Darkness. Sandra had made her choice and jumped into the unknown. She didn't know what she expected but it wasn't this. She had heard tales of people like her, walking toward the light - walking into the light - but that's not what she got.
Not that she ever believed those stories. Dreams, she thought, people desperate to cling on to something. But wasn't she desperate? It certainly seemed so. It meant the opportunity to get her perfect life back. Except it would never be perfect again. Not after the accident. Not after his betrayal.
Still, she clung on to hope. Hope that it wasn't a dream and that everything she didn't believe in was true.
"Sandra, can you hear me?" a faint voice echoed through beeps. She recognised it. She had heard it many times, always calling her name, often asking her to open her eyes.
She had tried to open her eyes before. She had tried many times when that soothing voice called but her body just wouldn't respond and she always panicked.
Pain. It was hard to hope through the pain and her mind was shutting down. She had to remember it. What was it again? She needed it but she couldn't. How could she forget? She promised she wouldn't forget.
"Sandra, you need to calm down or we'll have to sedate you again," the voice echoed as alarms went off.
Anxiety. Whenever anxiety took over, it brought darkness again. At least when darkness came, the pain stopped. She had lost count of how many times it had happened but she couldn't be stuck in this vicious cycle anymore. She needed to be strong and not dead in the long avenue.
What? What the hell does that mean?
She was being drugged - or sedated. Same thing. That would explain the hallucinations.
Is that all they were? They were so real. He was real. He had to be...
But why was the voice asking her to calm down? She wasn't even moving. She couldn't, even though she was trying.
"Go get the girl," the voice shouted.
"Doctor, this is against protocol-"
"I know the protocol, Miss Lynch, and the protocol is not working," the voice grew louder, booming rather impatiently. "She offered to try and help after our last attempt. I'm willing to try because if Sandra's heart rate and blood pressure stay this high, she may have a heart attack. Go!"
Sandra heard rushed footsteps. She didn't need yet another complication. What could calm her down? His song. How did it go again?
And when the sun is going down, I just want to be with you to hear you say stay with me forever.
And when the sun is going down, I just want to be with you to say never.
Stupid lyrics. He used to sing them to mock her attitude and annoy her. She wouldn't admit it to him that she loved the melody from the start and later it never failed to make her smile.
Sandra heard footsteps approaching her.
"San, it's me. Stay with me and I'll bring you back."
It was Ella: her little sister, her polar opposite. Always the believer, always kind. She had diminished Ella so many times and there she was, full of love, trying to bring her back.
Ella would understand. Ella would help. If she could just focus on Ella's face and play his melody in her mind.
Stay with me one more day. Time passed so fast today, you can't be far away.
"San, focus on my voice," Ella said.
Sandra felt a hand on her arm and the warmth that came from it. That touch felt like him, his energy flow.
Never, never, never, never...
Sandra opened her eyes and gasped. "Mark!"
It was the most important day of Sandra's meticulously planned life. At 23 years old, she was ahead of her own schedule: landing an apprenticeship at a renowned marketing agency before graduating (tick), graduating at 21 (tick), being made Marketing Assistant by 22 (tick) and becoming an Account Manager by 25 (tick). Or almost tick.
There was no way Martin Wilson, MW Leeds's owner, MD and Sandra's boss, would hand the campaign and job to Helen Burke. She liked Helen as a person but found her messy and unfocused.
They were the finalists of Martin's ingenious selection process. After one of his Account Managers left to work in London, he made a deal with one of his customers to use one of their jobs as the final test.
The winner would be announced that morning but Sandra thought it was a no-brainer. Her campaign ticked every box, just like her life.
They had been given teams to work with and Sandra often heard Helen's group laughing and fooling around through the office's partition walls. They rarely stayed late and went for a happy hour celebration every Friday, hardly a sign of dedication. She wasn't surprised in the slightest since that's how Helen had behaved throughout their University years. That meant that while Sandra achieved a First in her degree, Helen had barely scraped through with a Third.
Sandra had put everything she had into that campaign, even if it meant not seeing much of her boyfriend, Oliver, even though they lived together. However, he was so perfect that she wasn't worried. She had always wanted a handsome (tick), mature (tick) and well-off (tick) man.
Oliver was older at 34 and a successful entrepreneur. He knew how important her work was and wouldn't be caught in teenage neediness, like the boyfriends she dared have at University. Those had been unceremoniously dumped whenever they got - or rather tried to get - in the way of her studies.
Sandra was getting out of bed when her phone rang. She picked it up with a smile.
"Hi, mom. Good morning."
"Morning, sweetie. I just wanted to wish you good luck today."
Sandra laughed. "Mom, luck's got nothing to do with it."
"In my opinion, a little bit of luck is always welcome," her mom said without getting fazed. "You're still up for dinner tonight, right?"
With the long hours of the past three months, Oliver hadn't been the only one being neglected. Her family had been almost abandoned and she felt a little guilty, nevertheless great rewards never came without sacrifices and she was prepared to make them.
"Yes, mom. I'll be there. Martin is making the announcement in the morning then taking the winning team for a meal. We'll be finished around four. It gives me enough time to come back home, get changed and get to you by six."
"Is Oliver coming? Ella is bringing Jack."
"Unemployed Jack? I didn't think she was serious about him"
"Sandra, he's not unemployed. Be kind," her mother said in a warning tone. "He's a good guy and is using the money on his online college fees."
Yes, Jack did work, covering shifts in a pub, and doing odd jobs at the gym Ella worked as a Yoga instructor. She guessed he suited Ella's lack of ambition and indecision. Ella had just turned 21 and finally decided she had found something she liked to do. Yoga was part of her work as a Holistic living coach.
Ella had tried to explain it to her but Sandra thought it was just full of holes (pun intended). Ella had the health and spirituality parts down to a T, maybe the relationship if you didn't take into account her very low standards, but the financial balance, definitely not.
"Whatever, mom," Sandra replied, unconvinced, but decided not to argue. "Oliver won't be able to make it. He's away on a business trip and won't be back until late tonight."
"Again? Sometimes I wonder why you moved in together if you spend no time with each other..." her mom sighed.
"We do spend time together," Sandra replied, showing impatience. "We need to work hard if we're going to get everything we want."
"San, honey, there are more important things in life-"
"Mom, please drop it. I don't want to have this argument again," Sandra interrupted.
"Alright," her mom replied, sounding defeated. "I don't want to fight you. I'll see you tonight. I love you."
"I love you, mom."
Sandra set the phone down and got out of bed. Next mom will want me to be more like Ella, move back in with them and be a burden, she thought, shaking her head.
She walked into the living room and turned the TV on to watch the news, like she did every day. She picked her cereal bowl and sat on the couch. The stories were the usual: Brexit, US election, soap opera twists - why was that even news? - and football. Nothing interesting.
She put her bowl in the dishwasher and was about to turn the TV off when she heard something actually new. It wasn't important, at least not in terms of how the world moves around.
"American Rock bad boy, Mark Han, has been rushed to hospital in New York. Sources say he was found unconscious in his Manhattan apartment by friend and bandmate, Jake Park. There has been no official statement released by his family or label, but the same sources cite a drug problem and possible overdose."
"What an idiot," Sandra said out loud as the screen showed a picture of Mark with his recently bleached blond hair.
She and Ella used to be fans of Mark's band, Dark Soul, when they were younger. Mark started the band with school friends and shot to fame when he was only 16. By the time he turned 19, he was a household name and millionaire. His behaviour went downhill from then, on a curve inversely proportional to his wealth.
He'd been Ella's favourite until Chris Cook joined the band on lead guitar, a choice Sandra understood better as she had never found Mark attractive. He was tall and skinny, making him very lanky. Chris was 10 years older than Mark, exactly Oliver's age, with toned arms and perfectly placed tattoos.
Ella used to say she liked Mark's puppy dog eyes, even though he looked sad. Sandra didn't understand how Ella could think of him as sad when he had money, fame and basically achieved all his dreams at such a young age.
"We've been informed band member Chris Cook will make a statement later on," the reporter said from the hospital doors. "In the meantime, fans of the band are pouring support and well wishes-"
Sandra turned the TV off. What a waste, she thought and walked back to the bedroom to get ready for work. She wouldn't waste her life on some dumb decision. That's what planning was for.
She had handpicked her outfit the night before. It was very fashionable, perfect for a Marketing Account Manager. She followed her morning routine without missing a single step. She never skipped anything but that morning she was extra thorough, making sure her long brown hair was perfectly straight and her blue eyes stood out with the make-up.
Oliver's penthouse was at the Leeds Dock, a short five-minute walk from MW's office. When Oliver asked her to move in with him a year ago, it made perfect sense. They were ready to move forward with their relationship and, as Oliver owned the flat, she would save not only the commuting money but the rent as well.
She expected Oliver to propose soon, which would be another tick to her checklist.
Sandra was the first one in the office, not an uncommon situation. Martin had given her a copy of the keys and the alarm code after he found her waiting for him outside more often than not.
She sat at her desk and immediately started to work on her implementation plan. She would want to please the customers by being ready when they came in on Monday. She would work over the weekend if she had too.
The office slowly filled in with chatter and people excited for the weekend. She heard Helen's laughter and quickly looked up from her computer. Helen was always at her happiest on Fridays and that day was no different.
At 11:30, Martin asked Sandra to follow him into his office. She beamed, knowing it was time and walked behind him. He held the door for her.
"Please sit down, Sandra. Would you like a drink?"
"No, I'm fine, thank you."
Martin made himself a cup of tea and sat behind his desk.
"Sandra, you know why I called you here, don't you?" he asked, his expression stony. Professional, Sandra thought.
"Of course," she smiled. "I have already started working on the implementation plan and-"
"Sandra," Martin called her name firmly and sighed. "I'm giving the job to Helen."
"What?" Sandra asked in a whisper.
"Helen won the process, Sandra. She will get the job and the campaign," Martin said.
He had decided to tell Sandra beforehand because he knew she wouldn't take it well. He needed the time to explain the reasons why she was not the chosen one, even though she was one of the hardest workers he had ever met.
"How could you do this to me? You know how hard I worked on this," she raised her voice.
"Do you honestly think I'm doing this to be mean to you?" he asked as patiently as he could.
"No," she replied nervously, waving her hands as she spoke. "Of course not. It just doesn't make any sense. I did everything perfectly, according to the best practices. I ticked every box..."
"Sandra, you work in marketing. Often the rules are bent or broken. Creativity is the most important quality," Martin said, carefully choosing his words. "One of the reasons I decided to get a customer involved was to make the competition as real as possible, like agencies battling for a campaign, and to have an unbiased opinion," he took a deep breath. "They found your organisation and presentation impeccable. Everything was perfect... but it was boring."
"Boring?" she asked in a very low voice.
"Their words. Your campaign wouldn't stand out in the real world. It lacked soul-"
"What has soul got to do with it?" she snapped.
Martin sighed. "It's the heart of the campaign, that something that connects with people and makes them remember the product. The worst sin in marketing is being forgettable."
"I'm not forgettable," she said faintly.
"You are not. Your campaign was."
"Give me a chance. I'll work all weekend to make it memorable and-"
"They already picked Helen's, Sandra. I can't go back and change it now. They want her campaign for real. I didn't tell this to any of you, but they didn't have to take it if they thought it wasn't up to standards. They absolutely loved her work and enthusiasm..." he trailed off.
He'd had difficult conversations with his employees over the years but this was turning out to be one of the toughest. He knew Sandra's potential but, in order for her to fully achieve it, she had some problems that needed to be addressed.
"Do you really think you, working by yourself, could do it in two days?" he asked bluntly.
"What do you mean by myself? I'll make the team stay and-"
"That's another problem, right there."
Sandra stared at him quietly. She had no idea what he was talking about.
"As an Account Manager, you become a team leader. The best projects come from the teamwork. That's why this process was also designed to test your leadership skills. Helen beat you there as well and it wasn't even close."
Martin knew that was borderline cruel but he had to say it. He believed feedback and constructive criticism were essential. He had tried the subtle approach with Sandra over and over again but she had never listened.
"You refuse to listen, you refuse to compromise and, above all, you forget people have personal lives. They want to go home to their families, go out with friends and have fun. If you have a good time at work, it makes it easier when you have to do long hours. Your strict schedules and army approach were not very well received."
"But I had to get the team organised and the jobs done..."
"We all do. I do. I also have a family I love and cherish. That's why I stick to office hours unless I can't do it any other way. That's why my wife and I have a date night and a family fun day every week," he said and felt the incredulity coming from her."You don't believe Helen works to deadlines, do you?"
Sandra shook her head.
"Well, she does. Her team was falling behind one day and she asked them to stay. Patty couldn't because she didn't have anyone to leave her two young kids with. Helen then organised a pizza night at Patty's house so they could work and the whole team took turns babysitting the kids. Patty was very grateful and the kids even had a lot of fun. She had a lot of these off the cuff solutions to work around people's personal needs. I once met her discussing strategies with the team in between cocktails at the Revolución de Cuba."
"That doesn't sound very professional," Sandra snorted.
"You don't do the most serious work like that but it's great for brainstorming. You get ideas, you take note and you filter them when you're sober. If nothing comes of it, you're not meant to be working anyway and your team had a great time."
Sandra looked shocked.
"She created bonds with them and they wanted her to succeed. When your team wants to follow you, they will do their best. If they don't, you're left on your own... like you were."
Sandra was holding back tears. She felt broken. "You mean they hate me?"
"Hate is a strong word, Sandra. I'd say they would rather not work for you. At least not until you lighten up and that's why I'm moving you to Helen's team from Monday."
"What?" she shrieked. "Do you want to humiliate me?"
"What's so humiliating? That you'll be working with the new Account Manager instead of an old one? This will help you, Sandra. I promise you. I'm doing this because I care and because I know your potential."
"I'll try," she said quietly.
"I know you will and I believe in you. You are so young and can still get everything you want but, please, enjoy life."
Martin looked at her sitting there, her head down. It broke his heart to do that to her but he considered it a necessary evil.
"I'm making the formal announcement in the main office now. You don't have to come-"
"I'm coming. I'll congratulate Helen and go back to work," she said.
Martin felt the steel in her voice. She would put up a strong face but it would crush her and that was not what he wanted.
"Alright, you're coming but then you're going home. I am giving everyone the afternoon off. I'm shutting the office and no one is allowed here."
He knew that was the only way Sandra would agree to go home.
Sandra felt dejected. She had never even considered the possibility of losing the position to someone else, let alone Helen, who did everything wrong according to her books. Still, she couldn't ignore Martin's advice. He had always been a role model for her.
Martin was in his mid-forties and a good-looking man, with a captivating smirk like smile. He had started his company from scratch and worked tirelessly to turn it into one of the best marketing agencies in the United Kingdom, rivalling London's big guns.
He was loved by his employees and customers alike; his family - wife and four kids - were like a model family. Sandra understood perfectly why he would want to spend time with them and not work all the time, after all, he had already succeeded. What was difficult for her to grasp was the concept that she - a young, single, not yet successful professional, with no kids - should hold back on the workload.
For the first time since she was a little girl, she felt she needed a cuddle from her mother. Ella was the needy one, not her.
She had spaced out during Martin's announcement and missed it completely. She was brought back to reality by shrieks and applause all around. Helen's team were jumping around her in celebration and Helen herself was in tears.
That was another thing that annoyed Sandra. Even if she felt like crying, she would hold back the tears with all her might, especially in front of strangers.
Sandra smiled and applauded with everybody else. She could feel people staring at her but she was making a point of not looking. She kept her vision blurry and mind focused.
"As you all know, I'm taking Helen and her team to a celebratory meal but in order to show how much I appreciate all of you, who work so hard for MW's success, I am giving everybody the afternoon off to do whatever you like, as long as it's not work."
Cheers erupted again in the office, followed by a wave of thank yous. Sandra seemed to be the only one not excited about going home. She had never thought she would be the exception, not the rule.
She walked toward Helen. She knew people would be staring, probably hoping she would have a meltdown. She wouldn't give them the pleasure.
"Congratulations, Helen! Martin was all gushy about you and your work," she said, forcing herself to be the most pleasant.
"Was he? Oh, my god! I can't believe it! This is a dream come true..." Helen was still clearly emotional. "You are the reason why I worked so hard and I admire you so much. I'm sorry there couldn't be two places so we wouldn't have to compete."
Sandra knew Helen was genuine. She always wore her heart on her sleeve. Nevertheless, Sandra didn't quite get why she would be the reason for Helen stepping up her game so greatly.
"Me? Why me?" she asked curiously.
"From the second I started working here, Martin has given me feedback that my work should be more like yours. I realised I was lacking a lot of skills and decided to study and be better. I had my crazy party days but now it's time to be more serious. If it wasn't for you, I probably wouldn't have the drive to do it."
"Oh," Sandra was left speechless.
"You're so dedicated and I'd love to work on a project with you."
"Well, you will get your wish. Martin told me I'm on your team from Monday."
Helen shrieked. "Really? I'm so happy! Do you want to go out this weekend to have some girly bonding time?"
Going out with Helen was the last thing on Sandra's mind.
"I'm sorry! I'm having dinner with my mom tonight and Oliver will be back from his business trip late. I should probably spend some time with him," she said, more as an excuse, as she didn't feel like facing him. She felt like a failure.
"No problem! We'll have many chances to do that. I'm so excited!"
Helen gave her a hug and Sandra went back to her desk. Everybody else was getting ready to leave so she turned her computer off, picked her bag and quietly left.
The five-minute walk back seemed to be taking forever. She wanted to be alone and sulk. She kept on ruminating everything Martin had told her and it left a very bad taste in her mouth.
She walked into the flat and threw her bag on the couch. She went straight to the bedroom and crashed onto bed.
She heard the door to the en-suite open and turned to see Oliver, wrapped in a towel, looking stunned at seeing her there.
"What are you doing here?"