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By Lisa Bell
Partridge AfricaCopyright © 2015 Lisa Bell
All rights reserved.
THE BEGINNING OF MADNESS
Mad Hatter: Why is a raven like a writing-desk?' 'Have you guessed the riddle yet?' the Hatter said, turning to Alice again. 'No, I give it up,' Alice replied: 'What's the answer?' 'I haven't the slightest idea,' said the Hatter.
— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Opening my eyes slowly, peering, at first, through my eyelashes, I felt the effects of my deep sleep lying heavy on my eyelids. I took a deep breath in through my nose and coughed as I smelt a pungent sulphuric scent in the air. Added to that, the air felt thick and heavy, devoid of fresh oxygen. The feeling that something was closing in on me and pushing me down was overpowering. Nausea built up in my throat; and I pushed my hands up above me, flinging the bedding away from me, sitting up in bewilderment.
After hastily swinging my legs out of the bed, I padded over to the balcony door and, holding my nose with one hand, pulled the string to open the blinds with the other. The strangest sight greeted me. The sky was coated with heavy purple clouds as if God had taken a swing with a big brush. I could, though, just see the sun behind the darkness, desperately trying to push its way through.
Shoving the heavy double doors open and hearing the resounding bang against the wall, I flinched then took a deep breath. More suffocating sulphur flooded my lungs, and I gagged, feeling the threat of a full-on vomit in the back of my throat.
Then it happened. A flash of light broke through the clouds like a comic-book rendition of a lightning fork, hung there for a second, shimmered, then disappeared. Again, the light spliced through the clouds twice, thrice. A static feeling coursed through my body, starting at my toes and edging its way up to the top of my head. It was similar to the effects of a knife in the toaster shock but prolonged its pulsating jolt throughout my entire body. I could feel the hair on my head literally lift and reach for the skies while a wave of nausea hit my belly low and deep. I shut my eyes briefly, swallowing a few times.
What met my eyes as I opened them was the cloudy mist slowly peeling back, like a movie played backwards. The sun started to show its dazzling self through the dissipating mist, too bright and too sudden. As the rays reflected off the glassy lake below, I had to shield my eyes. It was as if the world had just woken up in a split second. Where there had been no sound before, I could now hear the familiar morning birds and the movement of the branches swaying in the gentle breeze.
I stepped back, almost tripping, and realised that I was up against my bed. Feeling quite disorientated, I had a brief memory of standing outside before the flashes occurred and wondering how the hell I had landed up here.
A piercing trill filled the air. My alarm! I rugby tackled over the bed and hit the clock to stop the ear-splitting sound. Silence. The day had begun, it seemed, as it would normally, like every other day. I shook my head. Crazy woman! Had I imagined all that?
I caught a movement to my right and turned abruptly, giving myself a little scare as my own reflection stared back at me. I gave a giggle, feeling quite silly, and took a moment to study my face.
My skin seemed too pale in the morning light, the shadows under my eyes too dark and my short-cropped hair too wild. I sighed. I needed to give myself a break. I had just woken up. Not everyone could look like Sealy Posturepedic lady in the morning.
I screwed my eyes up at my reflection again. I didn't know who I looked like. I never thought I looked like my father or his family, and I had never seen my mother. My father never spoke of her or had shown me photos. His explanation had been simply that she had taken them all when she left us around about when I was 8 months old.
My dark-brown eyes studied my sleepy face. Straight nose, too long for my liking. Strong chin, so I was told, framed by short almost-black hair. I was medium height I guessed and had a decent figure. The running helped with that.
I looked at the clock then: 5 a.m.
'Time to run,' I said out loud.
My voice sounded strange, far away, echoey; and I realised my ears felt blocked. Pinching my nose between my finger and thumb, I blew. Pop! That was better.
I slid to the floor, feeling for my slippers again, realising they were probably on the other side of the bed, having come off in my wild fly across to the alarm clock. The wooden floors were cool under my feet, and I was surprised how warm my feet were. Strange, as a little while ago, I was cold. I shook my head again. Strange weather patterns this morning.
Slipping quickly into my running shorts, a warm top, socks and trainers, I pulled a peaked cap securely over my wild short crop, grabbed my keys and headed out the door.
The air was cold but felt good against my skin. I loved my early morning runs. They invigorated me like nothing else and gave me time to think about the day to come. Running my own business proved taxing at the best of times. Just the management of staff and finances was stressful enough, not to mention the actual business of bringing income in.
As I headed towards the beachfront to run along Chicago's magnificent Lake Michigan, I thought about the day I had ahead of me. Staff meeting at 9 and meeting with possible merger company at 11. That thought gave me a nervous jolt in the pit of my stomach, and I shoved it to the back of my mind, not sure why I felt that way. Lunch with Joss at 12:30. I was looking forward to that. Bubbly, electric Joss was so much fun, and we always had a laugh together. Then there was some paperwork to prepare for the next day's meetings followed by a quick trip home to a soaking candlelit bath.
The fact that I was thinking about my end-of-day soak already was a clear sign that I wasn't looking forward to today much. I normally had a high work rate stemming from a father who always pushed me hard from an early age and a passion for my work that got me through the day and week so fast that I had to stop at times and wonder where the time went to. Today I felt the tension sitting tightly in my neck, slipping its way into my upper back and shoulders. Why was I feeling like this?
I turned right onto Lake Shore Drive along the lake pavilion and admired the sun lighting up the water. This was so beautiful. This was a crisp winter morning in one of my favourite cities. One of the reasons I'd moved here from South Africa was this beauty. Not that South Africa wasn't beautiful, but there was just so much charm and character about Chicago that appealed to me. Having spent a year here as a young adult, I had fallen in love and vowed to come back when I could.
Now I had an established insurance brokerage in the heart of the city, built up from nothing. I felt like I had achieved so much, yet there was always something more I wanted. I couldn't quite understand what drove me to do certain things sometimes. I just knew that I couldn't stop searching. Life didn't seem quite complete yet. Perhaps that was just the effects and results of my overachieving father and frustratingly not-so-concerned mother. Joss would just say I was full of shit. Perhaps, but I did wish I could just settle down and accept this was my life now.
As I neared my turnaround point, I slowed down to a jog, heading towards the water fountain for a drink. I wasn't alone, so I stretched my legs out while waiting for the runner ahead of me to finish his thirst quenching.
The runner, a tall man wearing black shorts and a white T-shirt, stood up from the fountain, turned and immediately started running my way. He collided into me, and our heads knocked together with a resounding thwack.
'Aaah! Damn!' I cried out. He spat out something a little more unladylike and stepped away from me.
Holding my head, I stumbled backwards, catching my trainer in a ditch. As my leg gave in, I could feel my ankle twist slightly and felt a sharp shooting pain up my Achilles. I fell onto the grass with a scream of pain.
'Oh hell!' I heard him say as he tried to grab for me, his sweaty hands sliding off my slick forearms.
I felt a tingle ripple up my arm from his touch, a static current that made the hairs stand up on my skin. Landing with a thud on my behind, I sat still with closed eyes. I could hear my breathing clearly, and I was sure I heard my heart drumming a very erratic beat in my heaving chest. The nausea started then deep in the pit of my stomach and built up towards my throat. I swallowed quickly, tasting the bile, and squeezed my eyes tight.
As I opened my eyes tentatively, soft, concerned brown eyes were directly parallel with mine.
'I am so sorry,' he whispered. 'I honestly didn't realise you were behind me. Obviously!'
I swallowed once more, realising that my heart was still beating very fast — abnormally fast for my fit body. The man had his hands on my forearms and was looking over my legs, seemingly to see if there was any real visible damage.
'I'm fine. I think,' I managed to mumble.
The nausea seemed to be getting worse, and I felt a strange claustrophobic feeling coming over me too. This man seemed all too close all of a sudden. I tried to move my arms away from his, very unsuccessfully, as his grip was quite firm.
'Really, I'm fine. I'm going to get up now.'
He looked into my eyes again with a searching, troubled look. He had such nice eyes. A deep brown, almond shaped, close set, heavy brows — but not too heavy. What was I thinking? I shook my head.
'Okay,' he said slowly, releasing his grip. 'Can I help you up, at least?'
I pushed myself up from my awkward position and gratefully took his hand. Another shock radiated up my hand from his touch, and I pulled away. He did too, with a whistle through his teeth. We looked at each other quickly, and he gave a small laugh.
'The weather,' he said, like that explained it.
He gingerly offered his hand again with a smile that turned the one corner of his mouth up slightly. I couldn't help giving him a small smile back, and when I reached my hand again to his, he pulled me to my feet. This time, there was no static shock from our touching skin this time.
I realised, before I put my foot down, that my ankle wasn't right, so I tested it first instead of putting my full weight on it. He hadn't let my hand go and seemed to be waiting to see how the foot held out. It was tender, but there was no shooting pain, thankfully.
I looked up at him and smiled. 'Thanks. I think I'm fine now.'
He hesitantly let my hand go, and I stepped back onto the same foot, instantly regretting it as it gave in. Before I could fall back again, he had grabbed both my arms and pulled me towards his chest. I landed up smacking into his forehead with mine.
'Ow!' I cried out.
I tried leaning my head away from his but couldn't move much. We were locked against each other — very close, too close, suffocatingly close, nauseatingly close. I could feel the heat and sweat permeating from our bodies as we stood there; the only saving grace was a cool lake breeze, meandering its way in between us.
'I ... um ...' I stuttered.
He was so close I could see the little rivers of sweat trickling down the sides of his face over his unshaven skin. His lips were slightly parted, warm breath against my cheek. The static from earlier was tingling all over me now, and the nausea threatened to become a full-on vomit. I jerked myself away, landing on the good foot this time.
'Sorry,' he said, and I glanced up at him from under my peek.
His forehead was creased into a frown, and his previously soft brown eyes had turned to hard dark globes. I took a quick breath in and felt a little afraid of him.
'It's fine. Thanks. I'm fine ... um ... really. Thanks for your help. I'll be off now.'
I whirled around and started running. Even though my ankle pained, I kept running, trying to run smoothly, as if the foot were fine. I rounded the corner by the toilet area, glanced back once, couldn't see him anymore and then slowed to a stop.
Panting, I bent over, leaning on my knees. Taking a deep breath, preparing myself, I twisted my foot around a few times. It seemed fine, just a little achy and was most probably just a sprain. I started running again and made it home at a much-slower pace than my first 5 kilometres.
Edgewater Beach Apartments were just off Lake Shore Drive and about 1 kilometre from the actual beach. I was lucky to have been able to secure an apartment here as they were very sought after. What with the building being mimicked on the Edgewater Beach Hotel, which was built early 1900s and frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and many others, these apartments were very prestigious.
After a shower, I dressed in my pale grey work suit, slipped on my pumps, applied minimal makeup, donned a warm jacket and headed downstairs. Breakfast had been a quick cup of tea, a slice of rye and a banana.
I had a decent walk ahead of me to the office, but once outside, I realised how cold it was and how tender my ankle felt, so I hailed a taxi and relaxed the rest of the way in the comfort of the warm cabbie.
Later that morning, in my office, I sat at my desk, preparing for the meeting looming up at 11. Glasses perched on my nose, peering at the laptop then down at my papers, I didn't hear the approaching footsteps. A small clearing of the throat brought my head up quickly.
'Rebecca, sorry to bother you. I know you are busy,' Lilly whispered, bending over my desk slowly.
'No, it's fine, Lil.' I sighed. 'I just want to make sure I have all my ducks in a row before they get here. What's up?'
She visibly relaxed and said, 'This gentleman phoned. Well, it's the third time now since you said I mustn't disturb you. He won't leave his name or number and says it's very personal.'
I frowned. 'Okay, so if he phones again, you can put him through.'
She nodded and walked out. Lilly was new and appeared nervous about everything. I wondered if I made her nervous. I didn't think that I did. I hoped I didn't. Putting that thought to one side, I grabbed the phone as it rang.
'Yes?' I said into the speaker, hearing my impatient, tense voice. I had to tone myself down. Maybe she was nervous of me. I would be too with a boss who answered the phone like that.
'It's him,' Lilly whispered.
'Okay, put "him" through. Thanks.' I listened to the hold music then silence.
'Rebecca, good day,' I greeted as the call came through. Silence again. 'Hello?' I said. Nothing. 'Lilly!' I called. 'There is no —'
'Rebecca?' a deep, smooth voice spoke.
Then I felt it. The static charge, same as this morning, like someone had brushed up against my arm. The sensation started at my fingertips and coursed up my arm to the top of my head again. Nausea ... swallow ... close eyes ... swallow. I opened my eyes again slowly. I was now standing up at my desk. I squeezed my eyes shut once more for a second, opened them and thought about the voice. It was strangely familiar.
Yes, I thought in my head. Who else would it be? You phoned me. I never said these things. I couldn't speak. What was wrong with me?
'Just listen,' the voice breathed. 'When you meet with Mr Thomas today, you are to decline any offer he gives you. You will not agree with any of his suggestions or merger agreements. Is that understood?'
I felt myself blink.
'Just nod,' he said.
I nodded, feeling stupid. At that moment, Lilly appeared at the door, obviously answering my call from a few seconds earlier.
'Put your hand up to wave her away,' the bossy voice vibrated in my ear.
I did just that. Crazy! Lilly walked out, smiling nervously and frowning at me at the same time. What must my face look like? I thought.
'I will call you again after the meeting.'
The phone went dead. I held the receiver to my ear, breathing in and out quickly, feeling the static permeating from the phone along my hand, up my arm, towards my neck. I dropped the phone suddenly, and it clattered onto the desk, swinging wildly towards the ground, taking the entire phone unit with it.
I felt the same nausea build up again. What was wrong with me? I asked myself for the third time that morning. The blackness must have come over me quickly as the next thing I knew, Lilly and Carmen were leaning over me, fanning me with a book and mouthing words at me.
Excerpted from The Shifters by Lisa Bell. Copyright © 2015 Lisa Bell. Excerpted by permission of Partridge Africa.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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