Happier Days

[excerpt chapter from The Blood of Cha’Vlad]

Jessica Draffin stared at her reflection in the rearview mirror and grimaced. She hated that face. She hated everything about it. Her skin was sallow, her chin doubled, and the glasses poised on the bridge of her nose made her look like a prudish librarian. The chocolate brown eyes behind those glasses, once her only redeeming feature, were now surrounded by a fine webbing of lines, adding to the overall impression of an aging, unhappy, wretch of a woman.

Every day she stared into the face of that miserable stranger. She was living that stranger’s life, her own dreams lost somewhere in the scrambling, hectic pace of everyday existence. She felt like a snowball in an avalanche, tumbling down a mountain of uncertainty, out of control and losing ground with every second that passed her by.

Once, she’d dreamed of having a husband and family. She’d had childish fancies of a house in a good neighborhood with a white picket fence and a big backyard. But those imaginings had been forgotten over the years, and were a far cry from the life she now led.

She’d moved to the west coast with a tiny spark of hope that a change of scenery would inspire her to bring her dreams back into being, but that hope had, so far, been crushed by the realization that no matter where she tried to run, she would always be the same. Poor, aging Jessica: a woman who’d once had visions of grandeur, but had succumbed to her average fate with the swiftness and accuracy of a well-aimed speeding bullet to the brain.

Back in the apartment she shared with two roommates, her student loan bills, collected from years of pursuing her useless degree, formed a small pile in the corner, unpaid, and forever reminding her that she’d never be free of them. Along with them, the black and white faces of her credit card bills seemed to laugh in her face, taunting her with their rising balances no matter how much money she managed to scrounge in her futile attempts to pay them off. She knew with certainty that she would never get ahead, no matter how hard she tried.

She was a fucking mess. And so was the traffic in which she found herself stuck, yet again, as she made her daily trek to the dead-end job that wouldn’t even allow her to make ends meet. How had she allowed her life to spiral so out of control? When had she given in? Why did everything have to be so hard? And why the hell couldn’t she find her way back to happier days?

She honked her horn angrily at the stupid cars surrounding her, and pulled off to the shoulder to cry. Her hot tears of frustration and despair weren’t enough to wash away the agony within her.

*****

When Jessica arrived to work that morning, her eyes still somewhat red and puffy from her breakdown on the freeway, the office was buzzing with some sort of excitement. She kept her eyes down, pretending to inspect the carpeted floor as she made her way through the cube farm to her desk, not wanting to get embroiled in whatever drama it was that had everyone so stirred up. She hated office gossip for the most part, and tried to stay clear of it as much as possible. This left her out of the loop on a lot of stuff, but she didn’t really care. She didn’t really care about much at all these days.

She plopped into her chair, flipped on her computer, and prepared for another long, boring, unproductive day. Her email was full of complaints, the phones were ringing off the hook with angry callers, and her printer was once again on the fritz.

It was just another average, everyday morning in the dull life of Jessica Draffin.

Jess gave her phone a wilting stare and punched the hated button that would allow the fuming masses to infiltrate her day.

“Support line, this is Jessica, how may I help you?”

She rolled her eyes as a self-righteous male voice on the other end berated her because his system was down, and of course, it was all her fault. She patiently waited for his tirade to end before speaking.

“Sir, I understand your frustration. If you’ll just bear with me, I’ll walk you through the procedures to get you back up and online.”

“I don’t have time for this!” shouted the customer.

“I understand how busy you are, sir. But if we send a technician out to help you, it will take longer to get you back into operation.” Fucking idiot, she added silently. She knew the only reason he didn’t want her help was that it would prove just how much of a moron he was.

“I want to speak to a manager!” he demanded.

Sure thing, jerkoff. But first, why not let a doctor remove that corncob from your ass?

What he really meant was that he wanted to speak to a man. She’d had to deal with enough of these chauvinistic dickheads to be able to judge immediately when she had one on the line.

“I’ll be more than happy to connect you to one, sir, but we might be able to resolve your computer issues much more quickly if you’d just let me try to help you first.”

“Stupid bitch! Get me a manager! Now!”

Jessica put the receiver on mute and gave Mr. Customer a raspberry. This earned a guffaw from the cube behind her. She took the phone off of mute and asked the jackass on the other end to please hold for a manager. Once he’d been transferred, she dropped her head to her desk with a sound of defeat. What a way to start the day.

Valerie popped her head over the back of Jessica’s cube. “Bad one?” The younger woman grinned.

Jessica raised her head to smirk at the grinning blonde. “Aren’t they all?”

Valerie chuckled. “Yup. Hey, did you hear about Jacob?”

Jess groaned. “What’s he done now? Molested a nun?” Jacob was well known among the female population of the office. He was a complete prick. He leered at nearly every woman that crossed his path – every woman except for Jessica. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if someone with Jacob’s overabundant libido and lack of concern with whom he foisted it upon didn’t even want to ogle her, then who would? It was just one more thing that singled her out. She was so flawed that not even a pervert wanted to sleep with her.

“Uh, no. He was murdered last night.”

Jessica turned to look at Valerie to see if she was serious. The look on her face said she was.

“Wow,” said Jessica. “That’s too bad.” But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t make herself feel sorry for Jacob. He had been a miserable, little man, and had on more than one occasion made Jessica feel like an ugly, fat freak. It didn’t help that she felt that way most of the time anyway. He just happened to have a way of making her feel even more useless and imperfect. As far as she was concerned, the world was a better place with one less Jacob.

At least she now knew what all the hoopla had been about this morning.

*****

Later that night, just like every night, Jessica lay on her side in her small bed, staring at the slats of the cheap vertical blinds that covered her window. With the light from the courtyard lamp outside shining behind them, they looked a lot like thick prison bars. They felt that way, too. They never failed to make her feel panicked and trapped.

When she closed her eyes, the gloom was filled with unseen creatures, their faces full of sharp teeth barely hidden behind their sucking lips. They eagerly scrambled for her, glaring at her with unbelievably large, glowing eyes, always trying to snatch at her with their wicked, misshapen hands. They rarely managed to lay a finger on her, but every morning, she woke to feelings of helplessness and desperation. Though surrounded by people every single day, she was completely alone. She was out of sync with the world, and it was her own inner demons that taunted and tittered in her dreams, trying to devour what little sanity she had left.

The path on which she found herself was a one-way trip to self-destruction. If she couldn’t somehow manage to slow her downward spiral, she was sure she would die, and even more certain that no one would give a damn. Sometimes, she thought the sweet oblivion of death would be a welcome relief. She could almost swear she heard voices all around her, urging her to give in. The monsters in her head were given substance in the darkness of her depression, their glowing eyes a beacon to lead her along that final path toward the endgame. It was all she could do not to run to them and embrace the nonexistence they offered.

Jessica closed her eyes tightly and prepared to cry herself to sleep, yet again.

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