10.

After several hours spent tossing and turning, Kay finally accepted that sleep would not be joining her tonight. Rising from her bed, Kay began pacing back and forth, trying to burn off the nervous every coursing through her. A somewhat doomed effort as the cramped floor space meant she could only make it two strides in any direction, but it was better than nothing.

For two days Kay had been stuck in her apartment, technically “resting” but not feeling much rested for the trouble. Stress and nerves hounded her at every moment, both waking and those few of sleep she could manage. Brief spells of unthinking oblivion, precious and distant from one another before throwing her back out into simple, cold reality.

Said reality was, in short, that she was screwed. Not in any abstract or philosophical sense but as a provable, numerical truth. No matter how many times she went over everything, no matter how she fudged things, no matter how many corners she cut or costs she hacked to the bone, the number at the end always sat deep in the red. Kay simply did not have enough money to cover her debt.

That was a problem for a multitude of reasons. By the terms of the loan agreement, any missed payments would incur massive penalties. Bad enough on its own but made worse by another clause that retroactively added the amount to the loan, meaning it was subject to the same interest rate as the original sum had been. Draconian and blatantly unfair, it was but one of several such clauses that riddled the fine print, ensuring that her only options were “pay” or “pay more”.

Adding pressure to panic, just this morning Kay had received a curt reminder the deadline was imminent. She could see the letter from where she paced, sitting atop the piles of bookwork that littered her table. Distance blurred the words, but Kay had read them so many times that she knew them all by heart at this point.

*

Dear [insert client name],

We hope this letter finds you well. We are writing today to inform you that, as per the terms of your contract, your next scheduled debt payment is due on 06/12/2054. Please see the attached documentation for more details.

Thank you for choosing First Finance Solutions and have a pleasant day.

Sincerely,

[insert]

*

A polite threat if nothing else, albeit an impersonal one. The first of what would become many if the deadline passed with no payment rendered. The mentioned further details made that crystal clear.

Shaking the thought away, Kay abandoned her pacing and stepped into the bathroom. Turning on the shower, she stripped off her clothes and stepped under the water. Not to wash but simply to soak in the warmth and steam, hoping that it might help her relax. It worked for a time, the lukewarm water a soothing balm as it cascaded over her skin.

Then something, somewhere broke and the water turned sour as sulphur flooded into the stream. Kay gagged at the stench, her skin beginning to burn like hot needles were raking over her flesh. A badly timed yelp allowed some of the water into her mouth, instantly coating her tongue with the taste of metal. Kay flailed around in search of an escape from this impromptu gas chamber, bashing her arms against the hard plastic in search of the door. Finding it, she threw herself forwards shoulder first to batter it open and tumble out onto the bathroom floor in a heap.

For long minutes Kay lay there, blinking her eyes back into focus and trying not to vomit as she spit out the tainted water. When the world stopped spinning, Kay slowly rose to her feet and shut off the water. She could still smell the sulphur in her nose and taste metal in her mouth.

“Well screw you too,” Kay said to the shower. It’s only reply was a soft gurgle as the last of the sulphur water drained away.

Toweling off and dressing, Kay turned to leave but paused when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. An unsettling face stared back at her from the glass. Pale of skin, hollow cheeked and with beady, sunken eyes hung with bags so dark as to be pitch black. A not un-familiar visage, she’d seen it countless times before, but this one felt different. Felt, permanent. Not an expression worn but something carved deep into her features, heavy with the weight of worry and exhaustion. A week ago, she couldn’t have imagined a person looking like this continuing to function. Just a week ago.

Unbidden, Kay began to imagine what the face would look like tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Further and further she aged it, watching in her mind’s eye as time stretched away in a widening gulf. The creature opposite her aged in kind. Not rapidly, not suddenly, but bit by aggravating bit as the broken face was carved ever deeper into its features.

The thing grew thin and weathered, head drooping low as its neck lost the long battle with a lifetime of hard labour. Its eyes grew dim, hair thin, its skin becoming so colourless as to be almost translucent. Its hands grew dark with callouses, fingers bending into gnarled lumps of useless skin and bone. She watched as the creature was slowly crushed, mind, body and spirit. A life lived on auto, repeating the same thing for forgotten reasons, over and over until it finally broke and nothing but dust remained.

Kay saw this creature standing before her. This creature that had her face.

With great effort, Kay tore her eyes away from the figure, forcing her mind back the now as she left the bathroom. Her nervous energy was gone now, replaced by a heavy fatigue that was little better. Lacking the energy to pace again, Kay instead sank down onto her bed, her gaze beginning to wander about the room.

She knew the space well, intimately familiar with every detail after two days of climbing its cramped walls. The empty fridge and overladen table. The pile of dirty clothes thrown on the floor around the hamper. The dust bunnies and cobwebs beginning to visibly gather in the corners. All of it exactly as it had been the last time. Static, unchanging, her own little corner of an abandoned dream already beginning to rot away.

That last thought depressed Kay. Not the thought itself but the fact that she was no longer surprised by how easily it came to her. Wallowing had ways of making the extreme reasonable.

Her eyes continued wandering across the room, drinking in the details with muted dispassion, until she finally reached the photograph of her father. It sat unchanged like everything else, the same frame holding the same picture of the same family giving the same smiles. A perfect little snapshot suspended forever in time, always happy, blissfully unaware of what was soon to come.

Something drew Kay’s gaze to the image of her father’s face, caught eternal on the cusp of a laugh. He looked, happy. And he probably had been at the time. Flush with borrowed cash, the proud owner of a mighty new ship with which he would finally build his fortune. Things had been bad true but that was all in the past. Today marked the day where things turned around.

“So how’d that work out for you?”

Not well, as it had turned out. The Sea had taken all those hope with it when it had swallowed Bright Hope’s famously rich dredge. His glory or death gambit had fallen squarely on the latter option and without the decency to even make it quick.

Still the man hadn’t learned. He could have made that minor disaster work, could have toiled away with what he had until the debt was repaid but no. No, he needed to cook up yet another scheme, another all or nothing gambit to free himself from his own mistakes. He’d gotten it into his head to go out past the red line. By his logic, since no one went there, there’d be valuable salvage just sitting around in the churn, waiting for some enterprising soul to come pick it up.

He might have been right but that didn’t change the fact that no one went there for a very good reason. There was a reason stories persisted of things both great and terrible out there in the unknown regions of the Sea. Churn so strong it could split a hull like an egg. Masses of trash so large they could bury entire fleets in one fell swoop. The place held only death and monsters for anyone mad or fool enough to tread there.

Still her father had gone, striding out on the Atlantic one morning, never to return. Claimed by the Sea, swallowed up like everything else that dared to challenge it, leaving nothing but trash and ruin in its wake.

Kay hated him for that. Hated that she was left to pick through the ruins for whatever could be saved. Hated that she’d been left to shoulder his mess when the dust had finally settled. She hated the Sea, the stench, the refuse, the churn that could end her in an instant. She hated the Pacific, how it fell to pieces and just would not hold together long enough to fix anything. She hated all of it.

But most of all, she hated that he’d left her all alone.

At that last though, Kay began to cry. Honestly, she had been holding back the tears for a long time but now they burst forth all at once. Long choked sobs escaped her throat as Kay curled herself into a tight ball, her body trembling as emotions both new and old raged through her. She cried out to no one, alone in her own little world of sadness and pain. She cried and cried and cried, cried for what could have been forever, until she had no more tears to shed.

When it finally ended, it left Kay feeling drained, empty and calm for the first time all night. With a remarkable clarity of mind, she wiped away the tears and rose from the bed, approaching the photo where it hung on the wall. She stared at it for a long time, her eyes drifting back and forth between the face of her father and her own younger self. Once, just once, she reached out to run a finger down the glass front, leaving it hanging for a long time as an idea took room mind. A horrible, terrible, very bad idea.

“Fortune and fillet, eh old man?”

The picture did not answer her.

*

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