My Image

*On Oct 4th

I focused on the sound my heels made on the paved sidewalk and made sure I was maintaining my pace. I clutched the handle of my sleek black briefcase, unintentionally digging my fingernails into the palm of my free hand. Glancing up, I noted a man in a business suit coming down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. I felt a sudden rush of anticipation as a smile formed on his lips.

“Anna!” he waved.

I exhaled the hopeful breath I held as a woman walking behind me pushed past and rushed into his arms. Of course, he wasn’t looking at me. I bit my lip and walked faster, attempting to forget the sting of humiliation and hoped he hadn’t noticed me.

I wasn’t worried I would be late, nor was I rushing to see my coworkers. It was Laura’s birthday and the three of us were planning on going out for drinks after work.

I groaned to myself. I love Laura and Abiola to death. They weren’t just my assistants at work; they were so much more to me than that. But it was never fun to be the only sober person at the party, and for the past year, I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol. This wasn’t by choice; a while back, I developed a sleep disorder. Every night, I dreaded falling asleep, always petrified of what torments awaited me the moment I closed my eyes. Every few weeks I would suffer an episode of sleep paralysis, and every other night, I had to deal with bizarre nightmares.

As I approached the OSA building, I looked up and caught my breath. The sleek obsidian-like skyscraper towered over even the most formidable structures in its proximity. Las Vegas, a city once known only as a 24/7 celebration of debauchery and excess was now famous for being the home of OSA headquarters. While it was still possible to fulfill even the most twisted and depraved desires if one knew where to look, the drugs, prostitutes, violent sports, and other oddities had been forced underground; most of the time in a very literal sense.

Flyers and garbage no longer littered the streets. Crime, unemployment, and homelessness had all reached an all-time low and it was thanks, in part, to organizations connected with OSA. Over the past several decades, they established connections within every level of government. They had employed the most gifted individuals on the planet to reform the justice system, the prison system, health-care, welfare, and education. If there was a metaphorical pie on the table, they had a finger in it.

I stopped and took a moment to steady my nerves.

You’re going to go in there and be a good friend. I told myself. You’re going to smile and say, “Happy 29th birthday.” She’s always there for you on your best and your worst days and you’re going to make sure she knows how much she means to you. It doesn’t matter how you feel about birthdays and being sober at a party. I carefully fixed a few fly-away hairs. I had opted for a deeper red dye, hoping it would make up for the absolute bore I had become. Finally, I nodded at my reflection in the automatic doors then marched forward and entered the building.

“Welcome, Natalia,” the facial recognition scanner greeted me.

“Thank you,” I said, then shook my head irritably.

I always responded without thinking. I knew that it was only the building’s A.I. doing what it was programmed to do, but it always felt wrong to not be polite to someone, or rather something, that was always polite to me. I stretched my neck and stood a little taller. I was in my element. In a lot of ways, this felt more like home than my house. I spend more waking hours here than I ever do at home anyway. And all my friends are here. OSA has been the one place where I always thrived. I have confidence that, with my talent and gumption, I’m unstoppable within these walls. Here, I’m a goddess.

Ever since I achieved Top-Rated status, I’ve done whatever it takes to keep the quality and quantity of the work I produce up to its maximum potential. After all, I didn’t work my ass off for a scholarship to go to the best art school in the country to be anything less than extraordinary.

It was a great honor to be employed by OSA, or Our Space Association if you prefer to call it by its full name. But it’s not as if I ended up there by accident. I give this place 110% of myself every single day. I willingly put in overtime on nights, holidays, and weekends. I never called in sick unless it’s really serious, and I’ve never used a single vacation day in my entire adult life.

I made my way through the lobby, past the busy café and the gym, and walked up the first flight of stairs. Of course, I could have taken the escalator or the massive stainless-steel glass elevator, but taking the long way gave me a few extra minutes to myself. All the walls that separated the rooms on the bottom floors were made of glass. It made everything feel open and allowed everyone to take in just how huge the building was. There was no ceiling until you reached the third floor and even then, it was a vaulted dome with a projected image that changed daily.

That day, the dome projection was one of my most recent paintings depicting the Helix Nebula. I always had a special place in my heart for the Aquarius constellation that contained the iris-like Helix. Slightly creepy if you stared at it too long, but beautiful, nonetheless. It’s the closest to Earth of all the bright planetary nebulae and was the first I had ever seen as a child.

When I first got sick last year, I had gone through a brief phase where I drew human subjects, but the soft curves of the human face proved to be challenging. The faces I drew always seemed cold and angular no matter how much I practiced. It wasn’t surprising that I gave up on that and opted to stick with what I was best at, which had always been astronomic rendering.

The first three floors of the OSA headquarters were dedicated to the enjoyment of its employees. The bottom floor contained a food court and a gym. The second floor housed a games room, a Zen garden, and a theater. The third floor had a spa, salon, and what everyone called the chill cave where you could utilize sleeping pods to take a nap at any point in your workday. OSA’s doors were open around the clock, 365 a year. Management was less concerned with when its employees chose to work and more about their productivity. As long as you were completing the tasks assigned to you each week, you could set your own schedule, work at your own pace, and there were tons of perks at your fingertips anytime you needed a break.

This was another reason I excelled in that environment. I had always been a motivated person. On top of having a stellar work ethic, I discovered when I was in college that I had a unique gift for picking out images captured by OSA satellites and rendering them into works of art. My design instructor sent a digital painting of mine to his friend who was an OSA recruiter and I was offered a job fresh off the graduation stage. I soon became well-known within the company for my ability to combine one image with another and, through the manipulation of color and saturation, provoke strong emotions from those who viewed my work. Space had fascinated me since I was a little girl and delving into a detailed painting of a newly discovered astral body was a favorite escape of mine.

Abiola and Laura were the only people I felt any real connection with. High school had been such a nightmare that the moment I had the opportunity to reinvent myself, I disconnected from my old life. The person I was before I worked at OSA might as well have never existed. These women were a testament to the new life I had built since then; the dream job, the house, the body, the relationships. They were crucial pieces of the person I wanted to be, and I reminded myself that they deserved every bit of affection I could muster.

After climbing the six flights of stairs it took to reach the fourth floor, I huffed, eyeing the elevator doors. I walked up and pressed the smooth chrome button and awaited the glass chariot that would take me up to floor seven where I would spend the next nine hours of my day.

As soon as I walked into the art studio, I spotted Laura and Abiola who were already sitting at their stations giggling. Laura had a gigantic bouquet of roses from Alex and she was reading a poem that he had handwritten on the card.

“Alex is such a sweetheart. You better hang onto him,” Abiola said with a playful pinch of Laura’s arm.

Abiola was so exotic looking; curvy with mocha skin and amber colored eyes. She always wore her hair combed out into an afro. Her twist-outs were well defined and voluminous, swept back by a colorful headband that kept it all in check.

“I know,” Laura replied and fanned herself coquettishly with the card. Her blonde wavy hair was tied back in a loose ponytail with a silk sunflower clipped above her left ear. “I have no idea what I did to deserve that man.”

“You’re kind, fun, beautiful,” I piped in, “and he’s just treating you exactly how you deserve to be treated. Happy Birthday, love.”

“Nattie!” Laura squealed. “I can’t wait for tonight. It’s been ages since we all went out together.”

“That’s because I’m a big buzzkill and my stupid body won’t let me get wasted with you.”

“You don’t have to drink to go out with us,” she pulled me in for a long uncomfortable hug. “You’re still you and we love you.”

“I know,” I forced a smile.

Admitting it to myself made me feel like a horrible person, but I didn’t enjoy being sober while they were drinking. They tended to get rude and obnoxious without realizing it and my sober brain wasn’t equipped to brush things off as easily as I could when I had a good buzz going. But, to say that it felt like a chore to be their sober third wheel was an understatement. But it’s just the way things had to be.

On one occasion, I bought a bottle of wine, thinking I could pass out and sleep deeply enough to escape the nightmares. The moment I took the tiniest sip, I started throwing up so violently I could hardly take a breath between heaves. I tried to call Laura, but I couldn’t even speak to tell her what was happening. Luckily, she drove straight over, climbed in through my kitchen window and found me on my living room floor. She got me out to the car and to the hospital where they ran every test imaginable but found nothing wrong. I soon discovered that any kind of alcohol I tried to drink resulted in the same violent rebellion of my body. As my health issues intensified, I realized it wasn’t just the wine - I had developed an intolerance for anything fried or processed too.

At first, doctors were concerned that it was some sort of allergy, but they were never able to pin down exactly what the cause was. Through trial and error, all I had come to know for sure was that I had to keep my diet perfectly clean at all times if I didn’t want to spend the next 24 hours dry heaving and possibly end up in the ER again. Abiola and Laura were always supportive through all of it, accompanying me to doctor visits, always making sure to check on me, driving me to the hospital when I couldn’t get there myself. I couldn’t have asked for better people to have in my corner. However, now that I was on a strict diet, the road to recovery was pretty lonely. I knew I had become significantly less fun to hang out with.

The girls would always tease me about how put together my life was. Sure, it looked good on paper; top-rated artist in my department, an amazing house which I always kept immaculate, and when I wasn’t working, I was at the gym. They seemed to think that I had a perfect life. They had no idea how much I envied them. They both had incredible relationships with gorgeous men who doted on them endlessly. They were always commenting on how jealous they were of my body, but they also never missed a chance to eat delicious foods that I couldn’t so much as smell without getting sick. They didn’t realize that my house was always clean because it was empty and sterile; just like the rest of my life.

I didn’t even have a pet. Ever since little Ivan died, I accepted that I wasn’t pet owner material. If I couldn’t keep a goldfish alive, what chance did I have with a more complex and emotionally dependent animal? Besides, with my work schedule, it would be cruel to even try.

“Before we get started with what we’ve got on today, I need to ask you guys a really important favor,” Abiola said, circling the desk to take both mine and Laura’s hands in hers. “The two of you have been such a huge part of my life. You’ve been there for me through all my family drama and I couldn’t love you more if you were my flesh and blood sisters.”

“Abi,” Laura pushed out her bottom lip. “That’s the sweetest thing you could possibly say.”

“Well, I would be so honored if the two of you would be my bridesmaids this spring. Please say yes!”

The three of us all wrapped our arms around each other in a sickeningly sweet display of female solidarity. I forced a smile and swallowed the lump in my throat as I imagined walking down the aisle on the arm of some random groomsman who had a wife or girlfriend somewhere in the church. This would be the second time I was a bridesmaid at someone’s wedding. The old saying ‘three times a bridesmaid, never a bride’ rang out in my mind.

“I would love to be a bridesmaid at your wedding,” Laura crooned.

I mustered the minimal amount of excitement I could get away with for the situation and said, “Me too. I love you, woman,” then patted Abiola on the back.

Abiola nodded and wiped at eyeliner from beneath her watering eyes. She was an old soul with a soft heart. She spent her weekends volunteering at a children’s group home. That was where she met her fiancé Trevor, and they bonded over their dysfunctional family situations. They would probably adopt a bunch of foster kids right after their wedding and live happily ever after. She deserved that; it was all she ever wanted.

“Okay ladies,” Abiola clapped her hands. “Today we’re looking for something we can use for the promotion of the OSA campus, which will be opening next year in Portland, Oregon. Boss says our primary focus is to attract engineering and architectural students for the Lunar-retreat that’s in the works.”

“So, where do we start?” Laura said, looking right at me.

“I am going to need to work up some concept drawings for the Lunar Resort. Also, if you could give me the clearest photos of the most beautiful views the Lunar Surface has to offer, that would be cool to show exactly what the students should be aspiring to be a part of. I want to see some dramatic landscapes with visible craters, maybe some rock formations. Anything to pull people in.”

“I’m on it,” Laura nodded and sat down at her touch responsive computer.

“I’ll go to engineering to get permission to use blueprints of the resort that you can use to make the concept drawings,” Abiola said, then turned and headed towards the elevator.

It was an exciting project. I used to fantasize that by the time I was ready to retire, I would be able to cash in on all the vacation time I had accrued and maybe even spend a few of my golden years at that resort. The thought of waking up in the morning and looking out the window to see the Earth just as we see the moon from down here always gave me a sense of calm.

Four hours later, all final decisions had been made on what I wanted to use on the project. Right on cue, my trusty assistants started complaining that they were starving to death.

“If I don’t get some corned beef nachos in me in the next ten minutes, I might actually die,” Laura said and stood up dramatically from her desk.

“I want waffles and bacon,” Abiola rubbed her belly.

I sighed at the memory of bacon; I would probably just have some raw vegetables and berries. I was still looking at my screen and inspecting one of the photos, trying to decide on how I would alter the image to bring it to life. My eyes burned. I clenched them shut and rubbed them, forcing them to rest. Eye strain was the enemy and this day was proving to be particularly difficult since I had hardly slept the night before. I couldn’t shake my anxiety about today’s social gathering after work. Stress and lack of sleep usually meant a big fat migraine, which was the last thing I needed at Laura’s party .

“I’m going to head to the chill room. I need a nap more than anything.”

“You better be rested for tonight’s festivities,” Laura wagged her finger at me.

“I’ll bring my party face, I promise,” I said. I stood up but couldn’t stop the oncoming yawn. “The fatigue is killing me.”

“Yeah, no coffee or sugar in your morning will do that to you,” Abiola said with a shake of her head. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“Well, it’s easy since a cup of coffee could put me in the hospital again, I guess.”

“Jesus,” Abiola pressed her fist to her mouth. “I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s fine, Abi,” I assured her. “I just need to get a little rest.”

The two girls headed down to the food court while I made my way to the sleeping pods. White, plush, and stacked like a honeycomb, they were an inviting image that screamed comfort. I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief to find my favorite lower level pod was unoccupied. Turning on the sound system, I selected a playlist I knew I could sleep through. Sometimes I would choose guided meditation tracks or audiobooks. Today’s selection was soft cello. Something about the deep tones helped me unwind no matter what was on my mind. I settled in, turning on the heated cushions and closing my eyes.

I practiced the deep breathing exercises the doctor had taught me as I pictured myself floating through a dark endless sky toward the moon’s surface. The pictures I had looked at for over four hours served to be the subject of my meditation. I inhaled deeply, focusing on relaxing my arms and legs. Exhaling, I imagined moving further out into space. In… and out…

As soon as sleep found me, I was swept up in a flurry of blinding light. My stomach turned as the light began strobing violently, causing me to feel disoriented. My body tensed as I realized it had been several weeks since I’d had an episode. Right on schedule, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Oh no, no, no, no… I can’t deal with this right now, not at work!

I struggled to wake myself, I couldn’t move. The cold sensation of a smooth metallic surface beneath me was confusing. I felt my fingertips twitch as I tried desperately to flail any and all limbs that might respond to my will, but my body remained where it was. I strained to sit up or scream, but I couldn’t even open my mouth. I was trapped, overwhelmed by the weight of my chest collapsing in on itself. If I didn’t put every ounce of will I possessed into sucking air through my nostrils, I had a very real fear that my body would simply shut down, leaving my body as a cold stiff corpse which might be found hours later in my cozy little pod. Filling my lungs with intention, I gasped for air, breath after panicked breath, hoping someone would notice and wake me.

The strobing intensified for what felt like several minutes and when it finally stopped, there remained a constant blinding light that made my eyes water. Tears streamed from the outer corners of my eyes into my ears.

“Help… me…” I managed to whisper to no one in particular.

From the edge of my vision, a blurry figure leaned over me.

“Please,” I sobbed, trying to turn my head to get a better look at who it was, but I couldn’t.

My chest burned as my heart pounded out of control. I tried to calm myself by reciting the scientific facts about what I knew was happening.

During REM sleep, your muscles are essentially turned off to keep you from sleepwalking. When a person wakes up during REM, they are fully conscious but completely paralyzed. Usually, physical stimulation from someone rubbing or shaking them will pull the victim out of the purgatorial state. Unfortunately, living alone means I have no one to rescue me during these episodes, which can sometimes last for hours.

 “Just close your eyes. Everything will be okay,” a distorted voice spoke through the fog of my half-conscious state.

Maybe my brain is morphing the cello music into a voice. Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by waking dreams or hallucinations, after all.

I thought I could force myself to come out of it but, instead, I moved even deeper into unconsciousness. It wasn’t like falling, but more like being underwater and sinking slowly. I struggled against what felt like a chemically induced calm. I tried again to force myself awake but couldn’t. The darkness swallowed me up and I finally surrendered to it.

To my surprise, I suddenly found myself vividly aware of two things; one, the fact that I was breathing without much effort, and two, I was no longer in my cushioned sleeping pod, but rather stretched out flat on my back on a cold metal surface. All efforts to move just made me realize that what I was experiencing was very different from the sleep paralysis I was familiar with. I could move my fingers and flex my wrists and feet. There were actual physical restraints fastened around my wrists, neck, forehead, and ankles that were preventing me from moving.

Blinking hard, I strained to look around at my surroundings. The entire room was reflective as if every surface and object was made from surgical steel. It was shockingly cold, almost like the inside of a walk-in refrigerator. I grunted, twisting my wrists in hopes that I could slip out the straps.

There was a continuous hum that was so low I didn’t hear it so much as felt it vibrating through my entire body. There was a spherical light that seemed to be floating in the air a few feet over me. The ceiling was high above that and almost too dark for me to make out anything but the vague shape of what might have been a reflection of myself and the rest of the room around me. I strained to see past the light so I could study what else I could make out in the reflective ceiling. My heart pounded in my ears as my attention was drawn to a distorted human shape in the darkness at my side.

A chill spread through my body as I realized that someone, or something, was quietly watching me struggle but I couldn’t for the life of me work out who, as the silhouette disappeared from my view the moment I noticed it. Even when I turned my eyes as far as I could, the dark corners of the room remained completely obscured. Regardless of the deafening silence and the fact that I couldn’t see anyone, I knew someone was there.