In a near decrepit New York apartment, keys jangle, jam and force the lock of a swollen door until it’s pushed open to scrape along the hardwood floor. The door acts as a plough, pushing a mountain of mail against the mouldy wall decorated with bubbles rising below the once-white paint. A young man stands at the entrance, staring blankly at his new home. He’d already viewed the place before, he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t, but this was the only apartment available at such short notice, not to mention the only one he could afford. He misses her so much and he could really use a friend right now. It’s way too soon to find humour in his ironic situation. He wonders how long they’ve been together, her and Jordan, his best friend, the one to whom all his other friends would flock. She insists they did nothing but he’d have to be a fool to believe that. He’d have to be an even bigger fool to believe that his employer laid him off due to cutbacks. Jordan, unfortunately for the down-on-his-luck heartbroken young man, was also his employer. What a fucking coincidence, thinks Robert Bridges. Why me? Why the fuck, Jordan?! Is it the name? Everyone around me is always saying his fucking name, is his name cooler than mine; does the name Robert really suck so much ass for her to do this to me?
Robert enters the apartment, rolling his suitcase in behind him. His very footsteps disturb a few brownish-orange luminescent cockroaches, scattering around his feet.
“Fucking beautiful,” says Robert, shaking his head in disgust. I don’t even want to see the kitchen, he thinks. Robert can only muster the energy to do two things: take a hot shower and go to sleep. A shower. Robert cherishes the thought, his eyes closed. He lets his suitcase drop to the floor and forces the door shut behind him. He wanders into the tiny bedroom and looks adoringly at the rusty-framed narrow single bed. A broken set of drawers hugs a tight corner and a flickering ceiling light barely disrupts the morbid ambience of the mid evening.
Good of the landlord to provide the piss-stained bedding, thinks Robert before stripping it entirely and flipping the mattress. As he sees the other side of the mattress, he releases it in disgust as he finds more patches of faded yellow. Rob flips the mattress again hoping to find a plain of soft white as far as the eye can see, but sees nothing except more country shaped piss stains. Taking a breath, he flips the mattress onto its edge and lets it fall back onto the frame with the side of fewer piss stains facing up. As he fits the cover sheet he catches sight of a collection of strange pink markings on the wall just above the bed. He rubs the inch-long ruts with his thumb whilst observing their staggered formation. Rob dismisses the marked wall – Ignorance is bliss – and readies the bed with new bedsheets from his suitcase. He admires its welcoming appearance; falling face first onto its hard surface would be too easy. He could fall asleep standing up he was so tired, he hadn’t slept in… Three days now? Robert grimaces at the smell of his feet as he separates the damp interior of his trainers from his sweat-soaked socks. He opens a window and puts his trainers on the fire escape, hoping they’ll smell fresher in the morning. He unpacks his toiletries and staggers to the bathroom, head raised in a wobbling tilt. To his surprise, the bath appears to have been cleaned. Perhaps the landlord saw his look of disgust at the viewing and got a professional cleaner to give the place a quick once-over. Bath or shower, bath or shower, wonders Robert. No time, he tells himself before striding into the bath and adjusting the showerhead. He turns the taps with precision and groans in pleasure as the perfect temperature and pressure of hot water jets onto his head and back. Robert lathers himself in soap and as the suds stream down his face, the showerhead shakes and jolts rapidly as the interior pipes groan in loud complaint. Robert recoils as the water suddenly turns red-hot – he slips out of the bath and onto his back with his ankle still trapped under the bath tap. Robert shouts crazily as scalding water blasts his foot whilst he tries to wrangle it free. Finally liberating his twisted ankle, he holds it tight and sobs in frustration, his eyes stinging from the minty soapsuds.
Robert’s cries become hysterical laughter before eventually winding down into self-ridiculing moans. He shakes his head pitifully and wipes the suds and tears from his face. Struggling to his feet, he doesn’t know what’s worse, the possibility of being found injured, naked and exposed in the most stupid of circumstances, or the fact that he had no one to come to his aid at all. For the time being, he chooses the latter as he winces and limps to the bedroom. He pulls a fresh pair of drawers over his burned and bruised foot and despite the effort it feels great to be finally wearing clean underwear. After wearing the same drawers and socks for the past three days, nothing feels better than wearing something clean to cover his medium to well-done privates. Robert turns off the light and climbs into bed. With his feet dangling off the end, he burrows his head into his folded pillow. It doesn’t take a second for him to fall asleep, even with the neighbours above shuffling around for most of the night. Robert wakes a few hours later with his foot stinging and aching. Agitated in the small confines of his sleeping space, he tries to find a position of comfort, but every movement hurts his foot. Suddenly he realises he has bigger problems and the panic of finding a new job and money to live on suddenly sets in. He lies on his side, awake and worried; it feels strange without Sarah’s warm body breathing beside his. It feels unnatural not to have her arm draped over his shoulder or her tanned leg wrapped over his thigh. He misses waking up to the colourfully botched rainbow tattoo on her tanned thigh, the one she got on their trip to L.A. That trip seems like such a long time ago now, and a huge waste of time. For the first time since he was a child, Robert feels alone, afraid and betrayed. His eyes well up and tears spill down his face, forming a wet patch on his pillow. He cries in silent whimpers, wondering how he’s ever going to move on.
The night is quiet but for the odd car passing by, illuminating the wall and ceiling with passing cones of light shone by the high beams. Every so often the high beams light a large teal clock reading 11:00pm, its ticking is loud but hypnotising, but every clunking tick sounds like a relentless reminder that his time is running out. Robert breaks from his trance and looks at the digital clock beside him, which is displaying 11:30pm. Despite his foot hurting more by the minute, he wipes his moist eyes and tries to visualise his life improving with the prospect of a new day when the sun comes up. Robert stays awake for a while trying to create various groundbreaking recipes in his head that might help him rival Jordan’s “special dishes”. He curses his own lack of imagination and creativity before drifting off. His eyelids flicker as he dreams of being chased by Sarah, Jordan, his estranged parents and furious credit cards, and all the while tiers of cheeseburgers heckle and jeer his attempts to create a recipe to rival Jordan’s. He sleeps uneasily, with his body twitching sporadically and his sweating head rolling from left to right.
As Rob sleeps, exhausted from his long bout of crying, every so often his face winces as his foot twitches. There isn’t a sound now in the dark, peaceful room; even the teal clock is quiet, its silent ticking hands held captive behind the domed plastic casing. As if it had been waiting for this eternal peace in darkness, a slender grey hand silently emerges from the shadow below the bed. The hand rises from the end of the bed, exposing itself to the streetlight shining through the window. It lingers above the foot of the bed, fingers spread. The hand rises, further revealing a slim, colourless arm; the arm steadily lowers over Rob’s leg, gently grazing his knee with its fingertips. The fingers brush the hairs on his legs as they move down to stop at his red, swollen foot. The hand gently closes around Robert’s injured ankle. Robert winces slightly, but after a minute or so, he starts groaning in relief as the hand carefully and lovingly caresses his ankle and heel. Rob twists and turns, taunted and haunted by his recent heartbreak. Confused and maddened, he dreams the weirdest of fever dreams whilst running deep into the pitch-black pockets of his vulnerable mind.
Rob runs from a hateful mob of giant clones of Jordan and Sarah. He’s never seen their faces like this before. Their massive striding feet try to stamp on him as he races to a finishing line that doesn’t seem to get any closer. The assortment of cuisine watching from the sidelines cheers him on, applauding him with raging cries of encouragement. Suddenly a burger-headed warrior with a body of French fries breaks the barrier at the sidelines and turns on Rob’s pursuers. The army of clones shrink to human size before turning on the various foodstuffs now engaging them in battle. Cheeseburgers wielding pickle-shaped baseball bats knock teeth from mouths as their capes of ketchup ripple wildly with each swing of their weapons. Seeing the first cheeseburger outnumbered, a slim, curvaceous body of spaghetti bonded by béchamel walks fearlessly forward. The figure’s shoulder guards of oregano shift backward as it reaches for the swords of shaved Parmesan fixed to its back. As the cheeseburger beats Rob’s enemies, the figure of spaghetti twists, spins and ravels whilst slicing the villains into flipping bloody pieces. As the horde of Jordans and Sarahs charge from behind the mounting pile of slain bodies, a flurry of chilli peppers drive into their chests, knocking them back. As the clones claw at the pointed red and green chillis embedded in their torsos, they suddenly scream, their faces growing redder and redder until they explode in chunky spatters of muscle and bone. Another figure approaches the line, a figure with jalapeños for arms and legs, and a tortilla concealing a body of chilli con carne and rice. Thick flowing guacamole drapes over the collar of the beautiful burrito like oozing wavy green locks. Another figure appears beside the burrito; a large mass of string-wrapped beef stamps forward with legs of mashed potato. A cloak of gravy flows over the shoulder of a Yorkshire pudding shoulder guard. The warrior’s muscle-bound arms tighten as it watches the surging enemy preparing to overwhelm the line. Pork crackling headgear protects the faceless new potato underneath as it readies an asparagus spear in its massive cauliflower-cheese hand. The warrior sends the green spear rocketing forward, impaling multiple enemies on its rushing journey.
The warrior lobs peas like cannonballs, punching holes through chests and reducing craniums to wobbling mush, but the clones just keep coming. The beef warrior raises its sliced carrot shield to protect itself against the onrushing wall of Jordans and Sarahs. With various other foodstuffs joining the front line and allowing their champion to escape, Rob doesn’t feel so alone anymore. He feels a sudden surge of adrenaline, urging him to run faster and he finally sees the flashing chequered banner getting closer. Rob stops short of the finish line as he considers the lives of those fighting for him. He looks back, feeling bad about leaving his saviours behind. Looking at the assortment of food clobbering Sarah and Jordan unconscious feels good, but he also sees them ultimately being defeated by the sheer mass of clones.
“What are you doing? Go! Victory is yours, take it!” says the cheeseburger, knocking a Jordan’s teeth out.
“What about you guys?” asks Robert.
“We’ll always be with you. Go now, go!” says the body of pasta, driving its swords into a Sarah’s chest.
“I can’t leave you like this!”
“You’re not leaving us, go and do what you do best!” says the burrito, driving its pointy fingers into another Jordan’s neck.
“You know what to do!” says the Sunday roast, knocking off multiple heads with a hammer of stuffing.
“I do? Yeah, I do…For the first time I know exactly what to do! I won’t let you down, I promise!” shouts Rob passionately.
The mutilated militia raise their broken appendages into the air whilst yelling their final victorious war cries as Rob turns back to the finish line. As he leaps into a head-forward sprint, his state of mind becomes more serene as the dying screams of his companions fades to nothing. Rob’s protruding chest breaks the ribbon as he crosses the finish line. With his head held back, he smiles euphorically through panting breaths, his arms outspread.
Rob stirs awake to the soothing sensation of fingers delicately rubbing his foot in slow circular motions. Opening his eyes slightly, he sees a young woman with straight black hair tilting her head back and forth whilst focusing on his pedicured size 12 feet. Robert closes his eyes again before suddenly recoiling into the corner of the bed against the wall. The entity appears panicked and quickly vanishes back under the bed.
Robert pants heavily and looks to the front door, unsure whether it’s safe to make a run for it. Alone, still surrounded by darkness, but for a few shadows cast on the wall from outside, he slowly readies himself to leap for the door. He presses his foot down and realises it is completely healed. He also considers the possibility that he was dreaming and is just overreacting, just like Sarah says he always does. Robert reaches out to anybody in the room, hoping silence will be his only reply before going back to sleep.
“Hello, anyone here?” asks Robert nervously. “If there is, show yourself!” His brown eyes dart from side to side as he nervously anticipates some kind of paranormal activity. When no reply comes, Rob finally exhales in relief, but not before smiling at his own stupidity.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” whispers a gentle voice from under the bed.
“Oh shit! Shit, shit, oh my god,” says Robert, springing to his feet and looking down at the mattress.
“Don’t be afraid. Your foot, much better now, yes?”
Robert ignores her question and moves on to more pressing matters.
“Who are you, and what the fuck are you doing under my bed!?”
“Just a friend,” replies the quaint voice.
“What are you doing here?”
“I live here.”
“Under my bed?” says Robert, eyeing up the distance to the front door.
“Yes, in the confines of shadow. I don’t have anywhere else to go. I’m sorry I scared you, I was just trying to help,” says the gentle voice.
“Show yourself, let me see you,” says Robert.
“I don’t want to,” says the girl shyly.
“Why the fuck are you under my bed?” asks Robert, more calmly now.
“I cannot leave, I can’t survive long out of the shadows,” says the girl sadly.
Overcome by curiosity and feeling pity for the girl, Robert drops to his knees and hangs his head under the bed. He sees nothing but darkness as he scans from left to right. He sits on the bed and tries to process what’s happening, and as he does, two grey hands attached to slender wrists rise from the foot of the bed. The digits clasp the white, peeling rail as a young, black-haired woman reveals her slim, pale face.
“Are you even a human? What are you?” asks Robert.
“I don’t know what I am,” replies the entity.
“What do you want?” asks Robert.
“A friend, to be your friend,” replies the girl awkwardly. “I like you, Robert, I want to help you. I can… help you.”
“You know my name…You know my name. How do you know my name? Hold on, what do you mean help me, help me how?”
“I can tell you… or show you,” says the entity, gently gliding her fingernails across his foot.
Robert lies back and his head hits the pillow as he allows her to work her magic.
“What’s your name?” asks Robert.
“I don’t have one,” replies the phantom. “Quiet now…Upon first light a better life will begin for you, one worth living, over… and over… and over… again.” The phantom watches Robert relax into a deep sleep as she rubs the soles of his feet.
Robert gasps euphorically and shuts his eyes and as his eyelids bring darkness, his imagination lights to life, creating whole menus of wild dishes and crazy cuisine. The following morning, Robert’s eyes open and he springs out of bed feeling like a new man. He doesn’t know why, but he vaguely recalls a combination of weird dreams involving a cheeseburger and a beautiful woman massaging his injured foot.
Robert ponders on the dream involving a magical foot massage and then shakes his head in self-doubt before springing on the spot and spreading his toes. He glances at the alarm clock, which reads 7:00am, and goes to the bathroom. As he passes by the mirror he stops for a second to stare at his reflection.
“New day, new job, let’s do this! Time to make good on that promise, I won’t let you down,” says Robert sternly, before laughing hysterically at his own reflection.