Chapter 41 - Melody
It was Christmas Eve. I was the last person left in the office, and it was eerily quiet inside, except for the occasional thunder in the distance. A storm was brewing, and I knew I should probably get out of here if I didn’t want to be driving in the rain on the way home.
I glanced at my watch - it was just shy of seven p.m. I’d been working part-time at the financial firm my dad owned to get work experience and start learning the ropes. I’d be walking into a very attractive job the moment I graduated - the kind of high paying job that recent graduates could only dream about.
My dad’s dream had been that one day I’d step in and take over the firm which had been in our family for three generations. And although my dad was well-qualified and equipped to run a hedge fund worth billions, he never had much interest in it, choosing to pursue a football career instead.
My dad’s football career was cut short by a horrific injury to his knee, and although he worked at the firm for a while when my grandfather was still at its helm, his heart was quite simply never in it. An opportunity arose to take up a career in sports broadcasting, and once again, he followed his passion to commentate on the sport he loved so much.
When my mom and dad got married, he appointed Dean Vaughn - Knox’s dad, to run the day-to-day operations of the firm, and he’d been doing a fantastic job from everything I’d heard, multiplying investments several times over, over the past twenty-three odd years that he’d been in charge of investment decisions at the firm.
My dad still sat in on board meetings and had the final say, but he preferred a hands-off approach to the making of day-to-day decisions, leaving that to Dean to manage. And I couldn’t lie - it was painful just to see Knox’s dad in the corridors sometimes. To see those same devastatingly blue eyes. He’d smile politely and greet me by the name, and I’d do the same - pretending that I hadn’t given away my soul to his son. I wondered how much he knew, in any event, because I had an idea that Knox probably hadn’t told his parents about us, either.
I had one semester left before I’d graduate with my commerce degree, majoring in investment management. I’ve always had an aptitude for numbers. Economics fascinated me. The financial markets, even more so. I was good at spotting a trend. I was good at looking at financial statements, and realizing if there was value to be found within those balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements. But most of all, I had the type of demeanor that thrived under pressure. I could make split-second decisions. And that counted for a lot in this industry.
As I got closer to graduation, my dad suggested that it would be a good time for me to get my feet wet and take up a part-time job at the firm. It was right around the time that I ended things with Knox, and the timing couldn’t have been better, because it provided a welcome distraction. Between my studies, working, and helping my sister with her wedding preparations, I didn’t have much time left to think about things too much.
That didn’t mean that I didn’t still cry myself to sleep at night. Because no matter how fast I tried to run, at the end of the day, I had to come to a standstill. And exactly then, everything I’d been trying to suppress caught up with me. The nights were long and restless, and that’s when my heart hurt the most.
I still wondered every day if he was going to turn up. I still wondered every minute of every day, what he was doing right now. And I still loved him with every single beat of my heart. But most of all, I vowed to do things right if I saw him again. I was done punishing myself to prove a point. I was ready to put the past behind us and be happy with what we had. Because I’d come to realize that even at the lowest points in our relationship, I was so much happier than what I was right now. It was time to let my pride go, and hold on this time. But there was still a big question mark as to whether he’d be back again, or whether it was too late for us.
I sighed as I crossed off another item off my to-do-list on the virtual post-it note sitting on my computer screen.
I couldn’t help but feel distracted today. Two months were almost up, and my mind kept wandering back to Christmas Eve exactly a year ago. It was the night that Connor had his accident, and that I stayed over at Knox’s place the second time. In some respects, I wished so damn hard that I could turn back time and do things over - do things right from the start. Perhaps if I had the courage to say what was really inside my heart, things wouldn’t have become so messy between us. But it was too late for regrets now. I’d made my decisions, and I had to live with the consequences thereof, painful as they may be.
‘Where are you tonight, Knox Vaughn?’
I’d been so tempted to ask Dean that question, especially today. But I didn’t, because I had my pride, and I didn’t even know if Knox had told him about us.
I knew I should probably head home. It was getting really late, and which sane person stayed back voluntarily on Christmas Eve to work late? But I knew the answer to that one, at least. It was the kind of person who was trying so damn hard to forget. The kind of person who carried around an empty void inside their heart. The kind of person who was trying to run from their own thoughts, but who couldn’t run fast enough.
I sighed as I started gathering my belongings. It was dark outside, and a bolt of lightning hit somewhere in the distance. I was willing to bet that I was probably the last person left inside that office tower given the day and time, because most of our staff at the firm cleared out just after lunch to go home to their families and do some last-minute shopping. Even Dean popped into my office around four p.m., telling me that I was the last person left in the office as he was heading home too, gently encouraging me to leave as well.
I disconnected my phone from the charger, and that’s exactly when it happened...
There was a loud clap of thunder, and all of a sudden, it went pitch black. I heard the ominous sound of the air-conditioning switching off. And all of a sudden, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop and so dark I could barely make out anything inside that office.
Immediately my mind went there. To that cold, dark place where I was drowning again. My pulse sped up, and my palms felt clammy as my heart thundered in my chest, and adrenaline rushed through my veins. I was getting an anxiety-attack; I recognized the symptoms by now.
I was all alone, in the dark, on the twentieth story of the office tower. How the hell was I going to get out?
‘Breathe, just breathe...’ I tried to tell myself, as I could feel my mind shutting down. I needed to think. I needed to stay calm. I needed to get out of here.
I grabbed my purse and used the flashlight on my phone to light the way through the eerily quiet and dark corridor. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it thundering in my ears.
Finally, I reached the elevators, pressing the call button, but it didn’t light up. I pressed, and pressed, but nothing happened.
“Shit!” I exclaimed, feeling close to tears. Of course - with the power out, the elevators wouldn’t work. That was so damn stupid of me!
Then, my eye caught the fluorescent sign. It was the sign leading to the fire stairs. I started crying. I was scared and all alone. It felt like I was drowning again. It was so dark. I was so alone...
I sobbed, and my first instinct was to call Knox. But I couldn’t. He wasn’t here. He wasn’t going to save me this time. I’d have to try and save myself.
My legs felt shaky, and my fingers trembled as I called my dad. He could help. Someone needed to know where I was and what was happening.
He picked up after two rings - thank God.
“I was just talking about you. Are you on your way home?”
“Dad?” I sobbed as I stood in front of the emergency exit leading to the fire stairs.
“Mel? What’s wrong?” He was immediately on high alert.
“Dad... I’m... at the office. The power went out. I’m all alone and... I’m freaking out right now. The elevators don’t work.”
“Shit! Hasn’t the back-up generator kicked in? There is one - it should kick in soon - after ten or fifteen minutes, I think,” he said, sounding worried. “Are you okay, Mel? You don’t sound okay.”
“I... I’m scared. I’m going to take the fire stairs. I can’t stand this darkness. It’s so quiet, dad, even the airconditioning has shut down. It feels like I can’t breathe, there’s no air...”
“I’ll call building management immediately. Hang on one second...” my dad said, and I heard his muffled voice talking in the background for a few seconds before he spoke to me again.
“I’m going to give the phone to Hailey, so I can call building management. Stay on the line, Mel. Talk to your sister - I’m giving the phone to her now. Try your best to stay calm. Take those stairs, and get yourself out of there safely.” I could hear that my dad realized what was happening to me. That I was losing it. That I was scared out of my mind.
“Okay...” I opened the fire door, and I freaked out again as I saw the dimly lit emergency lights in the concrete shaft. It echoed hollowly as I opened the door - there was absolutely no-one around, and it scared the hell out of me to know that I was all alone.
“Mel?” Hailey’s voice asked, and I took a deep breath as I entered the fire stairwell.
“Hailes, I’m scared. I’m so scared,” I sobbed as I started climbing the stairs. I reached for the angel pendant around my neck, darting my fingers desperately over it, as though that might help save me somehow.
“You’re doing great. Keep going, Mel; I’m right here with you. Dad is calling building management right now to find out what’s going on. Someone will be there soon, I promise,” Hailey kept her voice calm and even, and I knew I was being irrational right now, but I was hoping that I’d see her again. And if I did, I was going to give her the biggest hug for being there for me when I needed her most.
“Thank you. It’s so quiet, Hailes; every footstep is echoing inside the stairwell. There’s not much light. I’m scared as hell...”
“Where are you now?”
I looked at the door I just passed.
“Eighteen, it says.”
“You’re doing so great, Mel. Just keep going, one step at a time. I’m right here with you.”
“I can’t breathe, Hailes. I can’t breathe, the airconditioning is off...” I sobbed again, it felt as though someone was choking my throat.
“Breathe in and out, Mel. You’re so brave. You can do this. Dad is on the phone with building management right now. He’s not happy with them; I can tell you that.”
I kept putting one foot in front of the other, going around and around in circles, following the stairwell. I was starting to feel dizzy from walking in circles, over and over again. My legs felt wobbly and weak, and my hands were still trembling as I clenched onto the railing with one, and my phone the other.
“How far down are you now?” Hailey asked calmly again, and I looked for a number on the door.
“Ten,” I exhaled a shaky breath.
“You’re halfway there! You’re almost down, Mel, just keep going; you’re doing a fabulous job.”
“Thank you...” My footsteps kept echoing through that empty, dusty concrete stairwell. I was starting to feel like I could do this. Like I was going to make it out, now.
Hailey stayed on the line and kept encouraging me, asking me at regular intervals where I was. It felt like an eternity. Like I was trapped inside a never-ending concrete maze of staircases that were swallowing me in its insides.
“Two. I have two more to go,” the relief was palpable in my voice, and I even managed a slight smile.
I felt dizzy as hell. Shaky as a leaf. But finally, I started to breathe easier as I rounded that last corner, seeing the door leading to the exit right in front of me.
“I’m here. I can see the exit now,” I almost sobbed in relief.
“You’re a champion, Mel. I’m so proud of you. Someone will be there soon, I promise.”
I reached for the door handle and pushed it down. But nothing happened. I pushed, hard. It remained stuck.
"Shit! It’s locked!” I sobbed desperately, trying to force the door open, but it wouldn’t give.
“What’s locked?” Hailey asked, sounding confused.
A feeling of raw terror overcame me right then.
“I’m stuck, Hailes! The door to the exit won’t open. I think it’s locked,” I sobbed again, feeling the anxiety rising up again. Feeling like someone had their hands around my throat again. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get out. There was no way out of here and I was so alone and scared.
“What? Hang on, I’m telling dad.”
I pulled and pushed against that door, but that steel handle didn’t want to move. I sobbed in frustration, pushing and yanking at that doorhandle desperately with all my strength.
Just then, there was a strange noise which made me jump, and all of a sudden, it was much lighter inside that stairwell as the lights went back on. I could hear the sound of the air conditioning kicking in again. I was partially relieved, partially terrified. But I was still stuck...
“Hailes... I’m scared. I’m stuck. I’m alone. Please help...” I sobbed, banging against the door helplessly, hoping someone would hear me.
And then, as if my miracle, I heard something.
“Mel?” A male voice asked.
I was sure I was going mad, because it kind of sounded like Knox. But it must have been a security guard.
“I’m stuck - I can’t get out!” I shouted, tears streaming down my cheeks as I thumbed that angel wing necklace around my neck.
“Stand back! Get away from the door!” That voice said again. It sounded so much like the one I’d been hearing only in my dreams these days.
I was going mad, I was sure. It sounded just like him, but it couldn’t be - it was impossible.
I gave a few steps back, still clenching onto my phone, following the instructions.
“Mel - are you still there?” Hailey was starting to panic now; I could hear it.
“Yes. I’m stuck, Hailes, but there’s someone on the other side of the door,” I said shakily.
“Stand back, Mel! I’m about to use a fire ax to break down the door!” That voice traveled through the door again, and I was sure I was hallucinating because it sounded just like him.
I gave a few more steps backward, climbing a few stairs to ensure that I was well out of the way.
“I’m out of the way!” I raised my voice.
And the next second, there was one hell of a noise. Then another. And then that door burst open...