We sit around in awkward positions, clutching our numbers. There’s no comfort to be found in the cold, hard surfaces and metal angles of the kitchen. I stare at the number on my strip of paper, tracing its line with my finger. I avoid eye contact with the others and try to ignore the sounds of terror from behind the fridge. In each other’s eyes we see a reflection of our own fear; pale and dripping with sweat.
I am number eight. There are twenty three of us and number four just finished her phone call.
The industrial-sized fridge we used to barricade the door is like the lid on a boiling pot, trapping us inside our steaming kitchen. Like the oil of the deep fat fryers, nerves are crackling and spitting on the surface. We cook slowly in our own panic. The only release for the mounting pressure is the office phone; our life line. A fragile connection to the world outside.
Number five is called in. The office door closes and we don’t hear the conversation, but we know what is said; I love you; tell everyone I love them; tell them I’m sorry. Overdue words are liberated down the line, while our bodies remain trapped.
We have already armed ourselves. After the barricade, we smashed through cutlery drawers, pulled knives from meat joints and slapped rolling pins into our hands. Beating ourselves into bravery. As a pastry chef, familiar with the tools of confectionery, I brandish the butane blowtorch with trigger ignition and adjustable flame; perfect for caramelizing crème brûlée, toasting meringues and blistering skin.
Behind the barricade we hear a scream and a gunshot. Another waitress discovered hiding beneath a table or cowering behind the wine bar. We shuffle our feet. With our white hats we try to fan away the burning sounds of terror that leak through the door like tear-gas. I focus instead on the noise of the Ecolab fly zapper on the opposite wall. Two neon blue halos of death draw the flies in. Its soft hum tempts them like siren song and one by one they fizzle out of existence. Each electric click signifies another short life extinguished. My hair follicles are tugged by the static charge that every little fatality creates. It tickles.
Number five has finished. Her face is a puddle of tears and snot. Number six is up.
Who will I call? Who would care to know that I am alive? I have no family, unlike number twenty three. He has a pregnant wife. She will be watching the television, huddled around it with their two children, praying for daddy to come home. They watch the horror unfold while we live it. Perhaps I should offer to swap numbers. Perhaps I should give his family hope. Perhaps he should have swapped shifts with me last Thursday when I needed to take Brian to the vet. Brian will be hungry now. I will call my landlady. She has a spare key and she knows where to find the tin opener.
Click. Another little black body drifts to the floor like ash.
Number six is weeping in the office. His whole family is gathered around the receiver at the other end. He hurries to give each one a mention and bespoke message of love before his time is up. I love you Gill and Ben and Katie he stammers. The list goes on. Those with big families begged for longer, but we agreed on two minutes. His two minutes have expired. Number twelve taps on the office window, jabbing a finger at her watch. The phone line could be cut at any moment. Two minutes is a short amount of time to say farewell. It is plenty of time to explain how many biscuits to mix into the wet food, how often to change the litter tray, where to find the emergency vet’s number and the carry case.
One of our mobile phones is ringing. On the other side of the barricade, inside the locker room, inside our coat pockets, our mobile phones beep and sing like babies crying from their cots. We can’t answer. They stop and they start again. Some stay stopped as batteries starve.
Another electric crack and pop as a bluebottle explodes. My nasal hairs prickle. Electric deaths smell like burnt orange; a sickly metallic tang and the sweet smoky scent of cremation as another pest spirals to the floor.
Number seven jumps up when the office door opens. He pushes past number six and snatches the handset up.
We watch as his finger shakes on every digit like he’s dialling numbers on the countdown to death. We watch as he lifts the earpiece. We watch as the phone slides down his cheek. As it slips from his hand. As his eyes glaze over. As the line is cut.
I screw up my piece of paper and throw it into the pile of little black corpses across the floor. My number is up. I’ll soon have a new digit when the statistics are dispensed.
The kitchen erupts.
Brian will go hungry tonight.
This is the first piece I submitted during a Creative Writing module A215 with The Open University.