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THE WHITE





Copyright 2017 Madeline Drew

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by reviewers, who may quote brief passages in a review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Written by Madeline Drew

Edited by Nicole Thompson

Cover design by María Vargas

Published by Madeline Drew

First print January 2018








For Lorelei, the most inspiring person I never met.




CHAPTER ONE

THE WHITE SUCKS.

I’m gasping for air.

My body is shaking; I’m made of jelly.

I’m utterly exhausted. I’m feeling like I’ve just run a marathon on two hours sleep.

To make matters worse, I’m extremely uncomfortable. I’m lying awkwardly on my side with the cold, hard floor beneath me. My bones are aching painfully in this position, so I struggle to sit up.

I can’t think straight; all of my focus is stolen on trying to breathe steadily. I gasp for air, desperately hoping soon I’ll feel some relief.

Thankfully, after a few deep breaths, the tightness in my chest releases. I sit cross legged on the cold ground and enjoy the feeling of the fresh, crisp air as it occupies my lungs. Now that I can breathe easily, I relax and open my eyes.

I look around, but I can’t understand what it is I’m looking at. I twist and turn so I can see in multiple directions.

Confused, I rise to my feet, my body still shaking. I have to hold my arms out for balance as I turn my body in circles. I continue to stare in disbelief at the space around me.

I don’t know where I am, or what I’m looking at.

I don’t know what’s happening to me.

I don’t know anything.

It doesn’t matter where I look, I can’t find answers. With every second that passes my level of confusion is heightened.

I’m so confused, because I’m surrounded by nothing but white.

Each direction I look, the view remains unchanged. This whiteness is so bright it’s making my eyes water. I wait for something to appear, I wait for my eyes to realise what they are looking at. Nothing changes. I see the same blank white, repeated over and over.

I’ve never seen anything like this.

There’s no change in shades, no clue to an exit. It’s as blank as a fresh piece of paper, unmarked and untouched.

I can’t be sure of the size of the space I’m seemingly trapped in, because I can’t find a beginning or an end.

I know it probably sounds a little crazy, but I’m not making this up. This is exactly how it happened. In fact, this is how it happened for each and every one of us. We all woke up here and found ourselves staring at nothing but white.

We’ve had countless conversations about The White. We’ve all tried to explain in our own words what it was like; it’s not easy. Reflecting on The White is almost an impossible task. It’s the hardest part about telling our story too, because it drives you crazy. It sends you into a spiral of fear, doubt and confusion.

It’s possessive.

It’s terrifying.

The White is so deeply penetrating that it feels like it’s permanently stuck inside me. I’m struggling to write all of this down, because the white just comes rushing back. It comes roaring towards me like a runaway train.

I’m helpless.

I can do nothing but stand and watch as it takes over me. Before long, I’ve forgotten about everything else. The only thing that exists is The White.

I hate The White.

I can’t escape it. If I let it creep into my mind for even a second, it shows its big ugly head again and it takes over. It’s become the monster that used to live under my bed when I was three years old.

The monster would only come out when I remembered that it was there. It would wait, hoping soon that I would think of it, so it could come out to haunt me again. And haunt me it did, every night, until I was old enough to know better.

That old monster doesn’t scare me anymore. In fact, it’s been quite a while since I’ve worried about that monster under my bed. But now that this new monster exists, I’m constantly worried. I’m constantly paranoid.

This White is a monster that I will never forget.

I detest how it takes over. I can’t stand feeling this total lack of control. I hate that every time my mind wanders to that first day I get stuck in it. I’d do anything to have that monster under my bed back now, it’s child’s play compared to the haunting whiteness.

At this very moment as I write this down, I’m feeling very, very agitated. I’m so agitated because it’s taken me days just to write the words you have read so far. Yes, you read that right, days. It’s taken days to write less than a thousand words.

It’s frustrating that this has taken me so long. I’m feeling the pressure, because everyone is counting on me to get this done.

In the beginning there was a discussion about who would take the lead with writing this, and I drew the short straw.

Well, actually, no.

That’s a lie.

There wasn’t any drawing of straws, there was no pulling a name from a hat and there was no fair vote. I was told that the writer had to be me; I wasn’t given a choice.

They all said they’d help me with this, but of course, no one put their hand up to help with the beginning. The beginning is the hardest, which is probably why no one was knocking on my door offering to help.

I didn’t anticipate just how hard it would be for me to get through The White. It's the reason it’s taken me so long to write these words. I have to stop and wait for it to subside every time I get too far into my own memories of that day. Hours upon hours have been wasted, because I have to clear my thoughts before I can continue writing this down.

It’s exhausting.

Right now, I’m in my room. I know that the door is open, just a crack, because I can hear voices from downstairs. I’m sitting at my desk on a stool that’s a little too hard for my liking. I’ve got my writing paper in front of me, and there’s a pen in my left hand. A light breeze is blowing through my window and ruffling the papers that aren’t being held down by my crystal paperweight.

Nevertheless, if I look out the window, there’s nothing to see. If I look towards the door, there’s nothing there. I can feel the stool underneath me, although I don’t see it. I can’t see the pen in my hand as I write these words on the paper. I don’t even see the words, and I definitely can’t see the paper.

Even though all these things surround me, and I know for certain that they are there, I can’t see them. I can’t see any of it, because of The White.

The penetrating white just swoops in and takes over. Each time this happens I have to wait for it to subside before I can continue.

Sometimes it takes thirty seconds for me to see clearly again, sometimes thirty minutes.

This is what happens when I think too much about the whiteness.

This is why writing it has been so time-consuming.

But this is where it all began, and I can't leave out the beginning, so I’ll do my best to make it work.



I’m scared and confused, but this place is quite incredible. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before in my life. I’m honestly fascinated by it.

It’s beautiful and it’s mesmerising, but at the same time it’s making me feel uneasy. The White is too much. I feel horribly queasy. At any minute I could hurl up everything that is sitting in my stomach.

The queasy feeling isn’t even the worst part. The worst part is the stinging in my eyes. It’s unbearable. I close them, hoping that it would help soothe the pain. All I see when my eyes are closed is black, and that’s almost as bad as looking at white.

It seems I have the option of leaving my eyes open and looking at white, or keeping my eyes tight shut and staring at black.

I don't want to choose either.

I grow frantic as my view changes from white to black, black to white, white to black, back and forth, over and over.

Then I figure it out.

I can’t believe it took me so long to think of it, I can’t believe I didn’t realise sooner that I did have something else to look at.

Myself.

I could look at myself.

I hold my arms out in front of me. I notice the light blonde hairs that cover my forearms. I’m relieved to see the faint lines of veins on my wrist. The relief takes me by surprise, because I’ve always hated looking at my veins. Before this moment, I had a fear of blood. Now the veins feel comforting.

I locate the freckles on my left arm, I calm slightly. My mind flashes back to a memory of a younger me, drawing on my skin with pen, connecting the freckles to one another, trying to uncover a pattern hiding in plain sight. I was always disappointed to find that there wasn’t one. My freckles are random.

A sparkle catches my eye.

I look around in confusion. Where had the sparkle come from?

Then I remember; my fingernails. They are coated in sparkly silver polish. Somehow, they’ve managed to reflect in the space around me, and for a few moments the white space is full of glistening diamonds.

I’m pleased as I look at these familiar parts of myself. These visions settle the frustration my eyes are feeling. It’s sweet relief, even if it’s only for a moment.

I look down at my clothing, seeking more distractions. I see that I’m wearing my favourite, jet-black skinny jeans, a silver-grey blouse with quarter sleeves and black strappy work heels.

Those heels are my favourite. I wear them to work three days out of five, without fail. They’re both professional and stylish, so they’re the perfect mix for the Gossip office. I always seem to receive compliments when I wear them. That’s why I have three pairs. In black, white and nude.

After I see myself, the slight feeling of unease that has been nestled inside me begins to dissolve a little. It hasn’t left me completely, it's definitely still there, but it's eased, just enough.

I might not have felt normal. I might not have felt like I was one hundred per cent me, but I looked fine. I was wearing the same outfit I’d put on that morning, in my mad rush to get to work. And my body seemed to be the same also, everything from the hairs on my arms to the shape of my cuticles, to my knobby knees that I’d unluckily inherited from my mother.

I’m still myself, even if everything around me is unknown.

To my disappointment, nothing had changed whilst I’d been focusing on myself. The whiteness still engulfs me; there really seems no way out. I’m quite literally stuck in an unknown space with no clue what’s happening or why I’m here.

I want to figure this out immediately. Like most people, I don’t enjoy feeling inadequate. I don’t enjoy feeling lost. I don’t enjoy the unknown. Curiosity is the strongest emotion I’m feeling at this point. Figuring this out is the main, if not only, goal.

“Hello?” I speak to the blankness around me.

I hear no response.

However, the sound of my voice answers one of my many questions. It explains the size of the space. When my voice echoed around me, I realised I’m not in a small, confined area. In my experience, small spaces don’t often echo. Here, the ricochet of my voice surrounds me.

It’s a strange feeling, hearing myself speak. It’s loud, too loud. I cover my ears with my hands, but it doesn’t make any difference, I can still hear it distinctly.

After I’d heard myself say hello for the seventh time, I began to feel really, really anxious. This place is beginning to feel like a nightmare now. It's at this exact moment that panic begins to set in.

I'm scared. Actually no, scared isn’t a strong enough word.

I'm petrified.

I'm also angry. Because I'm learning how incredibly irritating the sound of my own voice is. It keeps repeating, over and over again.

My eyes began to blur. I’m not only seeing black whilst my eyes are closed, or white whilst they are open. Now I’m seeing both; the two are mixing.

I blink.

I rub my eyes until they water. I close them tightly and count to ten. I shake my head a little, in attempt to clear my sight. My head is throbbing. I hold my hand over my ears to try and block out the noise. I shake my head again, to try and shake away the pain. I repeat these steps, again and again, and still nothing changes. I can’t remember a time where I was more irritated than I was in this moment.

I tried to ignore it. I thought that if I pretended that it wasn’t affecting me, it would all go away. Reverse psychology. I recall myself standing in one spot, sulking. I stood with my arms crossed tight and my lip trembling, as a few tears squeezed their way out. I think I even stamped my feet aggressively on the ground below me a few times.

During my tantrum I was reminded of my younger siblings when they didn’t get their way. Like the time mum refused to buy Chloe a chocolate paddle pop as part of her lunch order. Right now, I was sulking like an immature child, like Chloe had done that day.

While I was reminiscing about Chloe, something changed. A new feeling lingered all around until it filled my surroundings and caged me in. This sensation clung to my body and soaked through my skin.

I unfolded my arms and wiped away some tears. I looked around; trying to find what had changed. I paced the space, a million thoughts rushing through my mind about what had happened and why everything was feeling different.

My mind clicked.

I don’t feel alone anymore.


...


There’s now someone else here with me. I just know it.

I’m not the only person in this room anymore. I might not have known much in this moment, but I knew this for sure.

I felt comforted at the thought of another person’s company. The indication of someone being here with me calmed my fears slightly. I need to find them, maybe we could figure this out together, and make it end?

I stood for a moment, waiting, listening.

“Is anyone there?” I ask.

There’s no response, but I don’t let it bother me. I’m too distracted by the fact that my voice hadn’t echoed anywhere near as much as before. The echo is bearable this time. It had to mean something. I feel relieved, so I speak once more.

“Is anyone there?”

This time I got a response.

It made my entire body shiver.

I won’t even attempt to explain it, because you’re not going to understand. I will never be able to truly describe how I felt in that moment when I heard it.

It was a voice, and it wasn’t mine, because this time when I’d spoken, there was no echo at all. This voice confirmed my gut feeling. This voice changed everything. When I heard this voice, my adrenaline was pumping.

I’m not alone.

“Who are you?” the strong, strange voice questioned me.

I spin on my feet, looking eagerly in every direction, hoping to find the source of the voice. I see nothing, nothing but the vile white.

I hate it.

I hate it so much. My eyes are stinging as they cry acid tears. It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think the human eye is built to look at endless white for so long.

“I’m Layla. Who are you? Where are you?”

My voice comes out distorted, as I spin quickly looking for the person who spoke.

He responds immediately.

“I’m Miles. I’m standing right next to you. You might stand a chance of seeing me if you slow down and stop with the strange dance,” he comments sarcastically, “whose that guy over there?”

He has a strong voice, and I can tell by his tone that he’s feeling confident. He isn’t agitated and uneasy like I am. He isn’t scared. He’s making jokes!

Miles is cool, calm and collected.

I’m a crumbling mess.

My whole body is shaking with nerves. Jelly-me is back. I turn my head slowly to the right, to where his voice is coming from. Once my neck is completely turned, I open my eyes.

I don’t see him.

I begin thinking that I’d imagined his voice because I’d wanted some company so terribly. I’m angry with myself, but instead of exploding with anger and frustration I close my eyes again, ready to try once more. I have to give it at least two chances before I waste energy on anger.

This time, when I open my eyes, I see him.

It frightens me.

I move away quickly. Like a dog in pain when you’ve accidentally stepped on its tail when he was sleeping. I'm so shocked to see someone actually standing next to me amongst all of this bright white that I leap to the side, putting some space between the man and myself.

My jelly-legs cause me to wobble on the spot and my heart is racing from the fright. I think he can probably hear my heart, beating in my chest, a hundred miles an hour. I swear, in that moment, my heart was the loudest sound I’d ever heard.

“Whose that guy over there?” he repeated.

Obviously he couldn’t hear that my heart was about to burst out of my chest. His only concern was the guy he kept mentioning.

I take a deep breath and looked to where he was pointing. For a moment I only see white.

I'm ready to scream in frustration and disappointment, but then he appears, much in the same way Miles had. One moment there was nothing and then there he was.

He was sitting with his back towards us.

I try to calculate the distance between us. Fifty metres, I thought, or possibly sixty. I wonder how long he had been there before Miles had noticed him.

“Who is that?” Miles asked me again.

“I don’t know,” I said quietly.

It was the truth. I had absolutely no idea about him, about this place, about anything. I’ve never felt less knowledgeable in my life.

“Let’s find out? Yea?” he replied.

I watched Miles intently, ignoring his words and instead taking a few moments to memorise his features. I want to get to know him.

He’s over six foot tall. He towers over me, even though I’m in my high heels. His hair is a mess. It looks like he hasn’t brushed it in days. Or, maybe he had stuck his head out of the car window when he was driving down the highway, and the wind had its way with him.

I picture this grown man with his head out the window, much like an excited puppy, happy to be on a car ride. I chuckled to myself.

His hair was long. It fell just near his shoulders. I recently wrote an article about man buns for the magazine. We did a photo shoot with a bunch of male models, they all had man buns. All of the models we used were a unique type of handsome.

Miles would’ve been perfect for the shoot. He was tall, strangely handsome, and of course, he had the long hair. It was the ideal length for a man bun. I had to resist the temptation to lunge forward and twist his locks into a loose bun.

“EXCUSE ME,” Miles yelled, “who are you?”

His voice shattered my line of thought and shocked me back to the present moment. The space around us echoed once more. Miles’ already loud voice was booming around me. I flinch, my ears were ringing; the echo was back.

Every sound was magnified.

I wanted it to stop.

I look back at the man. Miles and I are awaiting a response, but he stays still. He just ignored Miles, he didn’t move an inch. He would’ve heard him, he definitely heard him. It was so loud it would’ve been impossible not to hear him.

I look over to Miles, waiting for his next step. I hate to admit this, as I know that Miles will read this and his ego will explode, but I wanted him to take charge. I needed him to take charge. For the first time in my life I wanted to be a follower. So, I waited for Miles to make his move.

Miles looked over to me, with a peculiar, apprehensive look on his face.

“Come on,” he said urgently, as he started walking towards the man.

He moved quickly, I had to jog to keep up. As I jogged along, I noticed something strange about Miles.

His walk.

That’s one thing I always notice about people; how they walk. Miles walked almost lopsided, as though one leg was significantly longer than the other, and it caused him to hobble along. Usually, people who walked like him look incredibly awkward, but he moved confidently, regardless of his strange gait. It didn’t look uncomfortable for him; it looked natural.

He sat down on the white ground next to the man. He wasn’t saying anything. He just sat there, silently and awkwardly.

I could hear his sharp breaths. I was thankful that he too was struggling to regulate his breathing after the quick stride across the space. The other man’s irregular pattern was also noticeable. In fact, the three of us were each puffing and panting like we had just finished a marathon. Neither of these men seemed bothered by it, so I stopped focusing so much effort on trying to control myself. I stood for a moment, deciding what to do.

Eventually, I mimicked Miles.

I sat slowly on the ground, on the other side of the man. I looked over his head towards Miles, waiting for him to continue taking the lead. Our eyes caught. I tried to read the emotion portrayed in his hazel-green eyes.

Was it nerves? I thought it seemed so.

I took note of the signs; loss of confidence, a small line of sweat above his eyebrows and lip, his cheeks were flushed.

He seemed hesitant.

I gestured to him to say something. He opened his mouth, moving his lips a few times. He was a fish out of water, gulping. He said nothing. He shook his head and looked down at his lap. I could see how disappointed he was in himself.

He felt defeated.

I looked at him in shock.

Just moments ago, he’d seemed eager to speak with this man. He hit the brakes fast. His entire attitude changed. I could see no reason as to why he did an emotional backflip. If I’m being honest, I was a little annoyed to see him pulling back. I’d been relying on his strength and bravery to give me strength and bravery. I stared at him a moment longer, before deciding I had to be the one to talk.

“Are you okay? I’m Layla, this is Miles,” I spoke softly, wanting to sound approachable, trustworthy and kind.

I stared at him, waiting for his response.

He didn’t say a word. He didn’t move. In fact, aside from his breathing, he hadn’t moved a millimetre since we sat down. I considered the possibility that he hadn't heard me speak. Or that he didn’t even realise we were there. Finally, that he wasn’t real at all.

“Do you know where we are? Do you know what is happening?” I pressed further. My nerves were causing my voice to shatter and shake with every syllable.

Miles still said nothing, and the man didn’t respond either. He mustn’t be able to hear us, I decided. If he could, he was doing a spectacular job of ignoring us, and I wanted him to teach me his tricks.

What if Miles and I had both imagined this man?

What if I was imagining both this man, and Miles?

I looked toward Miles, who was now running his fingers through his hair, looking in every direction. He's about to seriously lose his cool. He’s a bit wild looking, with his messy hair, wide eyes and unshaven face.

Surely I didn’t imagine him. He seems far too real.

“Well I don’t know about you two, but I’m dead,” the man finally said.

When he spoke I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Miles and I locked eyes immediately. His eyes were now far wider than before, something I hadn’t thought possible, as he already has big eyes. He now looked absolutely horrified.

“Me too,” Miles and I said in unison.




CHAPTER TWO

WHOOPS. SHE'S A CLUMSY ONE.

I always hated the thought of potentially knowing when I was going to die. A part of me had always wondered if people knew when they were living their final day. I always thought that maybe something would feel different. Maybe, deep down you might be scared that death was about to sneak up on you.

Now that I’m dead, I know the answer.

They don’t know.

Well, at least, I didn’t know.

I asked Miles, he said he didn’t know either.

The day I died had begun just like any other day. Nothing seemed unusual, nothing stood out to me; it felt so normal. I had no idea that I would be dead before the day was finished. I didn’t see it coming. If I’d seen it coming, maybe I could have prevented it. Maybe everything would be different.

There’s no point in thinking that way though. Because, knowing what I do now, I know that nothing could’ve stopped my death.

I had to die.



My alarm sounded for the third time that morning, and my arm flew out from under the covers as I reached for my phone that was buzzing and beeping loudly on my bedside. I pressed the snooze button again and returned to a comfortable position to continue dozing. Ten minutes later the alarm sounded for a fourth time, and this time I realised how late I was going to be. I came to my senses and sat upright in bed.

“FUCK!” I announced to my empty apartment.

Today of all days I couldn’t be late.

I had an intern starting with me. I had to show her the ropes, get her prepared for the whirlwind that comes with working at the biggest women’s magazine in the country.

Plus, I had a meeting with my supervisor regarding a story that I was anxiously hoping would be approved. It was a big day and I was not off to a good start by sleeping in.

I threw myself out of bed and hurriedly pulled up the covers so the room appeared a little neater. That’s the thing I hate the most about having a studio apartment; unless you’re in the bathroom, you can see every corner of the teeny tiny apartment. Leaving my bed unmade resulted in the entire apartment looking like a pigsty.

I hate an unmade bed, that’s another thing I inherited from my mother. I made my bed every day as a child, and the habit held. I didn’t have time today to fix up the many display cushions in the same way I usually would, so they are thrown on at random. It bugged me to have to do that, but I didn’t have a choice.

I crossed my apartment to the bathroom where I hastily turned on the shower. I ran back out to the kitchen and reached for a piece of bread to toast. I cursed at myself as I struggled to remove the clip from the packaging. It broke. I had to twist the packaging back together and hope the bread wouldn’t go stale before I had the chance to shop again.

Back to the shower I went, it had been running for about twenty seconds now, so I knew it would be warm enough. I was moving quickly, I planned to shower in the time it took for my bread to become toast. I expected I would have around forty-five or fifty seconds.

The challenge was set.

I removed my lace nightgown and flung it towards the bed. It landed in a heap on the floor. I left it there.

I showered briefly; doing the best I could to not get my hair wet as I lathered my body in my raspberry scented wash and rinsed swiftly. I succeeded, my hair stayed dry. I reached to turn off the water just as I heard the toast pop.

I moved as fast as I could back to the kitchen with a towel wrapped loosely around me.

This is the moment where I could’ve died.

The towel had barely dried an inch of my skin, and water was dripping off me as I moved across the tiles. The bottom of my feet were soaking wet, they were as slippery as a banana peel on wet tiles.

At any moment I could have slipped and cracked my head, subsequently meeting my death.

But I didn’t.

I made it to the kitchen where I crammed the unbuttered piece of toast into my mouth. This was a move I instantly regretted, because I had no room to chew or swallow, and I’m sure we all agree; unbuttered toast is dry and tasteless.

I struggled for a moment, wishing I’d just taken a bite instead.

After I succeeded in swallowing approximately half of the toast I started drying myself.

After I was dry enough I dropped the towel on the kitchen floor. I stomped on it a few times to dry the underside of my banana peel feet and then left it there, the towel that is, to be dealt with later. I was a little ashamed of my laziness, but I honestly didn’t have time, and it’s not like it matters now.

I rushed to my wardrobe, where fortunately I’d already decided upon and set out today’s outfit. This was one of those moments where I was glad for my obsessive evening routine of setting out the following days outfit.

I pulled the chosen jeans over my hips as quickly as possible, then I grabbed my pale lace bra and fastened it with lightning speed. I was surprised at how fast I was moving; a few seconds later my new silver-grey blouse was over my head.

I reached to the top of the closest where my black strappy heels were. waiting for me. I stepped backwards awkwardly, seeking to find the edge of the bed to sit down. Once I was seated, I wound the straps around my ankles in record time.

Up off the bed I leapt, this time towards the bathroom, where I grabbed a few random bracelets off the basin and slid them over my hands onto my wrists.

Next the hairbrush through my hair, once, twice, three times, before twisting and pinning it into a messy bun. It only takes three bobby pins to secure it despite the fact that my hair reaches over half way down my back; I’m a professional at the messy bun, it’s one of my many talents.

I rustle through the bathroom drawer searching for my toothbrush and toothpaste. I was seriously running out of time, so a thirty second brush will have to do.

Good thing I have mints in my office.

I grab my handbag that was sitting on the kitchen bench, and my phone off the bedside table. I completed a quick front and back check in the full-length mirror by the front door and rushed for the train station.


...


I’m sure you can probably imagine what happened next, it seems to happen in every book, movie or television show when someone is running late: they miss the train.

I wish I could say that I didn’t miss the train, just so that I wouldn’t seem like such a stereotype. But I reached the platform just in time to see the train I needed to be on disappearing through the tunnel.

I groaned loudly and stomped my feet dramatically.

Feeling like a diva, I sat down on the closest bench to wait the six minutes until the next train arrived. I took out my phone and checked my notifications for the first time.

Two texts from Mum.

The first was a photo of my younger siblings, the twins, snuggled up in bed with their new puppy. Cute, I thought, as a smile covered my face. The second text was a collection of heart emojis. I replied with a row of hearts and kisses, and a short message: I’ll call later.

Next I checked my emails, there were only two.

One of those was from my supervisor Clarissa. She was confirming our meeting time for this afternoon at one thirty. Perfect, I’ll have plenty of time to prepare. The other was from the intern Katie. It was a polite thanks for agreeing to mentor her. It was sweet, but unnecessary.

I was getting paid extra to do it, so it was my pleasure.

The train arrived. I jumped to my feet quickly and rushed towards the front of the queue of people. I needed to get a good seat today, so that I could do my makeup on the way.

I rushed through the doors the moment they opened.

I rudely didn’t allow space for anyone who was exiting to do so. I apologised profusely as I barged through the group of people waiting impatiently. My apologies weren’t received with a smile that’s for sure. I didn’t blame them.

I took my seat and grabbed the emergency makeup kit out of my handbag. Applying foundation and lip-gloss with dozens of people watching me was awkward, and I hadn’t planned for the unpredictable bumps and jolts as the train made its way into the city. I also hadn’t planned to sleep in on such an important day, but I did. These things happen, I’m not perfect. Ten minutes later my makeup appeared acceptable and the train was nearing my stop.

This also could’ve been where I died.

I take a risk every day by getting on the underground trains; at any moment there could be an emergency, or a tragic accident. Just last month a train derailed, that could've happened to me. But it didn’t. Nothing went wrong. I stepped off the train unharmed and uninjured.

I won’t bore you with every single detail of my day, because then we will be here a while, I’ll fast forward a little...

Clarissa, my supervisor, approved my article about affairs that didn’t destroy relationships. I was keen to complete this article, I like telling the less talked about side of a story.

A woman had engaged in a relationship with another man whilst her husband stayed at home and raised their baby. She fell pregnant, and whilst the affair caused a lot of problems, her and her husband overcame those obstacles and now have a beautiful family of three young boys, only two of which are biologically his.

She was willing to be interviewed, so now I couldn’t wait to finish the article, I was certain it would be a feature piece for the next issue.

After the meeting, I gave myself an early mark and began the walk from the office back to the station. I reached into my handbag as I left the office building and grabbed my new wireless headphones. They were a gift from Clarissa for being the most published writer in last month’s issue. These headphones were without a doubt, the best gift I’d ever received. They fit perfectly over my head without messing up my hair, and they hugged my ears comfortably. I loved them already.

The incentives that come with working for Gossip are fantastic, but I love my job regardless of the gifts. It’s not the incentives that made me work hard; I wanted my name to be the top of the list, for everything. Achieving this goal required all of my time and I had to be dedicated.

I was.

I connected the headphones to my smartphone and pressed play on a random playlist from the latest streaming service I’d subscribed to. I returned the phone to my handbag and tapped my thigh to the beat of the music; a song I had never heard before.

I crossed the road with the crowd and set off down the main street of the CBD, making my way towards the station. I looked at people as I passed. One of my favourite pastimes is to notice what other people are doing when they think no one is watching.

I held back laughter as an older man in a business suit picked his nose without hesitation. He flicked his prize on the pavement. I watched as a young child yelled at her mother because she wanted to take her shoes off and jump in a rain puddle. I smiled as a young man helped an elderly lady cross the street safely.

I made it to the end of the street and stood waiting for the lights to change so that I could cross. I watched the screen, expecting the little green man to appear shortly.

My music was interrupted by the sound of my phone ringing. I grabbed it out of my handbag and looked down at the caller.

It was my mum.

I watched her name on the screen for a moment before deciding I would call her later, right now I just wanted to get home and maybe pop down to the local gym for a run on the treadmill.

Mum could wait.

After the phone rang out, I returned it to my pocket, only for it to begin ringing a second time. I grabbed my phone, it must be important; Mum rarely calls twice.

This time I saw that it was the woman I was interviewing for the affairs story, Chelsea. She knew that today I was meeting with Clarissa for approval; perhaps she wanted to know if the story was going ahead. She was ready for the world to know that her and her husband had made it through. She was just like me; she liked people to hear the more uncommon side of a story.

I pressed the answer button and stepped out onto the street, after briefly noticing that the green man was now displayed.

I should’ve paid more attention.

The green man had already been showing for fifteen seconds. Everyone else who had been waiting had crossed.

Chelsea was talking in my ear, I could hear her voice, but I couldn’t understand the words. All I could hear were the screams of pedestrians and the sound of car horns blaring. I looked around, curiously, wondering what all of the commotion was about.

Then it happened.

The bus collided with my body, and everything went white.




CHAPTER THREE

I’LL ALWAYS HAVE SOMETHING STUPID TO SAY.

I close my eyes.

I wrap my arms around my torso in hope that I might be able to warm myself. I was suddenly freezing. Every part of my body shuddered with the cold. My toes are stiff, and don’t have much feeling left in them. Every hair on my body is raised; and a million goose bumps cover me, head to toe.

There’s not one single part of me that isn’t affected by this sudden cold rush. The tip of my nose is the coldest. I hold my hands to my face and breathe numerous times to try and warm my nose. Each time I feel relief for a mere second or two before the cold reclaims it. It’s useless.

I look around the space as my teeth chatter and my body quakes. I try to rub some warmth into my arms and legs but it doesn’t work either. The cold travels through me in waves and keeps my body shaking and shivering constantly.

A sudden movement catches my eye. I watch as the man removes his jacket and passes it to me. I smile nervously and wrap it over my shoulders. I hold on to the jacket tightly, hoping soon the smooth leather might warm me.

I like this jacket. I rub my fingers over the leather; it’s soft, old and worn. I appreciate how it feels beneath my hands; it soothes me. It’s a nice jacket, definitely expensive.

Now that I think of it, everything the man was wearing seemed expensive. I discreetly study him. I can’t help but notice his polished appearance.

He’s perfect.

His plain white tee sits well on his broad shoulders. His expensive jeans are a snug yet comfortable looking fit. It’s like they were made for his body, or at least altered. He doesn’t appear to be feeling the cold as much as I am. I assume he has better body temperature control. I’m jealous of that.

This man is the opposite of Miles; with his short hair neatly slicked back, and his facial hair impeccably groomed. Comparing the two of them was like comparing hot and cold, night and day, oil and water.

This man is older than Miles and I. I can see a few distinct lines have begun to appear on his face, around his eyes and on his forehead. Wrinkles. He wears them well.

I stare at him for a moment longer, noticing how attractive he is, for an older guy. I’m mortified when I realise he knows I’m watching him.

He smiles at me nervously and then shuffles his body further away from me, putting some space between us. I look away hurriedly, feeling my cheeks flush bright red from the embarrassment of being caught out.

I quickly thought of something I could do to distract myself and ease the awkwardness. I chose my feet. They were beginning to ache. Strappy heels might look nice, but they aren’t your friends after a few hours, and they especially aren’t your friends after you’ve jogged in them. I took them off and sat them on the ground in front of me.

Both men watched me curiously as I lined the shoes up side by side, refastened the buckles and loosely tied the straps, in the same way I would have if I were at home returning them to the closet to be worn another day.

Satisfied with my free feet and feeling less like a tomato, I readjust myself. Miles also makes himself more comfortable. He decides to lie down, stretching his long body out in front of us.

I hug my knees with my arms and allow my head to rest. I close my eyes, choosing to stare at the blackness for a while.

The three of us sat and waited. I don’t know what we were waiting for exactly, but I knew we were each waiting for something.

“I’m trying to remember how it happened,” Miles said abruptly.

Miles seemed to have a thing for speaking when I was deep in thought. I looked up to see he was watching the man and I closely, waiting for one of us to reply to him.

I don’t respond to him, aside from a grunt in acknowledgment. His comment has prompted me to try and remember the same thing. What happened to me?

I tried hard to recall exactly what happened.

I remember that I was waiting to cross the street after work. I remember the phone call from Chelsea. I was so focused on trying to hear her that I hadn’t paid enough attention to the noises surrounding me. I heard the screams and the sound of horns blaring. I could remember those things; I just couldn’t remember exactly what had happened. I couldn’t remember what caused my death.

My mind went dark for a moment as I tried to retrieve the memory. I waited patiently, until I was able to relive it.

When the memory came, my entire body shook violently. My body shuddered as I relived the memory of being hit by the bus. I opened my eyes in shock at the recollection of my final moments. I now couldn’t believe that I had briefly forgotten what caused my death.

How could I have forgotten that feeling?

Both the men were staring at me in utter horror. It was their reaction to my reaction.

“I was hit by a bus when I was crossing the road,” I explained.

I had spoken so quietly, I wasn’t sure if they even heard me. A few moments of silence followed my announcement, before the man shared his own experience.

“I was crushed in a car accident.”

He too spoke very quietly, very sadly. I had to lean towards him to hear; he had gotten quieter and quieter with every word he spoke. It was as though someone had a remote control pointed towards him, adjusting his volume.

I didn’t respond. I don’t think either of us had shared our experience to be responded to, we had just wanted to be heard.

Instead I look at Miles. He’s still stretched out in front of us. His long body very still, and his eyes closed. I can tell by his facial expressions that he’s thinking hard, possibly encouraging himself to remember exactly what had happened to him.

“I think I jumped too soon. The instructors hadn’t finished their safety checks.”

I watched and waited for Miles to continue but he remained quiet. When I realised he wasn’t going to say anything else, I looked back at my feet in disappointment. I felt there should be more to his story. I wanted to know, but I was afraid to ask.

The three of us sat in silence again. As I relied on my thoughts to entertain myself, I remembered how one of the other writers at Gossip had done an article recently on vivid dreams. These dreams are so vivid and so clear that you mistake them for real life. I sat there thinking to myself whether or not everything that had happened to me today was a dream. Maybe it was just a very white, horrible, vivid dream. Maybe a bus didn’t hit me? Maybe I made it home and went to bed and now I’m asleep dreaming that all of this happened to me?

This could all be in my head. I’d really hoped it was, for a moment.

As I thought about the possibility that I was asleep, my body started to tingle. Pins and needles were spreading fast. I needed to stretch my legs. I needed to warm up my bones before the coldness shut me down entirely.

I stood and began to pace.

Pacing is my go-to thing. When I’m stressed, or if there’s a lot of thinking to do, I pace. Other people in the office always comment on my apparent peculiar behaviour.

‘Oh, fancy that, Layla is pacing again. Nothing new to see here! Carry on with your day.’

I find it relaxing, pacing the room. I can’t sit and think. I’m not a sitting thinker. I like to pace the room, feel some movement in my body. Getting the blood pumping gets my brain thinking. I think I inherited the pacing gene from my mum, she does it too; only she’s worse. I swear she’s never made a decision without pacing first.

I reminded myself of my mother as I paced in circles around the men. I’d done three laps as I walked, tossing and turning all the possibilities over in my mind. I didn’t make any progress on what might’ve been happening to me. But the pacing helped me warm up a little, for now I was less freezing than I’d been before.

It was when I was on my fourth lap that the dynamic around me changed.

The man started shouting.

I was so startled; I thought he was shouting at me. Because when he began, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. It seemed like he was looking right at me, directing his every word at me.

I stood, frozen to the spot both by my fear and the cold that came rushing back when I’d stopped moving. I was ready to defend myself if required. I wouldn’t let this stranger upset me without good reason.

I watched him closely as he lost control. He appeared to be having a meltdown, it’d all become too much for him to handle. His handsome face turned sour, he was further than angry; he was manic now.

It worried me when he suddenly stood and started running around the space, like he was trying to find the exit. He was yelling over and over. He was yelling a string of words that didn’t make sense. He didn’t slow down either; he just kept running, and shouting. His voice filled the entire space. It was so loud it echoed around me constantly.

I managed to string words together so they made slight sense.

“What the fuck... what the fuck’s happening... SOMEONE tell me... what the fuck’s happening!!! My boys! My wife... do they know... what happened? Fucking white!”

I watched as he ran around the space, getting more and more frantic with every second that passed. I’d never been more concerned for someone than I was in this moment. I had no idea what to do.

“What the? Why... WHY is it all white? Are they okay? MY BOYS? FUCK! FUCK! FUCK... that fucking... kangaROO!”

His previous charm and handsome appearance was being replaced with a hysterical, and dare I say it, slightly intimidating man. If I’d seen someone acting this way on the street I would’ve quickly moved on, out of fear for my safety and embarrassment for the person losing control. But now I just stood there. Too terrified to move, too terrified to react. I watched and listened to this man come apart. I stood and watched him crumble, until I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I had to stop him.

I walked slowly towards him. He froze when he saw that I was coming his way. He stood, like a defenseless animal that’d just been caught in a spotlight. He was paralysed. His feet glued to the ground from shock and fear.

I saw the hesitation on his face as I got closer and I immediately felt ashamed. I didn’t want him to be afraid of me, but that was his reaction. He was scared of what I was about to do. I meant no harm. I just wanted to fix it; I just wanted to help.

I raised my arms, palms facing towards him, a gesture of peace. I didn’t want to be perceived as a threat, he had to see that I only meant to help him. He watched as I approached him gradually. Once I was close enough to touch him, I placed my hands on his shoulders and looked him directly in the eyes.

“Hey? What’s your name?” I asked calmly, maintaining the eye contact I had established.

I realised we’d been sitting with this man for a while now, and we still didn’t know his name.

“Aaron,” he replied, his voice was shaking. Tears began rolling down his cheeks, “Aaron Thompson.”

I’d never really seen vulnerability.

It’s an emotion we all seem to know; we’ve all felt it at one point. Yet, in nearly twenty-five years, I’d never seen it so openly, so raw. As I looked into Aaron’s eyes I knew immediately that vulnerability was what I was looking at.

I knew the feeling all too well. I’d been experiencing it myself, ever since I ended up here.

This was a man who had probably never relied on anyone else to take care of him, because he was the person taking care of everyone else, but right now, he was so vulnerable. He just needed someone; anyone to tell him it would be okay.

“Aaron, everything’s going to be okay. You’ll be okay. Your boys are okay and your wife is okay. We’re going to figure out what’s happening and fix it... we’ll fix it,” I said my words with authority, trying to convince not just him, but myself also. “There’s got to be a reason that we all died today. There has to be a reason why we were all brought here. We’ll figure this out. It’s all going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay,” I continued.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Aaron repeated my last words, almost as though he was convincing himself of it.

“It will be,” I said positively.

He nodded agreeably.

I could hear Miles approaching us; I hoped he would stay quiet. I didn’t think anything more needed to be said right now. Silence is golden in some cases. Right now, in this moment, I prayed he would recognise that. I prayed he would stay silent, even though I knew it would be useless.

I barely knew him but yet I knew him enough. He wouldn’t stay quiet. As Miles came closer, I felt his smartarse remark growing. It brewed inside for a moment before it exploded out of his mouth. I hadn’t even had the opportunity to warn him against it.

“Let’s hope that fucking kangaroo is dead too, yea?”

I stared at Miles.

I was filled with rage, but I couldn’t hide my laughter. The look on his face was priceless.

I giggled uncontrollably.

Miles laughed also, his booming laughter owned the space.

Feeling guilty, I looked towards Aaron. I was slightly fearful that he would be offended by Miles’ joke and our laughter.

Butterflies took flight in my stomach when I caught Aaron’s eye; he was smiling.


...


After Aaron had calmed down, tedious silence absorbed us once more. The three of us sat, immersed in our own thoughts. It felt like hours had passed since this all began. Nothing happened to the space around us while we sat. It was as white as it was in the very first moments.

I was beginning to feel as though this place would be my destiny, that I would be forever stuck, surrounded by white, with no idea why.

I looked over to Miles, who was once again spread out on the floor opposite us. His eyes were closed, his hands by his side. His body was stiff, like a plank of wood. I noticed that his hands were clenched tightly into fists. I thought to say something, for he looked terribly uncomfortable. I’d almost opened my mouth to speak, and then his outfit diverted me.

I’d already looked at Miles a lot since he arrived here. I like to get to know people based on their appearances, you can tell a lot by someone’s posture, their mannerisms and the way they style their hair or if they fidget when nervous. For some reason, it had taken me until now to register Miles’ outfit.

He’s wearing adventure gear. There were bright canary yellow straps all around his torso and waist; it looked like a harness. I remembered back to him saying something about jumping. I thought that he must’ve been doing something outdoors and adventurous when he died. I couldn’t decide if that was an exhilarating, awesome thing or not. To be doing something exciting when you died seemed far better than being hit by a bus, or crashing your car like Aaron and I.

But he still died. Dead is dead, right? It doesn’t really matter how awesome your last moments might have been, you still died...

It was when I was thinking about Miles and his awesome, brave death, that something interesting happened. I only wish it had happened sooner.

What happened?

I was deep in thought about Miles and his awesome death when I felt something move above me. It felt like a bird had passed overhead. I heard it too. It was so close, I was sure that I felt a breeze come off its wings.

I am certain I felt that. I looked up to find it.

Of course, because so far this place was fantastic at letting me down, nothing was there. I was still only seeing white. I felt a little irritated. I wondered if my eyes were betraying me, and not seeing what was waiting to be seen. Or if my ears were betraying me, bringing me sounds that did not exist.

The sound of the bird flapping its wings felt so real to me. I kept looking, but I couldn’t see anything. But I could definitely hear a bird. I spun around on the floor where I was sitting, looking everywhere to find the source of the noise. I heard a distant call, no doubting that this was the bird. I thought it sounded lost, and confused, like me.

“I can hear it too,” Aaron said, confirming that I wasn’t losing my mind.

I looked over at Aaron and nodded to him, both an agreement and a thank you. I wasn’t hearing things. This bird was really here. I couldn’t wait to find it.

The two of us had our eyes trained on the whiteness that was above us, as we kept looking for the bird. We both stood up, looking around.

We probably looked rather bizarre. Two people, standing in a white space, their necks bent at odd angles just so they could stare at the blankness above them.

We ignored Miles as our eyes scanned the space. He had not moved a muscle; he was still on the floor, oblivious to what we were doing. It annoyed me that he was so still and boring whilst something so exciting was finally happening around us.


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