Short Story: Underneath

Most good stories tend to start underneath things. Underneath trees, rich dark rainclouds, a beautiful lover, a sense of impending doom – these are all great places to start a story. Dear readers, I don’t start this story underneath anything quite so interesting, I’m afraid. I start this story underneath fluorescent lights and a plasterboard ceiling that looks in ever increasing danger of losing some of it’s namesake plaster.

Freddie sits in his cubicle on the production floor of a call centre, the loud sounds of his coworkers fragmented and muted to blissful inchoerence through his headset. He stares up at the lights in the ceiling most days until he can create strange aftershadows on the precarious ceiling above him with his eyes. The shapes blur into each other over and over until they lose any meaning. Monsters from bad and uncertain dreams made real by the moment of opportunity presented by flickering bizarre lights.

It is bizarre to him that he is far away from his righful place, from his family, from everything he grew up with. It is strange to drink coffee and to tell strangers on the phones that he cares about them, that he will do everything he can to help them. A message pings on the display in front of him – it’s Richie from next door asking if he wants to get lunch with him again. If he were being honest with himself, Freddie would admit that he really didn’t want to get lunch with Richie. Richie had bad breath and a strange gap between his second and third bottom teeth on the left which always trapped food. He’d also never seen anyone eat with such unadulterated gusto and it was off-putting.

Freddie typed back “Sure. Meet you in the lobby?”.

He noticed some plaster dust gathering on his shoes as he meandered into the lobby at half twelve, probably from some slightly too loud footsteps from upstairs. He didn’t know what they did up there, but it sounded considerably more energetic than his job. He looked up as another little chunk of plasted fell revealing mouldy concrete underneath. A door clicked open and shut somwhere, and the blissful silence was broken by Richie’s too eager voice “So what do you want today?! Ramen? Pasta? Salad? Burgers?”. The dizzying array of choices made Freddie nauseous and he closed his eyes to avoid retching.

He was violently regretting his decision to say yes to lunch at all, let alone with Richie as a companion. But might as well get it over with, and Freddie looked at Richie with undisguised loathing as he scrunched up his nose and spat out “Burgers. And they better be good this time.”.

“Sure thing Boss!” Richie said, ever the cheerful corporate slave. How did he do it, Freddie always asked himself. How is he that happy to be here, at the beck and call of all and sundry. Maybe he should get him fired, that’d wipe the vile happiness from his smug little face. Richie was humming now, smiling to himself as he checked his phone. No doubt a happy text from a loved one. Freddie didn’t have any loved ones, and his last girlfriend put him on block after he had quite rightly told her what an ungrateful whore she was. Fuck her anyway, he deserved better.

Freddie and Richie exited the building and Richie headed off towards the burger place, still almost bouncing with the joy of it. That’s it, Freddie decided. Something had to be done and he finally lost it.

Freddie waited a few more paces, then suddenly held an arm out and pointed up to say “Hey Richie, look out!” while slightly looping his foot around Richie’s ankle as he stepped forwards. It was an old trick, but still a good one. Richie went sprawling, nose hitting pavement with a satisfying splat and blood gushing out. Freddie had to hold in the giggles of boyish glee and keep a straight face as he helped Richie up. Blood on his shirt wiped in to stain deep red, but the irritating smirk and joy wiped clean of his face. “Richie for God’s sakes you need to watch where you’re going!” Freddie exclaimed while helping Richie up. He grasped tight onto his shirt as he did so.

“Argh, thanks Freddie. Sorry about this, I musnt’ve been paying attention.”

Freddie smiled, his first genuinely positive emotion all day surfacing as he looked down at Richie with affection and care. “It’s okay Richie, I’m your friend. Of course I’ll help you up when you fall!”. Freddie pulled out a handkerchief and held it to Richie’s nose, cradling him as they walked onwards. He was suddenly ravenous as well, and the thought of Richie bleeding over a bowl of red was suddently intoxicating him. “Hey Richie, you’re having a tough day, why don’t we get your favourite? Chilli ramen?”

Richie’s voice was a bit quiet and clogged with blood as he smiled up through watery eyes at Freddie. “Sure thing boss.”

Freddie walked back into his cubicle a refreshed man after lunch, and as he stared up at those fluorescent lights he once again buried the monster underneath. His mind would be happy for a while now, and satisfied to only watch the shapes play on the ceiling.

“Hi there, welcome to tech support you’re speaking with Freddie – how can I help you today?”

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