Monthly Archives: May 2015

Precautions

Hughes was shown to Leonard-ffolks’ drawing room to wait. Even here, the ever-present cacophony of sawing and hammering bled through the walls. A maid in mob cap brought the tray of drinks, flanked by the man himself.

“Richard.” Hughes rose.

“Hughes, there’s a stout chap.” The two men embraced. “How like you the wainscoting?”

“Lovely. Forgive a layman’s ignorance: walnut?”

“Poplar.” ffolks’ expression was glum.

“Good heavens. Well, it stains up nicely.”

The other man appeared only half in attendance. He had the air of a man tensed for a catastrophe.

“It was walnut. Had them rip it all out.”

“Oh…” Hughes cleared his throat.

“Bad wood you see. The whorls are too inviting.”

“Inviting to what?”

Instead of answering, ffolks picked up a glass and sipped.

“James,” ffolks said, “what do you know of Hindustan?”

“The colonies? Thuggees, fakirs, that sort of thing?”

“Exactly. Savages to the man.” The hammering ceased for a moment. ffolks half-rose, and the noise resumed. He sank with relief back into the settee.

Hughes sipped at his whiskey. “Does this have something to do with the incident in Khunipoor?”

ffolks tensed again.

“Damn it, man. You can’t just dance around the subject forever. What was it that finally brought you back from the colonies?”

ffolks got up and strode around the room, picking up and making a cursory examination of the various curios that littered the room.

“Have you ever been inside a Buddhist temple?”

Hughes thought before replying. “No, but there was that Japanese gent that held a service for us at the gardens—”

“Pah,” ffolks spat. “a frilly little dress party. True Buddhism is heathen and cruel, unnatural.”

This startled a laugh out of Hughes. “Buddhists? Surely not. They’re funny fellows, go around in yellow pajamas.”

ffolks spoke as if he had never been interrupted. “Suggesting that the immortal soul is tethered to this plain, forever laboring for its misdeeds.”

“Not a spiritualist, then?”

“That parlor game? Mere rookery. I’m speaking of a religion based not eternal reward in the afterlife, but of grinding poverty. Almost as bad as the hindoos.”

“It is true then, about the presence of a thuggee cult in Khunipoor?”

“What?” ffolks shook himself. “tosh. The common worshippers themselves are bad enough. Gods with many limbs and heads.”

“But the dragon in revelations—”

“Is Lucifer himself, man. Don’t split hairs with me in this matter, I’ve studied catechism since before you were out of short pants.” ffolks stopped his pacing. “Not that it helped. You can’t press civilization into them with a trowel, much less a bible.”

“So the uprising had something to do with conversion,” Hughes said, too eagerly. ffolks withdrew into himself.

“All you need know is that Hinnom is on earth, and on the subcontinent.” ffolks stopped to run a covetous hand over a cherry-wood shelf. “I’ve done my time. Paid my dues. And yet this would not be enough by their reckoning.”

ffolks seemed to be taking measure of the room. He spoke his next words with caution.

“Hughes…are you at all familiar with the architecture of the east?”

“Done with Georgian taff, are you?” Hughes needled. ffolkes ignored it.

“Their buildings are as irrational as the people themselves. All manner of useless bends and twists, false doors and functionless hallways.”

Hughes did not jest again. ffolkes’ demeanor disturbed him.

“Can you tell me why, Hughes?”

Hughes slowly shook his head.

ffolkes pointed a finger. “To confuse evil spirits. God! The air must be swimming with them if half the precautions I’d seen were necessary.”

Hughes had a slow, descending epiphany. “Your recent renovations…”

ffolkes pointed. “First boy gets it.” He was nearly excited as he huddled before Hughes. “I’ve researched into this. Dug up all the proper books, even talked to that dull fellow who insists he’s a lobsang rama or somesuch drivel.”

“But for heavens sake—why, man?”

“I don’t need to tell you I left the colonies under a cloud. Who knows what shriveled little fakir is hurtling curses at my back?”

Hughes leaned forward in his seat. “As your dearest and oldest friend, I must ask you: are you out of your mind?”

ffolkes drew back primly. “Just precautious, old man. Here. I must give you a short tour.”

ffolkes led him along corridors painted with trick doors, stairs with odd-numbered steps, windows that opened on a wall. Hughes bit his tongue and stepped over contractors who looked at him with dull curiosity.

The tour ended where it began: in the drawing room. ffolks seemed a little desperate as Hughes cited a long journey back and gathered his coat, but did not entreat him to stay. Hughes noticed an evil eye painted above the lintel as ffolkes showed him out.

“…and for god’s sake, don’t be a stranger,” ffolkes said with forced cheer.

Hughes stopped on the threshold. “Forgive me, I must ask. What happened in khunipoor?”

ffolkes’ eyes were shuttered. “Nothing for civilized men to lose sleep over.”

The door shut with a solid thud.

 

Hughes, through no fault of his own, went some time without thinking of his friend. Business and pleasure kept him away. But, as so often happens, coincidence led him back to it.

The subject was conjured up when he ran into Billings, a fellow school chum. He had to ask whether the other man had heard of Leonard-ffolks and his renovations.

Billings’ face fell. “God, don’t remind me. That poor man…”

“What?”

“You haven’t heard? You, of all…” Billings shook his head. “it was the bloody renovations, I told him to move out while they worked. They say it was probably some spilled tung oil, went up like a flash.”

Hughes set down his fork. “So he…”

“Burned.” Billings nodded grimly. “Terrible way to go.”

“Can’t imagine.” Hughes stared at his plate, no longer hungry.

 

The estate was still well-kept, though its benefactor was gone. Hughes kept an eye out for any wayward gamekeeper that might mistake him for a poacher.

Hughs crested the hill that hid the house from view. He sucked in a breath.

A few support beams stuck up like black teeth. Those were the only part of the structure still standing.

Hughes paced the length of the wreckage, sifting through the ash with his eyes. Nothing recognizable.

The newspapers had said there wasn’t even enough of a trace left for burial. Hughes squeezed his eyes shut.

Hiking back over the greens, he encountered an old woman with a bundle of washing.

“Good heavens! You weren’t up at the estate?”

Hughes confirmed that yes, he was.

The old woman blanched. “Terrible, it is.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, madam.”

“Night after night.”

Hughes paused. “Excuse me?”

“The light. The screaming. The terrible sound of fire crackling.” the old woman actually crossed herself. “Poor man. I don’t care what they say he did, no man deserves that.”

Hughes grew cold again. “Are you saying there are…spiritual visitations where the house stood?”

“That’s putting it lightly. Oh, god! If only he’d stop screaming!”

 

There was room at the inn, even in the middle of the season. Hughes suspected this was the norm rather than the exception. He passed some time in his room glancing unseeingly over his books and, after the sun had gone down, hiked back to the site.

The charred ruins were even blacker in the night. Hughes stood in the yard, stamping his feet for warmth, feeling a fool.

A flash lit his face.

Hughes’s mouth dropped open.

As if viewed through a dirty glass, the house was whole again and being eaten by fire right before his eyes.

Hughes stood rooted to the spot.

Someone screamed.

Hughes jolted into motion, running toward the house. The cries certainly sounded like ffolkes. Hughes ran around the perimeter, afraid to get too close to the apparition.

“Richard!”

Hughes followed the sound.

ffolks was in the second-story study. He did not look out at Hughes,he was merely screaming blindly for help.

“I’m here,” Hughes said. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “I’m here, man!”

“Richard! For God sakes, anyone!”

Hughes’s hands fell away from his mouth. He watched ffolkes scrabble fruitlessly at the wall, grabbing continuously at a doorknob that was painted onto the paper.

“Help!” ffolkes cried, snatching at the flat form, “help!”

Hughes watched until the fire faded, and the lot was empty and dark once more.

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Sipsey’s Hyperphobic Disorder

SHD is not formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Common symptoms involve an irrational, all-consuming fear of a mundane object or concept. The sufferer is both mentally and socially crippled by this fear, ascribing devastating attributes to the subject of their terror. In an attempt to persuade other people of these deadly properties, subjects may conjure images of loved ones killed in improbable ways by the substance. Such behavior is self-demonstrating in the following interview excerpt by Ms. A____, 34 years of age and suffering from advanced hydrophobia.

Interviewer: So you maintain that the water is responsible for your friend’s death?

A: Yes. *cries*

Interviewer: if you wouldn’t mind, please expand on that.

A: *sniffs, regains composure* She—she was going to sit down on a bus bench near me. I saw the water—I cried out that there was water, I said there was—but she sat down anyway.

Interviewer: How much water was it?

A: Three big drops. *begins sobbing* They soaked into her bag and the seat of her pants. I screamed for help *shouts* somebody help us! But n-nobody would come and she died. *dissolves into tears*

Interviewer: Okay, A____, at this point I would like to direct your attention to the window behind me.

A: *still crying* Why?

Interviewer: I would like you to see someone. Do you see her? It’s E____. *aside* Please wave, E______. *back to A* Would you please wave to her?

A: *sobs*

Interviewer: Good. Now, since E____is standing here in front of you, what does that tell you?

A: …that…that she died, and it’s so sad! *sobs to the point of hyperventilation*

Interviewer: A, will you please wave at E____ for me? Good. You see how she waves back? Does that in any way conflict with your judgement that she is dead?

A: Oh god, oh god—*hyperventilating*

Interviewer: Ms. A____, may I point out that your tears are also water?

*incoherent screams. A____ was restrained at this point to prevent her from clawing her eyes out*

Treatment of Sispey victims includes pharmaceutical intervention and therapeutic restraint. No one treatment has been completely successful. No sufferer has been able to return to a completely independant life, though few prove able to live outside of institutions, albeit with heavy familial support. The sufferers vary in age, social class, and ethnic background.

The syndrome is named after its originator, John Phillip Sipsey, who put forth the hypothesis that mental aberrations were merely affects with no biological precedent. He established a practice in 1958 for the sole express purpose of putting this to the test. He selected candidates from a group of individuals including but not limited to: manic-depressives(bipolar and general depression), nervous exhaustion(social anxiety and post-partum depression) and shell-shock(PTSD as well as soldiers discharged for various infractions.)

Culling from an initial group of 154, Sipsey ended up with 67 finalists whom he then interred in his clinic for an unspecified amount of time. For families inquiring after relatives submitted for what they believed to be a brief observation period, Sipsey coined the phrase “antisocial withdrawal” and barred any outside contact. Over the following months, nearly half the subjects would commit suicide. One extreme case involved a man eating over a pound of salt he had saved up in shaker-sized increments. The remaining 38 were held in the clinic in what were later deemed “unlivable” conditions by a committee formed to preside over the dissolution of the clinic.

Herman Gehry, 27, was a deputy responding to a noise complaint on June 5th, 1958. The front desk  of the clinic was found empty and sounds of distress issued from a nearby door. Gehry drew his sidearm and proceeded. He reported stumbling upon Sipsey force-feeding a severely emaciated man behind the door, while others were detained in cages “[the] size of…a dog’s, not built for fully-grown people.” [Gehry 3/19/59] Sipsey’s death was ruled as accidental, as Gehry reported the doctor struggling for his firearm and discharging it in his own forehead. The presence of multiple bullet wounds(and a lack of Sipsey’s fingerprints) notwithstanding, Gehry was suspended for five weeks but received no further discipline.

Sipsey’s subjects were retained in state custody as the doctor had gone to extensive lengths to destroy or otherwise obfuscate their records. Familial identification proved successful for most subjects, those who remained unidentified are kept in state custody today.

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Convection

There was a note. It read, simply: “find water.”

He looked all around. In every direction stretched a flat, yellow land unbroken by vegetation. Above him the sun was a white point in a field of endless blue. It was very hot.

He picked a direction and started walking.

The land threw glare back at his face until he began to worry of blindness. He attempted to tear a strip off his shirt to place over his eyes, but he had nothing in his pockets to start the rip. He settled for pulling the neck hole over his head and letting his arms dangle free from the body of the shirt.

He had cowboy boots too tight to pull off his feet. He had jeans that quickly became sodden with sweat. Walking became difficult and painful but he didn’t stop.

A dark gray line on the horizon became a dark gray line just below the horizon became a dark gray snake stretching before him became a road empty of cars. He turned perpendicular to the direction he’d been traveling and walked that way.

The asphalt was easier to walk on but it radiated heat like an oven door. There was no center stripe or markings of any kind to indicate direction.

Bright squares on the horizon.

He shouted. The sound of his own voice startled him. He broke into a run.

The squares were bright metal, and people were moving in them. People. Dim and dark in the sun, indistinguishable to his damaged eyes.

No, as he drew near, he saw.

Not people. Shadows. They moved as if conversing with one another, servicing engines, replacing flats. They faded with proximity. The boxes, arranged to look like vehicles from a distance, clarified into a disparate pile of metal parts.

He found a small scrap of steel that pricked his palm and used it to slice his shirt. He tied the blindfold and put his arms back in his sleeves.

The road ended itself in a hill. But it wasn’t a hill, it became flat as he approached it. Anamorphic shadows sank into the ground as he walked forward into the bright yellow land again.

It looked like a stereotypical desert, but the dunes flattened out as he approached, dissolving into a loose collection of brown shapes. When the next shadow came, he expected it to fall into flatness as well, but it remained standing even as he drew close enough to see detail.

It was a weathered-wood building. He could make out windows and a single red door and by the time he noticed the spigot he had broken into a run for the blue shade of it.

He did not halt, merely ran straight into the building with his hands out, afraid it would fall flat. It didn’t. He hugged the wall.

The doorknob did not have a keyhole, but it was not yet time to try that. He turned the spigot, and clear water came gushing out. He put his mouth in front of it. The water was as hot as a shower. He leapt back, and the spigot spat itself dry.

He stood there, dripping.

Nothing else came out.

He tried the doorknob, and it turned freely. It wasn’t connected to anything.

He took his hand off the knob and blinked.

The door was painted red, but its surface was the surface of the slats that made up the side of the building. The windows were opaque. Steel, he found when he tossed a pebble at them.

He slumped down beside the building in despair. When he leaned back, he fell flat.

The building was gone.

He sat up.

He was alone in the middle of a wide expanse of yellow. A pinprick sun was nearly lost in the endless blue sky.

Something crackled beneath him. He pulled it out.

It was a note. It read, simply:

“Find shade.”

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Who Do I Call?

I don’t have a story for you. I have three pieces of a whole, only one of which I was actually there for. I hope you can tell me what to do about it because I’m at a loss, honestly. Who do I go to? The cops? Interpol?

Listen:

I work with my friend Sanjay for that stereo place out by the highway. We’re the assholes in the van who haul your old systems away. Sanj was in the drivers seat and I was doing what I always do as a co-pilot: try to make him laugh and mess up so I could have a turn driving.

I was doing a bit as the guy ahead of us, the white van was swerving all over the lane. I came up with this long list of what I drank last night. Somewhere between jet fuel and his mom’s catheter bag I thought I had Sanj when he shouted “oh shit” and braked really hard. I looked in front of us just in time to see the van tip past the point of no return and hit the pavement.

We skidded. Thank god there was no one right behind us, or I wouldn’t have been alive to see this next part.

The back of the van was full of girls.

They all looked southeast Asian, but from different ethnic groups, I could tell. I heard Sanj whisper “oh god no,” and he was out of the car before I could get my seatbelt off. One of the girls had fallen through the back doors and was still moving. The others…weren’t.

Sanj got his arms beneath her neck and knees and by this point I was out of the car.

“Dude, open the doors,” he said, gesturing with his foot.

“What? Why?”

“Can you even see? What does this look like to you?”

We didn’t have to say it out loud. A bunch of girls crammed in the back of a van? Obvious trafficking ring. I popped the lock and let Sanj set her back there; while he did I took our big wrench and approached the driver’s side.

I was telling myself I just wanted a look, just a crack at the scumbag who did this so I could describe him to the cops.

There was no one in the drivers seat. No one anywhere in the cab. No blood, no open doors. In fact, the old-timey locks, the kind you can fish with a coathanger? Weren’t popped.

Sanjay screamed for me to get back in the car. Nether of us had a phone, so we decided to drive to the nearest place with a landline and call the cops. I took the wheel this time. Sanj sat in the passenger side, unbuckled, whispering to the back seat “it’ll be okay. It’ll all be okay.”

I don’t think she could understand. I don’t think she even heard us. She was all sweaty and really banged up from the accident. I think she had a concussion. She kept murmuring to herself, she sounded so weepy and worn out, like she couldn’t even get up enough energy to panic.

I pulled into a used car place right as some emergency vehicles screamed past us going the other way. Since calling 911 seemed moot now, we decided to go straight to the hospital. Sanjay had to navigate with the beat up old map from the glove box.

We pulled into the hospital parking lot and Sanjay yelled back: “it’s gonna be okay now.”

We looked back and found that the girl was gone. Not just gone, the back of the truck was swimming in an inch of water. I think we both just sat there in shock for a little while.

Of course everything we had in the back was ruined. Boss chewed us out, not that we cared. Sanj went home with me that day, and we both had a Guinness and put on the evening news.

They’d found the van on the road, but even less in it. No driver. No girls.

 

I have this friend, Amy. I went to high school with her, and we’re still on semi-friendly terms. She was born here and everything, but her family is full-blooded Vietnamese. So as such she gets a lot of aggro on public transit and whatnot. So when a sedan pulled up alongside her, she said she was already on defense.

The car was full of young, white guys dressed in business attire. They had suits but no jackets, in these pastel-floral colors. They didn’t smile or say anything so she gave them a weird look. This was a part of the road with no sidewalk and no shoulder, so she didn’t really have any convenient places to run.

The guy in the passenger seat spoke: “get in.”

She said the way he said it, like there wasn’t even room for objection, scared the shit out of her. She had her earbuds in, so she pretended not to hear and kept walking.

The guy in the car leaned forward. “Get in the fucking car.”

This startled her into saying: “fuck you!”

Without any warning, the guy driving turned the wheel so that the car nosed into the shoulder. Amy said she has no idea how she thought so fast, but she immediately dropped back and ran behind the car, into the oncoming traffic lane. She missed a few cars and was afraid there would be a gap in traffic, that they’d try and cross the lane to get her. The car revved up and turned the other way, but a little coupe coming up behind them clipped the mirror and spun out. The driver, this old guy, got out and started yelling at them. The guys in the car apparently decided to cut their losses and sped off. Amy said she had to walk around for a while before she could stop shaking so much.

 

The third thing is probably nothing. I don’t even know if it really belongs in here, but it’s just too much of a coincidence.

My brother is on the custodial crew for the chain hotel downtown. He’s seen shit that would turn you white. Mostly it’s amusing, but this one actually hit him so hard I ended up telling him my story.

So, anyway, there’s this party renting out the royal suite. Not whole lot lot of interaction between the desk staff and my brother’s people, so all he could tell me was based on what they asked for.

They went through towels like you wouldn’t believe. All their meals had to be absolutely salt-free, and apparently they could tell when even a little had fallen in because they sent it back. No nasty notes, no abuse, just weird.

So my brother hears that they asked for the custodial staff personally. Apparently there was a leak. So my brother goes up with his kit and doesn’t know what to expect. Guests can be pretty weird, especially rich guests. For all he knew “leak” was secret code for “watch me jack off.” And it’s not like the desk staff would warn him, anyway.

But no. He said the guy who opened the door seemed normal, if a little…off. Button-up shirt, tie, sleeves rolled up past the elbow and damp. He waved at my brother.

“C’mon. in here.”

He walked with my brother to the middle of the main room and pointed. My brother said at first he thought it was a joke. The puddle was barely the size of a head. It had soaked through the rug to the wood floor, but plenty of guests had let other less pleasant fluids do that and just left it.

Just to make sure, my brother pointed and asked, “there?”

The guy nodded. “Wipe it all up.”

My brother was weirded out, but not really in the position to say anything. He rolled up the rug, squirted a little 409, and wiped back and forth. He said he had this really odd feeling that he couldn’t place until he looked up. The guy was watching him clean really intently. Too intently. Like, if he had been jacking off, my brother wouldn’t have been surprised.

My brother took the rug and promised to get it back that day. The guy thanked him and said not to bother, it would just get messy again anyway. My brother couldn’t get out of the room soon enough after that.

He said he didn’t know what made him look back. Bullshit. I know what made him look back, because it’s the same thing that made Sanj get out of the van.

He said just as the door shut behind him, the door to the suite bathroom opened. More young guys were looking out. Their shirts were all soaking wet and they all looked really alert. He said that since the shirts were wet, they were kind of see-through, and he said that it looked like they all had some really gnarly body hair.

But the worst thing, he said, was what he noticed in that split-second before the door shut. A slender pair of hands handcuffed to the faucet in the tub, and a head of long, black hair in the water that was up to the tub’s brim.

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Office Chatter

Patterson fed pages to the copier. Melanie was chewing over a decision to take her cat to be spayed, so naturally they all had to suffer it.

All but one.

Patterson turned a heavy eye to his desk. Just across sat Willard, face gleaming like butter under the halogen light. He was humming away in happy oblivion. He’d made a catapult from a pen and a perverted paperclip, and was lazily sniping at a fly.

Put a sock in it, Mel, Patterson thought.

Sudden silence. Then the abrupt snap of a drawer closing made Willard misfire, snapping his ammo back into his left eye. A yelp of pain. A stab of miserable satisfaction. Melanie sat back in her seat, preening like a well-fed cat.

They all relaxed a little.

“Okay there, chief?” Patterson joked as he eased himself back into his chair.

Willard, hand clasped over his eye, laughed. “I hurt myself stupid again.”

Both men laughed, Patterson’s mirth tempered by the beginning of a headache originating somewhere in the next room. Probably Alison. She had heavy periods, but refused to miss work no matter how they begged her. God. Patterson chewed an aspirin.

Willard missed out on an involuntary screening of Sessler’s nocturnal visit from the girl in those beer ads. Melanie sidled by his desk, asking questions to draw attention from her covert rearrangement of his things. When Willard stood, half the desk came with him.

“Whoa, captain clutz,” Sessler called from the other room. Willard reddened.

“Stop it, you know he can’t help it,” Melanie hissed, stooping, “here, I’ll give you a hand.”

The reclamation of his desk took probably twice as long as it might have if it had been a solo job. Willard was so conditioned to his informed clumsiness that he didn’t notice Melanie handing him things he couldn’t properly grasp. Pens, paper, all escaped as his fingers closed too slow or too soon.

“Don’t worry,” Melanie laid a solicitous hand on his back, “at least you don’t work at a china shop.”

Willard reddened again, smiling wanly. Alison shivered in pleasure at her desk, Patterson felt a glob of red raw satisfaction hit him before she realized her error and began thinking of baseball.

 

“Sorry about that,” Willard said, flicking pepper from the tablecloth.

“No sweat. I always find furniture so bland.”

Both men shared a dull chuckle. Patterson felt a stab of Melanie’s sweet craving and took a bite of hoagie to temper it.

“I mean, what I was saying was I just feel like the dumbest guy in the office.”

“You kidding? Have you seen Sessler’s portfolio?”

Willard gave an obligatory chuckle, but he was still somewhat reserved. Damn. Maybe they had been riding him too hard.

“I mean, I feel like everyone here is so much smarter than me. Like you’re all thinking all the time.”

Patterson could feel the sweat glands on his forehead open. “Dunno what you mean.”

“Like you’re not just working. Like you’re all multitasking while I’m just slogging along…” Willard gave a shrug and started into his minestrone. “Just saying. Don’t know how you all put up with me.”

“Hey cowboy, I don’t know how you put up with us.” Melanie joked, whisking her Greek yogurt from the freezer.

I don’t know how we put up with us either.

Melanie exited the room quickly, so Patterson took the opportunity to laugh, hiding it partially in his sandwich. Willard looked at him.

“Didn’t think it was that funny.”

 

Sessler had a song stuck in his head, so after lunch they all sucked on it like a loose tooth. He only knew the chorus and part of the bridge and the incessant melody that they all grew to hate regardless of musical taste.

Willard got up to fish his triscuits from the break room cupboard. Patterson followed. Melanie shot him a desperate, hungry look as he passed.

Willard had bent so that his pants rode up and showed the white of his legs above his argyle socks. He laid his cheek on the counter as he rummaged blind in the cupboard beneath it. The coffee cupboard sat above his head like a guillotine, the corner worn and chipped.

“Hey, Willy wills,” Patterson said, “Got a minute?”

Willard grunted. Patterson asked him about cars. His cousin wanted to buy a used Sedona, was this a good price? The body had some minor damage, the paint job was good, and oh, did he still have that traveling mug? Patterson had found a mug in his car that looked like it but the logo was scratched off, what the hell had the logo been for in the first place? A baseball team or was it a company freebie? Their firm didn’t give the premo freebies to their employees, the best he’d gotten was a mouse pad and who used those anymore—

Willard rose to reply—and the crack resounded through the office. Serotonin streamed through their collective bodies. Patterson held his hands out, clucking like a mother hen.

“We really gotta get you a helmet, big guy.”

 

Willard was not, in fact, a bad coworker. He wasn’t even especially unpleasant. But they hated him, his silent mind, and how he rode oblivious above their agony.

Willard idly fingered the buttons of his keyboard as, unbeknownst to him, Melanie stared daggers at his back.

They were all too tired to properly filter; Patterson could only apologize for the endless litany of grocery items he ran through in his head. Sessler was seriously contemplating calling his ex. Melanie was seriously contemplating fucking him if it would shut him up for five seconds. Alison was washed under the tide of menstrual pain, and they all suffered with her.

Willard quirked his mouth. “Hey, does anyone know what rhymes with ‘shadow’?”

Fuck you, Alison thought, fuckyou, fuckyou, FUCK YOU.

They all jumped. Patterson was on the phone, so Willard shot him a sympathetic glance.

“Colorado,” Sessler offered.

Willard shrugged and sat back. He had a pen, which he rolled back and forth, pressing his thumbnails into it so the skin around them whitened, and then releasing so that color flooded back in.

Willard’s thoughts were muddy-brown-dull, so whisper-thin that they barely even registered. He thought like a rabbit chewed. Bills. Wife? Home. Beer? Beer. Wife. Porn. Beer. Barbeque. Sleep. Wake. Coffee. Jog? Donut.

Patterson took another swallow of coffee. His offended tastebuds retreated. He failed to catch the reaction before it flew away, but Melanie, who had made the last pot, shrugged it off.

Beer. Bed. Fuck. Anniversary coming. Bonus already eaten by fantasy football. Roses? Maybe bum ten buck off Sessler. 20 off Patterson. Maybe discount roses, her eyesight wasn’t too good.

Alison shot a beam of withering disapproval at Willard. Patterson hid a grin in his phone receiver.

 

Five o’clock descended like the sun in the sky.

Willard fingered the lump on his temple. “I think I might skip the nightcap. I need to take care of a few things.”

“Me too.” Actually, Patterson planned to go home to his specially-reinforced bedroom, pop a few more painkillers, and sit with a towel soaked in icewater over his eyes.

“What, you going to blow your wad on the Seahawks again?” Willard jabbed.

“Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like Penny even likes roses.”

Oh shit, Melanie thought.

Willard froze.

“Hey.” His finger extended to jab at Patterson’s neck. “What did you just say?”

Patterson tried to play it cool, despite his trembling hands. “I was just joshing—”

“No,” Willard said. He only had one arm in his jacket. His free hand curled into a fist, and his face was reddening. He was looking at Patterson with the look of a man just starting to fit pieces together.

Shitshitshitshit, Melanie moaned.

Alison strode businesslike into the room. “Willard, I’m sure he didn’t mean—”

“You shut up.”

Alison started back in mid-syllable. He had never used that tone before, let alone on her. Willard sucked air over his teeth.

“Captain klutz,” he said, “the clumsy cowboy. Jesus Christ, you people.”

Sessler stood, mouthing silently to the receiver in his hand. They were all pinned by Willard’s rage. Melanie had been filing, the papers in her hands were shaking like leaves in a storm.

There was movement behind the door marked MGMT.

Willard aimed his finger like a pistol. “Always laughing behind my back. And you, with the goddamn roses.”

“Wills, it was just a joke—”

“How the hell did you know?” Willard exploded.

The door to the next room swung open.

Hendricks stepped out, all five-foot-five of him. He sized them all up with a glance, making a subtle motion with his hand to Melanie. She set the papers down.

Willard seemed slightly appeased by this. He looked to Hendricks, a question in his eyes. Hendricks approached him, face neutral. Willard gestured to the rest of the office, open palm trembling as much as Mel was.

The shorter man held Willard’s face in both hands, rotating it slightly from side to side and studying his head. Then Hendricks, in slow and gentle tones of concern, began speaking gibberish.

Willard’s face descended into confusion. “What?”

Hendricks repeated himself, emphasizing certain syllables. He pointed to the phone. He pointed to Willard’s head. He pointed to the phone again.

All the color drained from Willard’s face.

“’Opital,” Hendricks said, “oo ah e ‘opital.”

After what seemed like a century, Willard slowly shook his head. He’d gone white as a starched sheet. He gathered his things without looking at anyone, and made his way to the door by bracing himself on the wall.

They all stayed silent as they listened to his footsteps down the hall.

You idiots, Hendricks thought in disgust, how many times will I have to save you?

They tried to make their thoughts a blank white nothing.

Go home. Remember you won’t always be this lucky.

They gathered their coats. As Patterson walked to the subway, he caught sight of Willard. He sat in his car without starting it, just gripping the wheel and staring down at the dash. Patterson thought about walking over to check on him, but his feet turned his first step away. He went home instead.

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