Max had little trouble with the first few steps of the long staircase leading down out of Brian’s apartment, but the one after that proved to be a lot more difficult.
She was walking slowly because her head was still buzzing and her legs felt more than a little unsteady, so the first three steps were taken with extreme care.
But by the third she was feeling more confident and stepped forward eagerly, only to have her right foot slip off the step and out from under her.
For a brief second, Max hung suspended in mid-air with the full knowledge that there was nothing she could do about the forthcoming fall.
“Oh fuck,” she whispered, just as she over balanced and tumbled down the stairs.
Max had fallen down stairs before in a similar state of inebriation, so she knew the drill. Rather than try and stop her fall, she went limp and fell out of control.
Fortunately, she was still very, very drunk and the fall didn’t feel as bad as it would tomorrow. Max bounced off the steps, glanced off the wall and ended up landing on her back at the stairwell at the bottom.
The final part of the fall knocked the wind out of her and Max lay there for a moment until her chest unlocked and she could breathe again. She stayed still, mentally checking herself over until she was satisfied that there was no damage.
Well, no permanent damage anyway.
Finally convinced that she had once again cheated death or major injury, Max got carefully to her feet, opened the front door and stepped out into the night air.
Max had always had bad luck with watches and had not worn one in years, and her phone had run out of power again, so she had no idea what time it was, but it was still very dark, the streets were deserted and she was far from home. She took a moment to consider which way she had to head, before wandering off in the general direction of her apartment.
She had woken up half an hour earlier, still zoned out in the corner, still covered in the blanket Brian had draped over her. Her head was stuck against the wall at an awkward angle and her neck was killing her. Her feet were frozen, her hand had fallen asleep after it had been left under her body and she desperately needed to piss.
All the same, it took a long time and some deep breathing before Max had stood up. She stopped off at the toilet, stepping around the mohawked punk in an expensive leather jacket who had passed out in the doorway, before braving the stairs.
As she began her long walk home, Max wondered if she would have been better off crashing out for the night at Brian’s place. But Max had an inbuilt desire to get home, no matter what her condition was, no matter how late it was.
Although she felt exhausted, she kept on moving, keeping her eyes on her feet as they stretched out in front of her. She felt a little seedy from the drink and it felt like her skull had been crammed with cotton wool, but she was lucid enough to keep focused on the business of going home.
Her stomach suddenly revolted and she had to stop and lean against a wall covered with posters advertising a gig she would never pay to go see. Things calmed down again quickly and she set off again, singing softly to herself in an effort to keep her mind off her physical condition.
“It’s been a day of tiny triumphs,” she warbled tunelessly as she walked, “it’s been a week spent in despair…”
She turned a corner past a takeaway business that had just closed, waving weakly at the Asian man cleaning up behind his counter, but he did not wave back. Max found herself walking along one of the busiest streets in the city, but there was still hardly any traffic on it, six different lanes, mainly unused.
A carload of drunk young men sped past, yelling incoherently at Max, who ignored them. But she couldn’t ignore the second carload that soon followed as they hurled empty beer cans at Max, narrowly missing her.
“Dickheads,” she mumbled, moving off the street and out along a deserted wasteland. Max remembered that a large warehouse had been on the spot when she first moved to the city, but it had burned down in a spectacular blaze several years ago and nobody had bothered to rebuild on the site, just removed most of the rubble, leaving a flat, wide open space where nothing grew.
As she walked across the site, her legs began to wobble beneath her again and Max moved over to a pile of bricks that still stood right in the middle of the wasteland, sitting down and catching her breath again.
As she sat there, Max saw in the brightness of a full moon a scrap of bright red cloth half buried in the ground. She dragged it out, small clumps of dirt falling off as she pulled it free.
It was only a small piece of cloth, but it felt strange beneath her fingers, like no material she had ever felt before. Max rubbed it between the ends of her fingers, wondering why it felt so familiar.
Suddenly, for no reason she could ever explain, Max decided she had to destroy it. Rummaging around in her pockets, she found a cigarette lighter. She also found a packet of cigarettes and a small hip flask full of liquid, both of which were completely unknown to her. She put them both back in her pocket for now.
Turning back to the cloth, Max flicked the lighter until it lit and held the flame beneath the lower corner of the material. It caught fire instantly, the flames spreading out and engulfing it much quicker than she expected. The tips of her fingers were burnt slightly as the cloth was destroyed in a few seconds and Max yelped slightly in pain. She dropped the burning cloth, but it vanished before it hit the ground. Max couldn’t even see any ashes or anything else to suggest the red cloth had even existed.
With a dismissive shrug, Max stood back up and continued walking, rubbing her injured fingers, which were now added to the various aches of the night.
Reaching the end of the wasteland, she clumsily climbed a small wooden fence, finding a railway line on the other side. Checking that there was nothing coming from either direction and then checking again just to make sure, Max clambered up onto the line and started following it in the general direction of her home.
Time passed, but Max had no idea how long she was walking. Time lost all meaning as she wandered along the track, it could have been hours, it could have been minutes. She just concentrated on staying upright and moving forward, not caring about any other concerns.
She moved on through the night.
She closed her eyes for a second and listened to the sound of her feet trudging along the gravel between the tracks. She could hear the sound of traffic far off in the distance, but it wasn’t loud enough to break her concentration.
She moved on.
And then she found herself sitting on a huge pile of bound hay. Max looked around in confusion, with no memory of how she ended up on top of it. The hay was, for some reason, being stored beside the railway line on a small piece of open land, but there was no other building or any other indication why it was there.
Max leaned back on the straw and looked up at the moon. She remembered the pack of cigarettes she had found on her and reached inside her pocket for them. Pulling them out and looking inside, she found there was only one cigarette left, but she suddenly really needed it, so she took it out and tossed the empty pack aside.
Getting out the lighter she lit the cigarette and sucked in the smoke. It tasted just as good as she always remembered. Max had smoked regularly for about seven years, but had given up, cold turkey, one morning out of the blue. There had been no reason for giving them up, but then there had been no reason for starting in the first place either.
But every now and then, Max would enjoy one or two. It reminded her of the time when she had smoked and of the friends she had made during the time, and of the mischief she had got up to. It brought back memories of the days she used to go out to the bars every weekend.
It also tasted of Carrie, and the way their relationship has self-destructed. That was eight years ago now, and Max had been single for almost all of that time, apart from the regrettable two weeks with Sam. In the here and now, the cigarette tasted of the past and nostalgia and regret.
Sitting on the pile of hay, Max was enjoying the cigarette so much she didn’t notice when a small piece of ash fell off between her legs and nestled in the hay. She only noticed it when it sparked a small fire.
“Oh shit!” she yelled, batting at the flames with her hands. The fire went out, but she burnt the palm, adding to the similar injury on the tip of her fingers.
“Oh shit!” she repeated as she stood up and danced around the pile of straw, trying to wave away the pain. “Oh shit, oh shit, oooohhhh shhhhhiiiiiiitttt!”
Eventually the pain fell from an extreme burning sensation to a simple dull ache. Max looked at the wound, but could not see how serious it was in the moonlight. Tossing the cigarette away, well away from the straw, she got down and continued on her way.
As she began to take more steps home, it briefly occurred to her that she wasn’t even sure if she was going in the right direction, but it felt right, which was good enough for Max.
She passed a few familiar landmarks as she wandered, which backed up that suggestion, but they only reinforced how far she still had to go. Her legs were tiring and the hangover was starting to kick in. She took a shot from the hipflask she had found with the cigarettes, but she didn’t recognize the harsh liquid and almost gagged on it.
In a sudden moment of clarity, she realised she should have taken a cab, or an Uber, or something. It might have broken her finances for the week, but she would have been home by now.
A train was coming down the line towards her and, putting the hipflask away, Max moved off the line, walking down a street that still ran in the general direction of home. The roar of the train passing cut right through the night and Max looked back at it.
For a moment, Max thought she saw people in the train looking back at her with haunted eyes, but the train passed on and was soon gone, disappearing into the night, the sound quickly fading away.
Moving on, her body tired even further and she knew she couldn’t make it the rest of the way without a decent break. She didn’t want to pass out on the street, but as she passed a small garden she spied a bush that would offer some cover and after making sure there were no witnesses, she crawled in beneath the leaves.
Lying down under the bush, it was surprisingly comfortable. Max stretched out and rested her head beneath her arms, relaxing totally. She could feel herself start to drift off almost immediately, thoughts of how sad it was to be sleeping under a bush quickly fading.
And then something bit her on the lower lip.
“Ahhhh!” screamed Max. She jumped up out of his hiding place, frantically wiping away at her stinging lip. There was nothing there and Max backed away, but it must have just been a small bug that had bitten her and it was already gone.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” she swore. The pain was already beginning to subside, but the lip was swelling in direct proportion.
She rubbed it some more and continued walking. It had hurt like hell, but Max was wide awake again and keen to get some more miles behind her before she thought about collapsing under a bush again.
The exact time was still a complete mystery, but the sky was getting a little lighter above her and the full moon had almost disappeared over the horizon. Max kept on walking, eager to get home and get into bed. The walk home had turned into yet another endurance effort, but now, swollen lip and all, Max was determined to make it.
She closed her eyes again as she walked down the deserted city street, listening to the sound of her own breathing. And then there was another sound, one that had no place in these circumstances. She could hear the ocean.
Max opened her eyes and almost cried out as she was greeted by very bright and very warm sunshine. She was not walking along a city street anymore, but down a long beach covered with golden sand.
Parts of her brain were screaming at her, telling her it wasn’t real, that it was some kind of illusion, but she could smell the salt in the air and feel the slightest of cool breezes on her face.
Max stopped walking and lay down in the sand. Even her swollen lip had disappeared and Max got down on her back, watching a seagull in the distance fly lazily over the waves.
“Lovely,” she said, enjoying the beach, entirely unconcerned about the dramas of a real life.