I walk down the hallway like a zombie while my mind feels numb and heavy as a lead blanket. I’m still trying to work out ways to delay Jacqueline from entering our office when I raise my gaze and find her waiting in the doorway, holding the door open for me to pass through first. I give up. I’ll resume my duties, and squeeze as much work as I can out of this remaining hour just to deduct that much stress from tomorrow’s workday.
To my surprise, as I type away at my dirty keyboard, my fingers move more fluidly than usual, although I feel as detached as if I had swallowed a couple of anxiolytic pills, able to concentrate on what needs to get done but uncaring of the sacrifices it demands of my fragile mind. But warm shudders make me tremble from time to time, and I have to restrain my gaze from wandering to my right, to ascertain if Jacqueline is glancing at me. I need those piercing blue eyes to stare back at mine with motherly compassion, to let me know that everything is going to be alright, that she can fix my numerous issues with her healing hands that caress away every pain.
Our boss leaves his office at a quarter to six and says goodbye energetically while he walks past our table. As usual, I pretend that I can’t distract myself from the lines of code I’m programming; acknowledging Ramsés’ presence might mean offering him the opportunity to assign me more work or to manipulate me into working overtime or accepting some of his sexual advances.
The workday ends, but I only realize it because my coworkers Jordi and Jacqueline are quick to get up to leave. I remain paralyzed, halfway through refactoring a small function, when I feel Jacqueline’s warm presence as she stands beside me. She puts her hand on my shoulder, which sends a tingle all over my body.
“No way, you aren’t working overtime today,” she says gently. “C’mon, get up.”
I nod and obey, although my body wants to collapse. Jacqueline rubs the back of my neck as she addresses Jordi, who is standing nearby. The intern eyes us with curiosity while he puts on his leather jacket. Does he know that Jacqueline had held me in her arms, and how wet it had made me?
“Don’t you think it’s time this girl gets some rest?” Jacqueline asks to our male coworker.
“Sure. I keep suggesting that Ramsés is working you to the bone. You should take a break now and then.”
“That’s right. Go straight home, Leire. Prepare yourself a bath and relax for an hour, and then cook a proper dinner. You need to put some meat in you.”
I only own a tiny shower, and Jacqueline’s suggestion filled my mind with images of dicks.
“Hey, if you give me permission, I’ll gladly leave for the day,” I say wearily.
I grab my work bag and I accompany my coworkers to the parking lot. The sun is already setting, and I narrow my shoulders against the chill of autumn. Workers from nearby office buildings are maneuvering out of their parking spaces. I glance at my Renault Laguna, parked in front of the row of garbage bins, and I recall that I’ll have to deal with my old car’s supernatural abilities.
When I look back, Jacqueline is contemplating me as she wears a smile with a hint of mischief. I feel that she can see everything, and that she is reading every thought that crosses my mind, every feeling that stirs within me, every desire that burns my throat with its intensity. This woman always seems so confident and sure of herself, as if she could do whatever she pleased with anyone, that it used to annoy me. I considered her a vapid bitch. But now that I’ve felt her touch, I guess I find her as irresistible as those twenty something year olds she seduces on any given weekend night.
“See you tomorrow, Leire,” she says in a confidential tone.
As Jacqueline turns towards her fog grey Audi, that is gleaming like it had been coated recently with wax, I realize that this woman had never bothered to interact with me outside working hours; the same way I was wary of her, I imagined that I irritated her in turn, and she couldn’t wait to lose sight of me. Apart from my hallucinations, anyone going out of their way to talk to me is a novelty, unless they intend to demand my expertise.
I step forward and raise my nervous voice.
“Thank you for helping me.”
My eyes dart around as I try to figure out what else to say, but Jacqueline smiles warmly. She opens the door of her car.
“I’m glad that I could. And I meant what I said. You have my number.”
I stand on the asphalt with my arms crossed as I watch Jacqueline climb inside her Audi, start her engine and drive off. After both my coworkers have disappeared, I realize that I had hoped for Jacqueline to offer me a ride, and for her to drive me to her home instead of mine. But I will end up having to face another night alone.
What is happening to me? I blacked out as I was driving home, a talking horse started stalking me, and strange black shapes appeared and faded away wildly as if someone was performing a shadow play from inside my eyeballs. On top of the nightmare that my life has steadily become, now I feel like a teenager with a crush, who can’t wait to find out how the object of her affections looks like beneath her business attire and makeup. But Jacqueline is right, I need a break. My mind is too fragile to tolerate a full-time job, let alone one in which I often have to work overtime. I should move to a tropical island and spend my days lying in the sun. I want to hold a big, round coconut in each hand and sip happily on their milk.
* * *
The night has already set in as I drive past Beraun. The only sounds are the popular songs coming from the radio in my car, as well as some traffic noise due to cars passing nearby at high speeds. Beraun’s apartment buildings peek out from behind canopies that resemble shaggy hair.
My mind is hazy, confused, and I’ve been tempted to swerve twice because cow-sized, quadruped shadows had crossed the highway in front of me without warning or sound. I feel, more than see, smaller black shapes floating in the air like fish in a tank. My heart is pounding, and a constant buzzing is rising in my ears as if an electric saw was cutting into them with every beat of my heart.
As I approach the tall, blue signs hanged over the road, which announce that I’m heading towards Irún, Hondarribia and Bayonne, in the blink of an eye my Renault Laguna has left the signs behind as if time had sped up. Although I take deep breaths and grip the steering wheel tightly, at random, the wild vegetation that lines the highway, as well as the cars whose positions I need to follow constantly, get accelerated as if someone was pressing forward on a video. My reaction time remains the same.
This dreamlike state of confusion, all these weird visions that are invading my consciousness without warning or rhyme or reason… Either the growing stress has triggered them, or maybe these are the symptoms of a brain tumor that will eventually kill me, if I don’t crash my car first.
I’m covered in cold sweat. I’m surrounded by cars that are rushing home from work. I want to take an exit ramp onto any secondary road that would allow me to park for a moment and take a breather. Behind the noise barriers to my left, and over the tortilla brown roofs of houses, the Jaizkibel mountain signals that it’ll take me about fifteen minutes to reach my rotting city.
My car suddenly accelerates, but I quickly press the brake pedal down. Did I push the accelerator pedal by mistake? I can’t tell. Although I can still make out the outlines of the landscape and the buildings, and the white lines painted on the asphalt, no matter how hard I try to avoid it, the distinction between reality and illusion is fading fast.
The steering wheel turns to the left under my firm grip, like a wild animal that’s resisting capture. As I try to correct the trajectory of my Renault Laguna, an enormous truck starts passing me by, hiding the view of the Jaizkibel mountain. I brake sharply to avoid colliding with its cargo trailer, which would have crushed the hood of my car, made it flip, and possibly caused the pursuing cars to slam into me. My body is thrown against my seatbelt with a sickening jolt. As I swerve back into my lane, I nearly crash against the guardrail that prevents us from driving off the bridge onto the woods below. The driver of the car following me leans on the horn, and through the rearview mirror I see him gesticulating towards me as he complains.
My hands are shaking, and I’m beginning to hyperventilate. I often fantasized about crashing my car against a pillar and finally putting an end to this nightmare of a life, but now I’ve become a public menace. If I continue driving, I’ll end up ruining someone else’s car, maybe injuring the occupants gravely, or I might run someone over. I picture myself realizing that my windshield has cracked and has been dyed red. I’d get out of my Renault Laguna and look back towards the corpse splayed on the asphalt, twisted into an unnatural shape, and I’d fall on my knees and bury my face, knowing that for as long as I lived I’d have to bear the consequences.
I open the window, and my eyes start watering when the wind hits my face. I have to leave my car. I slow down as much as the pursuing vehicles allow me, and I barely blink as I follow the road towards the next exit ramp. A few tears of panic run down my cheeks. While I ignore the shadows that pop in and out of existence, an eternity passes until I recognize an exit ramp that, past a toll barrier, progresses onto a two-lane road that nears the Txingudi mall. Soon enough I find myself back in the outskirts of my hometown. My entire body tingles uncomfortably as I maneuver onto a strip of parking spaces next to the graphite grey, modern building that houses the Café Irún restaurant.
As soon as I pull up and turn off the engine, it feels like a miracle that I have survived the journey. I can’t drive anymore. Hell, someone as deranged as me should have never considered getting behind a steering wheel.
I rub my eyes with my sweaty palms. When I open them again, a sentence in bold letters has appeared across the dashboard as if it were a sticker, and it reads YOU ARE BEING WATCHED.
I’m unsure how many seconds pass as my heart keeps pounding. My mouth is dry.
“I-is that you, Spike, you hideous horse? Or what part of my deranged psyche is talking to me now?”
The sentence disappears. I find myself staring intently at the plasticky dashboard of my Renault Laguna. I clench my teeth together to keep from screaming at the top of my lungs. I look in the rearview mirror expecting to see Spike’s horse face as he sat on the backseat, but those two seats remain empty like they’ve always been.
“If one of my stalkers is brave enough to show itself as a castrated horse,” I croak, “you fucker with the car messages should just pop up and talk to me face to face, pussy!”
Nobody takes responsibility for the message. A group of middle-aged men leaves the restaurant and part from each other to get into their cars. An amorous couple is enjoying the evening under the awning, sitting at one of the outside tables. Nobody pays any heed to the crazy woman, with possibly a bad case of schizophrenia, who is decaying inside her shitty car.
I shake my head. I reach for the handle of the door, but it has reverted back into a two-dimensional object, so my fingers slide over the surface. I’ve had enough of this car and its supernatural abilities. I go through the trouble of starting its engine, opening the door, then reaching inside to turn off the engine again. I don’t bother pulling out the key card from its slot in the dashboard. I’ll never get into this car again. Whoever ends up stealing it, and I doubt it’ll take long in this city, will get to enjoy rotating random objects with the car’s steering wheel, assuming I didn’t imagine the whole thing in the first place.
As I stand in the cold October air of this dark evening, my legs tremble, my chest is heavy. The nearby supermarket and car dealers look blurry, likely because I’m dizzy and I want to cry. I better start moving. I’ll either walk the entire way back to my apartment, or I’ll get annoyed enough that I’ll take a bus. Either way, tomorrow I’ll have to wake up before dawn and repeat this nightmare all over again.