R.L. Keck Fiction
R.L. Keck Fiction

Short Stories

Over the past few years I have dabbled in short stories, which is one of the most  difficult forms of writing (aside from poetry). They must be presented succinctly and with care, otherwise they tend to ramble or become tiresome.

 

These then are several of my attempts at writing short stories. I will leave the decision of whether I have succeeded to you, my faithful reader.

 

The Window

This story was written to fulfill an assignment for a creative writing course I took recently. The instructions were to write a short story that had as its title: The Window.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I do.

 

The Window

“I told you something like this would happen,” Terri said, her face showing the anguish of a new mother who is realizing a worst fear. “But would you listen to me? No, of course not; I am, as you just put it: ‘overreacting.’ And now, you see that I was right.

“I blame you, of course,” she continued. “If you had been stricter with him instead of catering to the boy’s every desire, something like this would not have happened. My mother knew how to address this sort of thing. She had rules and we all followed them; she made sure of it. Even my father, God rest his soul, was made to follow the rules in our house. Why can’t you follow the rules too, David?”

“Terri, please…” David tried to interrupt, but was cut off when his wife flashed a finger at him, her mouth set in a dour expression that David knew all too well.

“Don’t ‘Terri’ me, David. You encourage him to do things like this. Don’t try to deny it. I’m just surprised that you weren’t involved; I think that would have been more than I could bear.”

“But…” David tried once more to interject, but was stifled by his wife’s accelerating tirade.

“No,” Terri said and began pacing around the tidy little living room that she took so much time decorating. She stopped before the offending reason for her anger, her shoulders slumping in resignation. Absently, she pushed an errant strand of blonde hair back behind her ear and then returned her attention to her husband. “It’s not fair. I work hard to make our home comfortable, something we can be proud to invite friends and family over to see. Then, this,” she stabbed a manicured nail at the glass and porcelain debris scattered on the hardwood floor. “What will mother say when she sees this?

Terri turned to face her husband and was infuriated to see that he was actually smiling at her. “Do you find this amusing?” she said, once more pointing toward the damage.

David crossed his well-tanned arms over his chest, his body language speaking loudly where his voice was not allowed. “No, not that,” he finally managed before Terri, who either missed the flippant remark or chose to ignore it, launched into third gear.

“What’s worse, as if anything could be worse than this,” she said and raised her hands to emphasize her humiliation. “Is that Logan will deny any involvement; but, I warn you,” at this she re-aimed her slim digit toward her longsuffering husband. “I will get to the truth if I have to beat it out of the boy.”

“Now, Terri; that’s enough,” David said, his smile diminishing a little at his wife’s latest outburst. He took a step toward her. “It’s just a window, for God’s sake; it’s not the end of the world.”

“But,” Terri said, her voice losing its earlier confidence. “Look at my things.”

David moved to take Terri into his arms. He hugged her close, holding her head against his chest gently before turning her face up to his with a firm hand. He looked into her blue eyes, which were sparkling with unshed tears. “This is no big deal. I will fix it,” he said calmly.

“But,” Terri said once more; her anger evaporating as she stood, safe in her husband’s embrace, his strength a constant and reassuring promise.

“And Logan will help with the repair and cost,” David continued. “As for Logan denying this,” at this David shook his head. “I assure you that won’t happen.”

Just then a slim, red-haired boy of ten stepped into the doorway, a baseball cap held against his abdomen with two white-knuckled fists, a single tear threatening to overspill one eye.

“Mom,” Logan managed with surprising control considering the circumstances.

David released his wife and allowed her to turn and face her stepson.

“I’m sorry that I broke the window,” Logan said, and the tear fell, carving a clean, white line through his dirt-covered, freckles.

Confronted with this heartfelt admission, the last of Terri’s anger melted away and she knelt before the boy, her arms opened wide to accept the boy’s apology. “That’s all right,” she said, her own tears flowing freely. “It’s just a window.”

David stared down at the two locked in their healing embrace and smiled.

Logan looked up at his father with pride in his young eyes. “I hit a homerun.”

“You sure did, son,” David said and ruffled the boy’s hair.

 

 

 

Coming Home

This assignment was to practice writing non-fiction. We were supposed to write about an event in our lives that had a profound effect on us. I chose as my event, the day my ship returned from Vietnam and the welcome we received.

 

 

Approaching the Golden Gate Bridge, I was suddenly filled with excitement; for as I had driven across the iconic structure more than once, this would be the first occasion where I sailed beneath its steel roadway suspended two hundred twenty feet above the bay. On this passing, I was aboard the United States Navy Aircraft Carrier, Coral Sea (CVA-43), having just completed an eight-month deployment in the Western Pacific, conducting operations off the coast of Vietnam. It was a mild July day in 1972, the sun was shining down on those of us who were “manning the rail” in our dress uniforms, in anticipation of our homecoming once the grand ship, nicknamed, “San Francisco’s Own,” tied up at the pier in Alameda. The crisp, salty air felt cool on my face as I lifted it to gaze upon the sight of the orange vermillion-colored suspension bridge named after the entrance to San Francisco Bay. I, along with nearly one thousand sailors and marines standing tall along the perimeter of the flight deck, watched with glad heart as we drew nearer to the bridge and could read the signs hung over the side by loved ones for us to see: “Welcome Home,” “We Love You,” and “You Are Our Heroes.” As we passed beneath the bridges center span, family and friends tossed flowers down onto the ship in a further expression of their love and affection and it lifted my heart.

 

That all changed as soon as the ship’s bow passed under the shadow of the bridge and we began hearing the taunts and shouts of nearly one hundred war protesters, many of whom were members of Students for a Democratic Society and the Communist Worker’s Party; I know, because they brought their signs with them: “Baby Killers,” and “Stop the War,” as well as the fetid garbage that they rained down onto us from the bridge; we who had just been welcomed by loved ones. We who had just returned from performing a duty we all were sworn to do. Regardless our individual convictions or political leanings, we went and served our country; service that cost more than one to fail to return from that eight-month deployment, having perished doing very hazardous work. I felt a mixture of elation and disgust at this bittersweet reunion: elated by overtures of love; disgust at the misguided and disrespectful display by angry protesters.

 

The lingering repercussions of this disturbing event, which was repeated on only one other occasion before law enforcement began prohibiting the dumping of garbage – and flowers – over the side of the bridge, remained a painful memory for me for almost twenty years. But I found some measure of peace when I returned from my deployment in the Persian Gulf after Desert Storm. The response from the vast majority of the populace was positive as they welcomed us all back with open arms and smiles. I did not see a single protester among those gathered at the airport to welcome us. Thankfully, with few exceptions, that trend continues today, even in the face of another unpopular war.

 

Why I Hate Purple

This was intended to be an assignment on things we hate. We were supposed to choose one and write a short story illustrating that point. I chose humor and danced along the razor's edge with my loving spouse as the subject of this short piece.

 

 

Why I hate purple

“But purple goes with everything,” my wife tells me as she hands me her latest purchase: a dark purple, button-down shirt. I try to smile and put on the, “Oh, I love it,” face; but it is difficult. I swallow hard to keep my comments under control and hold out the offending garment. “Thank you,” I manage and remove my soiled old, Harley tee-shirt so I can try on my spouse’s latest gift in front of her. Damn, it fits. “It fits; I love it,” I say with supreme effort, hoping my face doesn’t betray my true feelings: I loathe it.

 

Now, I should explain where my abhorrence of purple originates. Truth be told, I haven’t always felt this way toward the royal color; my old high school colors were purple and gold and so was my letterman’s jacket – I wonder whatever happened to it – and I kinda like the song, “Purple Rain.” No; I learned to despise the color shortly after I met my wife. You see…purple is her “favorite” color; so naturally, it soon became my new favorite color. Actually, it was more for maintaining the domestic tranquility than anything.

 

It started innocently enough: a new purse, purple of course; not to mention her clothes and accessories, which with few exceptions all had some amount of purple. But then, it escalated to include the new carpeting throughout the condo and more than one wall; we had to install higher-wattage light bulbs in order to navigate the rooms. Her new car: purple; her favorite lipstick color…well, you get the idea. All of her other idiosyncrasies notwithstanding; her being enamored with one particular color was bearable, even quaint in a strange sort of way; but, when she began insisting that we dress alike when we went out together…well, I had to draw the line. The thought of appearing in public dressed like some kind of purple bookends filled me with dread. I could not imagine the humiliation of being seen by some of my riding buds; I would never hear the end of it.

 

“Absolutely not,” I want to say; instead, seeing the joy on her face, I obediently try on the new purple shirt and offer my best smile.

 

“I love it, honey,” I say; “you’re the best.”

 

The Ladder

The ladder was born from an idea by a co-worker of mine who once said that the only way to "get ahead in this company is to kill someone." I thought that premise the perfect idea for a short story. So I wrote The Ladder with the late director, Alfred Hitchcock in mind, as well as those great stories from The Twilight Zone.

 

 

 

            Joe stopped in front of the non-descript, brick building, causing other pedestrians to alter their direction in order to walk around him; they cast accusing, sidelong glances at the young man who had the gall to interrupt the flow of traffic. Joe ignored them as he stood in the middle of the sidewalk and stared at the address plate on the wall. He glanced at the card the Agency gave him that morning, confirming that he was where he should be. Straightening his jacket and combing an unruly lock of wavy, brown hair from his face with his fingers, he checked his reflection in the glass of the entrance door. Not quite twenty-two, Joe typified the young, upwardly mobile urban male: properly fitted clothes with shoes shined to a high gloss, his hair recently cut and –with the exception of the aforementioned errant lock– was combed in place. His face was unremarkable with brown eyes under a full brow, an aquiline nose, and thin lips that revealed straight, white teeth. The last vestiges of acne were abating and he was sporting the latest fashion trend: the shadow of a well-trimmed beard, which covered the few scars his adolescent tribulation left him with.

Satisfied with his appearance, he pushed open the plain, tempered-glass door, walked into the lobby of Resource Marketing, LLC, and confidently strode up to the receptionist’s counter against the far wall. An attractive twenty-something, black-haired, female glanced up as he rested his forearms on the counter, and smiled.

            “Welcome to Resource Marketing. How may I help you?” she said as she eyed him pleasantly.

            “Uh, oh, hi!” Joe managed to say. She was pretty. Actually, with her creamy, white skin and delicate features that accentuated her unblemished face and dark, penetrating eyes, she was more than just ‘pretty,’ Joe amended. Her appearance affected him enough that he momentarily lost his mental footing. After a moment, he regained his composure and continued. “I’m here for the opening,” he said and handed the attractive girl his résumé.

            “Okay,” she said as she took the one-page document.

Joe had not been out of college long and he desperately needed a job. As the receptionist scanned the three-paragraph introduction to his potential, Joe decided to get some additional information. “So, what’s the position?” he said, trying his most sincere tone.

“It’s in the Mail Room,” she said, her green eyes scanning his information. “We had a sudden opening in the Research Department, so a position is available.”

            “In the Research Department, you say?” Joe interjected; “I would like working there.”

            The receptionist looked up from Joe’s meager resume and frowned. “Sorry, we filled that position from within the company. The only job opening is in the Mail Room.”

            “Oh,” Joe said, suddenly disappointed. The Agency had not told him what the job was, only that there was an opening. He really needed the work, but the Mail Room … that sounded like a boring, dead-end job.

            The receptionist, seeing his disappointment, smiled slyly. She leaned forward and whispered, “Don’t worry,” and then cast a furtive glance around the room. “If you’re motivated, and if the company likes you, you shouldn’t stay too long in the Mail Room. It’s really up to you.”

            “Oh?” Joe asked, suddenly curious. “Why is that?”

            “Well, it’s company policy to …” the receptionist started to say. Just then, a side door opened and a tall man in a tailored suit entered and regarded her with a stern look.

            The change in her demeanor was immediate. “Thank you, sir,” she said curtly to Joe. “If you would please have a seat over there,” she indicated an armchair in the far corner; “someone will be with you shortly.” With that, she returned her focus to the work on her desk.

            The suit left through a second door, leaving Joe to sit by himself and wait.

            After what seemed like thirty minutes – though it was actually closer to ten – the same side door from which the suit entered earlier, opened again. This time, a tall, stern-looking woman in a severe business suit entered and stopped at the receptionist’s desk. Her hair, black with streaks of white, was pulled back into a tight bun giving the woman’s face an authoritarian appearance. Her thin frame and long limbs cause Joe to think of Elsa Lanchester in the Bride of Frankenstein movie. He shivered at the thought. After a brief conversation, none of which Joe could hear, the matron turned and called his name.

            “Joe?” She smiled thinly as she evaluated him with her eyes.

            Joe rose from the chair, replaced the magazine on the short table next to the chair and tried to appear taller than his five-foot-eight-inch frame actually was. He was fit, just not tall. Joe confidently walked to the woman and smiled. He was forced to look up to meet her eyes, and held out his hand before realizing his faux pas. “Dumb ass; you don’t offer to shake a lady’s hand. Wait for her to offer,” he silently scolded himself. Fortunately for Joe, the woman took his hand in hers and returned a firm shake. Was that the hint of a smile on her face? He wondered.

            “My name is Ms. Perdida,” she said. “Esperanza Perdida. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”

            “Not at all,” Joe lied.

            “Well,” Ms. Perdida said and looked at the paper in her hands. “Your resume is brief, but it seems you have just what we are looking for. If you are interested, the job is yours.”

            “Just like that?”

            “Just like that,” she assured him. “Would you follow me, please.” She turned and headed for the side door.

            As he followed, Joe passed close to the receptionist’s desk. “Congratulations,” the girl said as he passed.

            “Thanks,” he called back over his shoulder as he reached the door. Ms. Perdida had already passed beyond the portal into the next room, but Joe stopped and turned around. “What’s your name?”

            “Gayle,” she said with a smile.

            “See ya ‘round, Gayle,” he said and followed the matron through the door. As he passed across the door’s threshold he noticed a phrase etched lightly into the mahogany: Abandone Toda la Esperanza, in what looked like Spanish or something. “Esperanza,” he said to himself; “this must be Ms. Perdida’s office.” He passed through and allowed the door to shut behind him.

            In the lobby, Gayle sighed. He was cute, she thought. Too bad he’ll be gone soon; we might have had some fun. She went back to her work and in five minutes had all but forgotten Joe.

            Joe was sitting in Ms. Perdida’s office, in a plush chair that faced an ornate desk, behind which sat the tall woman. As he waited for her to address him, he watched her open her desk drawer, remove a thick file – which she laid in front of her – and carefully open the closure exposing the contents. Joe could see nothing of what was in the file, but could have sworn, before she resealed the file, that he heard faint cries of pain and misery. As quickly as the sounds came, they faded into the background noise and became a memory.

            “Joe,” Ms. Perdida called to him softly.

            “Hm … uh … yes,” he responded, still trying to locate the source of the strange, pleading sounds.

            “I see from your records that you are single. Is that correct?”

            “Single … yes,” he managed while he turned his head, searching for the sound.

            “Is something wrong?”

            Joe tilted his head; the sound was gone. “No, nothing is wrong. I’m sorry,” he turned to face her and smiled. “I just thought I heard something, that’s all.”

            The woman smiled and continued. “You have no living relatives either.” This was not a question.

            “That’s right,” Joe said. “I’ve been on my own since my senior year in college.”

            “Right,” Ms. Perdida said as she shuffled through some notes on her desk. “You graduated from GWU last year.”

            “Uh huh. That’s right.”

            “What circumstance has brought you to our door?

            “Got laid off at my last job,” Joe said truthfully. Actually, it had been a crappy job in sales and he was glad to be done with it.

            “Well, let’s hope we are more to your liking.” She reached across the desk, handed him a thin, bound document and said, “This is your Employee Handbook. You should read it when you have some time. All the information you need to get ahead in this organization is in there.” She sat back in her chair and regarded him, her fingers tented in front of her small bosom. “Do you have any questions?”

            Joe could not think of any, so he said, “I don’t think so.”

            “Good,” Ms. Perdida said and got up from her chair to lead Joe to another door. As she opened it, she guided Joe through and into the next room where a stooped and wrinkled, white-haired, old man waited. “This is Alphonse; he will show you to the Mail Room.” She extended her hand, which Joe took. “I’m sure you will do fine here, Joe. Good bye.”

            Joe shook her hand once, and then turned to look at his guide. The man, Alphonse, stared at him expressionless, unblinking. Joe was beginning to think there was something not right with him when Ms. Perdida’s door closed and Alphonse started talking.

            “Skeeter,” the man said abruptly.

            “How’s that?”

            “My name; I go by Skeeter, not A-l-p-h-o-n-s-e,” the man said and stretched the name out slowly, mockingly. “I hate that name. Call me, Skeeter,” he said and stuck out his gnarled hand. Joe took it and marveled at the strength in the old man’s grip.

            “I’m Joe; it’s nice to meet you, Skeeter.”

“C’mon, let me show you around,” Skeeter said. Then as he turned, he waved for Joe to follow and started walking down a narrow corridor. At the end of the corridor, they entered a stairwell and descended into it. After what Joe thought was nearly a hundred feet down, the stairwell ended at a heavy steel door. Skeeter didn’t pause, but pulled the door open and went straight through into the next room which, Joe noticed when he followed his guide through the doorway, was the mail room.

            “Welcome to Hell,” Skeeter said with a chuckle as he held his arms apart and turned in a slow circle. “What do you think?”

            “It’s a mail room,” Joe said cautiously, wondering if this was a test.

            “Well, duh; I know it’s a mail room” the man said, dropping his arms and looking exasperated. “I asked what you think of it.”

            Joe understood what was required and gave the room an appraising look, pausing now and then to nod and point reverently. There were bins of unopened mail sacks, carts with several trays for holding envelopes or packages, and several chutes along one wall that emerged from the ceiling and terminated above large baskets into which, Joe surmised, mail was dropped; which was correct, for while he watched, Joe saw several envelopes fall from the chutes and into their respective baskets along the wall. When he had visually toured the modestly-sized room, he faced Skeeter and smiled, “It’s the best damn mail room I’ve ever been in.”

            That was obviously the sort of answer the old man wanted to hear, because he clapped his hands once and smiled at Joe. “That’s right, my boy. It’s a real doozy. I’m glad you like it. The guy before you didn’t have the respect this place deserves. But, he’s gone now, so good riddance.”

            “How long have you been here; in the Mail Room, I mean?” Joe asked.

            The change in Skeeter was immediate. The man’s countenance grew serious as he screwed his face up in apparent concentration. Then, after a moment, the man looked at Joe and smiled sheepishly. “Tell you the truth, I don’t honestly know; been a while though; I know that much. I was just a kid when I started.”

            “And you’ve been in the Mail Room the whole time?”

            The man nodded as if that were obvious.

            “Why haven’t you been promoted?”

            “Promoted, nah … you gotta kill to get ahead here,” Skeeter said. “You ever hear that someone has to die before a position opens up?”

Joe nodded; he had heard the hyperbole before.

“Well, if that’s what it takes to get ahead, they can keep it. I like my job just fine.”

            “But, that’s just a figure of speech,” Joe said.

            Skeeter regarded Joe with a knitted brow and rheumy eyes. “Think so? Well, perhaps; what do I know? I just been here in Hell for …” he stopped and did a mental calculation. “Well, like I said, I ain’t sure; but, it’s been a long time.” Skeeter offered a raspy laugh, then took Joe by the arm and gave him a tour.

            When time came for lunch, Skeeter showed Joe where the employee cafeteria was located and what specialties to steer clear of. “Beware of Wednesday’s chicken,” he whispered as the two of them pushed their plastic trays along the rail in front of the day’s choices. “There’s some who swear it ain’t chicken at all, but old pigeons from the roof terrace where the boss keeps a small garden.” As this day was Thursday, Joe had his pick of two supposedly safe choices: the meatloaf or the beef stew. Joe didn’t have the heart to tell Skeeter that rats probably had dark, beefy-looking flesh if it was cooked in a stew. He chose a salad.

            They found two vacant seats in a cluster of six occupied tables and sat. Joe noticed his co-workers as they trickled in for the afternoon meal. There was the usual diverse assortment of people one would expect at any midtown office building. Joe saw several blacks, Latinos, and Asians sitting in groups; a small contingent of females – blondes – sitting in one of the few booths that lined the wall. They were busy gossiping between bites of their salads. Joe noticed the obvious target of their covert conversation: a lone man, reading the Wall Street Journal while he ate a thick sandwich. His deep concentration in the financial news made him oblivious to the fact that he was dripping mustard on his silk tie. However, this fact had not escaped the notice of the gossipmongers at the nearby booth.

            As Joe watched, another well-dressed man approached the stained-tie wearer and sat at an adjacent seat without asking permission. The stained-tie man showed no notice. Until, that is, the interloper spoke to him. Joe could not hear the conversation, but once started it quickly escalated into much gesturing and increasing volume. Then, as quickly as it began, it was over; the newcomer got up roughly, shoving his chair back as he rose. Joe heard him then, clearly over the myriad conversations in the spacious room.

            “Fine, then,” the man said as he rose. “I guess we’ll just see what happens.” Then, he turned and walked determinedly from the cafeteria.

            “What do you suppose that was all about?” Joe asked Skeeter.

            “Dunno,” replied the old man. “Probably about a promotion, I suppose.”

            “How’s that?”

            “He,” Skeeter indicated the rapidly departing man; “wants his job.” He nodded at the stained-tie man. “But, I don’t think he’s ready to move up yet.”

            “So,” Joe urged.

            “So,” Skeeter continued. “That creates a disharmony in his department. They will have to arrive at a solution.”

            “What kind of a solution?”

            “Depends on how imaginative each one can be. You gonna eat that tomato?” Skeeter was eyeing Joe’s plate hungrily.

            “No, it’s yours.” Joe said and wondered what his escort meant by ‘imaginative.’

            Then, it was time to return to the Mail Room. For the remainder of the day, Skeeter took Joe on his rounds delivering and collecting the mail from the various departments in the building. While they were on the fourth floor, they stopped by the Accounting department and spoke to the lady in charge of payroll.

            “Now, this is Lori,” Skeeter said by way of introduction. “She’s one you want to make sure to stay on the good side of; if you get my meaning.” Skeeter nudged Joe in the ribs and snorted laughter.

            “Pleased to meet you, Lori,” Joe said pleasantly, remembering not to offer his hand this time. “My name is Joe.”

            “Hello, Joe. Welcome to the rat race,” Lori said with a smile. Then, she handed him several forms with instructions to fill them out and return them by the next day if he wanted to get paid on time. “Make sure you fill out your W-4 correctly or we’ll either take too much or too little taxes out and that could be trouble at tax time.”

            “Thank you, I will be careful,” Joe promised as Skeeter guided him away from payroll and back along their route. “She’s nice,” Joe said.

            “Oh, sure; she’s nice as long as you turn in your time card on time,” Skeeter said. “God help you if you’re ever late.” The old man whistled and shook his head as if recalling something painful.

            As they were completing their rounds on the sixth floor, Joe suddenly noticed the stained-tie man sitting in a plush office near the corner of the building. The name plate on the door said “Noel.” He also noticed the other man that had created the disturbance during lunch. This man was seated across the aisle in a cramped cubicle and, as Joe could plainly see, staring hard at the stained-tie man in the corner office. What made Joe uneasy was that the man in the cubicle, whose name appeared to be “Harry,” if the nameplate on the cubicle wall was correct, was slowly and methodically stabbing the blotter on his desk with a letter opener as he stared at the man wearing the tie with the mustard stain.

            “That’s one very upset man,” Joe observed to Skeeter.

            “They’ll work it out,” Skeeter said nonchalantly. “They always do.”

            “You mean those two do this sort of thing often?”

            “Them? Nah, this is their first time. No, I mean others. This happens all the time. Stay here long enough and you’ll see. It’s commonplace.”

            “It must be hard on Human Resources.”

            “Why’s that?”

            “All the turmoil has got to be bad for morale.”

            “Not at all,” Skeeter said flatly. “This is the way it’s done; been this way as long as I been here.”

            “I’ll be damned.”

            “You’ll see; by tomorrow, everything will be put to rights.”

            “Yeah; if you say so.”

            They finished their rounds and returned to the lower levels to spend the remainder of the day sorting the outgoing mail. When quitting time arrived, Skeeter urged Joe to be back early, as Friday’s were always busy. Joe thanked Skeeter for the indoctrination and left for the 110th Street Subway and his ride back home.

            As he made his way to the platform to wait for the train, Joe considered his new employer. They were a strange group, to be sure, but they appeared to be successful. Everyone dressed well and seemed to get along. That is, except for … “the angry man in the cubicle,” Joe blurted out. For there, in the crowd was that very man. What was his name … Harry? He was not hard to miss; his face was still contorted with pent up rage. “Why is he still so mad?” Joe wondered aloud. But, just then he saw what it was. As the train slowed to a stop, Joe noticed the man with the stained tie – Noel, he recalled – standing at the edge of the platform. He did not appear to be waiting for this train, for as Joe was hustled aboard with the throng of people heading out of town, he noticed Noel still standing at the edge of the platform. As Joe found a space on the subway near a window, the train began pulling away from the station. He noticed a blur of faces through the window as the car gathered speed. Then, he saw Noel. In the fraction of a second that Joe saw him, he noticed two things: the man seemed to be staring right at Joe; and, there was a look of calm, serene resignation of his face. The last thing Joe saw before the train entered the tunnel and blocked the station from sight, was Harry moving to intercept Noel.

            The next day, Joe arrived early just as Skeeter had requested. The first order of business, after coffee, was the delivery of the morning mail. Joe handled this task, to the delight of Skeeter, and before too long Joe was moving along the aisle between the cubicles on the sixth floor. When he reached the corner of the building where the offices were, he stopped and stared in disbelief. There, in the corner office, his feet up on the desk, relaxing, was Harry, the angry man from yesterday. As Joe watched, a young woman entered the office, smiled at Harry reclining at the desk, passed him some papers, and then left the office. The entire exchange was conducted as if it were completely normal that a strange man occupied another’s office.

            Joe shook his head and looked again at the man sitting in Noel’s office. Then, he turned to look where Harry’s cubicle was and had another shock, for there, sitting at the cramped desk in the same cubicle was another person altogether. Joe could not see any of the items that had cluttered Harry’s cubicle; not the photos on the walls, not the damaged blotter with the stab marks, nothing. All was clean and orderly. In fact, Joe noticed that Harry’s nameplate had been changed. It now read, “Bart.” This made no sense. Why was Harry sitting in Noel’s office? And, for that matter, where was Noel? As Joe passed the office where Harry sat drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper, he had a final jolt when he noticed that the name now emblazoned on the door read, “Harry.” Noel’s name had been removed.

            By the time Joe returned to the Mail Room, his head was ready to burst from all the questions he had. He decided to ask Skeeter what his take on the situation was.

            When Joe caught up with Skeeter, the old man was sorting the first batch of outgoing mail. He was deep in concentration, segregating parcels and packages from the business envelopes into three large mail sacks suspended in metal cages.

            “Skeeter.”

            “Ahhh!” He started violently when Joe called out to him. “Don’t do that when I’m sorting; you wanna give me the big one?”

            “Sorry; but, there’s something strange going on and I gotta ask you about it.”

            Skeeter removed his spectacles, took a stained handkerchief from his pocket to wipe them with, and regarded Joe quizzically. “What’s so darned important that you should startle me so?”

            Joe sat on a stool at the sorting desk and told Skeeter about the new occupants on the sixth floor. He left out the part about seeing Harry and Noel the day before on the subway platform. “So, what do you think?” he asked when he finished.

            Skeeter calmly finished wiping his glasses, placed them gently back onto their perch at the bridge of his nose and sniffed. “Pshaw … I told you things would settle themselves out by today. Looks like I was right.” He turned to go back to sorting the mail.

            “I don’t understand,” Joe pressed. “What happened to Noel?”

            Skeeter paused; a small package suspended over the parcel bag, and glanced at his apprentice. “I expect he’s dead,” the man said casually before returning to his work.

            “Dead?” Joe asked, incredulous. “What do you mean dead…” but, Joe stopped. Suddenly the scene at the subway platform ran through his mind and he knew what had happened.

            “Harry killed Noel?” Joe asked with some trepidation, fearing the answer he already suspected.

            Skeeter exhaled loudly and turned to face Joe. “You haven’t read your employee handbook, have you,” he stated accusingly. “No, of course you haven’t. If you had, you wouldn’t need to ask me a question like that.”

            “It’s at home. I didn’t get around to reading it last night. But …”

            “Just read it. Old Esperanza said all the answers are there. Trust her; they are. Now let me get back to sorting the mail,” Skeeter said and returned to his task.

            Joe sat there for a moment, unable or unwilling to accept what had begun to assemble in his mind. Harry had somehow killed Noel yesterday, and today, like nothing out of the ordinary had happened, Harry had stepped in and assumed his new position. Just like that, everything had changed. He recalled the scene on the sixth floor. It appeared normal. Then, it hit him, what Skeeter had said the previous day when Joe mentioned the trouble between Harry and Noel. He had said something about how their argument was causing disharmony in the department, and how they would have to arrive at a solution.

            “Well, I guess Harry was the more ‘imaginative,’ huh,” Joe said as he slipped off the stool and prepared to get back to work. He was trying to wrap his mind around the fact that there had been an apparent murder of one worker by another, and no one seemed to think that anything was wrong. Joe shook his head at the absurdity of it. It was wrong; that’s all there was to it. And someone should do something about it. He decided that he had to tell somebody what he had seen the previous day. But, who should he tell?

            “I gotta go up for a bit,” Joe told Skeeter. “I’ll be right back.”

            The old man raised a hand in acknowledgement but continued his sorting without looking up. Joe turned and left.

            As he climbed the stairs he was thinking about what had transpired on the subway platform yesterday. It now seemed obvious that once the platform had cleared and the subway had left the station that Harry had probably pushed Noel onto the tracks when no one was looking. Joe knew the tales of the electrified third-rail and figured that was what had happened to Noel. Noel… Joe could still see the look of peaceful resignation etched on his face as he looked through the window of the subway car. That thought caused Joe to stop midway between one step and the next. “He knew…” Joe sat on the step, his back against the wall, and repeated what had just occurred to him. “He knew he was going to die.” Joe didn’t know how he knew this, but now that he had said it, Joe was absolutely sure it was true. He stood back up and continued ascending the stairs until he reached the lobby-level. Someone needed to know what happened. Should he go to the police? Well, of course he should. But he wanted to tell someone here first; someone besides the crazy old man in the Mail Room. Joe thought for a moment. Then it hit him: Gayle; he would tell Gayle.

            Joe peered into the lobby and glanced over at the receptionist’s desk. He saw one of the blondes from the day before seated at Gayle’s desk. Then, he looked at his watch; it was twelve-fifteen – lunchtime. He hurried to the cafeteria; he hoped he would find her there.

            He did. She was seated alone at a table when he walked up. “Hi,” he said. “Do you mind if I join you?”

            She smiled over her forkful of salad. “Hi, Joe,” she said. “Sure, sit down. How’s the job going?”

            “S’okay, I suppose,” he said as he covertly glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to hear what he had to say. It seemed clear, so as he sat he said, “Gayle, I think something awful has happened upstairs and I’ve got to tell someone about it.”

            Gayle lowered her fork to her plate of mixed greens and tofu and gave Joe her full attention. “Go on, Joe. What happened?”

            So, he told her. And he didn’t leave anything out. By the time he finished, Gayle had begun to eat once again and nod in understanding. When she spoke, she used the tone of one who is trying to explain something to a child, or a mentally-challenged Mail Room clerk.

“Joe,” she began. “Have you read your employee handbook?”

“That’s exactly what Skeeter asked me.”

“You haven’t read it then?”

“Not yet. I was intending to read it this weekend.”

“Read it, Joe. All the answers are there in the handbook.”

“But …”

“I can’t explain it, Joe,” Gayle said, her eyes steady. “Not so’s you would understand. You need to read it for yourself. It won’t work otherwise.”

“What won’t work?” he asked.

“Look,” Gayle said, clearly uncomfortable now. She started to rise from the table. “I’ve got to get back to work.” She began to walk away, but Joe gently grabbed her hand as she passed.

“I’ve got to tell the authorities,” Joe said.

Gayle stopped and stared hard at Joe. “I like you, Joe,” she said. “But, that’s not the right thing to do here. Trust me. Now, please let me go. I’ve got to get back to work.”

He released her hand and she walked away. Joe sat there a few moments longer before getting up and turning to leave as well. This was ridiculous. Was everyone here on drugs or something? Didn’t anyone care that a murderer was working on the sixth floor? Well, he cared. And he would do something about it. He would confront Harry and demand the truth before he went to the police. Joe started toward the stairs and the sixth floor.

As he was climbing the stairs he noticed a woman descending from above. As she passed, Joe stopped and stared after her, his heart-rate increasing as she went. He felt anger beginning to well up from deep inside. Why; what was the reason for this feeling? He tried to go up the stairs, but with each step his breathing increased as the anger swelled. He stopped and turned. The woman was exiting the stairwell on the third floor. Instantly, Joe turned and followed her. He had to know what had caused him to feel these strong emotions toward the woman.

He took the stairs two and three at a time until he was at the third-floor exit door. He pulled the door open and stepped through. Immediately, a familiar feeling swept over him; he knew this place. That was not possible, he knew, but he also knew with absolute certainty that this was where he belonged. Everything about this place and the work they did called out to him. He understood what each position was responsible for and how well they were doing their jobs. He didn’t know how he knew; he just knew. As he walked down the aisle between rows of cubicles, he saw the woman turn the corner and step into an office. He quickened his pace.

As he turned the corner, he saw the woman sitting at a desk: his desk. How could that be? He had never … but it didn’t matter; it was his desk because he knew it was so. And the woman was sitting in his leather chair in his office. She was in his office. What was she doing in his office?   Joe pushed his office door open and walked in.

“You are in my office,” he said loudly.

“I beg your pardon,” she responded calmly. Was there a glint of sadness in her eyes? Joe didn’t care.

“This is my office; this is my job and I want you out of here,” Joe exclaimed flatly.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked. Again, Joe thought he detected sadness and defeat in her eyes.

“You are in my position. I am supposed to have this job, not you.”

“I’ve been here for years, though,” she said. “This is my job. You cannot have it.”

“Is that so,” Joe spat. He could feel the anger growing, threatening to boil over into violence. It was strange, but he couldn’t help himself. He was the one being done wrong by this … this, woman.

“Yes, I’m afraid so. The only way for me to leave this job is if I die.”

Joe halted. Her words hit him like a slap in the face. “What did you say?”

“I said,” she repeated, “the only way you will get this position is for you to kill me.”

Then, he felt something surge deep inside. It came on as a feeling of certainty. He knew what he must do. She had told him. She had given him permission to get his job back. All he had to do was kill her. “Fine, then,” he said and turned to go. “I guess we’ll just see what happens.”

He left her office and returned to the Mail Room, slamming the heavy door as he entered.

“What’s all this?” Skeeter demanded. “Slamming doors in the mail room is not necessary.”

“Do you realize that some … some, woman is sitting in my office on the third floor doing the job I’m supposed to be doing?”

“Your office…,” Skeeter regarded Joe through squinted eyes. “Are you sure it’s your office?”

“You’re damn right I’m sure. I was just there.”

Skeeter grinned slyly and shook his head. “This just might be a record,” he said, and shuffled over to a stanchion-mounted phone, lifted the receiver, and punched 6-6-6. He waited for a moment, and then spoke softly. “We’ve got a promotion.” He listened a bit then said, “I know, but…” After a brief silence during which the old man seemed to be receiving instructions, he finally said, “All right; I’ll tell him. Good bye.”

When he had returned the phone receiver to its cradle, Skeeter turned to face Joe. “Go home.”

“What?”

“You heard me,” Skeeter said. “Go home.”

“Why?”

“Read your handbook. You cannot get promoted until you read it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s because you haven’t read it. Now, go home and read it. When you do, you will know what to do next.”

Joe, confused and angry, turned and started for the door.

“I’m gonna miss you, Joe,” Skeeter said.

But Joe had already closed the door behind him.

Later, when Joe had arrived at his apartment, he located his copy of the employee handbook that Ms. Perdida had handed him when he started work; when… was it only a day ago? It seemed much longer than that.

Joe tossed the slim, leather-bound manual on his kitchen table as he went to the refrigerator for a beer. After twisting off the top, he sat down and lifted the handbook. It had a metal clasp that, when he released it, cut his finger. He stuck the injured digit into his mouth as he opened the book on the table. He took his cut finger out of his mouth so he could turn the page and in doing so, left a bloody print of his index finger plainly on the page. He noticed a faint wisp of smoke rise from the print as it dried on the page. That should have disturbed him, but after today’s events, Joe simply turned to the page on promotions and began to read.

Promotions: as Resource Marketing, LLC is a living entity, any position to which you are entitled will only be offered when it makes contact with you through the existing holder of that position. There are no other methods of announcing job openings or available positions above the second floor, only contact through the existing position holder. You will know when a position becomes available for acquisition. Once the position to which you are entitled contacts you, it is your responsibility to acquire the position within seventy-two hours. There are no limits to the methods you may utilize to make the acquisition.

Only two rules apply to promotions: first, notification by you to the present position holder of intent to gain the position must be accomplished face-to-face; and, second, further contact between the two competitors must be made away from company property. If after seventy-two hours, you fail to acquire the position to which you have been called; you will be terminated.

Once you are seated in a position of employment above the second floor, the only way you may be released from the position is to be challenged by another suitor vying for the position. Employment with the company is at the will of the company. There are no guarantees as to the duration of any position to which you may be entitled as the position is free to choose a successor at any time.

We hope you enjoy your time with Resource Marketing, LLC. We are here to assist you in any way possible, as long as it does not conflict with guidelines published herein.

“Wow,” Joe exclaimed. “So, I was right; that is my position.” He took a long pull on the beer and considered the implications of what he had just read.

“I’ve got seventy-two hours to acquire the position. And,” he continued, “there are no limits to the methods I may use.” He finished his beer and checked the time: 4:05; there was time.

Joe changed into a set of black jeans, a dark-colored hoodie, and sneakers before leaving his apartment for the subway that would take him back to work.

It took a while, but he knew that he would see her when she emerged from the building. At 5:40 she stepped out onto the sidewalk and hailed a cab. Joe did the same, telling the driver to “follow that cab.” He groaned at the cliché and sat up to keep tabs on their progress. When at last the woman’s taxi deposited her at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, Joe paid the cabbie and got out to follow her.

He could feel the moment arriving. He knew how and when he would make his move and was oddly calmed by the knowledge. Joe climbed the ladder to the upper deck of the ferry and waited. He could still see his quarry, standing exactly where he knew she would be – at the stern railing looking back at the city.

When the ferry was midway to the island, Joe made his move. He was glad there were throngs of people – tourists mostly – crowding the aft rail. They were all so preoccupied taking pictures of the city’s skyline that they failed to register his approach. As he stepped in close behind the woman that held his position, he felt his anger rise. She was responsible for holding him back. It was her fault that he had to start in the mail room instead of an office where he should be. She was probably to blame for the death of his parents two years ago. That thought was the catalyst that spurred him to action.

At that moment, the ferry’s horn blew causing those not taking pictures to turn and look up at the bridge. He acted quickly. While they were distracted, Joe stepped up and in one smooth motion, lifted the woman over the railing and dropped her into the violently churning water below. She made no protest; she was simply there one moment, and gone the next. As the woman tumbled from the ferry, her body turned allowing Joe to see her face. As he expected, she wore the same peaceful expression that he had seen on Noel that day on the subway platform. He paused, only a moment, to be sure she was taken in by the propeller wash. There was a brief red froth, and nothing more. Satisfied, he calmly turned and made his way forward with those who were preparing to disembark at Staten Island.

He didn’t remember when, or how, he made it back to his apartment in the city. He only knew that when he woke up it was Monday morning. Doubting nothing, he dressed and headed off to work. Joe walked directly to the third floor to the office he knew was his. As he expected, his name was on the door. He walked in and set his paper down on his desk, sat in his chair and leaned back, allowing his feet to rest on the desk top. In a moment, his secretary entered and passed him the documents for the day’s meetings.

Two months later, Joe was deeply entrenched in his position. Each day his secretary would deliver his workload, and each day he would fulfill the requirements demanded of him by the position. It was bliss. He was exactly where he belonged.

Joe stood and stretched, then walked to his doorway to intercept his mail. An old gnarled man pushed a cart loaded with letters and packages. He liked the Mail Room clerk. The man was always polite to those who worked above the second floor. He smiled as the man approached.

“Not much mail today, sir,” the mail clerk said to Joe.

“Thank you, Alphonse,” Joe said. Then, to himself, he said, “Alphonse; a strange name.”

The mail clerk continued his rounds without another comment and Joe was about to go back to his desk when he saw Gayle coming down the aisle.

He smiled at her and was about to say hello, when she jabbed a finger in his chest, causing him to back into his office.

“What are you doing in my office?” she cried. “And why are you in my position?”

Joe allowed only a flicker of sadness at his loss to show. He sat down in his chair and accepted his promotion.

The End

 

A Bad Day

This was another creative writing assignment from last year. The instructions said to begin writing a short story that opens with this line:

Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip.

So, armed with that one statement I dove right in. Here is what my twisted brain came up with. Enjoy.

Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip. He had been driving less than two hours and already his car had developed a disconcerting noise somewhere within the dark recesses of the engine compartment. His father had warned him on several occasions to, “Keep up the maintenance on her or she may let you down when you least expect it.” As an eighteen-year-old college freshman, Chris had taken this unsolicited advice from his father and filed it away with all the other crap the old man constantly passed along; he put it in his, “Yeah, whatever” file.

Now, however, it appeared that the old man was right and as the well-used Mustang coughed and bucked, Chris guided his high school graduation gift to the side of the road, where he tried to shut it down. After the old girl’s power plant finally quit – a final burp of black smoke from the tailpipe emphasized its acquiescence – Chris exited the warmth of the car’s interior and was met with a blast of arctic air that took his breath away. Huddled against the cold, Chris pushed long, brown hair out of his face, blew into his cupped hands to warm them, steam rushing out between his tightly clenched fingers in little puffs of white vapor, then lifted the car’s hood and inspected the mystery that was the internal combustion engine. Why didn’t I pay more attention in auto shop, he mused. But thankfully, he saw the problem at once: the distributor cap had come loose. It was about the only item of the car’s engine that he recognized. Leaning in, Chris replaced the cap and secured it with the spring clips before letting the hood slam back into place. “There,” he said and wiped his hands together to remove the dirt and grease that transferred from the cap to his fingers. Satisfied with his mechanical prowess, Chris hurried back and dropped in behind the wheel. Saying a brief prayer to the automotive gods, he twisted the key and exhaled with satisfaction as the car’s engine responded smoothly.

Now, as he cruised down the dark, narrow country lane that led to the cabin he was staying at this weekend, Chris worried about meeting the girl. His sister, Loretta, and her boyfriend, Mick, the two of whom would also be at the cabin, had arranged for Chris to meet Adrienne, the sultry foreign exchange student from Romania. He had not as yet met her, but as Loretta swore, “You’ll like her; she has a dark personality, just like yours.” This single affirmation was sufficient to pique Chris’ interest and bring him out into the winter night and negotiate the black ribbon of road that wound deeper into the woods.

As he rounded a sharp bend in the road, Chris was startled to see a shape standing in the yellow beams of his headlights directly ahead. Stepping hard on the brakes, Chris uttered a scream as the shape lifted its head and he stared into its malevolent, red eyes. Jerking the wheel hard to the right, Chris felt the car leave the road and watched, helpless, as it first slid, then flipped over and rolled down the embankment where it finally came to rest against the boll of a thick tamarack pine.

Shaken, but unhurt, Chris forced the door open and crawled out into the night. As he stood, trying to clear his head from the shock of the accident, a voice came from behind him and he felt his bladder let go. It had the sound of age, old and moldering, dirt-clotted and evil. Chris turned and stared into the face of a pretty girl, not a zombie like he expected. He allowed himself to relax and said, “You scared me; I almost hit you.”

“That’s all right, Chris,” Adrienne said; “I was expecting you.” Then, the thing lunged at Chris and he knew no more.

Mick and Loretta

This short story is from another assignment in a recent writing class. The premise was "Show and Tell." I chose to link this story with the previous one...just for fun. Enjoy.

 

 

“Damn, Mick,” Loretta said and pulled her cashmere sweater tighter around her against the frigid breeze that rushed in through the car’s driver-side window. “It’s freezing; roll up the window,” she said, and then added, “And stop weaving all over the road; you’ll run us in a ditch.”

“Look,” Mick said in his defense, “I’m about to fall asleep at the wheel; give me a break. You were the one that wanted to go to the cabin tonight instead of waiting until morning. Unless you want to drive, put on another sweater and hush.”

Mick strained his tired eyes and activated the car’s high beams to better illuminate the narrow, winding country road they were on. Thinking that a change in position would help him stay alert, he leaned closer to the steering wheel, the new leather of the seat protesting as he shifted his weight.

Tired as he was though, he still could not keep from staring as Loretta turned to reach in the back seat for more covers, affording Mick with an appealing glance at her backside. “Nice a…” he said, but was interrupted by a sudden jerk of the wheel in his hands and a loud “bang” from somewhere under the car.

“What was that?” Loretta said, her second layer of warmth temporarily forgotten as she returned to her seat. “Did we hit something?”

“I didn’t see anything, but…yeah, I think so.”

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Loretta said accusingly. “You’ve been driving like you’re drunk. Did you have anything earlier?”

“No,” Mick said, his tone at once petulant. “Well, I had one beer; but, it was taking you forever to pack, and I was thirsty. That was two hours ago though, so no…I am not drunk.”

“I’d better stop and see what we hit,” he said and looked for a safe pull off spot.

Pulling his Beemer to the shoulder of the dirt road, Mick stopped and, after turning on the emergency flashers, stepped out into the cold. He leaned back through the open door and said, “Wait here while I see what it was.”

Shutting the door, Mick stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his old jeans, which were not helping block the wind from his legs. He hunched his shoulders against the cold and walked to the rear of the car. Kneeling on the frozen road, Mick looked under the car for any obvious damage. Seeing none, he rose up and bumped into a body standing close behind him.

“Holy crap!” he exclaimed and turned to see Loretta bent over, also peering under the car. “You scared the hell out of me,” he said and got to his feet. “I thought you were sitting in the car.”

“I wanted to see what you hit,” Loretta said and stood, a second sweater draped over her shoulders.

They both turned and peered back down the road, their back trail momentarily illumined by the rhythmic light of the car’s flashers, bare branches from dormant trees overhanging the road surging into view with each pulse of red, creating an otherworldly tableau.

“I g-guess it was n-nothing,” Mick said, shivering and wanting to be on his way.

“I suppose…but,” Loretta said with hesitation; she was leaning over the edge of the road and looking into the black of the forest. “Mick…” she said, her voice rising sharply.

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