Outlined

Flash Fiction July, 17

The city skyline takes a while to arise from the horizon; it always does, just as I’ve driven over the last bridge to my destination. Every time, I’m struck by how it appears to be a magic trick: one minute it isn’t there, and the next minute it is, just as soon as blinking. Once, I tried to keep my eyes open the whole time, not even blinking when they began to itch and water, but the skyline still seemed to come from nowhere.

I’m positioned so I’m driving into the sun, tall buildings thirty stories high backlit with sun and oddly haloed. Today I’ll have to walk below these buildings, and I make a note to find the point at which the shadows they cast are the longest. This is a habit I’ve picked up over the years, always buying food from nearby carts to have an excuse to circle around and not look suspicious, dipping into cafes against my preference to linger and stare at a particularly beautifully lit building.

The sunstrike is bad, and lowering my visor only blocks my view further. After five years of making these trips, I have become used to it.

My agent is waiting on the glossy marble steps of a shorter building and it amuses me every time I come here that these steps have to be made of something other than regular pavement. Asphalt seems to do just fine, but I’ve learned that nothing here is supposed to be average.

There’s a reason the company has inside jokes about striving to be the best: they all have short-lived but intense careers, packing in a decade’s worth of work to five years. I’m told most of them take retirement early, buy a little cottage on the outskirts of town, or for those who are really keen, they go rural. Pick up slow internet services and shorter postage times as an exchange for a decade of hyper-connectivity.

I prefer to get around this by living in isolation, only venturing out a few times a year. It means I have to drive three separate types of car to make the journey but I prefer it this way.

Having reassured my agent, I leave and make my way along the promenade of tall buildings, a monument to no expense spared. I know these people, used to work hunkered down at my desk just the same as they all did. Just for a minute I can smell the faint scent of expensive offices, of perfume and aftershave, can visualize bespoke suits and dresses. I cross at the lights with a horde of people who look frenzied, hassled as they bark into phones and juggle a takeaway tray of coffee. Clearly the ones who drew the short straw of venturing out for one drink and then got assailed with orders.

If I look in their eyes, I remember the frenzy of working here all too well. It seems to be a bit of magic that lets me in on an insight that hasn’t faded at all over seven years. Pulling my hat over newly-red hair, I dip my head, hurry past and look for where the shadow ends. Almost a full five minutes later, I find myself at the end of a shadow, and it doesn’t take long to trace it back to the tall building that I haven’t been past yet.

From this angle, looking at the shadow, it looks cartoonish almost. It’s hard to believe something so ungainly looking could support hundreds of people, never mind a thousand. This, I have to see, so I venture closer – following the shadow on the footpath, more gray than a true black, as if the sheer distance of the shadow has bleached out its definition.

As I draw closer I look up, stand still and make an effort to count the windows. It’s my favourite method for trying to puzzle out how many floors there are, but the street is busy and I keep getting jostled. I lose count four times, and then decide it must be at least twenty stories. Without quite realizing it I’ve kept on moving, and I’ve wound up at the base of the tower.

I crane my neck, looking up and backwards trying to get a grasp on how tall this place really is. It’s difficult though, my mind doesn’t seem to want to process the numbers I’m estimating and I’ve never felt smaller.

All I can think about as I’m waiting in line for my takeaway coffee before I leave, is relativity. I’m thinking dully on the headaches induced by this habit, of how tiny I am in comparison to the building and yet I’d dwarf the coffee cup if I place it at my foot. My mind doesn’t shut off easily, an old trick I have yet to learn. So far I’ve only learned how to quiet it, but it isn’t always efficient.

The coffee is ready, and I hurry out the door, keen to get back to the quiet of living in my tiny cabin at the edge of a forest. The city shines too bright on days like these, whereas the forest has plenty of shelter blocking my home. Trees filter out the sunlight from harsh glare into random sunbeams, the grass dappled with occasional light that comes and goes. It’s a withdrawn place, hidden from the majority of people – only those who know it’s here come any closer, and silent enough to leave me my thoughts.

In the car, I flip on a CD and adjust my rearview, barely watching as the buildings leave my sight.

(The sun has shifted by now; they’re no longer silhouetted)

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