~ To Zlatina, who gave me the idea for this one!
The name of the fitness joint was “The Sharing Space”.
I jogged down the street, sweating my ass off in the scorching July sun and cursing the gym manager. Go there in the middle of the day just to sign up for membership? Ridiculous. But it was the only place that offered online training, and I was hard-pressed to find something. The focus of my anger shifted from the gym manager to my boss, and the thought of his sly smile put a fresh spurt of speed in my aching legs.
We’re going to put to use some productivity practices, my boss had announced several months ago, and then he had done a two-hour presentation about stuff like KPIs and OKRs, and BMOs. Most of it I’d read something about, and all of it sounded useless. But then the next day, we were all handed pieces of paper with our names on them. Inside were our personal goals for the quarter, to be “implemented” under fear of “employment status review”.
What the fuck, I thought, and saw the same sentiment written on faces across the open space.
It wasn’t until the first empty desks started to appear that we realized the full gravity of the situation. We weren’t a very tightly knit group, management had made sure of that, so we’d had no heads-up about what was happening, but the rumor that people had already been “reviewed” spread like wildfire.
And so, with the bigger part of my lunch break behind me and the thought of a looming mortgage payment ahead, I ran down the dusty street towards the completion of my first quarterly goal – getting a gym membership.
Productivity, my boss had told us, comes in mysterious ways.
Now, I am a bit overweight, that’s for sure. But saying that I will be improving my efficiency by fifty percent if I got a gym card, used it twice a week, and lost twenty pounds, sounded extremely absurd.
Well, we’re all wrong sometimes.
I crashed through the plexiglass-paneled door of “The Sharing Space”, noting the dingy front and the lack of banners in eye-watering colors. The lights were out in the hall, and instead of a couch, there were a couple of wooden tables complete with chairs that had once been lacquered but now looked like they were melting. A similarly decrepit counter separated the far corner, turning it into a reception desk which was currently empty.
I looked around, waiting for the tinkling of the old-fashioned bell hanging above the door to raise the receptionist. The “Space” looked like a dying diner, not a thriving fitness place. Its online following, however, was extreme. There were about a thousand video testimonials from people who’d practiced at home without going to the gym once. The likes, shares, and all the other social network stuff were all over the place, spilling into the carefully manicured feeds of other gyms, the comments under the latest gym-fluencer articles, and the complaints page of the local bio-foods wholesaler.
I had spent a couple of hours researching the place, I admit. It was part of my job after all.
There was the sound of a door opening, and I turned to face the receptionist. Instead, I got a flash of white teeth, a swish of crazy-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail, and then my hand was wrenched into a handshake that made my shoulder jangle.
“Nice to meet you, Mister…?” Said the sweat-covered gym instructor, and her tanned face filled my vision, pushing away the dinginess of the hallway.
“Richard Hayworth, analyst,” I said, forgetting I was not on one of the company presentations.
“Nice to meet you, Richard,” she said again, breaking into a smile. “You don’t mind first names, do you?” And without waiting for an answer, she turned and walked off, waving me further into the place.
Now, it’s hard to explain my state of mind at that point in words fit for all audiences. I was a lonely computer geek that didn’t get out much. She was a very athletic woman dressed in sweaty tights and a tank top. I tried to keep my eyes where politeness dictated as I followed.
We emerged into an inner chamber that was as clean and bright as the anteroom had been dingy and dark. A light wood desk with a laptop stood on one side, and cables ran from it to the camera fitted on a tripod near the center of the room. Lamps dispelled the shadows that the sun rays coming from a roof light could not reach. Several brightly colored floor mats formed a central scene where the magic happened.
The change in the environment was like a slap in the face. I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. I couldn’t remember why I had been in such a rush. My brain felt like a caramelized peanut. Must be something in the air, I thought and sniffed, but got only the smell of a fresh morning in the park. There was no hint of perfumed air fresheners, nothing of the car-filled street outside. No dust. No air conditioning. No steel, oil, or rubber.
“So, you wanted to register with us for a permanent membership?”
The instructor was now sitting at the desk, her hands deftly plucking the keys of the laptop. She looked at me sideways, running a calculating look over my dusty office shoes and the bulge of my belly. I tried to stand straight and suck it up, causing my belt to slide down a notch. I realized I was still breathing heavily from the run.
“Yes,” I said, “permanent. I mean, it’s like an annual membership, right?”
“It is what it says, Richard Hayworth.” She turned back to the screen, scrolling down to the bottom of a very long spreadsheet. A burst of her fingers over the keyboard and my name appeared in an empty cell. The instructor turned her chair around, beaming a happy smile at me.
“So, that’s that. You got any questions? We have some time until the next session. And I’ll need a deposit.”
“Uh, sure,” I said, taking out my wallet, but the instructor waved it away.
“Nah, no money, please. You can tip my account online if you’re happy with the results.”
“But you said you needed a deposit,” I said, remembering the two subscription options on the website. A free one-month trial, and permanent membership. There were no prices there.
“Yes,” she said brightly, “that’d be a lock of hair.”
“A lock of hair? Are you serious?” What normal person carried hair with them? Unless…
“You mean my own hair?” I said, my disgust showing.
“Yes. It’s for my studies. I’m trying to finish my degree and move on from being an instructor.”
“Degree?” I said hoarsely as she stood up. “What kind of studying are you doing, needing human hair?”
“Biology. Pigmentation, expression, distribution of molecules, that kind of stuff.” She scratched at the edge of her scalp, obviously trying to think of some additional details she could give to a layman, and my eyes were drawn to her hair again.
In the treacle mush that currently filled my skull, an image was formed of a row of hairs that poked out of a plastic doll’s head. The hairs, curly black afros, ended about an inch above the skin and were tied to a line of straight blonde ones. Individually tied, hair for hair, in tiny, barely visible knots. My brain struggled with the picture, and I rubbed my watering eyes, trying to push it away.
The instructor was stepping closer and looking at me with concern. Her head was no more doll-looking than mine, her hair back to normal if you define normal as having a different shape and shade of color every couple of inches or so.
“Your hair…” I tried to explain, but fell short on eloquence, so I finished the sentence with a neanderthal kinda wave at her hairdo.
“Oh, that? I like to experiment.” Another flash of white, her grin dialing up the luminosity of the lamps up a notch. “I can show you someday if you stay motivated enough to finish the top-tier program.”
What kind of an incentive was that, I thought, remembering the tiers of complexity listed on the website. The hardest one seemed to last for almost five years, and the requirements were Olympic-grade.
“Many people do that?” I asked. My eyes searched for the clock on the laptop screen, then I remembered I had a watch. There was definitely something I had to be hurrying for, I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Nah,” she said with a sad smile, “only a couple. But the payoff is unbelievable, trust me.” She noticed my fidgeting. “You sure you have time to chat? You seem in a hurry. Let me just straighten that hairline for you.”
She was suddenly so close that I froze again, afraid that my breath would blow in her face. I could see the tiny drops of sweat on her forehead and the specks of blue in her deep brown eyes. I was ready to compose poetry for those eyes.
Then a flash of steel and a resounding snip made me snap out of it, and the next moment she was backing away, a pair of very sharp scissors in one hand and what was unmistakably a clump of my hair in the other. The instructor looked at her trophy, rubbed it between her fingers, then smelled it.
“Mmm, plenty of good pigmentation there, I can tell you!” She flashed one of her wide grins, and this time it was not made of perfect white teeth. It was jagged and rotten, and one of the canines was replaced with a shiny gold fang with a blue gemstone embedded in the metal.
I was out the door and through the anteroom before my brain had registered the movement. The run to the office took me less than five minutes, something I would have thought beyond my physical abilities. As I collapsed in my chair and waved off the concerned inquiries of my coworkers, my phone dinged with a new email. I jumped at the prompt, eager to dive deeper into normality and forget the crazy, scissors-wielding maniac back at the pseudo-gym.
I went directly for the desktop, convinced that the email was work-related. A moment later, the logo of “The Sharing Space” filled half the screen, freezing me to the core. The other half of the screen congratulated me on joining the ranks and listed my current achievements.
I stared at the lofty marketing phrases, silently mouthing the words as I read. I had been added to the second beginner’s tier, lovingly titled “Hardened Jelly Bunnies.” Practices would start tomorrow evening at 19:30, and I was advised to keep a towel at hand. Like heck, I thought, cringing at the Douglas Adams reference. I wasn’t logging into that website, ever.
A familiar shadow loomed over the cubicle wall and I alt-tabbed by instinct, hiding the email behind my latest charts. A second later, my boss stepped around the low wall and fixed me with an accusing glare.
“Playing games again, Hayworth?” He hissed through pressed teeth as if daring me to say yes. His tiny eyes were barely visible in the frown of his pig-like face.
“No,” I said, “just working.”
“You haven’t done much since this morning. How about your OKRs? Got things moving already?”
“N-no.” I tried to swallow the lump in my throat and went for an apologetic smile. “No luck yet.”
“You don’t look like you’re even trying, Hayworth.” He leaned closer, the advancing piggy face causing me to sink deeper into my office chair. “Keep it up, and you’ll be getting a review next month. I got you in the calendar already.”
I only dared nod. My boss straightened up and sauntered away, drawing the looks of everyone nearby. I quickly turned towards the screen before the gawkers’ attention had snapped back to me. I didn’t need their pity; what I needed was to get out of this mess. And I was going to start by removing the evidence.
I tabbed back to the email and aimed at the Delete button. As I pressed it, my eyes found the Achievements list at the bottom, and its single bolded line stuck into my brain.
You ran 1.3 miles today! Good job!
I lived in my own apartment downtown, a place most of my colleagues would kill for. I had been there a couple of years and I had accumulated quite a bit of junk to make it look like a real home. It was mostly related to my hobbies and also my work, as I believed you had to show interest in your job in general. I rarely had visitors though, so the models of information propagation in social networks were just collecting dust next to the row of RPG figurines and the shelves of Dungeons and Dragons manuals. Above this shrine of interests was a high-definition photograph of Machu Picchu: one of the large number of dream destinations I was relatively sure I would never visit.
It was this last piece of decoration I was contemplating the next evening after getting home from work. I had gotten no more emails, and the anxiety caused by the “gym” visit was almost gone. I was already attributing the crazy visions to a particularly graphic voodoo movie I had watched last week. It was all a bit strange, the movie resurfacing like that at a random time, but I was quickly compiling a list of factors that had prompted my subconscious to dig the visuals up. The strain of the run there; the dust in the hall; the unknown air freshener, or ionizer, or whatever that woman was using in the training room.
I was already imagining walking down the slopes of the Cordilleras while composing an angry email to the manufacturer of the unknown air purification device when my phone beeped again. I had been jumping in fright at every notification sound since yesterday, but as there had been nothing alarming in my inbox I barely winced this time. It was probably a book recommendation from one of my Reddit communities.
I picked up the phone, unlocked it, and tapped the notification without reading it. The colorful logo of the “Space” jumped at me from the screen, and I barely suppressed my urge to throw the phone away.
Your session will begin in five!
The message was short and clear, and also confident as hell. It assumed I would comply and log into the website to watch the session and do my workout in front of the computer. I had no intention of doing that. I was going to ignore that woman’s messages and…
What was her name, though, I thought. I didn’t remember her introducing herself the previous day, and there had been nothing on the website when I had applied for membership. My finger was halfway towards the “Space” logo when my analyst’s brain kicked in.
“Devious,” I said in the slowly darkening emptiness of the apartment, “very devious.”
I put the phone down and moved to the kitchen to make dinner, smug in my conviction that I’d escaped the marketing trap and beaten the system.
I scraped a frozen pizza out of the fridge and pushed it into the oven on low. It would take around twenty minutes, I thought, I could go read a book. As I stepped out of the kitchen I felt like rolling my shoulders a bit. It had been a long day at the office after all, and the cracking of my joints felt good as I released the gathered tension. I felt my legs could do with some loosening too, so I did a couple of squats. My belly weighed me down, and I came up frowning after the fourth or fifth one. No, this wouldn’t do, I really had to lose some weight. On the other hand, the extra weight would make other things go faster, I thought as I dropped down and started doing knee push-ups. The muscles in my arms were complaining after the second one, but I got to four before getting up with a satisfied smile.
I alternated between squats, push-ups, and stretching until my shirt had stuck to my back with sweat. At last, I came up, breathing hard, and decided it was enough for one evening. My phone beeped from somewhere in the murk of the room, and I reached for it absentmindedly.
Congratulations on your first workout! Said the email. Dinner’s ready!
I stared at the message and the winking emoji that sat below instead of a signature. I had never logged into the stupid website, nor touched the previous email. But I had worked out, hard, and they knew it.
She knew it.
The smell of slightly-burned pizza pulled me out of my stricken state, and I hurried back to the stove. I did not look at the phone again that evening, afraid that my attention would draw more emails out of it. Instead, I went through my crunchy meal while horrible thoughts formed in my head.
Over the next two weeks, my suspicions were confirmed. At strangely convenient moments, I was taken over by a need to work out, do short runs around the block or in the park, and even buy and eat specific foods. It was never something that made me late for work or miss any important engagements, but the sheer change in my behavior was terrifying when I looked back at it during times of rest. I had cut down on pizza and had gotten some vegetables and red meat to cook. I had replaced the long evenings at the computer with workouts or jogs and started turning in on time. I had even bought a pair of running shoes, and, despite the terror that occupied my mind, I couldn’t help feeling a bit proud of myself when I looked at them. I was actually making a change in my life.
And yet I wasn’t. It wasn’t me doing it, it was some voodoo shit that the woman at the “Space” was pulling on me through her hair magic. I knew about that stuff: I had read a lot about voodoo a while ago, in preparation for one of my RPG campaigns. This had to be the real thing, I thought. And now I had to break out of it.
It took me several days to muster the courage needed to go back to the “Space.” In the end, it was one of the congratulatory emails that pushed me to do it.
You have lost two pounds in a week! It said. You rock!
The little head-banging emoji was the last straw. It was the ultimate joke, a taunt, making fun of me while I lost my free will to some demonic fitness instructor.
The moment my desktop’s clock hit the break hour, I dropped whatever I was supposed to be focussing on. Turning heads followed me across the office, and I knew what they were thinking: that I’d already given up, that I was cutting corners, probably already looking for a new job. I left the stares at the elevator doors and plunged down to street level, pumping my anger up.
I ran, knowing that it was going to show in the hellish achievements table in the next email. I felt a stab of excitement for progressing in the tier, and also pleasure from the run, and I hated myself for it all. I was going to end this today. I wanted my life back.
The anteroom of the “Space” was just as dark and dingy, but there was a pointed difference too. A blonde woman was sitting on one of the chairs, a glass of some red-brown gloop on the table in front of her. I had never understood why someone would drink a smoothie if they weren’t forced to do it at gunpoint. I fixed her with a frowning stare and said nothing.
“Hey,” she said, ignoring my dark expression, “Anna’s out to get something, you’d have to wait.” She peeked down around the edge of the table. “Nice runners!”
“Thank you,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. The sincerity in her voice and the unexpected friendliness were cracking up my anger. However, I had obviously run into someone who knew the place, so I jumped on the opportunity to delve deeper. “You’re in on her tricks too then?”
“You mean whether I’m a member? Absolutely!”
The answer and her honest smile did nothing to improve my mood.
“No,” I shook my head, “I mean the voodoo workouts and the emails that…” I looked for a word that wouldn’t sound offensive. After all, she looked like another victim of the witch with the scissors.
“Oh, you’re talking about the psychomotorics,” She nodded with understanding. “That’s a trade secret that Anna wouldn’t discuss unless you have been through the whole program.”
“Yeah, she told me that tier shit too,” I said, earning myself a disapproving frown from her at last. “You really believe that stuff?”
“Why not? Would it be so impossible to have a method of making people do what’s good for them for a change? With all the stuff social media throws at us these days, you’d think they should have developed something useful sooner.”
My jaw dropped. I was the social media analyst here, and such a ridiculous explanation had never occurred to me. There was no stream of data that would create the effects I was experiencing. I didn’t launch into an explanation though, because at that moment the doorbell dinged behind my back. I flung around and came face to face with the monster that pulled the strings in this nightmare, sometimes literally.
“Hello, Richard,” said the many-haired witch, and I struggled to keep my cool in the face of her brilliant fake smile. I tried to imagine the reality of her that I had glimpsed, the broken brown teeth and the golden fang with a sparkling gem in the middle. Her forehead wrinkled in a frown for the first time.
“You gonna be okay, Anna?” Said the woman behind me. The scraping of her chair told me she was standing up hastily.
“Yes, Mary, we’ll be fine. Richard here just wants to suspend his membership.” The witch was piercing me with worried eyes. I kept my concentration on the mental picture of her real form, convinced that it was the right way to fight her charms.
“Oh well, people do stupid shit sometimes,” said Mary as she headed for the door, smoothie in hand. “I just wanted to tell you I’m going on that trip to Brazil. Back in a couple of weeks and I’ll bring you a souvenir.”
“That’d be lovely!” The monster broke eye contact and turned to give Mary a hug. I kept my point-blank stare at her but had already started feeling like an idiot. “You have a nice trip and keep safe, you hear?”
They waved at each other, then the bell announced that I was once more alone in the beast’s den.
“So,” she said with a sigh, “you think you have me figured out, don’t you?”
I grunted my affirmation. “I want my hair back,” I said.
“That would take some work.” She scratched her head and my eyes were drawn to the roots of her hair again. They were no more curly and black, but soft brown and wavy, followed by an inch of straight black mottled with gray, just like my own. Then came the afros that had stuck in my mind the first time.
I pointed a shaking finger at her hair, mouthing silently my horror that wouldn’t come out in actual words. “Is that…” I managed, stepping back. Suddenly, the idea of arguing with a voodoo witch seemed extremely dangerous.
“Yes, that’s yours. As I said, takes time to undo. Sometimes it doesn’t work fully either. But I have a solution figured out for people like you.”
She started towards the reception corner and I jumped out of her way. I should have brought a weapon, I thought wildly, something to ward her off. Now, I was on her turf, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to win in a fist fight.
Anna rummaged behind the counter, then came up with a small clump of feathers that looked like a souvenir. I looked closer and corrected myself: it was an amulet, not a souvenir. It had a very functional look, unlike the junk they sold on the market for tourists to carry home.
“Here.” She put the amulet on the countertop. “This will break the connection as long as you carry it. Don’t feel obliged to return it either.”
She turned her back on me and headed to the inner room.
“Wait,” I said, “is that it?” The lack of opposition had screwed royally with my anger, but I tried to muster some more. “How about an apology for doing it without asking first?”
I felt even stupider as I said the last bit. I was accusing a voodoo practitioner of not asking for consent from her victims. Still, the unfairness of the position I was in made me push on.
“What about all the other people you have tied to yourself? Don’t they deserve to be free too?”
She turned, and the glint of anger in her eyes made me launch myself towards the counter. I grabbed the amulet, hoping it was the real thing and not a fake. Anna was watching me with a sour expression when I faced her again, my heart galloping.
“You think I just abuse people? That I cause them to suffer, to lose their wills, do horrible crimes, give away their lives?”
“Well, yeah,” I said.
“And you have proof?” She narrowed her eyes. “Robbed any banks lately? Starved to death? Sold your kidneys on the black market and sent me the money?” She raised her arms and her voice. “I oughta be filthy rich now, I just didn’t know it yet!”
I shuffled backward, trying to escape the sudden feeling of shame that had taken over me.
“Do you know,” Anna continued, “how much I have to pay for this place? What shit I have to deal with online? All the stupid complaints from lazy-ass people not ‘getting there fast enough?’ All for the chance to keep struggling for another day!” She strode over, standing up on her toes to hiss into my face. “You cannot imagine how long I’ve been doing this!”
I clutched the amulet even harder but stood my ground this time. “But why do it if you’re not using the power?” I said, feeling surreal. It was like stepping into an RPG campaign and arguing with a dungeon boss over her unexpectedly high morals.
She flopped down on her heels, deflating a bit. Her upper lip quivered. “Because I don’t want to stop being alive.”
I frowned. “What’s that got to do with…”
“Everything!” Her anger was gone, and the tremble in her words made me feel like a jerk. “I’m old, very old, and I’ve seen what becomes of people when they stop being truly alive.” She noticed my puzzled expression. “It’s not dying that I fear. I’m dead already. But I am afraid to keep going without emotion, without the thrill of new experiences running through me like fire, without the need to press on, to see what is behind the next turn in the road. Without the sense of accomplishment.” She looked up into my eyes and I saw her tears. “That’s what I take from all of you. I live through you, through your emotions, and I give back health and long life and the will to go out and feel the world like it was meant to be felt. I make you feel alive, so you would go and look for those things that I need.”
I stood there stumped, at a complete loss for words to throw at her. She wasn’t the monster I had imagined. She was a fucking Dalai Lama. I tried to apologize, but she raised a hand to stop me.
“Just take the warding charm and go. You will be in full control of your life again.” And with that she turned away, the door of the studio closing behind her.
The shock of my second visit to the “Space” took the rest of the day to wear off. Once it was gone, I was left with the regret and the revelations. I carried the amulet with me everywhere I went, drawing curious looks at work and concerned ones on the subway. I felt exactly the same, and the change became apparent only when I went home in the evening after talking to Anna.
I was taking the veggies out of the fridge to make a salad when I realized I could eat whatever I wanted now. I could go for pizza, eat the fattest steak I could find, do anything. I wasn’t under the spell of healthy fervor any longer. But the food was already here, and it was wrong to waste it, so I just kept going, fixing the meal that I knew Anna would approve of. I spent the evening watching TV, basking in the lack of pressing concerns for my sleep.
I was late for work the next day, solidifying my colleagues’ opinion that I had given up. I could finally focus that day, the charm sitting on my desk next to the monitor. I went for lunch and had pizza for the first time in a week. It was all perfect, and the best part was, that there were no emails.
That evening, I was halfway through pulling on my running shoes when the realization of my freedom hit me again. I didn’t have to trot around the park any longer, I was free to use my time as I saw fit. I pulled the shoes off and put them back in the closet with the slightest twinge of guilt.
It all went downhill from there. I swapped the healthy meals for the junk I ate earlier. I stayed at home, watching TV or playing on the computer in my free time, instead of working out or running. I wasted away my nights reading or watching movies.
At work, my deadline for review was approaching. I trembled in my chair, afraid that I would be fired any minute now, afraid that the familiar shadow of my boss would eclipse the sun rays that reached my desk from the office window. My work suffered again, and I struggled to deliver anything meaningful while filling my reporting slots with mumbling and recycled old presentation slides. It was no surprise when a colleague approached me one Monday, about three weeks after I had dropped out of the “Space.”
“They need you in the Green Room.” She said, her stare made of equal parts pity and disgust. The Green Room was the unofficial name of the boss’s office after the last repainting.
I got up, trying to pat potato chip bits off my shirt. I stood there stunned, having a last look around the office. That was it, I thought, no more delays. No more waiting. No more fear, no stress, no trying to cover the anxiety up with binge-watching movies through the night. Suddenly, it all fell away, leaving me featherlight and free. And in that moment of clarity, I knew what I had to do.
I grabbed the warding charm from its place next to the mouse pad and strode along the line of desks, ignorant of the stares I was drawing. The office door loomed ahead, and I went through without knocking or hesitating. There was an audible gasp behind me, and I grinned as I closed the door.
My boss and one of the line managers stood inside. They met my smug expression with raised eyebrows, then quickly assumed hard faces, probably meant to show both conviction and empathy. It was comical seeing them apply the latest management tricks, so I grinned even wider as I sat down. The battle between my genuine smile and my boss’s fake concerned grimace electrified the air in the room by the second, until the line manager couldn’t take it any longer.
“Hello, Richard.” He said, emphasizing the greeting that I had skipped. “We’ve called you to talk about your results in the last couple of months. There had been a marked decline in the quality of your work. And,” he cleared his throat, “you haven’t made progress on your OKRs.”
“That last part is not exactly true,” I said, putting the charm on the desk, “but it’s okay.”
My boss leaned forward. “It’s not okay when you ignore your obligations at work,” he said slyly, “and making excuses about things will not help you either. We’ve reviewed your contract and decided to let you go. You’re officially in your one-month notice period.” His smile became evil at that point. “Unless you want to finish it immediately, in which case you are free to go. But I know you have bills to pay, so I advise you not to…”
“Yup, I’ll be gone in twenty,” I said, the grin still occupying my face. The tiny twinge of anxiety that appeared upon the mention of the bespoke bills received a sound thrashing on behalf of my newfound resolve and was kicked out of my mind in microseconds.
“You will be gone?” Both of them blanched, processing this new development, then the line manager found his voice again.
“Are you sure, Richard?” There was a barely detectable concern for me in his words now.
I turned to beam at him as I got up. “Yes, I’m sure. I’ll be fine,” I added when his frown grew deeper.
“You are serious? Are you on some medication? Maybe we could…”
“No, it’s fine, I’m fine, will be in any case.” I raised my hands to stop his fretting. “It’s good. Really.” I turned to leave the office, itching to execute my plan.
“You can take your thing now,” my former boss called after me, and I glanced back from the door to see him pointing at the charm still sitting on his desk.
“You should keep it,” I said, conscious of my voice echoing through the office. “It’s a real voodoo warding charm. Keep you safe.” And with that, and an actual chuckle, I let the door snap closed.
The sun shone bright and warm as I climbed the final stretch of rocky slope and looked over the deep green of the Sacred Valley. In the distance, I could see the city of Cusco, the old capital of the Inca Empire. Mountain ranges lined the view, telling me they had more hidden beauty on the other side. It was all breathtaking, and I just stood there, letting the magic of the place fill me up while the warm wind caressed my face.
I had truly done it, I thought, as the calls of the tourist guide echoed from behind me, pulling the group together. This was it, the final proof that my decision had been right. It had been a year since I quit my previous job, sold the downtown apartment, and rented a small and much more affordable place in the suburbs. I had gotten an analyst position in one of the many startups that vied for the wealth of data in the age of total networking. It was a job, it paid enough, and even if the company failed, I could find something else. I had some savings in case things went south, and now I had gathered enough to start living out my dreams. I was in Peru, and going on a trip to Machu Picchu the next day.
I turned and headed for the main trail where the already jumpy guide was swinging his brightly colored umbrella. The vista behind me was pulling my thoughts back, vying for attention, but I focused on my steps down the mountain.
As a venerable friend of mine would say, it was good cardio.
Sofia, 28 May 2022