Hope checked her face in the mirror, pinching her cheeks for a more natural redness, then looked at herself from a few odd angles to make sure there weren’t any garish smudges. Next she focused on her hair. It was pulled back tightly in a hair band, to gather into a loose mass of black curls atop her head. From the front, it looked decent, but the back? She cursed herself for not bringing a mirror to inspect the back of her head. It was a difficult decision, but she decided to risk leaving, assuming that the back of her head looked as good as the front. With a spring in her step from false confidence, she strolled out of the bathroom.
As expected, Freddie was there to meet her, his gray eyes bright with amusement. He handed her a drink, and the two of them strolled into the midst of the party to begin the dance. Arm in arm, they attacked the party on several fronts. First, they approached those they knew well. With kisses and hugs, they managed to infiltrate with some degree of success. A few introductions later, and they had a circle of friends to hide within. However, it did not take long for the number of awkward pauses to grow long enough to make all of Hope’s hairs stand on end. She nudged Freddie, and he took her arm once more. Under the pretence of needing more to drink, they moved on.
The next stage was approaching those they only knew as acquaintances. This was a more dangerous move, but safe so long as they only talked about work. Freddie whispered in Hope’s ear that she mustn’t talk history. Annoyed, Hope whispered back that he wasn’t to mention the most recent gay-rights march in D.C. Sticking his tongue out at her, they moved to intercept a fringe group near the drinks table.
The conversation grabber Hope inserted was not deep, or even clever, centering on that tritely amusing event involving Jack and the copier. His secretary had jammed it and, rather than try to fix it (which wasn’t her job, she had said), she’d simply gone back to her desk and played solitaire on the computer. Eventually, Jack had wondered what happened to the copies he’d needed and approached her. When she told him about the jam, he’d heroically gone to fight the machine for her, sword flashing. Antics ensued involving flying toner, loud beeping, more jams, and eventually a dent in the copier’s door about the size of a man’s shoe.
The circle laughed appropriately, and Hope felt like a hit. Then, the laughter faded and everyone looked at each other for a couple of minutes. No one had a follow up. Hope was annoyed – surely everyone had a copier story, or at least a fax machine gripe to share. But no, apparently the desire to maintain the grouping just wasn't strong enough to encourage such spontaneity. What utter rot.
Dispersal soon followed in the form of bathroom breaks and the like. Hope and Freddie stood around for a couple of minutes, hanging on each other hoping the other wanted to leave. But, as neither broached the topic, they moved on.
The rest of the night spilled off into oblivion, and, much later than they’d wished for, Hope and Freddie found themselves catching a cab together. He settled back into the plastic seat, his arm around Hope, who let him draw her in. She snuggled deep into his arm and closed her eyes.
When he jostled her awake, they were outside of the apartment building. Freddie paid the driver, and they stumbled inside. They parted ways at the elevator, as Freddie lived on the first floor with his boyfriend, and Hope lived on the fifth floor with hers. He kissed her lightly on the cheek and left her by the elevator doors. She watched him stroll away to disappear behind the corridor’s fire door, the light shush as it closed leaving her acutely aware of the abrupt silence. He glanced back just once before he vanished and gave her a supportive smile. Hope waved in return.
The ancient elevator arrived with a chunk, a screech and a whir. As the doors slid open, Hope was forced to stand aside as a whole crowd of people proceeded to get out. For a moment, she wondered where these people could be going at three in the morning. All wore black, and slowly, ever so slowly, they stepped out of the glowing box.
The first was a small man, his face screwed in a frown. He glanced at Hope with what she fancied to be murderous intent. Beady black eyes seemed to glare from under furry brows, and he curled his top lip at her surprised expression. In response, Hope rocked back a step.
The next was a woman, tall and gaunt, with an ill-fitting black lace dress even more ruined by the fact that she was carrying a small child. Her face was frightful, streamed with mascara from tears. She looked not at all at Hope, her glassy eyes facing front. With some effort, she shifted her squealing child from one hip to the other. The boy was crying uncontrollably, constantly repeating “want more!” at the top of his voice. The woman seemed not to notice.
Clutching her skirt from behind, a little boy laughing and yelling nonsense words came next. He too was dressed in black, except for a white cowboy hat that appeared to be glued to his head. He also brandished a silver handled toy gun, with which he pretended to shoot Hope. Blinking, Hope hugged her arms close around her. She tried to smile at the boy, but her facial muscles had frozen and she only managed a grimace.
Behind the children, a sickeningly thin blond woman clung to the arm of a tall, heavyset man. She held onto him for dear life, elbowing him violently in the ribs with a bony arm when he happened to smile charmingly at Hope. Hope tried to look away, but he held her attention. He was very handsome, his black clothes incredibly chic, and his hair perfectly coifed. He knew the impact he had on women, and gave Hope a look that would melt the Arctic. Blushing, Hope looked at her feet, but looked up when she felt a sharp jab to her chest.
“You stay away. Far away,” the woman hissed, her finger an inch from Hope’s upraised chin. Again, Hope rocked back a step. The couple moved on.
No one else followed this last pair, and Hope watched them leave with some confusion. Her mind dwelt on the possibilities of wakes or funerals. She thought of how empty her night had been, without cares or hopes or sadness or joy. Her night had been forgettable, while these people had obviously been through a great deal in the same time.
Coldness gripped her soul as she stepped into the elevator and let the doors close behind her. The box shuddered as it began its gentle rise, and Hope turned around to lean against the back wall for balance. Gears plunked, squeaked and banged as it moved, locking her into the movement upwards. The numbers rolled past behind the black screen, a small ding sounding as each went past. The trip took seconds, but for the unbalanced girl, it took hours. Eventually, her floor arrived, and the doors opened.
Across from her the wooden door stood closed, shut to the night. All the doors on the hall were similarly closed, with no light visible except for the door at the end. A shaft of light streamed out from under the door frame, and Hope made her way towards it with a little trepidation. Her mind leaving the scene she’d just witnessed, she remembered that she was much later coming home than she’d promised.
Her key fit in the lock with a loud rasp, and the click of the bolt reverberated down the empty hall. She inserted the second key into the handle, and, being newer, this bolt made less noise. Still, the sound of the door unhitching from the frame caused her to wince.
She swung the door open and faced the half lit hallway. Peter had left the light on in the bathroom, and this shed enough light for her to see. Quietly, she shut the door behind her and locked it. She was slipping the chain on when she felt the presence behind her. Startled, she whipped around to face him.
Peter stood in the doorway to the kitchen, a glass of water in his hand. He offered it to her with a raised arm, but she shook her head. Nodding, he downed it himself in a single gulp. With that, he turned around, probably to put the glass in the sink. Hope moved forward and watched him from the hallway. He stood over the sink, his shoulders hunched, his arms braced against the sides. Hope thought about trying to explain her lateness, but never got the chance.
“A girl was shot outside the building tonight, around the time you said you’d be home,” he whispered, his shoulders trembling slightly. Hope leaned against the doorframe, her mind turning back to the people in the elevator.
“At first, I thought it was you,” a shaky breath, “but I quickly learnt that it was, in fact, the little girl from downstairs. Pandora, her parents called her. She was ten. She jumped on a drug runner when he tried to punch her father on the stoop. The pusher threw her off, like a rag doll. She was pitched face down the stairs, hit her head, and died.”
Hope drew this in without much flavor. She disliked the knowledge that her beautiful city had an ugly side so close to home, but she knew the truth of what Peter said. She hadn’t known Pandora, but she knew of those like her. You couldn’t live here without knowing about those like her. Pulling out her hair band, she pushed a tired hand through her limp hair and sighed. Stepping forward across the scuffed black and white tiles, she reached out to take his arm. It was then that she noticed he was still fully dressed. He even had his shoes on. His dark eyes shone as he looked at her, his pale lips curving into a smile.
“I saw you get out of the cab with Freddie, and I rang Alex as you entered. He said they’d love to be the witnesses.” Grabbing her hand, Peter pressed the ring into her palm. The stone dug into the flesh where he pressed it, then wrapped her fingers around it with his other hand. “It was supposed to be tomorrow, when I came to surprise you at lunch, but I don’t want to wait that long. If you want to, we can drive somewhere now and get married before the sun rises.”
Loosening her hand from his, Hope opened her cold fingers to stare at the ring in her palm. It glinted in the fluorescent bathroom light, but otherwise seemed fairly dead. With exaggerated care, she slipped the gold band on her finger, to find a perfect fit. She looked up at Peter, who regarded her with a guileless expression, and smiled.
In a swift movement, she grabbed him into a fierce hug, and whispered into his ear, “Then let’s get the hell out of here.”