Satan’s Timeshare

I submitted this to a few publications, but just didn’t find the right spot for it. Oh well- maybe at some point! Enjoy.

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Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com


The man leans his elbows on the bar, shadows lining his face as he motions for the bartender to pour another glass of the smoky whiskey he’s been drinking for hours. He’s not sure how many hours, he has never had occasion to mark the passage of time.

The bartender’s long grey hair hangs in a greasy ponytail down the middle of his back. His ice-blue eyes don’t betray the slightest emotion. He’s been at this gig for so long his motions have the smooth delivery of a machine, a machine made for pouring this exact glass of whiskey. Over and over again, for an eternity.

“Business isn’t what it used to be, Noe,” the man at the bar sighs. “I’m just fuckin’ tired, you know? I mean, sure, anything gets repetitive. Work is tiring. But there has to be something you get out of what you do. For me, there’s no joy in it anymore.”

Noe shrugs, staring into the distance. “It ain’t like there’s supposed to be joy in work. Work is work.”

 

The bar is dark, lit with red bulbs and a sputtering Miller High Life sign in the corner near the door to the bathroom. The long wooden bar is nicked with a thousand years of glasses, rubbed smooth with a thousand sinners’ hands. A few old initials are carved in the darkest corners where the carvers’ knives could have gone unobserved. It’s cold, the air conditioner vents blowing directly into the face of the only patron. An old jukebox is playing Johnny Cash songs, one after the other, on an endless loop. The room smells vaguely of vomit, and more strongly of beer and the old dishrag used to mop up the spills. Some people would walk past the door of this bar and never see it. It’s tucked between a massive concrete office building and a decrepit apartment complex, hidden in the shadows of the alley. Another kind of people, though, were compelled to enter. They could not walk past without being propelled, almost against their wills, into its stale depths.

The man tosses some money on the bar, downs his whiskey, and salutes in Noe’s direction. “See you next time. I’ve got places to be. I’ve got a plan in the works. Next time, you won’t hear complaints. You’ll hear about the little place I’ve got down in Mexico.”

Noe doesn’t move, and says nothing. His eyes haven’t left the spot on the wall where they’ve been fixed.

**

“I wondered when you’d drop by again.” The scruffy man with wild dark hair and wide, surprised eyes is speaking Spanish. He is sitting on the curb behind a taco joint. An empty bottle of Sol beer rests on its side at his feet, dribbling a little golden fluid onto the dirt where it pools and resembles piss. The alley is empty, or appears to be. If someone had noticed this man, they would just have assumed he was talking to himself, just a loco, and they would have kept walking.

“Do you even know anyone else, señor?”

Señor laughs. It’s the patron from the bar. “I know everyone. I just like you more.”

“I don’t know what’s so special about me. I’m tired.”

“We’re all tired, Moises. Especially me.” The man sits down beside him on the curb. “All the time we’ve spent together, over the years…I’m ready to stop all the traveling. All the work. I’m ready to just be. Didn’t you ever just want to BE? And everyone else be damned.”

Moises nods, looking away down the alley. A scruffy little dog sniffs through the piles of garbage piled behind a building proclaiming “TACOS” in red, uneven painted letters. The mutt’s ribs are visible, its big brown eyes forlorn. The dog gulps down what looks like a piece of paper, then digs deeper until only his black tail is visible, reaching straight toward Heaven. The man glances that way, upward.

The tail stiffens, and choking is heard among the garbage. For several minutes, the dog chokes, then collapses with a last pitiful shriek.

“Why did you have to do that, senor?” Moises asks, though he hadn’t moved to help. He glances down at his feet, not looking in the direction of the dog. Tears glisten at the corners of his eyes. “Never mind. I’m listening.”

The man shows all of his teeth, not quite a smile. “Soon, I won’t have to think about any of this. No more hassles, no more day-to-day drudgery. The only thing I’ll notice is the ocean, the stars in the night sky. I’ll hear the waves roll in on my deserted beach. Doesn’t that sound perfect?”

 

“Perfect, señor.”

 

**

 

The man now sits in a waiting room, leaning deep into an uncomfortable chair upholstered in what looks like carpet from an airport, all muted tones and shapes reminiscent of motion, of going places. He’s looking out over Los Angeles, taking in the smog and the glitter of the windows like eyes blinking at him from all of the downtown financial buildings. The US Bank Tower stares back at him, its three levels of 72 stories, separated by a layer of reflective glass, appearing like three stacked robots blankly awaiting a command from the Master, arms by their sides.

He shifts in his seat, his crisp black suit registering no folds, no wrinkles. His hands clasp in front of him on his lap, and it is as if he is not in the room; instead, somewhere on the other side of the planet. The receptionist doesn’t look up. The man gets up, walking to the floor-to-ceiling window, and paces slowly back and forth in front of it, his steps measured. Time passes, and he fails to notice. Outside, the sky begins to darken, angrily.

The room feels breathless. The clock ticks in measured beats, and with each tick the air grows heavier. The man feels more at home as the atmosphere gets more oppressive.

Finally, the receptionist raises her pretty face, pasted with a smile that is contained to her mouth. The rest of her face continues in its bland aggression. “Mr. Stan? The partners will see you now.” She stands, and ushers him to a massive boardroom door. Its black surface gleams, unmarked by handprints or the slightest warmth or color. The door slides open as the receptionist waves her hand in front of it. It disappears seamlessly into the wall. Behind the door, a long black table matches the door perfectly. It is as if the door has flattened itself into a table, which is surrounded by men in suits. They are various shades of grey, pinstripe, navy. Their generic salesman faces raise to watch Mr. Stan enter. They stare hungrily, like a pack of dogs. Tongues lolling, eyes wet.

They notice his suit, tailored perfectly to fit his broad shoulders and narrow waist. His shoes glitter, polished to a diamond shine.

“Those look Italian,” thinks the chairman. His eyes flash and roll, numbers on a slot machine. Cha-ching! The men notice his Cartier watch. His perfect tan. If you had asked them to recount his face, later, they would have been unsure. “He had…brown eyes, I think.” “Yes,” another would say, “Definitely brown, and medium hair.” “I wouldn’t forget his hands,” the chairman would say.

The door slides silently shut behind him, and he stands gazing at all of them for a moment.

His voice is measured, smooth, commanding. “I won’t take up much of your time, gentlemen. Thank you for taking this meeting with me.  Across the entire planet, right now, I have delegates meeting with any company who currently offers life insurance. As you here at GetLife are the largest such company in North America, and therefore the world, I wanted to meet with you personally to give you the chance to be at the forefront of this global movement. As you are aware, the current administration will soon be adding the requirement that every citizen carries a life insurance policy. I want GetLife to have the first opportunity to manage this requirement throughout the country, and soon, throughout the world. Mergers, anyone?”

The men shift forward in their seats, glancing at each other, shuffling. A hum of repressed conversation and excitement begins, a low rumble of building steam and brimstone.

“This means adding a small clause to every contract you write. For this almost negligible action, I am prepared to pay a lump sum for every single client. Every single one. Worldwide. I expect you will find a way to make your services completely required for every last human on this planet. Sort of the way the cell phone insinuated itself into every African village. By this time next year, 95% of the world will own or have access to a cell phone. My challenge to you is to make life insurance that indispensable. It may take 50 years, or it may take 100. But I am prepared to wait.”

he timeline doesn’t seem to register, the fact that the man expects to be around in 100 years. Laughs of derision erupt – clapping, foot stomping, and the conversation breaks through. The men talk over each other, until the chairman is able to quiet them.

“Mr. Stan…you do realize how many customers GetLife has? And if you say this offer is extending worldwide….well…it’s completely impossible.” He smiles, shrugging.

The man stands immobile, waiting for the room to quiet. “Why don’t you read the contract?” He picks up his briefcase, flips open the case (was that alligator? … the texture of the leather is odd), and removes a thick stack of paper. He passes it to the first man on his left, and smiles. He then begins to remove stacks of neatly bound hundred-dollar-bills, which he sets before him on the mirrored surface of the table. The green reflects in the table, in their eyes.

“Even if your customers read this clause- which they won’t, no one will say no. It’s a free service…sort of like – a timeshare on the Caribbean. And it won’t cost them a dime more than you already charge.” The man grins. The men grunt and shuffle, slobber and moan. Money money money- they pant.

What kind of cologne was that? It smelled of volcano, magma, power. As he stares at the pile of money, the chairman thinks he’ll ask Mr. Stan where he can buy it.

 

**

 

Somewhere along the coastline of the Riviera Maya, a construction crew is building a home. They have been paid up front, half of the job’s worth, in cash. The palms hang low over a deserted beach. The waves roll in, bringing with them the salt smell of the sea.

It takes a few days for the shifts of workers to notice that the building never stops. Work lights shine all night long. If someone sits down to take a rest, they are replaced by another. No-one asks where the others have gone.

Below, the buildings take shape as well. The howling is not the wind, and the progress is much faster.

 

**

 

Mary sets the table in her cozy New England cottage, polishing spoons, straightening the crisp white tablecloth. The whiteness of it reassures her. The perfection of a well-set table is something she can feel from the crown of her head to her toes.

She wipes her hands on her jeans, and turns to survey her work. The man sits at the head of the table, and she gasps in fright, her hands flying upward to her hair.

“Jesus, you scared me!” Immediately she regrets her words.

He pays no attention. He seems glum. “Sorry. It’s this timeshare business. The build is going much slower than I wanted.”

“You’re going through with it, then?” Mary is his oldest friend. Since before the catacombs, they joke. He had once…inhabited her, he thinks. It was deep, their relationship.

“You should see the house in Mexico. I almost don’t believe it’s happening, but it’s in motion. I started the process with those soulless bastards down at GetLife. They were only too eager to rake in the cash the deal will bring. And of course, it doesn’t affect them or their soulless offspring personally. The first clauses should be added to the first contracts within months. The little ‘in perpetuity’ clause worked for Eve, right? Eternal damnation, and all that, for an apple. It will work for me.” He smiled, Cheshire-like. “The timeshare is just on the edge of the lake. It will hold all of them. Every last soul. They won’t even notice where they are, the Americans anyway, maybe forever. They’ll be tortured eight hours a day, five days a week. On weekends, they can play golf or bridge or go to book clubs. Every day will be exactly the same. It will be an upgrade for some people! The weather will be great, too. So warm.”

Mary shakes her head, a short bursting laugh escaping. “And what if they say no? What if people don’t want a part of your little scheme?”

“There are many levels of Home, Mary. There is a level where even I don’t set foot. Besides, no-one has ever broken a contract with me. It’s not possible. They will all sign my contract. And I will no longer have to gather them one by one.”

“Sign me up, then,” she says softly. “I’ll be your first.”

Around the man’s hand, on her white tablecloth, a singed black outline begins to appear. Acrid smoke assaults her nose.

“You ruin all my good tablecloths,” she chides, shaking her head. She isn’t angry. She has always had a thing for the bad boys.

 

**

 

The man tosses a stack of paper onto the bar in front of Noe. “Check it out, my friend. Here’s your contract.”

Noe reaches behind his ear, pulls out a pen, and signs. He doesn’t read it. He is damned already.

“No one will ever read it,” he says out loud. “It doesn’t even matter.”

The man lights a cigarette, the flame burning brighter and longer than a match should burn. The flare illuminates the first few lines of the thick document.

 

“I, the above named, do publicly declare with mine own hand in covenant & by power of free will:  I give my everlasting soul to Satan, aka Stan, aka Beelzebub, aka Lucifer, aka Hades, etc. etc., as well as the souls of any and all children of my body in perpetuity, revoking their free will before their birth or their ability to form thought, forever and ever Amen…”

 

END, forever and ever, Amen

We Don’t Rent Pigs

I’ve been at a writer’s retreat in the Big Bend area this week…here’s a little something I worked on as an assignment.

The assignment was to write a non-fiction scene, in the style of a journalism long-form story. This was chosen as a stand out piece of writing to be presented to all attendees and instructors at a reading at the close of the retreat.


Freddy drops a quarter into the parking meter in front of the TV, turns the knob and you can hear it drop and clink with its fellows. The meter is an old-style one with a little gold plate that says “Police Officers Will Not Turn the Knob,” meaning maybe that it was from the day when actual cops had anything to do with parking tickets and people expected that cops should be there to help instead of hinder. The flag inside the glass bulb drops, and Freddy has two hours.

“It’s for Cowboys games, when he tries to come in here and camp out all day,” Harry said in his thick German accent, rolling his eyes. “Nobody wants to hear him going off like that; at least he can pay for it if we have to.” He grins toward Freddy, and you can tell it’s a subject that’s come up through the years over and over. Like the same long Texas evening, like when you step inside this place with the cow bones all over the porch roof, the same day just keeps replaying. Where the fun never stops.

It’s hot and sticky inside even with the swamp cooler and all of the fans blowing at once, kind of like sitting inside someone’s beer-scented mouth while they’re panting and sighing. Outside, a few locals are strumming guitars and a mandolin, taking turns singing and passing the same couple of women around. One has tattoos above her lady business, and cut off shorts and tube top to make sure you can see them – the other wears sweats and no makeup, with tough eyebrows like the cholas I knew in high school. She doesn’t smile.

“It’s 3 to one men to women out here,” the cute brown-skinned female bartender smiles. “I just stopped dating when I moved to Alpine for school.” She flips her short dark bob as she turns to serve another icy Lone Star – (Estrella Sola! The man she’s serving asks her, and she looks at him like he’s asking for Courvoisier. He explains it means the same thing as what she’d been handing him all night, just only in Spanish this time) – Harry leans in and says she does hav e a boyfriend who she doesn’t call her boyfriend. She disappears a little later with the non-boyfriend. 3 to one odds you’ll end up with one of those out here, I figure.

The guy with the gas pipeline company has been kicked out at least once today, but he comes back in and buys the whole bar a round, so they let him stay this time. He’s good and drunk, having a hard time focusing on anything and sweating all the way through his Stetson. He has small eyes, fat pink lips and I don’t like him, partly because he stands with his sweaty arm against me when there’s a whole bar to his left, partly because I’ve heard him talk about the female bartender who threw him out, repeatedly calling her a bitch and whining to anyone he buys a beer for that “she hates me.” I figure she knows him well enough to judge, since Freddy and Harry both say he’s a good guy. You can’t trust what they say, since they’re drinking the beers he just bought. Miller High Life and Natural Light, respectively.

“I raise pheasants, and let ‘em go out here,” says Freddy conversationally. “I just let 20 go in Ft. Davis. I put an ad in the paper in up there to let people know not to shoot them ‘til December. I want to reintroduce them to this part of Texas. Gotta keep the rednecks and Mexicans from shooting them all, though! At least for a while, give ‘em time to breed,” he laughs, rubbing his big belly. “I put the ad in Spanish and English.” He’s Hispanic – about 45, greying, with the body of a long-haul truck driver. He says he’s not bitter about his wife leaving him with their two daughters. But that was 12 years ago and he hasn’t dated much.

“Freddy’s probably the smartest guy in town, even though it doesn’t seem like it,” Harry says to me, keeping up his revelatory side conversation. “He’s just acting dumb.” I’m not sure why Harry’s giving me the inside scoop, maybe to set himself up as the guy who knows everything about everyone. If I lived here, I don’t think I’d tell Harry anything unless I had a reason for piping information into the gossip mill. Just like when someone tells you “Don’t trust so-and-so,” I make it a rule never to trust the speaker of those words.
Scott the pipeline guy oozes back inside to lean against a bar stool next to mine – too much cologne, undertone of sweat, liquor and ready-to-hump. “It’s so dang hot! I can’t stand it,” he complains, trying to get someone to talk to him. He pulls out his phone and sloppily tries to text. I glimpse the screen and two words in his conversation before he makes a “How Dare You” face and slaps it against his chest so I can’t see it. He pouts his lips, playing coy, like, I can’t believe you peeked!

“She fucks,” the text says. Over the bar, a sign says “We Don’t Rent Pigs.”

Excerpt from “Freedom From Arms”

Freedom from Arms

 

There are sixteen perfect utensils in the brushed stainless steel cylindrical utensil holder on the counter of the faded green kitchen. Two are in the dishwasher, covered with the messiest, holiest breakfast Alex has ever eaten. Egg yolks grace the spatula, and on the salad tongs rests thick bacon grease. He had made it all by hand, gently, watching her face across the peeling Formica countertop as she didn’t help him do anything. He had fed her from his fingers, marveling as her small white teeth gently avoided biting him, as her pink tongue wrapped around his index finger, as she decadently sucked the food from his skin. And he marveled that that was enough for him, that her touch lit him from the inside like a prurient Christmas tree, that his whole body responded to her slightest every move. She was not of his world. She was of the better world. The real world that he had, until now, barely glimpsed in other peoples’ lives.

 

Alex had had other women. A lot of women, really, for a slightly geeky Asian guy with soft biceps and his only deep love a hard-on for comic books. His friends were jealous, glaring at him from behind thick plate-glass goggles forced upon their feeble bodies by hours of World of Warcraft, from a place where they had never had a woman aside from the beautifully-crafted avatars of the other hidden, sluggish people blinking at their computer screens from some unknown physical distance. They were jealous, but it didn’t bother him because the women he had had meant nothing to him in the overall picture of what passed for his life. His life was a long block of text, running on to the next page, black and white, simple and nondescript. All the facts were there with no embellishments. He did not feel accomplishment for his sexual conquests, so in his mind there was nothing to be jealous of. Until Emily. Suddenly Emily. One moment he was a well-balanced single man, enjoying his life and his freedom, and in another instant he was a goner. Completely, totally given over to this little elvin queen with her dark, cropped hair that made her look as if she were wearing a crown of feathers.

 

He had picked her up mid-stride, his heart pounding as he heard the footsteps fading behind them down the alley. He knew he should be frightened, but even the thought of fear was somewhere else. Fear hid behind the realization–as his arms wrapped completely around her to meet on the nether side of her–that she felt if she were not there, or simply a part of him. Those two disparate things felt the same, and he was not surprised. He hugged her close under his chin, surreptitiously sliding his arms up and down her sides as he ran, and feeling the completeness of her, the space without her arms in it clean and whole in its absence. There was no wasted space with her. She wrapped her childlike legs around him and he watched the freedom light her face as she smiled in his arms. She panted with him as he ran, the fierce joy blazing from her in a beacon and lighting their path ahead.

Copy

She held her breath. One, Machiavelli, two, Machiavelli, three Machiavelli. Sarah exhaled very slowly, the yellow Post-it note stuck to her computer monitor flipping gently in the breeze.

“Lori called. Urgent,” it snapped, in bright red ink.

Sarah couldn’t remember for the life of her who Lori might be. Accounting? Sourcing? Maybe a new member of the merging Credit and Marketing divisions? There were so many new people here now, it was hard to keep track. She guessed she should be worried about it, after all, it was urgent. It was just that she had more pressing matters on her mind at the moment.

It was preternaturally quiet today, the grey omnipresent carpeting on the walls and floor and cubes muffling any sound that there would have been. Sarah wondered where everyone was. Probably they were all taking PTO, it always seemed to happen after a long weekend. Last Friday was a half day, and the Mondays after always seemed to be quieter. People wouldn’t be able to drag themselves out of bed and into work, or suddenly get deathly ill, especially if it was sunny outside. For people who weren’t quite as dedicated to their jobs as others, Sarah thought.

No one doubted that Sarah was dedicated. She’d been here 10 years, since she turned 29. Her ID card had a faded picture of her from then, springy mouse-colored hair, thick round glasses like the bottom of a pint glass, teeth that had been a little big for her face. She’d matured since then, though, and had her hair cut short and sleek and more flattering modern glasses. Not that men seemed to notice, she thought, except maybe for David. David looked like someone hadn’t baked him long enough, like the dough was soft on the edges and you could tell his middle was going to be chewy, maybe even cold. She wasn’t interested at all, but she would be his friend. He would hang around her cube and tell her stories about his three little dogs every day, some funny story about how one of them nipped a neighbor or left a pile in his bathroom. Her mother told her she didn’t have a boyfriend because she spent too much time at work, and where was an eligible man at that place? It was mostly women, rows upon rows of women stacked up in neat little cubicles with pictures of their kids and cats all over the carpet walls.

Sarah’s cube was homey, she thought. A little small, since the company had been moving more people onto the already-overloaded floor. It had just gone through the fifth buy-out since she’d been here. She had gotten used to it, and didn’t see why everyone was freaking out about losing their jobs or being “re-assigned.” It was always the same, shuffling and re-training and then settling down until the next time.

Sarah’s cube was stacked with papers, all the proofs and edits and copywriting paraphernalia. She had a stuffed bear, and a rubber plant that had grown its own ecosystem. She called it Harold. Partially covered behind a thesaurus was the plaque Mom had sent her. “Stay single,” it said. “Stay happy!” Sarah thought her mother should have taken her own advice. She heard the longing in her voice on her mother’s less and less frequent phone calls. Mom had resigned herself by now to a loveless marriage, to a man that had lost everything and now spent his days watching the History Channel and griping about his useless adult children.

Sarah wanted so badly to tell her mother not to ever speak Bob’s name again and that if she mentioned his kids one more time she would puke all over her loafers, but she was too polite. She knew her mom didn’t have anyone else to complain to. So she would sigh and pretend to listen while she flipped through her DVRed shows in front of her big TV in her tiny apartment. She was addicted to reality TV, shows about fat people and skinny beautiful people and everyone trying to catch a few seconds of fame or money or temporary love. Usually all three at once, it made things more interesting. The things Sarah spent money on were usually gadgets and electronics. She had an iPhone, a flat-screen 54-inch HDTV and satellite radio even though she mostly listened to one or two stations at most, the talk shows and classic rock.

Sarah had a lot of work to do today, and she couldn’t quite focus on it enough to make sense of her tasks. No-one was calling today, and there weren’t any deadlines to speak of today. Some for art, but none in her department.

She pulled up the email again, the one that sat burning in her inbox like incense, its thick smoke making her cube stifling and tightening her throat, making her want to gag and choke. At first glance it didn’t seem like much, just a forward that had already made the rounds of most of the employees. It was addressed to everybody, yet Sarah couldn’t help thinking that it was just for her.

The email contained a crass “LMAO!!” from the person who had originally forwarded it, followed by strings of signatures and names that everyone had been too lazy to delete when they passed it on. That always annoyed Sarah. How hard was it to hit the delete button? It saved everyone so much scrolling-down time. At the bottom of the email was a scan of a newspaper clipping from some po-dunk town in Florida, slightly blurry and hard to read. It was the headline that jumped out at you.

“Copywriter found dead at desk. Body discovered 3 days later.”

Sarah folded her upper lip up to her nose, smelling it. She always did that when she was thinking hard. She liked the smell and feel of it, but tried not to do it when anyone was looking. It would be hard to explain the weird face, to explain that it smelled comforting, like a clean baby. Unless she’d had something strong-smelling for lunch, of course. She liked the feel of the tiny spiky hairs against her nose, too, like rubbing a peach on her face.

She just couldn’t imagine that poor man dying and no one discovering his body. Three whole days! And then to have the story of his sad death ­passed around like some kind of joke. What she could read of the article said that he’d been 65, single and had probably died on Wednesday. They’d found him late Friday before everyone headed home from work. He must have started to smell by then, she thought. Even though most of these places were kept as cold as a meat locker to extend the life of the equipment. And probably the lives of all these old biddies in here, she thought. Being kept on ice probably got a few more years of work out of them.

Sarah glanced toward the corner of her screen. 10:30 already. Where had the day gone? She’d spent all morning on a few mindless tasks, organizing files on the server. Jobs that were waiting for her attention were lining up, their allotted time beginning to clamor for her. They sat in the folders on her desktop, each whiny little voice beginning to get louder as she ignored them. She just didn’t have the heart to put into them right now, and she always put a lot of heart into her work. She loved it, she really did, the nitpickiness of making sure each number and price was correct, the grammatical correctness of everything and the way it all fit together like a puzzle. Days just seemed to fly by when she worked, and sometimes she would realize it was past 5 o’clock and she was still working.

She wondered suddenly of that’s what had happened to the man in the news story. If he’d just been poured into his work, the little jobs calling to him, when all of a sudden his heart had seized and he’d felt it all start slipping away. Sarah couldn’t imagine what that might have been like. Did he see his days pass before his eyes like they say happened when you died? Sarah thought about her days. They were very similar, work, work, work, quiet weekends alone watching TV, the infrequent visits of her mother. Those days, she was already looking forward to waving as her mother got back on the plane to go home. She always thought she wanted her around when she wasn’t here…then when she was, Sarah would be exhausted by the effort of keeping her mother happy. It happened every time. Sarah realized her life flashing before her eyes would hard to differentiate; the days would all look exactly the same. Something unwound in the pit of her stomach, the feeling you get before you had horrendous diarrhea.

Papers shuffled behind her, dropping into her inbox, and feet pad-pad-padded by the opening to her cube. She didn’t turn around fast enough to see who it was, but the work in her inbox would tell her. She glanced back at it. It wasn’t overflowing, another testament to the fact that not many people had shown up today.

Sarah felt a sudden pain in her chest, a sharp shooting pain. She held perfectly still, trying to probe inside herself with her mind to see where it came from. It was on the left side of her body, where her heart was supposed to be. She realized she was holding her breath, and let it out in a long sigh. She was ok. There was nothing wrong with her. Her doctor said she was perfectly healthy, but that it would help if she got some exercise. Her flesh was too soft, too fragile. She got bruises sometimes when she slept, presumably from the sharp corners of pillows. She didn’t really know, but thought of herself as a modern Princess and the Pea. Maybe there was a small green bruiser hidden under her pillowtop mattress. The pain subsided, and Sarah concentrated on breathing normally. She often noticed, sitting in her ergonomic black chair, that her breath barely moved when she was at work. It was like her body slept during the day while her mind concentrated on its fact-checking duties. That could explain the tossing and turning and bruises at night.

Laughter filtered over the walls, muted but recognizable. Sarah would know that laugh anywhere. Mary. Her skin crawled. Sarah mostly believed herself to be better than the silly rumors and office politics that were a given in a whole building full of women, but Mary was one woman she could not stand. She wouldn’t admit it even to herself, but once in a while when she saw her in the parking lot she would imagine revving the engine of her Volvo, seeing the terror in the bitch’s eyes, and just plowing right over her. The satisfying crunch of Mary under her tires would give her goosebumps, she just knew it. Then she’d catch herself in her murderous fantasy and feel terrible, while at the same time thinking through the excuses she’d use if it really happened.

“Oh no, oh my god! What did I do? My foot slipped, the gas pedal stuck! Oh how awful, how terribly awful!” she would say, meaning every word. Then would come the insurance investigation, in which the investigator would conclude that it was a terrible accident probably due to a defective accelerator. And Sarah would send flowers to the funeral, a huge bouquet of white lilies…

“Sarah? Oh good, you’re here. I’m having the hardest time tracking people down today,” the gravelly voice interrupted her fantasy. She turned with a fake smile plastered to her face.

“Oh, hi Mary. Is there something I can do for you?” Sarah’s smile widened, showing her teeth. She had a good smile, it always looked genuine.

“Yeah. Lori called you, didn’t you get the message?” Mary’s pug face stared right at the note yelling on her computer. “We’re going to need you to re-do the TS-4111 form right away. The printer called and it’s the wrong size. I don’t know how that could have happened, I checked the paperwork and it had the correct dimensions. It must have fallen through the cracks somewhere.” Mary crossed her arms, smugly grimacing.

“Oh no,” said Sarah. “I can’t imagine where that might have been. I’ll get on it right away.”

“Good,” said Mary, nodding sharply, her neck flab wobbling. “I’ll let them know you will stay late today if you need to, to get that taken care of.” She turned sharply on her heel and marched out, the effect lost by the muffling carpet.

Sarah’s skin crawled. She thought that this must be what hate felt like, though she didn’t have much experience with the emotion. Any emotion, really. She didn’t think she had ever been in love. There was one guy, in college…but he had run off with one of their professors to live in Thailand for a year, presumably eating a lot of rice and buying cheap clothing. Sarah wasn’t really an emotional person. Out of spite, she snatched the note off her monitor and crumpled it into a tiny ball. Unthinkingly, she flicked it over the top of her cube wall.

“Hey!” a feminine man-voice complained. Ugh. Harry. She didn’t know what the new guy’s real name was, but he was a very follicly-gifted man. He walked with a swish, and used a terribly fruity lotion. She liked to talk about him to the ladies she ate lunch with. They all called him Harry now, and Sarah was afraid she might call him that to his face someday so she studiously avoided him.

Sarah pulled up the email again. The dead man’s name was Ron Arons. She thought about his family, how awful they must have felt. It was a terrible story to have to tell somebody, that grandpa or dad or whoever he was to someone else had died and been left for three whole days. Did nobody care about the poor man at all? Was his life so empty and lonely that no one even noticed? He must have lived alone, in some little apartment with dim lighting and brown furniture from the 60s. Maybe he had a cat, or a bird. Wouldn’t the animal’s hungry noises have alerted someone? Surely, someone would have had to have noticed. Maybe they were just afraid to be the one to check, not wanting to break the news that there was a dead body here at work. Sarah thought that if she had been the one to have found him, she would have been able to pull off just the right balance of sympathy and horror.

The news story said the man had just slumped over his desk, and that he had stayed in an upright position. The reporter was trying to hypothesize about how Ron had been unnoticed for so long. Sarah slumped forward in her desk, leaving one hand on the mouse and the other on her desk as a support. She relaxed the rest of her body, making sure that none of her muscles were engaged. The chair rolled forward, and she found that she was supported though her head hung toward the keyboard. She slowed her breathing slightly, so that her chest and back didn’t move. Pad-pad-pad, someone hustled down the hall, disappearing around one of the ant-farm-tunnel halls. Sarah let herself be perfectly still. Slowly, sounds came into focus. The hum of her computer, the tapping of Harry’s keyboard-probably IMing his boyfriend- farther away, Mary’s insipid laugh again. At the farthest end of the building the microwave alarm went off, and the wretched smell of burnt popcorn floated through the air. Really, how hard was it to follow the instructions on a stupid popcorn bag? The smell made her sick. Sarah rolled her eyes, but didn’t move. As her body settled into its position, she felt almost comfortable, like she could stay in this spot forever. The floor creaked, and someone else walked by. They didn’t slow, and Sarah didn’t move.

Her phone rang, shattering the calm that had settled around her. She still didn’t move. The skin-colored old phone rattled a few more times, then fell silent. The red light blinked, telling her that she had a voicemail. At the same time, the mail icon in the corner of the screen began hopping. Sarah felt frozen. After a while, amorphous shapes obscured the screen. She had her screensaver set for 20 minutes, but it didn’t feel at all like she’d been sitting in this position for that long. She let her eyes drift to the corner of the screen. Almost lunchtime. She thought about Ron again, wondered if he had a lunch crew that he met up with every day, whether they had just assumed he had other plans. She knew her lunch ladies wouldn’t assume that about her, unless it was a doctor’s appointment or something. She never had other plans. Her bones felt solid and still, her butt welded to the position.

“Hey Sarah? You busy?” A shuffle of papers behind her. She didn’t move, and after a few throat-clears the person went away. A strange thrill went through her, thinking of Ron. He’d been left in peace and quiet, to die, to maybe contemplate the next life. He would have been frozen, just like this. The time kept ticking away. Her phone rang once more, insistently, and she couldn’t have answered if it she had wanted to. Her body had other plans.

Sarah breathed as slowly as she could, ignoring her bladder. The sun through the few slitted windows at the west side of the building was sending errant rays through the air, illuminating the dust motes that filtered continuously from the pale ceiling. Her thigh itched through her beige slacks, but she controlled the urge and eventually it went away.

Through a haze, Sarah heard people beginning to take their leave for the day, inconsequential and insincere goodbyes. She didn’t raise her eyes, knowing that it was close to five already.

Her heart hung heavy in her heavy body. The light began to fade, and before long her fluorescent desk lights were the only ones left on.

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