The Gentle Night. Short Story.

Tom groaned, then sat up, he needed to get a move on or he’d be late. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood, then he stumbled to the bathroom, wincing at the bright light. In the kitchen he made himself a cup of coffee, he couldn’t eat food this early, it made him nauseous. He double checked that he had everything, then he grabbed his coffee and left.

The walk to work should have been peaceful, after all it brought him along a quiet path by a river, with plenty of trees and flowers to look at, but Tom couldn’t appreciate any of it. Not when he had work hanging over his head. His favourite part of the day was the walk home, it always felt so relaxing, just letting the work stress fall off him. He had this job for about five months now, and it paid well, very well in fact. The pay was the only reason he was staying. It had been a struggle to find this job after he left his old one and he knew that he wouldn’t be likely to get something as high paying anywhere else. He knew that some of it was hazard pay too, but really the protestors were pretty harmless. Sure they chanted and held their signs, but for the most part they left people alone. The days of offices being firebombed had long since passed. Up ahead he could see the building shining in the morning light, it was only five stories tall, but every inch of it was covered in gleaming glass. Apparently it was to create a feeling of oneness with the outside world, Tom thought it was just a power move, to show the world they were not afraid.

He was about a block away when he could hear the protestors, chanting and yelling. He sighed and kept going, the crowd didn’t seem to be too big this morning, maybe five people in all. He ducked his head slightly as he walked passed, ignoring the signs and the yelling. He reminded himself, as he did every morning, that he should get noise cancelling headphones. He entered the building and felt the usual, almost comfortable irritation spring to life. They piped this relaxing music all through the building, or at least it was supposed to be relaxing. Tom found it incredibly annoying, it was like being stuck in an oversized elevator all day. Nothing but bland notes and inoffensive chords. He noticed he was gritting his teeth again, he forced his mouth to relax with a smile at Deborah, the receptionist. “Morning Tom”
“Morning Deb. How was your evening?”
“Ah not too bad, didn’t get up to much, yours?”
“The same really, watched some TV and just chilled.”
As they talked Deborah was typing away, but she was still looking at him. That always unnerved him slightly with Deborah, she was almost like a robot. Though given her smooth pale skin, dark hair and bright red lips it wouldn’t have surprised him. She looked almost as though she was engineered to be the perfect woman. Sexy enough for the men, but not too sexy so as to be off putting to any client. She had a knack of putting people at ease, she herself had diffused two situations where a protestor had come inside, planning to slop red paint around. In the end they apologised and left quietly. There was a loud beep as the system registered Tom as himself and the glass doors slid open quietly.
“I’ll see you later”
“Have a good day!”
“You too!”
The door closed behind him, cutting off the lobby. Tom went to the row of elevators and pressed the button, the doors of one slid open and Tom stepped inside. The elevator played its own brand of music, low and gentle, it was the closest thing to silence this building actually had, apart from the head offices of course.

The lift opened up to reveal a beige hallway, white was too clinical, and Tom stepped out onto the plush carpet. He followed the hallway as it curved through the building until he finally got to his office. He sat behind his desk, rested his coffee on the provided coaster and turned on the computer. He flicked through his appointments for the day, only two sessions, he sighed. Sure it made things easier for him, but it also made the day drag on and on and on. The first appointment wasn’t until 11, he opened up a word document and started typing. He was behind on some paperwork, but that would only keep him occupied for an hour or two, after that he’d just have to sit and listen to that awful, awful music.

“Hello and welcome to the Gentle Night.”
“Uh hi.”
“Nervous?”
The client nodded, she was young enough, maybe early thirties.
“Don’t be, a lot of people are, but you are in safe hands here. Did you bring your forms with you?”
“Yes, I have them right here.”
“Perfect, I’ll just take these and enter them into the system. Would you like anything while you wait? Tea? Coffee? We also have a restaurant where you can go for a meal if you like.”
“No, I’m fine thank you.” She sat in silence for a moment, “Actually water would be nice.”
“Ok, I’ll grab that for you now.”
Tom stood and left the room, this would be one of the easier ones. He always felt awkward when people came in for seemingly no reason. He went to the break room and grabbed a bottle of water, normally they each had fridges in their offices, but his had been broken for the last week. Maintenance were still promising to look at it “soon.”

He handed the woman the water and she smiled at him, “Thank you.” She opened the bottle and took a sip. “Now, I can see here you’ve been vetted,” Tom scanned the page, “six times by six professionals, however I am legally required to ask one final time that you are here by your own free will.”
“Yes, I am of sound mind and all that. I know what I’m doing.”
“I know, many of our clients do, we don’t take anyone without vetting, but the law is the law.”
She nodded. She wasn’t going to be a chatty one, Tom respected that. He preferred them to be quiet.
“Do you have affairs in order? We can provide a lawyers consultation for an extra fee if you would like.”
“No, thank you. I’ve everything arranged.”
“Ok, and I see someone will be here for pick up after, so that’s that out of the way. Have you seen our burial packages online?”
“Yes, I have, I’ve made my own arrangements.”
“Of course. OK, I’m just about done here, in a moment one of our technicians will be along, they’ll talk you through the procedure. A trained counsellor will be on call if you need to talk to someone. I just want to remind you that you can stop this at any point and there is no obligation to continue.”
“I understand. I won’t be changing my mind.”
Tom nodded as the door opened, “This is Charlotte, she’ll be your technician today, if you would like to follow her she will look after you from here.”
The woman stood, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.”
She left. As she did Tom looked at the name on her file. Amanda Smith. She had terminal cancer, nothing left for her but a long, slow, steady decline. He didn’t blame her, it was people like her who he liked helping. Made him feel like he was doing something good. The others, the ones who came for no real reason or because they were just done annoyed him the most, though he tried not to judge.

Tom sat back in his chair, he had a long wait until the next appointment. The long stretches were the worst, it gave him time to think. He could feel the guilt rising up again. He pushed it down, what he was doing was ok. He wasn’t killing anyone, he wasn’t doing harm to anyone. The people that came to them made their choice of their own free will, everyone was vetted thoroughly and given every chance to back out. It wasn’t like he was pushing the button or grabbing people off the street. Her face floated through his mind again. Brenda Power, a young girl, just nineteen, make up smeared with tears. That stood out to him even now, she had taken the time to apply make up before coming here. She had sat in his office and cried and cried and cried. Her four best friends had died in a car crash, a car she was supposed to be in, her father had died before she was born and her mother had gone a month after she had turned eighteen, hit and run. She had no one left, nothing to hold onto. She still had her mothers life insurance money, too afraid to dip into it, using it would make it all too real she had told him. He had tried to talk to her, get her to walk away but she wouldn’t listen. She hadn’t listened to the counsellors he insisted she speak with. She had left the office, head held high, tears still streaming down her face as the technician led her away. He had hoped that she would leave, that she would change her mind, but she didn’t. No one had come for the body. He wanted to arrange a funeral for her, do something because no one else was there to do it, but he wasn’t allowed. He had held his own private ceremony for her at home, involving a large bottle of scotch that emptied itself quickly. He had to take mandatory therapy after that case, but still it didn’t really help. Before her it was just a job, helping those who were dying move on to whatever was next. It could be almost noble.

Tom felt his stomach drop as the next client walked in. She was young, only eighteen, her two parents came with her. All three were crying. Brain tumour, inoperable, she’d be dead in a few months. Tom was proud that he kept his composure through out the appointment, but when the door finally closed he allowed himself to cry, hot bitter tears. Every day in this place seemed to hammer home how unfair life really was. After she left Tom gathered his things, marking it off that he was leaving for mental health reasons. As he hit enter his phone rang, “Hello we see you’re taking the rest of the day off and just wanted to remind you that there are therapists available to talk to if you need it.”
“Thank you, no I’m fine.”
“Ok, enjoy the rest of you day.”
“You too.”
Tom stood, his body felt heavy, almost numb. He walked home, normally it would cheer him up but not today. Today had just been too much.

Tom’s alarm blared, he rolled over and turned it off, he sat up, then lay back down. He couldn’t go back. He just couldn’t. After a moment he got out of bed and went into the kitchen, he grabbed the phone and started dialling. He’d find work somewhere else, anywhere else, he just couldn’t face walking into that awful building one more time.

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About Alan James Keogh

I am a 26 year old writer who somehow tricked U.C.D. into giving me not only a degree in English and Classical studies, but an Hons Masters in Creative Writing too. Visit my blog where I post short stories twice a week (Monday and Wednesday) and an installment of a serialised novel on Fridays. I did consider writing this in the third person, as though it was written by someone else, but Alan is not comfortable writing in the third person as it seems kinda creepy and unbalanced so Alan decided it was probably best to write in the first person. He hopes it went well for him.
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