.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr Finch.”
He smiled one last straight-lipped smile, and we waved, and then went on walking.
As I exited the carpark and passed the Pride of Persia restaurant, I noticed some of the yellow tape had come down. Police had been in and out of there most days, but now, I could see the doors wide open, and things being clunked around inside. I peered through the window and caught sight of the owner. I hadn’t even known if he was still alive. I still didn’t even know his name.
Don’t let life go back to just the way it was.
I walked around to the front door, set my box of things down on the floor. As I lifted my fist to knock, he caught sight of me first and his expressionless face turned to a smile.
“Ah! Young gentleman! How happy I am to see you!”
I strode towards him, and we shook hands, and then hugged.
“I’m so sorry,” I said as I pulled away, holding his shoulders under my palms. “I didn’t even know if – I mean I hoped but – your face wasn’t in the newspaper. I guessed you…”
“I wasn’t even here,” he interjected. “I never am on Saturdays. I’m with my family, my boy plays soccer.”
We both held each others’ shoulders, just looking at each other for a moment, feeling lucky. Feeling grateful. Like we’d known each other so well for so many years.
In a way, we had.
“You know I’ve never asked you, all these years, what your name is.”
“Kaspar,” he said proudly, shaking my hand.
I introduced myself.
“And you’re from, Persia?” I asked.
He whooped with laughter.
“I guess, you could say that. Persia has been gone a long time. I am from Iran, my friend. It’s the new Persia.”
“Right, the new Persia. I got it. Well, Kaspar, I’m glad we finally met like gentlemen.”
“Yes of course. What’s happening here?” he asked, pointing at my box of things outside.
“I’m moving on, I guess.”
He looked happy for me.
“And your friend?”
“No he’s still up there,” I said, pointing upstairs.
“Well I’ll be open again, in a month or so, I hope. Don’t forget to come back.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
I savoured my final walk to my car, across the park, and up the hill. Once I got there and placed my things in the trunk, I couldn’t shake the feeling of lightness, of being in the city, in my suit and tie, but nowhere to go. No job to go back to, no timesheet to fill, no deadline to hurry back to the office to finish before 5. It was overcast, but warm, a sliver of sun managing to slip through the clouds. This is what it feels like, to be free. It would be a crime to go home now, I thought, this newfround freedom beckoning to be enjoyed. I loosened my tie and headed downtown for a walk.
It had been years since I’d been downtown at that hour. It was near 11 a.m. There were a few young professionals wandering around, but it was mostly students, and tourists, and retail staff on cigarette breaks. I bought a mocha from the most expensive cafe I could find, and went wandering the city side streets; streets I hadn’t seen or walked in years. Not far from the university, a young girl in honey coloured overalls was battling with a long paint roller, pasting up posters for a Katchafire concert. She had short black hair, and a frog tattooed on the back of her tricep.
“Cool tat,” I found the courage to say, as I walked past.
“Thank you!” she beamed, turning her head.
But as she did, I hardly heard her. My eyes had been drawn to another poster on the wall, a few metres down. I drifted towards it. In the centre was a woman in a yellow dress, surrounded by kids, and a tall, handsome man in a suit and a fedora hat.
As I studied it, captivated, my phone rang. My girlfriend. I answered.
“Hey, how did it go? You did it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Went fine. No drama.”
“Wow, so now you’re free! Are you happy?”
The poster was different to what I’d imagined. I’d imagined the sunflower dress Sienna had described on a white lady, probably homely looking, lots of smiling faces, something like a Reese Witherspoon movie. But it wasn’t. It was an African American family, sitting around a dinner table, all dressed flawlessly, probably fresh from church.
I ran my fingers across the words along the bottom. A Raisin In The Sun.
“Hey? You there?”
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry.”
Now showing. Civic Theatre. Tickets on sale now.
“Yeah I’m actually uhh. I’m kind of busy tomorrow. I promised a friend from work. That I’d make time to do something.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, the next day then?”
“Yeah. Perfect. I’d like that.”
I hung up the phone. A bit abruptly, but it didn’t bother me at that moment.
Don’t let life go back to just the way it was.
And, I had a promise to keep.
The next morning, I didn’t iron a shirt. Didn’t put on a suit. Didn’t fumble through my drawer for a matching pair of cuff links. But I still woke up at 7 a.m, and made my way to the city.
There was a small stone fence, that lined the block just beside the bookshop. All those mornings I’d walked past it, and I’d never noticed it before. But I got there at fourteen minutes past eight, and sat there while I waited, nervous, maybe excited, maybe confused. Laughing in spurts, just at the thought of it. Or maybe at a sad realisation, that this would be the craziest thing I had ever done in my life.
She was early that day. I recognised her shoes first. The brown ones, with the thick white soles. She wore them in the summer months, usually. Then the red satchel. And of course the long auburn hair.
She saw me from a distance this time. I guess, because I stood out, in my jeans and sneakers, and faded sherpa jacket.
“No work today?”
“I resigned, actually,” I said, standing up to greet her as she walked by. I wondered if she’d stop.
“Oh yeah? Wow.”
“Yeah. Just going back to, pick up a few of my things.”
“Good on you!” she said warmly. “I’m Natalia, by the way.”
We shook hands.
“I always wondered what your name was, all these years. My guess was something more like, Zoe.”
We both laughed.
I had never seen her up close before. Her hair wasn’t actually auburn, but more of a copper brown, just like her eyes. Her face was sharper than I’d thought, Slavic roots perhaps, and her freckles stretched right up past her cheekbones to her temple. I tried not to stare, but she just looked so…interesting. I introduced myself.
“Listen, I’m going to ask you something, and it’s really an odd question, so don’t…”
“That’s okay. I’d say I’m quite an odd person, so.”
“Oh? Cool,” I laughed nervously. And then became silent, thinking, maybe a split second too long.
“I had this friend…I mean she’s gone now, but…I promised that I’d…”
I’d run the script over in my head all morning, but now I was here, and had memorised it perfectly, and couldn’t get it out.
“There’s this…well. There’s a play.”
“I know, it’s kinda silly. There’s this play, it’s called a Raisin In The Sun.”
“Oh, yeah, I think we studied that at school.”
“Oh? Oh that’s cool. Well, it’s on right now at the Civic, tonight actually. I just wondered. Again I know this is so weird. I just wondered, if you know, you’d want to go see it with me?”
I wasn’t nervous anymore. It was funny now. She looked perplexed. I laughed.
“Yeah. I wanted to take someone, and I thought. I dunno. I thought if I saw you today, I’d ask you.”
She read my eyes for a few seconds, and slowly her squint morphed into a smile.
“You’re right, that was an odd thing to ask,” she started laughing. “You said tonight?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, more confidently this time.
“I mean….” She studied my eyes one more time, perhaps to see if I was joking.
“Yeah. Yeah that sounds fun. I’d love to.”
She looked excited. I was excited. I laughed, again. I hadn’t laughed in so many days.
“So…how do we do this, I’ll meet you there? It starts at 8.”
“Yeah, great. I just live down here, around the corner. I’ll walk.”
“I could walk you, if you want? I’ll meet you at 7?”
Her face warmed as I said it.
“That sounds nice.”
I looked around.
“How about we meet here?” I smiled. I pointed at the bookshop.
She looked it up and down, left and right, as if she’d never seen it before. Then she nodded at me, her eyes coppery and soft, like I’d never seen them before.
I went home that night, and as I’d been doing every night, after dinner had been cooked, and the dishes were clean, and the heater was on, and I was about to get into bed, I opened the top drawer of my desk and pulled out the orange piece of paper.
Already the corners had blunted and wrinkled some. I wondered how long it would be before the whole sheet looked like that, spotted with fingerprints and folds and accidental tears. How long before I stopped reading it. How long before it no longer meant anything. How long before everything just went back to the way it was?
I sat cross legged on the floor, and slowly unfolded it again.
I know the next play I’m going to write. It’s going to be about an Australian man who is a rice farmer, and he moves to Cambodia (or was it Malaysia? I forgot!) and grows rice, and every season he sells some of the rice and then gives the rest away to poor people who have no money for food.
I’m going to write this play because someone once told me he wants to do something that matters to people, and I thought that was pretty cool.
Keep this as your little reminder, that when I’m back at my desk and you’re back at your desk after this is all over, you don’t forget our conversation like you forget every other conversation, and life won’t just go back to the way it was 🙂
The first tear hit my hand, but the second one fell on the edge of the paper, and I watched it slowly spread into a tiny wet circle before I folded it back up and rested it between my fingers.
And then I cried. I cried so hard I almost scared myself, at how hard my body cried. Heaving in breaths, I hunched over and grinded my teeth and didn’t let myself hold anything back. And then as quickly as the crying had started, it stopped. I looked at the little puddle of tears on my sleeve, and huffed a little as I caught my breath.
“It won’t,” I whispered, smiling at her, as if she was watching.