The fire alarm sounded more like a foghorn, a blunt and continuous column of brutal noise. At 2:30 AM, most of the apartment building's residents were asleep, and had to jump up with a start out of bed. Rick, however, had gotten caught up in an intense (and lengthy) online argument about the viability of interstellar colonization, and was looking up material to use in his next salvo when the sudden droning broke into his private thoughts. In truth, this was his usual sleep patterns, staying up until the small hours, then dropping dead on his couch and waking up a bit after noon. He rarely slept in his bed, for reasons that didn't make much sense even to him.
It was the third fire alarm of that year, and Rick assumed that it was caused, like all the others, by drunken late-night cooking or a forgetful smoker or a duplicitous fog bank. Still, he went through his carefully-prepared routine, trying to stick the alarm in the back of his mind as he neatly packed his laptop case full of his most cherished possessions: computer, external hard drive, smart phone, a slim case of rare Magic: the Gathering cards, and a signed copy of Snow Crash. With that bag slung over his shoulder he began calmly making his way down the stairs, passed the alternately panicked and sleepy people jabbing at elevator buttons.
There was a crowd of people in the cold courtyard of the building, in various states of underdress. One joker had wrapped himself only in a towel, but seemed to be currently regretting his attempt at humour. There was this strange sociality caused by the alarm. People gathered in groups, caught up with neighbours they hadn't talked to in a while, made jokes and pressed together for warmth. Many of them were even smiling.
And then there was Rick, on the outside. He didn't know any of these people. It seemed tremendously silly to make friends with people he had nothing in common with, simply because they happened to live close to him. He kept to himself,, and as long as he could get to his apartment he would be fine. He had an endless array of entertainment there -- the Internet, of course, as well as a constant stream of the latest video games and movies. Rick went out occasionally, to tournaments and conventions and the dreadful parties of polite ex-coworkers, but he could go for weeks on his own without ever longing for company.
Here and now, with all those entertainments taken away, though, he discovered a strange feeling of loneliness. Even if the nattering of all the moms, with children pressing into their knees, was totally vapid and dull (as he was sure it was) ... he wanted to be in that conversation. It was stupid. It was a fire alarm. It wasn't a goddamn social occasion.
But he felt it, and the stupidity of that feeling made him even more frustrated. Tiring of the cold, Rick waited for a place to take shelter and wait until the firemen came to declare the obviously not-burning building a false alarm. The street was a patchwork of apartments and stores, but the only window with a light in it was the all-night Shopper's Drug Mart half a block down. He headed towards it.
Evidently Rick wasn't the only one with this idea, as the aisles of the store were jammed with the same chattering groups of stranded people as there were in the courtyard. Rick sighed and contented himself with the warmth. Some people had bought snacks from the store, one cluster of hipsters ravaging a box of granola bars, but for the most part they loitered. The store attendant looked on the sudden crowd in a daze, as though she was trying to determine whether or not she was in a dream.
Rick paced the store. There were a few other singletons there, generally strange-looking men with haunted eyes, although those might have been vagrants off the street. They didn't make Rick feel better. Ah well. Who cared what these people did or thought, anyway?
There was a small stand of top 40 books across from a sale on shampoo. Something to read would help pass the time. Rick picked out #1 (if it was #1, it had to be good, right?) and sat down on the dirty white floor to read it. He tried to find a way to lean against the precarious cardboard stand without knocking it over completely.
"I wouldn't bother with that one. The author's a hack."
Rick looked up. It was a woman, and clearly not one who had gotten out fully prepared. She was wearing a brown bathrobe that looked as though it had seen better days, with the hint of a black nightgown beneath it. The loose ends of the robe swished in front of Rick's face. Up past that woolly expanse was the face of the middle-aged woman, wrinkles just beginning to show, a few streaks of grey in her curly black hair. A quartet of dimples was arranged in her right cheek like a constellation. She looked entirely interchangeable with the moms grouped in gaggles that Rick had consciously done his best to ignore.
The woman kept staring, and rick realized that she was expecting an answer. "Oh, um, thanks. I wasn't expecting much, really, but I thought it'd keep me amused while we waited for, you know, the alarm."
"You're from my building?" said the woman. "Honestly, I wouldn't be able to tell. You look like you're ready to go out to work."
"I guess I am," he said. "I work from home. Freelance."
"That must be nice."
Rick shrugged. "It has its advantages. I mean, no one's watching the clock or anything -- I just have to get stuff done. Beyond that, I'm free." He stopped suddenly. Why was he telling this woman he didn't know about his life? She probably wasn't even interested. "I'm sorry. Why are you talking to me?"
She looked a bit taken aback at the question, but not angry. "Why? I dunno. To make conversation. You looked kind of lonely and, like you said, you gotta kill time."
"I wasn't lonely," Rick said quickly.
"My apologies then." The woman extended her hand. "My name's Jackie. Room 809."
"Rick. Room 807."
Jackie's hand hung in the air for a minute before she let it fall to her side. "Wow, you're two doors down! I can't believe we haven't met."
"I don't really socialize much."
"Me neither, to tell you the truth." Jackie moved her pinky to subtly point to the mom group cackling about something. "I'm not really the PTA meeting type."
Rick was beginning to get annoyed at this woman. The conversation seemed maddeningly superficial. He was sure he would never see her again, so what was the point of introductions? Still, he saw no plausible excuse to extract himself from the situation.
"What do you think is the story with all these alarms?" Jackie said, watching the flickering fire-truck lights give the darkness a strange red tinge.
Rick shrugged. Another pointless question. "They're too sensitive, I think. I had the same thing in my dorm in college."
Jackie crouched down next to him, and Rick instinctively shifted away. Her flabby, stubbly legs repulsed him in a way he couldn't quite define. "You want to know a secret?" He shrugged again. "One time it was me. I was kind of hung over, and I was trying to make oatmeal, but I forgot to put the water in. Next thing you know, the place is full of smoke."
"Maybe you shouldn't drink so much, then."
"This was one time, okay? It was after my girlfriend's birthday."
"You're a lesbian?"
Jackie looked taken aback, which had been pretty much the goal of the remark. "No. Girlfriend, as in my best friend. It's just an expression. Not that I have anything against, you know, gay people..." She trailed off.
Awkward silence, Rick's kingdom, reigned. He flipped through the pages of the paperback bestseller. It really did look like a piece of shit, he thought.
Jackie stood up abruptly, and in the process her bathrobe flared up. Rick couldn't help but look up to catch a glimpse. He could see her bare thighs, and a glimpse of a puffy triangle of brown hair. He hated when women grew out their pubic hair like that. Keep it bald, or just have a little landing strip, like everyone else, he thought. But then, the only time he saw anything like that was in porn that thought it was being au naturel or whatever.
"I think we can go back in now," she said.
She pointed to the crowd down the block, which was slowly filing into their building. If Rick turned his head to an awkward angle, he could see the bored firemen piling into their vehicle. He got up and grabbed his bag.
"You going to sleep after this, Mister Night Owl?" said Jackie.
Rick didn't like her teasing tone. It sounded too familiar, like she hadn't just met him five minutes ago. Or maybe it was ten by now. It was hard to gauge time within awkward silences. "Maybe. Probably not. If anything, this probably just woke me up more."
They shuffled out of the pharmacy's automatic doors. "Me, I need to be up at six to get to work. Hopefully I can get back to sleep ... normally I take a pill, you see, but I already took one this evening, and I don't know if it's okay to take two..."
God, how could she be talking about her medication and intimate habits? They had just met. You didn't share your personal habits and embarrassments with someone you just met. If you could help it, you didn't share them at all.
.... There is more of this story ...