Sunday Stories: “Chloe in the Afternoon”

Chloe in the Afternoon
by Richard Chiem

The acceleration from driving fast pulls her head back against the seat; the cool breeze from the open passenger window nearly blows her eyelids closed. Within view of the ocean, Chloe drifts from block to block until getting to the highway, the same cold morning over and over and over again, she thinks. She can do this every day. Before the highway, Chloe turns on the radio, shifts aggressively, and watches tree branches whip violently above the traffic lights. She can always imagine the end of the world at any idle moment, feeling the wind push and envelope her car. She is waiting at a stop sign not paying any attention to the radio or passing cars, or to the cop standing out in the road, turning traffic away.

Although she feels rushed, Chloe is the first one to arrive to the office, the only car in the parking lot on the hill, and she stares at the clock on her dashboard. There is a sad part of her that is always mouthing lyrics, and she catches herself singing unconsciously in the rear view mirror. For the first time in her life, before turning off the ignition and getting out of her car, she waits for the pop song to finish on the radio. Chloe sinks into her declined chair, arms outstretched almost to the threshold of pain. She says, I feel something. What am I feeling.

I can see a little life in you today, he says. The older security guard here can always talk to her and make eye contact. Without wanting to, Chloe says, I can see a little life in you, repeating him, still waiting for the elevator. So many elevators. He presses the lit button a few times, which she finds strangely soothing. Chloe doesn’t know why she said what she said, although it felt natural. Instead of thinking about it, she breathes in deeply and pretends she can see him from the back of her head. She mouths, I can see a little life in you. Chloe steadies her face in the window, becoming brave and exhausted when the elevator opens.

At work, she writes code and stares at the Internet for hours, sometimes purposely without blinking. Most often, tears well up in her eyes but never come to the point of crying. There are days when she gets closer and closer to the threshold, but she has never come close to crying at work, which she considers to be amazing. It has been a long time.

There is a bird trapped inside the office building. Slowly people have begun to take notice, pointing and making faces and small enthusiastic commotion. The songbird does not seem frightened, flying from computer to computer, a young female starling. She sings a song for them, for all the pale workers, landing at one moment on Chloe’s keyboard. She behaves herself, almost holding her breath, feeling nothing pending in the world, looking convinced of something.

Chloe says, I really like this bird, leaning back in her chair, suddenly really tired yet happy, and her chest is warm. Her computer screen turns black and she could see in the reflection all of her co-workers, dozens and dozens of blended faces, standing behind her, watching the bird and the back of her neck. She says, If I don’t fuck someone tonight, I think I might go insane.

Richard Chiem (b.1987) is the author of YOU PRIVATE PERSON, a collection of short stories published by Scrambler books. in 2008, he survived a car accident. He is currently living in Seattle with his girlfriend and their loud cat.

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