Daniel Johnson

Sunrise at the Corporation

There was another glassy colossus in the distance. He stood at the window, on the seventy-third floor, facing East over London, and gave five measured flashes of his torch in its direction. He’d done this every night for a month. There’d never been a response. But once, after dozing off in an office chair, he’d seen one in a dream. The dreamland signals had felt so real that he found himself half-believing still. 

He stared at the neighboring tower. It was August now, nearly Kathleen’s fourth birthday. He’d been working nightshift security for the Corporation for four years, just long enough to be petrified of the possibility, even likelihood, of the long term. Four years seemed to be teetering on the edge of forty and a plaque. But there’d be no office party and cake as there weren’t any coworkers. He’d never even met anyone from the actual Corporation, just Lou, the guard he relieved, and Ahmed, the guard who relieved him. It seemed ridiculous to have just the one guard patrol the entire building, but he figured he was there for insurance purposes and that the Corporation was generally unafraid of any Hans Gruber style heists. Plus, as far as he knew, all there was to steal was one hundred and one floors worth of desk chairs and office supplies.

But it was a job and he needed one of those for Kathleen. 

Heights didn’t scare him. He leaned his forehead against the window and exhaled slowly, looking down. In some ways, the job suited him. Quiet, predictable work. He enjoyed the forty minute reverse commute. All these people rushing, killing themselves to get away from the buildings, the meetings, the cubicles. He was rushing nowhere. He went from the small room in the small house in Croydon where he lived with people he didn’t know, to this modern monolith of business where he walked the floors and nothing happened all night long. He’d go entire weeks without speaking to anyone except the occasional bartender or Lou or Ahmed, and even these were terse encounters. All his friends were elsewhere, across the city, across the globe, while he was stuck living life in a photo-negative, and all it had taken was one night on Brian’s stag weekend in Cork. 

He was unafraid, but not naturally adventurous. Before the trip to Cork, he hadn’t been out of the country in years. Once, when he was twelve, his parents took him and his sister for a week in Alicante, but they’d all returned to England two days early. The air itself had been too spicy and exotic for his mother and all his father had wanted to do was sit near the docks, sip the little glasses of cerveza, and abandon the family to their own devices, a decision which had only added to his mother’s mania.

He’d been surprised at his friend’s engagement; Brian had only been with the woman for a year. He’d watched without opinion as the topic of Brian’s stag weekend was eagerly set upon by Tony and Jack. Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona were discussed, but in a strange turn, Brian declared the destination was to be Ireland.

“Man, let’s go to Cork, my cousins say it’s a lawless fucking time. The whole town is just pub after dingy pub and the streets are filled with sexy Polish girls.”

So that was that and it was a short flight across the Irish sea from Stansted. He’d had to beg Lou and Ahmed to cover his shifts, bribing them with a hundred pounds each and a lot of weed.

The drinking had started before they’d left London. At first he’d had difficulties keeping up; he’d had to work the previous night and was running on a ninety minute nap. But fags and keys of coke were fuel enough.

In Cork they’d moved between pubs on whimsy, eating chips and drinking black stout, Heineken, and James Powers whiskey. Skinny girls from the Eastern Bloc danced before them for fivers in a shitty strip joint in Blackpool they’d sussed from the side of a cab. One had slapped him in the face so hard she’d drawn blood. He’d sucked at his cheek and tasted the blood mixing with the lager. He’d thought the metallic blend to be pleasant. 

“Give us a smile, mate!” Brian said to him, and when he’d flashed a bloody grin, they’d all fallen to hysterics. 

The second and final night they’d ended up in a nightclub at the end of a wet street lined with pubs, and this is where it happened. 

He saw her moving in a shadowy corner, gaunt, sexy, vaguely superstitious. He got the feeling that she would read his star sign and fuck the life out of him. Her hair, dyed a glinting auburn, fell from a high pony tail that looked unkempt yet designed. He saw her fake tan as vaguely Mediterranean. There was something of the hill country about her, as if the city’s vaulted northside held the mystical kinds of things that only misty highlands do. 

He remembered thinking, This woman could kill and eat me like a black widow and it wouldn’t matter one single fucking bit

Who approached who was blurry, and ultimately inconsequential. Shots were ordered and thrown back with efficient ceremony. He danced the steps of dances he didn’t know he had, her arse terrifying and wonderful against his groin the way it surely feels in the last euphoric gasps of it all. He lost all points of reference besides her glare, and it was in that wild, calculating gaze through the disco lights and tequila fog that it occurred to him that she was not concerned with the conventional orders of the universe. Even then he knew that this was a woman who did not hold herself accountable to any of the usual laws and measures. She was, as she would be happy to tell him eventually, moved by unseen currents, wavelengths from the stars, sudden shifts in the weather.

But it didn’t matter just then, only the simple fulfillment of the night. And when she took him by the hand into the nightclub toilet, locked the door of a single stall and began to undo their belts, he’d been happy to be led. 

Fucksake was he happy to be led. 

God forgive him for thinking of it all as bad luck – he loved Kathleen in a way he’d never loved anything in the world before. But he didn’t love, or even like, Siobhan. He’d found out her name only the next day. He learned she read crystals and palms, distrusted modern medicine, and had theories about the way the world was ordered that drifted happily into conspiracy. He found himself at odds with her at a level that was foundational. On that night, if he’d shown himself to be irresponsible, malleable to a fault, and carefree to the point of idiocy, then she’d shown herself, though it hadn’t mattered to him at the time, to be intractable, illogical, and capable of being viciously unpleasant. 

When the aunts had surrounded Siobhan in the CUH, debating which crib in the Argos catalogue would go best in the new mother’s soon-to-be home on Barrack Street, he was unspeakably relieved. He saw there would be a tight-knit clan, army even, there to support this woman and his daughter. And yet in that relief was a shameful guilt at his tacit rejection of Kathleen. He was complicit to her effective abandonment, to the abdication of an idealized version of his fatherly duties. 

In this was the great tension of his life. Real choices, he came to realize, are rare enough, and when they seem to present themselves, they’re melting between greys, living in half-goods, unavoidable inadequacies and disappointments. 

Still hanging over the void of the city, he saw Kathleen in the pixelated sprawl the way others read faces into clouds, her wide smile in the lighting on the rail lines. It was all glittering and flashing beneath him, simultaneously familiar and foreign. He didn’t spend any time in central London outside the nightshift work hours. 

He hoped for a signal back from the neighboring tower, yet maybe it was impossible to even see it. It was hard to measure the distance across the trapeze heights of the city. But there was surely another man or woman making quiet rounds of darkened floors, just over there. What he was trying to say to them seemed something so obvious, so fundamental, he couldn’t give it coherent form. How else could he form a simple message of existence?

He checked his phone. 6:00 AM. It was almost time. 

He turned from the window, gave a perfunctory scan of the 73rd floor cubicles, and went for the lift. The tiles in the hallway were dark and luminous, neatly polished and hungry. His boots were loud, and the keys on his belt jingled in time with his step. They rattled deep in his head, like bright bells in a Christmas symphony. 

At the lift, he pressed the Up button with a vigor that surprised him. He waited. He could hear his heart beating. The seconds ticked by in his head, and he wiped cool, air-conditioned sweat from his brow.

Ten seconds.

Fifteen, twenty. 

Twenty-five – the bell, the light. The doors came apart. 

The interior of the elevator was one of those odd stone and funhouse mirror combinations somehow typical of offices. The fake looking granite – or real, how was he to know? – was orangish and pink, like a strange flavor of sherbet. He stepped inside and infinity selves multiplied outwards from his center. As he moved to press the last button on the list of floors – One Hundred and One – he tried not to look at himself. 

The momentary silence between the doors closing and the lift’s motion enveloped him. It was heavy, like a piece of carpet, something he could hold or drape over his shoulders but was unexpectedly burdensome. He wondered if Kathleen was sleeping well in the small flat on Barrack Street. He hadn’t seen the inside of it for more than a year. He remembered when Siobhan had moved in there, how he’d gone into the Tesco in the centre of that odd swamp of a town and lugged a microwave home, carrying it through the winding streets. It was both more expensive and heavier than he’d expected, though he’d played it off as nothing to Siobhan. 

The lift climbed and he could feel the speed of it in his feet, the momentous pressure as he shot skyward through the guts of the building. He could imagine himself going straight through the roof, like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Kathleen loved that movie. Any time they’d watched it, for days afterward she’d run around with her wide smile picking things up, a bottle of ketchup, his phone, or the TV remote, shouting in her unique speech Gol-Tickah! She always got anxious about the lift scene, but he thought just now that it wouldn’t be too bad. 

A rocket over the urban morning. 

The lift began to slow, and he had the courage to look himself in the mirror. Neither older nor younger than he thought he should look. Tired, though. He wondered just how much of himself was in Kathleen. She had a face that held nothing back; she was different. He’d never seen a smile bigger than hers, but her moods swung violently. There’d been no official diagnosis. The last time he’d been over to see them, he’d said to Siobhan that Kathleen should see a specialist. They both knew – had to know – about her differences. But Siobhan had been furious, had nearly hit him, and he’d been due to the airport in an hour anyway, rostered at work that same night. 

The lift stopped, settled. The doors opened into a hall. Everything was white and untouchable. Stepping out of the lift, he looked down the corridor. It stretched in both directions, and lead to various offices and meeting spaces for the upper echelons of the Corporation. Usually, he wouldn’t be up here at this hour; he’d have already been on his descent, having stopped by the top floor earlier in the shift. But he proceeded down the blank hall as if he was walking across a tundra, a span of indifferent, arid coldness. He felt the urge to run, but held his pace. 

As he walked, he checked his phone again. 6:05. 

He was thankful he and Kathleen were as near as they were. Siobhan had threatened Vancouver or New York more than once.

found 1 bedroom – Poughkeepsie taking K and fking off

Sometimes a screenshot of some Aer Lingus flight to JFK would be sent along with it, but he knew these texts were empty. She’d never follow through. He doubted if Siobhan really wanted to, and, he thought, the belligerence wasn’t really aimed at him. She wanted, needed, more help than he could give her, and more than she was even willing to receive. But now, he tried to focus on a beautiful and happy thought: knowing the sun would be warming his daughter’s cheeks soon after his own. 6:12 sunrise in London. 6:44 in Cork. 

There were still times he was impressed by the size of the building, the time it took to traverse it. He could tell the air outside was brightening; he had an acute sense for dawn after years of nightshifts. As he walked down the hall, he tried counting his steps, but lost track almost immediately. Then he concentrated on the massive door at the end of the corridor. The door grew larger and larger as he approached, and when he stood before it, it felt impossibly tall. It stretched floor to ceiling in a swathe of blank whiteness, an ominous purity of purpose. He paused, then grasped the door handle, a thick important-feeling piece of stainless steel, and opened.

The whole glassy thing was spread before him. 

He entered the Executive Boardroom with its highbacked white chairs, the long white table, wide enough he couldn’t even reach across it, and the unbroken, polished window-wall that opened a vista over the Thames. This was where the Executives debated, droned, cavorted. He saw them as faceless men and women, not evil or malicious, but unconcerned with the normal world, almost non-human, asexual, like they were living bits of binary code that functioned independent of oxygen. There seemed to be such a gap between his and their existences. But what he sent over to Kathleen was there because of them, and thank God for that. She was supposed to be starting school soon.

He did one full circle of the table, running his hands over the high backs of the chairs, gazing out over the city, watching the bacterial world mill about, and felt a surge of anger. 

Each night he walked alone in the dark, and each night he entered the Executive Board Room feeling like a foreigner, a trespasser. In this same space worked faceless people who knew nothing of him, or Kathleen, or the ways the world can yank the floor from beneath a person’s feet. 

He walked along the glass wall and sat in the chair at the head of the table opposite the door. He looked across the city and resented every movement he observed. Morning trains slunk across the tracks; the dual headlight-eyes of cars sat unblinking in the traffic queues; a jet polluted its way towards Heathrow. All of it was unconcerned with him, the whole systematic, agreeable thing. 

He sniffed the air as if he could catch a whiff of the expensive perfumes the men and women of the Corporation surely must wear. Momentarily, he felt the urge to masturbate, to do something wild and obscene, something human which wasn’t done in a place like this, a place pristine and businesslike, the windows so polished you’d swear you’d walk into thin air. 

But he didn’t.

Instead, he swiveled in the chair like an important man making an important decision and began to picture the men and women of the Corporation in the seats before him. They materialized, still faceless, in matching suits and professional garb. He was unsure if he’d dressed them for a day of dutiful financial deliberations or a funeral, and he wondered just how different those two occasions really were.

There was a small shine in his right eye as he looked down from the head of the table. A faint grey-blue melted into the sky. Then the Executives began to develop faces. 

His mother and father, as he remembered them before the cancer, sat to his right. Tony, Jack, and Brian sat to his left, probably fatter and more aimless looking than they really were – he hadn’t seen them in months, and he knew it was his own fault. Mrs. Williamson, an old teacher who’d told him that he was smart and capable of anything, sat just past the trio; she was long dead and that was probably just what any teacher was supposed to say. Siobhan was there too, hollow eyed and flighty, a mode he’d found weirdly sexy in the haze of the nightclub but which now filled him with sorrow. And then Kathleen sat directly across from him, her beautiful difference shining, oddly natural in a grey blazer and white shirt, like the CEO of a competing Corporation.

Then he said, much louder than he expected, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Corporation, I have assembled you all here today to–”

He didn’t know how to finish the sentence, or why he’d spoken at all, as if that was the kind of thing people in suits must say. He checked his phone. 6:10. Two minutes still until sunrise. But he got up, sending the chair knocking against the wall, and started walking. In the white hall, he emphasized his even guard-pace, his keys and boots keeping time against his belt and the cold tiles. He could feel their eyes on his back as he waited for the lift which would bring him back down into the dark interior of the building while the sun rose somewhere outside.

Daniel Johnson is a writer from New Jersey living in Burlington, Vermont. He’s a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at University College Cork. His work has appeared in journals such as Southword, Reed Magazine, and the Honest Ulsterman. He’s on social media @djohnsonwrites.