This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
A woman wakes up in a kitchen who can hardly stand. She grabs for the bench and spots some woman in the fridge-side window. But that's no woman; that's her reflection. Whatever's in her hand hits the floor, shattering.
There's a ham steaming on the table; an oven smoking yet her apron's pristine.
A man barrels through the door - he's huge - tossing his hat to the stand by flicking his head. A roaring crowd floods her ears as he tries to swoop her up. She pushes back.
"Oh honey," he says, drooling over the ham illuminated by its shining serving fork, "you haven't made anything for yourself".
The crowd's laughing. She spins around, searching for its source. One side of her vision is blank, dead space - her head heavy, throbbing to some horrible bear. The man stares at her, frozen, waiting for a reaction.
"Our wedding day, you didn't gawk at me that way." Then he laughs, pointing out the dent in the oven - "you must have hit your head."
"Can't we go somewhere, please?" she says.
What brought her here? Did he kidnap her, dress her in this? A domestic goddess dead before her time? She races for the door to find nothing but blue night and pitch black silhouettes.
"If that ham eats itself, we'll have something to worry about?" he booms. More cheering, another ringing endorsement.
She's trying to picture herself without this man, this husband; she pictures a woman, the men, a career lying - no, acting? - but it's burning away fast.
Was it ever there? Was it a dream stamped into the dirt long ago? Did he take it away? She feels their laughter in her teeth, rattling them away like they might all fall out.
"Don't you hear that, the laughter?"
"Oh honey, no one's laughing at you. Everyone loves you, that's all you need to know. Ever since you chose me at the Sadie Hawkins Dance. I'll never leave you."
"Don't you hear that, the laughter?"
A massive aww cuts across the crowd - people gasp as if about to sob. She wonders why she chose him over any other man in existence.
She wants to picture how they could possibly have met: two children through a window at play, forever friends until they get that tingle.
She wouldn't go off with some strange boy, she's not that sort of girl. Any chaperone worth her salt would shoot him straight down. Those childhood sweethearts might as well be stick figures for all she cares.
She has standards; who would settle for this gigantic, seeping creep?
Then she sets her eyes on the ham, staring at its every glistening pore: she hates cooking.She grabs the serving fork and lunges. Missing him, she smacks into the wall, the whole rubbery room shuddering, like something's shaking it.
He's beaming, shaking his beer belly. "Oh, what are you going to do? You can't let the air out of this tire." Now they're screaming into their hands, slapping their knees.
She regains her footing, finally gaining the best view of her surroundings. The husband's briefcase, a TV with a spiky aerial and massive dial, the invisible audience and the utter neon black in the corner of her eye: she's stuck in a sitcom.
That's the only way this makes sense, she thinks, I'm not one to go crazy.
A wife bickering with her husband, whatever she does, is the highest form of wit to whatever's out there watching. What's next for their petit bourgeois tastes? He calms her down, wins sympathy - is that the idea? How does she turn this show off? Pull its plug?
She screams, swearing, with nothing coming out; the sound's been killed. Dead air, and her heart doesn't even beat. Calming down; they turn it back on. "Don't you hear them? We're their audience."
He nods, hands up, approaching. "We don't want to disturb them, do we, honey?" He doesn't break the smile.
His pleading eyes. There's no terror, a flashing neon wink.
Whatever she does to this man, the audience won't switch off, won't leave her alone.
Something's tapping, gnawing at the walls. One thought she buries deep: Are they even human?Do they even understand what they're doing to me?
The "husband" eats away with his hands, the audience panting.
Children appear, rosy-cheeked, sparkling teeth.
The "husband" sighs: "Don't alert the warden."
The children smirk as they sneak some ham. Children are a puking little brood, dead weight and cement shoes, she thinks.
She was somebody once, she knew it. People were always watching her, paying too. Pretending was her passion while the crowds came and went. Struggling to remember any other part of her life, anything that matters.
Anything to explain why she's here or who she really was.
A way to stop the show suddenly hits her:
If I kill the kids, no one's gonna laugh. But I can't do that, can I?
She readies her serving fork.
The walls push in, bleeding blacker than deep space, oozing over everything but her: the TV, kitchen, fridge, the ham. She pushes past the children, who burst open.
The door comes off its hinges, flying into the darkness. The stars are out. More and more appear, poking holes in the night, humming and blinking. Soon that's all she sees. Just fuzzy, buzzing static.
Her name was on the tip of her tongue.