This is just a character sketch. It is not part of any work in progress, nor anything larger I am planning on writing at present. This piece has been around for at least four years, though it has been revised a few times since then. I thought I would share, as I like it.
For those who like to know, there is a little cussing in this piece.
Alex lit a cigarette. The motion was almost subconscious now; almost, but not quite. Once, smoking was just another bad habit. Now? A cigarette was a reminder to keep breathing. He flicked a little ash into the red-glass tray on his table. Not even breathing was subconscious anymore.
“You do find the darkest corners, don’t you.”
Glancing up, he saw Geoffrey walking over to him. The man was profoundly nondescript; nothing flashy, nothing memorable. Rather than answer the rhetorical question, Alex mused on how much effort he must put into being invisible.
Geoffrey took a long look at him, then turned to the bar. When he came to the table again he was holding a couple of shot glasses and a clear bottle. Without asking, he sat down and poured. He added something extra to the drink he set by Alex, who decided that ignorance was bliss.
“I thought no drinking was allowed,” said Alex, taking another pull at his cigarette. He wondered if secondhand smoke from his lungs would be better or worse for a bystander than smoke from the lungs of the living.
“You can have this one. In fact, consider it coroner’s orders.”
Alex decided to smile a bit at that. Smiling had become completely conscious, too. At least that made keeping a deadpan effortless. He took the drink and downed it. There was no taste, but possibly burn. That was something he had yet to figure out: how to process taste and touch. Nerves spoke, but how did one understand them?
Geoffrey downed his own drink and winced. “Yick.”
Alex flicked more ash into the tray. Now that there was someone to talk to, there was less need for a reminder to breathe.
“Am I needed for something?”
“Nah. I just got off work and sensed you were nearby. Thought I’d check on you.”
Alex snorted softly. “‘Disturbance in the force?’”
“You’re a nerd under all that black-ops, aren’t you?” Geoffrey grinned.
“It’s hard to hide if you’re not versed in the culture.”
Geoffrey reminded Alex of someone, but he could not remember who. “Look… I am grateful that you keep me in one piece, but if you join forces with Lucy in trying to make my… almost-life miserable, I will have to kill you.”
“Don’t say that. I’m not teaming up with Lucy. I’m your friend, remember? Whether you want one or not?”
“So you’ve said.” Alex put out the cigarette.
“And unlike some, I mean what I say.”
“That’ll get you killed.”
“It hasn’t yet.”
“So… are you planning to come home tonight or are you going to wander around again? You know… if you keep doing this, someone around here is going to notice that you don’t sleep.”
“That will take a while. They all sleep… and they all assume that I sleep when they’re asleep.”
“Not forever they won’t. You at least need to make an effort and pretend.”
Geoffrey was right, as he was irritatingly often. ‘Sleeping’ was miserable, though. Staying in one place, doing nothing, feeling nothing. It was like being a thought floating in space, completely alone. Alex once believed he understood being alone. He thought he had been alone for most of his life. He had been wrong. Geoffrey was watching him. Alex snarled softly. “What?”
“Well… I can keep your body in one piece, but I can’t do a thing about your mind, and it’s that that has me worried.”
“Then why haven’t you tried sending me to a shrink?”
“You mean apart from the fact that you’d shoot me? Can’t say I know a shrink who could help you with this. Might be worth a try if you want one, though.”
“Shocking.” Geoffrey looked at the bottle again, then sighed, poured himself another, and downed it. The face he pulled was comical. “Ughhh.”
“If you don’t like it, don’t drink it.”
“Good advice, that.”
“You’re stupid, for a Jap.”
“You’re racist, for a corpse.”
A soft chuckle sounded in Alex’s throat. His instincts whispered not to get attached. Geoffrey was unlikely to last long. Why he had been assigned to the team was still something of a mystery. It couldn’t have been simply to keep him in one piece; that would be a waste of personnel.
“So, are you going to come home or do I send Lucy out to chase you back?”
“Do and I’ll shoot him.”
“Go right ahead. He says it stings. I bet he’d pout at you.”
“Speciesist, too. Still, come back and I’ll keep him away from you.”
“’Home’ gives me the creeps.”
“Says the living dead. …why does…”
“People, normal people, are scary enough.” Alex toyed with the snuffed cigarette. “I’ve dealt with that kind of scary for a long time. Freaks like the ones you work with though? That adds a whole new dimension to scary. I add a whole new dimension to scary.“
“If anyone should be freaked out it’s me,” replied Geoffrey, shrugging.
“It’s not as if you’re defenseless.”
“I might as well be. Please, just… come back. What do you have to lose?”
“Anything that’s left of my sanity.” Alex considered for a moment, then nodded. “…Point well made. I’ll come back.”
Geoffrey puffed out his cheeks in relief. “Good. I was afraid I was going to have to tell our boss bad news on her first day. From what I’ve heard of her, that would not be a safe thing to do.”
“You drew the short straw, huh?”
“More like the ‘too polite’ straw. The consensus was that I would be the least likely to piss her off.”
“It’s a good test. If she will tear pieces out of you, then she really is heartless.”
“Thanks for the reassurance.”
Geoffrey stood up and straightened his blazer “Take the bottle back with you, but don’t drink the rest.”
“Goodnight,” sighed Alex, lighting another cigarette.