Treading Water

Author's Note: I would like to thank one of my colleagues, mindwhisperer, for reading my stories and being inspired by my mad scribbles. One of these days I'll definitely need to listen to a proper recording of your songs.

I'd also like to give a shout out to Redoubt. If all else fails, this could be the Isekai origin for Reinhardt or any other of your Dungeons and Dragons characters in my terrible, no good, very bad campaign.

The water was cold, chilling me right to the bone. My life seemed to flash before my eyes as it built up to this moment when I would have to sink or swim.

It was hard to breathe. Everything I had on me was pulling me down, dragging me into the depths of the river…

Most people have heard of the saying: 'Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.' It's often used to allude to the fact that it's unlucky for a woman to serve as a bridesmaid for two or more weddings. A harsh judgement, particularly if they haven't found the one and settled down. The same can also be said of men. I can count on both my hands and a foot, the number of times I've been a groomsman to one of my friends. Yet, despite my best efforts on numerous dating sites, I've never been able to keep up a steady rapport for more than a month or two.

It's both heartbreaking and a confidence-killer.

I like to think of myself as a nice guy. Charming, chivalrous, great listener and spinner of fantastic tales.

The one problem? Making them stay.

I don't know what it is. Maybe it's my breath? That I love my job? Or perhaps I'm fundamentally broken, especially after what happened back during my teen years. Before mum passed away.

But I think the real kicker is something else. And not just in regards to my love life. I'm nearing forty and live with my married sister, her husband and their two terror toddlers. A live-in uncle, if you will. It has a few perks, I'll admit. The low rent, the free food, shared Netflix subscription…

Yet, nothing else turns the ladies off faster than staying the night. For one, there's absolutely no privacy. And two? Well, honestly, who'd want to bump into a possible future in-law while sneaking out at five in the morning, sore between the legs?

Some of my colleagues have asked why I haven't moved out. Found my own place instead of trying to share it.

My answer has always been the same. This is my home. Mum left the house to both me and my sister. Built in the vein of the old Tudor-style houses of the early twentieth century, it's a haven of memories. I wouldn't part with it for all the money in the world, even if the cost of renting a place wasn't so exorbitant that it would take out about 80% of my entire salary.

Perhaps if I wanted to start my own family, I might move out to the suburbs. For now, however, the house catered to my needs with the occasional annoyance. If it wasn't my nephews trying to sneak into my mancave, it would be the in-law nagging about the upkeep for the one and a half rooms I'd commandeered as my rightful share.

God. Sometimes I wondered what Jennifer ever saw in Shaun. He's rude, has a holier-than-thou attitude and is a goddamn prick just because he has a doctorate in economics. I hate how he thinks he's so much better than me because he has an impressive six-digit salary. And if I could rip the smirk from his face, I would. Jen could have literally found anyone else and it would have been better. Well, perhaps not a drug addict. Jen does have some standards.

In any case, my one solace in a life mired by a myriad of difficulties has been work. Admittedly, it was not initially my dream job. Over the years, however, it's grown on me. The clientele, the fact that I've been able to make a difference in the lives of people from all walks of life, and the fact that I'm regarded as a valuable member of the team. I like to think that's because of my natural inclination to fostering a positive atmosphere.

As team leader, it was my responsibility to make sure everything was running smoothly. Like I said before, I'm a nice guy. More importantly, I wanted to make our company the best there when it comes to delivering a vital service to the people of the city. And if that meant staying back for an hour or two, I'd gladly take it. Particularly because, in recent months, we had seen a lot of new staff moving through.

And, with my wealth of experience, it had fallen upon me to train them and ensure that the work they were doing was of the utmost quality. Simple, really.

"Joe, could you come into my office? We need to talk."

I looked up from my screen. The sudden spike of annoyance I felt was quashed immediately and a smile graced my lips as I nodded briefly to Annie – a dear friend, now manager and acting head of our division. We had worked together for many years before she had received a well-deserved promotion. And unlike many others that had passed through, she knew the work and was willing to listen.

"Just a few minutes, Annie. I need to wrap up this last email," I said. She gave me a nod before disappearing into her office.

Reluctantly, I turned my attention back to the essay that I had been composing. One of the main problems that I faced with the increased rotation of new staff was the significant dip in client satisfaction. Complaints had increased and the workload was piling up. And someone had to make sure that it didn't reach an unmanageable level.

Enter: me.

I had been with the company for almost two decades. As soon as I had stepped out of university, diploma in hand, I had applied for the graduate program. Along with Annie, I had been one of the lucky few to be accepted. Ever since, I've remained with the company, working my way up the chain of command. With all that experience behind me, it seemed appropriate that I tackle the jobs that we were struggling to fill. I owed it to the one place that brought me solace from the goings on in my life.

At first, I'd start by adding a few minutes here and there to finish off urgent emails. A year later, and with new staff constantly churning their way through, it had become a good three or four hours extra every day.

Not that I'd complain, of course. But perhaps Annie had noticed all the elbow grease I was putting in to keep the company afloat, the clients happy, and making sure all the newbies were doing things right.

Once the email met my exacting specifications, I sent it off. Locking my computer, I brought my mug of coffee with me into Annie's office.

There was a solemnity to her that I had never seen before. Hands tented before her and brow furrowed, she looked all forty-three of her years. The ring on her finger was a reminder that she had been married for fourteen of those and had two children. Though she had tied her hair back, a strand of grey had managed to come away.

"If this is about Laundale, I've just dealt with them," I said as I sat down in the chair opposite hers. "Hopefully, by offering them a discount for the next job, we can regain a bit of our reputation and goodwill. I know we can always find another customer, but they've been with us for years. Besides, it was a simple mistake, easily rectified."

"What? Oh. Yes. Thank you for that Joe."

There was something amiss. I could sense it. "What's wrong, Annie? Did I do something wrong? Things have gotten hectic, what with all the new staff that keep coming through and I've tried to train them as well as can be. And I know you didn't ask it of me, but I've also been looking out for any disasters on the horizon, mitigating any damage as best I can. There's only one of me, though—"

"Actually, that's why I've called you in, Joe. We've had complaints."

"Who? Belinda? Mary? Look. I get it. They're not the best workers to have. I've been hovering over them like a mother hen trying to make sure they don't slip up on the next big job. Offering them assistance, checking up on them, reviewing their work—"

"Joe, the complaints have been about you."

"Me?" I asked, astonished. Who would be complaining about me? I was a valuable asset with the company. I knew the ins and outs of the systems. Knew how best to placate each client. It couldn't have been about me. "That's impossible."

Annie leaned forward. "I'm afraid it is, Joe."

"On what grounds?"

"Harassment. Bullying. Microaggression. And extensive micromanagement," said Annie. "I'm sorry, Joe, but my hands are tied. I need to put you on leave while we investigate these claims."

A hot flush enveloped my neck and my face. I rose to my feet. "Who was it? Who's spreading these lies about me?" One hand slammed against the desk before I could rein in the impulse. I needed to know who would slander my good name after all the things I had done to keep the company afloat. I needed to know who would ruin my one sanctuary in the world.

"You know I can't tell you, Joe. The complaints are anonymous. Even if I knew the names, company policy means I can't disclose them to you."

"This is bullshit, Annie. You know it is."

Annie let out a sigh. "As I said, Joe, this is out of my control." She reached out and patted my hand. "Look, see it as a holiday. We can put you on miscellaneous leave. Two weeks and you'll be back. And this whole thing would have blown over. What we can't do is give the impression that we're sweeping this out of the rug."

After all my years of loyal service and this was how they were going to treat me? I threw Annie a look that spoke of the depth of her betrayal. As she opened her mouth to placate me again, I left. Her small office was stifling. Behind me, the door closed with a slam and I returned to my computer.

Once seated, I took a few deep breaths. It was the only thing I could do to slow the panic that was gnawing at my gut and threatening to erupt. When that didn't work, I retreated to the restroom. Closing the door to the stall, I sat on the toilet and pondered who would say such terrible things about me. I was Joe. The friendly team leader. Tireless to a fault. Always looking out for the good of the team.

I went through everyone in the office, trying to figure out the vindictive bootlicker that had sullied my character. A few came to mind. Belinda. Mary. Stephen. They were the three most likely suspects.

Yet to come out of the gates, screaming for their heads would only further paint me as the villain. To even ask around, after being seen entering Annie's office, would make plausible their accusations. Shit. Shit. Shit. Trapped in a Catch-22, my only option was to do as Annie had bid.

Dejected, I flushed the toilet and left.

Whoever it was had ruined my life. I returned to my seat, logged in and looked blankly at the mass of emails that sat in our inbox. Clicking into my own personal work one, I had a look through all the other tasks that needed to be done in the coming days.

There was so much to do. But by the end of the day, Annie had made it clear that I was not expected to step foot in the office for the next fourteen days.

Without my guidance, how were we to keep the company going?

"Did you hear about Joe?"

My ears perked up at the mention of my name. I looked around. Near the kitchen, I spotted Mary and Samantha, engrossed in conversation. I ducked behind the partition before they could spot me.

"Shh! Keep your voice down. What if he hears?" said Mary.

"Let him. He needs to know that he can't get away with these things. Ever since I joined mid last-year, I've felt his breath down my neck. His eyes on the back of my head. He won't say anything that fits the description of 'bullying' but I can't keep working like this."

There was a pause. "I know. I heard the rumours, of course, before signing on too. Didn't believe them until I witnessed it firsthand. Joe always acts like he can get away with anything because he and Annie started at the same time."

"Do you think something might be going on between them?"

"There might have been something there but Annie's been married for fourteen years. And happily, from all accounts. Still, I wouldn't put it past them if they've got an arrangement." Laughter followed. Then footsteps.

Hurriedly, I opened up a word document and began typing something nonsensical. As Mary and Samantha walked past, I gave them a jaunty wave, a forced grin stretching my lips.

The pair of them returned it, though Samantha leaned up to Mary's ear to whisper something. Mary giggled; a hand pressed to her lips in a rare display of coquettishness that belied her nose for salacious gossip. It was probably another dig at my character. Or an attempt to smear the only good relationship I had in the world. The bitches.

I watched as they rounded the corner and disappeared from view, most likely returning to their seats and a full day of work. Immediately, the grin fell and I flopped back onto my chair. Any motivation for work had deserted me as soon as Annie had called me into her office. But the idea of taking a personal day when the day was already half done did not sit right with me. I would just have to power through and then ponder my life's direction after I had clocked off for the evening.

As I picked up my mug, I found the coffee cold and disappointing. I spat most of it out. It seemed that I'd have to make a fresh brew. While I usually asked Rina, it seemed particularly poignant that I did it myself. After all, why add further fuel to the fire? They already saw me as a monster. Wouldn't want another complaint of office bullying or harassment. And over a simple cup of black.

God. When had everything gone so wrong for me? Charming. Charismatic. Those were the words most of my friends had described me back in my university days. And they were the descriptors I had put into my dating profile. I was a bloody nice guy. It was evident that the birds in the office were too blind to see. Except, of course, Annie. She was the only one who really saw me. A shame, then, that she had married so early.

Jackson greeted me in the kitchen. A mature hire, he had joined the company shortly after Annie and I, though he had a wealth of experience behind him. Over the years, his hair had thinned and his stomach had become a solid beer keg. Despite all that, he had a mind like a steep trap. For that very reason, he had risen to the comfortable position of senior manager of Accounts.

Ever since I had known him, he took his lunch early. At 11.30 rather than the prescribed lunch hour. An empty Burger King wrapper sat before him.

"How's the family?" I asked as I turned on the coffee machine and set a pod into it.

He finished licking his fingers. "Oh, the usual," he replied in his deep sonorous voice. "They might be all grown up, but sometimes they're just as helpless as when they were newborns." He laughed at this, slapping one dark hand against his leg.

"And Lorelei?"

"As lovely as the day I first met her. Have I told you that it's our anniversary next week? Think you give me some advice on what to get her in the next couple of days?"

I put my mug into the receptacle and pressed the start button. "Actually, I'll be on leave for the next couple of weeks."

The big man frowned. "During our busiest period? What the hell is Annie thinking letting you go like—oh. Right. That."

"So, you know?" I tried to keep the question casual but my shoulders had tensed and the hairs on the back of my neck had stood up to attention.

Jackson nodded. "I'll tell you what I told Annie. It's utter bullshit," he said. "The young people these days, they're all bloody snowflakes. Can't say anything without them turning around and going it ain't politically correct. Whatever that's supposed to mean."

"Right? I've only been doing what's best for the company. Helping them out, fixing mistakes."

"It's hard to see a good employee get punished for just doing what it takes. Don't worry, Joe. It'll all blow over. You'll see. Then everything can go back to normal."

His words helped soothe the ache in my chest. Blinking back the sudden onset of allergies, I picked up my coffee and effusively thanked Jackson from the bottom of my heart. It didn't matter what the others said. I still had allies. And Jackson was the most stalwart of them.

The rest of the day passed too quickly for my liking. Before I knew it, the clock had hit 6pm and I was being ushered out of the door. Cut off from the one thing that brought me joy for the next two weeks. I hadn't even managed to send a roster out to the team, to make sure that they would be on top of things before I returned before Annie had gently coaxed me from the computer and escorted from the premises.

It was as if I had lost a limb.

Too morose to head back home, I decided that my best course of action was to head to the local pub. A good drink was just the right medicine for dismay and heartbreak. And Hell, I deserved it. For too long, I'd put up with training new staff (and my two nephews). It was good to finally let loose after a long while. Maybe, if I was lucky, Little Joe would also get some loving.

Spirits buoyed, I headed for the Golden Lion. Though not too close to the office, good food and a plentiful of beer on tap, it was one of the best places in the city for a man needing to drown his sorrows. Beyond that, it also had a warm atmosphere of camaraderie even if it could get a little rowdy at times as people crowded around the TV sets to cheer for their favourite teams.

The walk was a lazy fifteen minutes. Out in the fresh air, I was able to contemplate my choices for the next two weeks. My sister and, by extension, her husband, could not know that I had been placed under miscellaneous leave pending an investigation into false allegations of workplace harassment. Shaun would have a field day and I desperately did not want to give him the satisfaction. Somehow, over the next few days, I'd have to come up with a plausible excuse. Or simply head to the local café to while away the hours.

I walked into the pub and was immediately assaulted by the sounds of the pokies and their bright flashy lights. Several minutes later, I had checked in and had nabbed a spot at the bar. In one hand, I nursed a pint of beer and was taking a look around at the clientele present.

Given that it was the start of the working week and that the evening was still young, the Golden Lion was still almost empty. A few families had trickled in, regulars perhaps, or tourists. As well as a few couples looking for a place that was relatively cheap. One group of rowdy rabblerousers settled around a table not too far from me. With nothing better to do, I gave into curiosity, taking a peek over my shoulder.

Four men, roughly around their mid-thirties, and two women, who looked much younger and more naïve. One of them had long blonde hair, tied into a neat ponytail. The other had a dark curtain of brown. She had almond-shaped eyes and small button nose. A jolt went through me. I knew her.

Yet no matter how I wracked my brains, a name would not come. Maybe it was the three mouthfuls I'd already had, or maybe I was finally entering the age of dementia.

Nor could I rightly say where I knew her from. She could have been a new employee that I trained or one of the lovely ladies I had swiped left on because they were too young or we had dissimilar interests. After all, I'm not a monster or a paedophile.

Still, the question remained: what was she doing here? And with such company?

She was a tiny little waif. Barely a woman in almost every regard. The men, on the other hand, looked like common thugs, born on the wrong side of the tracks. Two wore high visibility vests. Their work boots covered in white. One of them had a scar that ran down the left side of his face. Another was dressed casually in a loose white shirt and a pair of cargo pants. Built like a bruiser, he kept his hair cropped short. The last had high lace-up boots. Metal chains adorned his pants. On top, he wore a studded leather jacket.

As I took another sip of my drink, I decided that the most prudent course of action was to keep an eye on the girl. There was no telling what possible danger she might be in as the night wore on. Spiked drinks, unwanted attention, coercive demands…

The list went on. Of course, not all men would stoop so low.

But, as a representative of the chivalrous sex, it was imperative that I demonstrated the side that the media tended to gloss over when they covered stories on abuse and harassment. Better yet, it would prove how wrong the allegations made at work would be. God, if I could pull this off, I could waltz into Annie's office and have my due recompense for the slander to my good name and reputation.

As the night wore on, the men seemed to get louder and bolder with their lewd remarks as their faces grew red with drink. By nine, they could barely say anything remotely intelligible.

Both the girl I knew and the blonde appeared to grow more uncomfortable as time passed. Their wines sat untouched on the table. As the conversation turned towards their personal lives, the brunette exchanged a glance with her companion before they headed off to the washroom.

In their absence, the men were eager to compare the two. I couldn't hear much, given all the other additional noise in the pub. What little I did catch turned my stomach. I pitied anyone who would ever deign to date them. Let alone marry the fools. They were worse than Shaun. And that was saying something.

When the women returned, they still seemed somewhat uneasy and shy. The men, on the other hand, had changed on the dime, upping the charm. It was like watching an experienced horse trainer trying to calm a few jittery fillies by plying them with apples and sugar cubes.

Another hour or two passed and I was on my fourth drink. Where once it had soothed my restless spirit, the beer now tasted cold and sour on my tongue. I pushed it aside, unable to stomach any more of the swill. And, in all honesty, I should have gone home. Jen would be wondering where I was. Though I came home late every night, I'd never stayed out after eleven. Even if I had a very good reason to stay longer. I eyed the brunette, worried about what would happen when I finally abandoned my vigil.

It was all well and good to march up to the men and give them a piece of my mind. But I was no fool. Why start a fight I couldn't win? Even in a best-case scenario, I'd be thrown out on my arse with a new shiner. Unless these men did something more overt, my hands were tied.

Just as I rose from my stool, so too did the women.

"It was very nice to meet you all," said the brunette. "Natasha and I had a lot of fun."

"Come on, stay a little longer. The night's still young," cajoled one of the men. He was on his fifth Heineken.

She smiled politely. "Thank you for the kind offer. Unfortunately, we both have an early start tomorrow."

The one with the scar rose to his feet. "Well, if that's the case, it would be wrong to let you go home alone. You must have heard the stories, right? Why don't we walk you back to your apartment?"

"Oh no. I couldn't impose," said the brunette. "Really, it's not necessary. We can call a cab."

"Nonsense. It's the right thing to do, right lads?" He was greeted by a chorus of affirmatives and leering grins.

A cold chill went down my spine as my hands curled into fists. It was as if the present faded away and I could see how the future would play out. After all, the way they had dressed – particularly the blonde with her plunging neckline – I couldn't let that happen. I wouldn't. These two women needed a knight in shining armour to save them. Jen would understand. Annie too, for that matter.

I followed them, tottering a little on my feet. Perhaps I did have a little too much to drink.

Stepping out into the night, the air was cold and brisk. I was grateful for my wool lined coat, a present from my mother so long ago. All I wanted was a hot shower and then to sleep off the hangover that was already brewing. Scanning the streets, I caught a glimpse of blonde as it crested the hill. They were headed towards the bridge.

Hand tucked into pockets and with my collar turned upwards, I hurried after them – terrified I'd lose them.

Cars zoomed past along the bridge. Up ahead, the group had stopped halfway between one pool of light and the next. From where I stood, several metres back pretending to look at my phone, it was hard to make out what was going on. All I knew was that it wasn't good.

As I had shadowed the group, making sure I maintained enough distance that it looked like I was just any other person on the streets out late at night., I had seen the men laugh and joke – hands reaching down low for a cheeky pinch on the bottom or a gratuitous grope.

Something was wrong. I could feel it in my bones. Why else would they have lingered in the darkness for so long?

A scream pierced the night.

Immediately, I was racing towards the group. My heart was thudding a million beats a minute in my chest. Was I too late? In my haste, I stumbled on an uneven part of the pavement. A curse flew from my lips as I regained my balance. When I looked back up, the men had their grubby hands on the blonde Natasha. She was thrashing in their grasp – fear evident in her eyes.

"Hey! What the Hell are you doing? Let her go!"

One of the men, the punk, glanced in my direction. "She wants it, mate. We're doing her a favour, yeah? If you play your cards right, you can have your turn."

It was just the distraction Natasha needed. She freed one arm, her palm shooting up to break the nose of a man in a high vis vest. He let go, swearing under his breath. By the time he realised where her knee was headed, it was too late. Within seconds, he was bowled over clutching his crown jewels.

She spat on him and gave him another kick in the stomach, her teeth bared into a vicious snarl.

"The cops are on their way," I said. It was a wild bluff. I was hoping to scare the men rather than fight them on my own. "Stick around a while longer, you and your fellas will have to explain what you were doing with these lovely ladies on a bridge in the middle of the night."

"S'not a crime!"

"Think that's going to fly with the authorities?" I gasped. "Or in a court of law?" My lungs burned from the exertion and a stitch had formed in my side.

There was a moment's heated debate among the men. "Fuck it. Getting some pussy ain't worth that much trouble. Let's go. We can always try another day."

I breathed a sigh of relief when they left. Jogging, I joined up with Natasha and the brunette. "How are the two of you holding up?"

"Could have taken all of them without your help," said Natasha. She was breathing hard was caked in sweat. Her mascara ran down her face in thick streaks. "Still, thanks for the assistance."

"And your friend?"

Natasha nodded towards the bundle of a girl curled into a ball. "I should have listened to Siobhan from the start. But I thought that she was just being too high-strung. Siobhan has been trying to deal with an overbearing team leader. I keep telling her that there are other places she could apply for work but she said she'd feel guilty for letting the team down. First job, you know."

As the name left her lips, realisation struck. She was the one that had only just started at the company not two weeks ago. I remembered her as a starry-eyed graduate that was prone to repeated and costly mistakes. Last Friday, I had pulled her aside for a private chat on her performance and what she could do to improve. I had thought she had taken it well. No complaints had passed her lips and her eyes had been dry when she left the meeting room.

Maybe I had been wrong.

I crouched down beside Siobhan. "Hey, you're safe now. Let's take you home, all right?" I gently reached for her arm.

As my fingers touched her skin, Siobhan flinched back. Brown eyes locked with mine but it was as if she didn't recognise me. With a feral growl, she knocked my hand away. I rose to my feet and started to back away. Siobhan seemed to have none of that. She came after me, hounding me with pushes and prods.

It was as my legs hit the railing that I realised that we were still on the bridge. Siobhan came at me then, her hand curled back into a fist. In my attempt to dodge out of the way, I overbalanced and, pinwheeling, went over.

Wind roared in my ears as the world turned upside down. As I impacted the water, the pain and the cold robbed me of breath. Panic seized me. And it felt like the more I swam, the further the surface was. I couldn't tell where I needed to go. It was as if I was stuck in place. The more I tried to resist, the more tightly I bound myself as I sank further into the depths of the river.

The cold was like an eldritch force that sapped what little strength I had.

It didn't help that everything I had on me only served to make me sink like a stone. But while they were a burden, I could not simply let them go. These were important reminders of my life. Many contained precious memories. To abandon them would be like cutting off a limb. An impossible act.

The last of my air vanished into the dark waters of the river and I knew my life was forfeit.

Why had I allowed myself to be weighed down by other people's opinions and expectations? Why had I put myself into a position of no upward momentum for my career? Did I need to put so much responsibility on my own shoulders? If I had trusted the others in my company, perhaps fewer mistakes would be made. By hovering over every new staff member like a mother hen, I had more than likely hampered any possibility of growth or deterred them from the company.

And what did it matter that mother had bought me the coat during the year she had died?

Yes, there was a sentimental value to it and it kept me warm. But it was also the tool of my own destruction. What was more important? That I held onto a worn piece of clothing for nigh on eight years or that I live?

The answer was clear.

With the last of my ebbing power, I shed the heavy coat and the boots that Jen had got me three Christmases ago. All the things that I had carried with me for so long, I threw away. Life was more important than a few material trinkets. I could always get more if I wanted to after I made sure I survived. Frantic, I chose a direction and began to kick.

As my lungs burned, I made a promise to God that if he saved me now, I would do everything in my power to change.

Darkness filled the edges of my vision and it was an effort to keep holding my breath when I needed air.

I wasn't going to make it…

Breaking the surface, I gulped in as much air as I could. For the first time, I relished how sweet it tasted and put into perspective all the things I had simply taken for granted.