The Start of the Season

by Mark Christopher Lane

 

Hubert Donovan squeezed himself into the crowded elevator, pressing the button for the forty-fifth floor, and nodded at the woman in the khaki overcoat. She brushed a long strand of golden hair behind her ear, sniffed, and inched away from him. There wasn’t much room for her to move (she was practically already hugging the bespectacled man beside her), but she managed to create an extra foot of space between herself and the now perspiring Hubert Donovan. It wasn’t that the elevator was especially hot, even considering how crowded the little metal box was, it was just Hubert’s natural tendency to sweat. He took a subtle sniff beneath his left arm. Old Spice, laundry detergent… and, yes, sweat. The smell hadn’t yet become the overpowering miasma of body odor typical of quitting-time, but it was on its way. And it wasn’t even nine a.m. Hubert sighed and picked at his upper lip. There was a cold sore brewing there. Not too big or painful yet, thank Christ, just a little itchy knot beneath the thin hairs of his mustache.

The bell dinged and the elevator doors popped open. Hubert shuffled out. The office was quieter than usual, especially since it was so near the start of the season, but it wasn’t quiet-quiet. More like office-quiet. There was a steady flow of murmuring voices as men and women sat in their cubicles answering phones mixed with the sharp staccato of fingers clacking away at keyboards. Papers were shuffled. Feet padded across the carpeted floor. They were comforting sounds, in a way, but also infinitely depressing. Hubert walked gingerly toward the break room in search of a tall cup of coffee, because, well, he had to get some, even if it tasted like the bottom of an ashtray and was thick enough to stir with a stick. He wouldn’t make it through the morning without enough caffeine inside him to kill a small horse.

As he approached the break room a short woman with flowing black hair and more curves than all the roads in Virginia walked out with her fingers wrapped delicately around a steaming pewter mug.

“Morning, Jen,” Hubert said, his voice low, barely more than a mumble.

Like the woman in the elevator, Jennifer Belanger sniffed, brushed her hair back from her brow, and walked away without a word. Hubert sighed. He walked over to the coffee urn, plucking a large Styrofoam cup off the counter as he did, and pressed down on the lever. Nothing came out.

The coffee pot was empty.

*****

Hubert went about his work as he normally did, though perhaps not as quickly as he might have—no coffee meant less productivity—while the stink beneath his arms grew worse and the sore on his upper lip progressed from mild itching to a dull throbbing ache. He popped into the men’s room to check on it sporadically throughout the day, mostly whenever he got up to see if he could track down his department head Mike Bauer (they needed to discuss the start of the season—it was perilously close and Hubert didn’t think they’d be able to make good on their promises—but Mike seemed to mysteriously vanish every time Hubert made his way over to his cubicle). Those periodic trips to the bathroom mirror were not encouraging. The sore looked infected. It had grown from a small pink bump the size of a pimple to a raw clump of skin bigger than the head of a nail. He’d have to buy some medication on his way home. And some aspirin. Hubert sighed.

*****

By the time Hubert rolled himself into bed that night, the pain was bad enough to worry him. He’d never had a cold sore before, not that he could remember. Were they always this painful? He hoped the medication would help. No, he was sure the medicine would help; it’d cost him $19.95 plus tax. When he woke up tomorrow, the cold sore would be mostly gone and he could go back to work free of pain and maybe see if he couldn’t finally track down Mike Bauer. Maybe even Jennifer Belanger would return his hello. Yes. Tomorrow would be a good day. Hubert closed his eyes, smiling at the thought, then winced as a lance of pain shot up from his lip.

The medicine had to work, he thought, grimacing.

He tossed and turned for a while in painful silence before eventually drifting off to sleep.

*****

The medicine didn’t work. Things had only gotten worse.

Jesus, it was big. A round malignant lump, calloused like the fingers of a guitar player, throbbing beneath his mustache. The mustache had never grown thicker than one of his thin blonde eyebrows all the year’s he’d let it grow, but the painful sore had more than doubled in size in just the last 24 hours. Look at it now. It was the size and shape of one of his flabby, fleshy knuckles. He went into the bathroom and turned on the hot water, cupping his hands beneath the flow in the bowl of the sink. His chubby fingers tingled from the heat and his cheeks (and lip) stung as he splashed water onto his face. He took a razor from the cabinet and carefully cut away the infected skin, wincing as he further exposed the bleeding sore beneath. It dripped dark red blood that was almost black and some kind of yellowish-ooze, and it pulsated, like a cartoon character’s thumb when smashed by any number of unlikely objects.

The sink was half-full with blood and puss and water before Hubert was satisfied that he’d cut away most of the callous. The trusty (and now crusty) tube of camphorated phenol lay on the counter to his right. A quick squirt over the sore flesh made it look more-or-less like raw meat wrapped in cellophane, like the stuff you pick up at the grocery store. It looked irritated, though; infected, huge.

But what could he do? He had to go to work. Bill Gortler, their general manager, was clearly worried about the start of the season, and if his office team failed this year the shit would really hit the fan. Gortler kept telling everyone that it would be okay, that they would begin the season with a flourish and everyone would have a reason to celebrate. But Hubert had heard the stress building behind the man’s encouraging voice, could almost see the panic that lay tremulously close to the surface. And no one believed Gortler, anyway. Hubert wasn’t a person whom his coworkers normally confided in, but he’d overheard enough conversation in the bathroom to know that most of the office team thought this year would be a failure.

So Hubert toweled off, paying careful attention to dry between the folds of skin on his chest, stomach and thighs, and tugged up a pair of designer slacks over his waist. After first checking himself in the mirror—wincing at the grotesquerie on his face—he poured himself into his Stratus and drove to work.

Several compulsive rear-view mirror checks and a lifted eyebrow from the parking attendant later, Hubert pushed himself inside the crowded elevator and pressed the number forty-five. Most of the men and women inside the elevator didn’t work on his floor, and so, they paid him no more mind than… well, the people who did work on his floor, for which he was grateful. He existed in some kind of opaque vacuum which rendered him invisible to the normal world. Well, maybe it wasn’t entirely opaque. The world could see enough of him to know to ignore him. But for once, that made him happy. He didn’t want attention now, not with his lip looking the way it did. He’d get off the elevator, slip into his cubicle, and embrace the solitude of his work until 5 p.m. He’d go home, wash and medicate the infection (again), and hope for it to go away. If it did, maybe he’d be able to talk to Mike—and Jennifer for that matter—tomorrow morning. Today was not the day.

But when he entered the office, waddling along the maze-like corridor to his corner cubicle, he had the strange sensation of eyes upon him, an altogether unique and unexpected sensation. At first, he figured he was just being paranoid. Nobody had ever noticed him before, why should they now? But his paranoia proved to be justified a moment later.

He bumped into Jennifer Belanger coming out of the break room, as he almost always did, but today, she stopped. She stared. At him. With those beautiful dark eyes. And, incredibly, she was smiling at him. Those eyes and that smile would make any man weak, let alone Hubert Donovan, whose last intimate interaction with the opposite sex had been a fist-bump with Alexi Ramirez when he’d won the high school spelling bee, and they were entirely levelled at him. In his state of shock, Hubert could only stand and stare back at her, unable to move.

“Hey there, partner. Good morning,” she said, her voice low and husky. She was talking to him, Christ preserve us. His paralysis wore off a bit as a jolt of pain went up his nose, but then his self-consciousness came roaring back, reminding him of the thing on his face. He desperately didn’t want her to see the sore. She was standing in the middle of the aisle blocking Hubert’s escape route into the break room, so he lowered his chin instead and scratched furiously at his cheek. Sweat popped out in beads on his forehead.

“Morning,” Hubert mumbled.

“Sorry, but, what’s your name again?” she asked.

“Hubert. Hubert Donovan.”

“Right, Hubert! I knew that. This is your first year, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, uh, no. I mean yes. Yes.”

“Well, which is it, darling?” Jen laughed, a melody to his ears.

“Yes, it is. Sorry. Anyway, I’m in a bit of a hurry. I have to try to find Mike Bauer to discuss the start of the season. I don’t know how we’re going to do it this year.”

“Man, I hear you. We’re all stressing about it. We didn’t think there was any way we’d be able to give it all back, but Gortler seems to think we’ll be fine.”

Hubert said nothing, didn’t know what he could say, so he nodded his head and shuffled his feet and continued staring at the floor while he scratched away at his cheek.

“Hey, you should stop that,” she said, and she actually reached up and touched his hand. Her fingers felt blessedly cool on his sweaty flesh. Startled by her touch, he stopped scratching, lifted his chin and stared directly into her dark brown eyes. He thought she might flinch away, once she saw the sore on his face, but instead, her smile broadened. He noticed that he’d never really seen (or paid attention to) her teeth before. It was the one flaw of an otherwise supremely attractive young woman; her teeth were badly yellowing, and longer than most Hubert had ever seen. Animalistic, almost.

“There you are,” she said. “See? Looking up isn’t so bad. And you got a lot to be proud of, sugar. We all thought Bill was full of shit, but I can see he was right.”

Proud? More like confused; what did he have to be proud of? And what was Bill right about?

“You’re growing a winner, Hubert,” she said. “It’s going to help us do things right this year. Just you wait.” She touched his cheek suggestively. “And if you stay tough, if you wait it out, we’ll all want to thank you, be sure of that.” Jen winked at him and turned away, her black skirt swishing softly against her tanned legs. Utterly nonplussed, Hubert stood exactly where he was for another moment wondering if he hadn’t dreamt the whole conversation before finally hurrying off to the protective embrace of his corner cubicle.

*****

The day was odd. There was no other way to describe it. Hubert sat in his cubicle and did his work while making periodic trips to the bathroom to check his lip. Each time he went, inexplicably, the lump was larger. When he’d gotten up that morning, the sore had been the size of his knuckle; by noon it had grown so large that it hung down over his mouth and brushed against his chin. And the pain. The pain was getting worse by the hour. It throbbed and dripped and bled, and no matter how many napkins he wrapped around it, the flow of blood never seemed to stop. He seriously considered going to the emergency room, but something else—strange in an entirely different way—prevented Hubert from doing so.

People were actually coming over to talk to him. First the elusive Mike Bauer, who slapped Hubert on the back so hard that flecks of blood flew from his lip and showered the computer screen, then Liz Goldman, who came over and actually gave him a hug.

“Hubert, you’re doing so well!” she exhaled in his ear, a lock of her curly blonde hair bouncing playfully on his bald head. “Keep it up, tiger. You’re the best.”

Mike and Liz were only the beginning. An endless procession of coworkers visited his cubicle throughout the day. By the middle of the afternoon, he’d given up trying to hide the growth on his face; it seemed that everyone was, somehow, happy to see it.

Guy Anders brought him a cup of coffee (that Hubert couldn’t drink) and told him to keep up the good work; Michelle Bentley hopped up onto his desk, crossed her legs, and talked to Hubert for more than half an hour while he pressed bloodstained napkins against his dripping sore; even Bill Gortler came over and told Hubert how proud he was of him—and the list grew by the hour, much like the sore on his lip.

Five o’clock came suddenly and abruptly, and even though the pain was almost too acute to tolerate, Hubert left the office and went home as he normally would. The day had been too strange. Too, well… rewarding. His co-workers had continued to encourage him, saying things like “don’t give up” and “keep it going” right up to the end of the day. But they said these well-intended encouragements with a nervous sort of severity that, upon reflection, Hubert didn’t entirely like. It was like they wanted—no, were depending on him to let the thing grow. But why should it matter to them?

He didn’t know, but as Jennifer Belanger hugged him on the way out, pressing her supple breasts against his chest as she did, he honestly didn’t care. If the sore garnered this kind of attention—for whatever reason—far be it from him to go to the doctor and have it chopped off. He’d suffer the pain and the discomfort for as long as he could in order to continue relishing this sudden human interaction. It’s terrible but true, he realized: you must suffer for acceptance. But that was crazy, wasn’t it? Why would they suddenly love him because of an infection on his lip?

After returning home, Hubert puzzled over the day for a while before washing a handful of multi-colored pain-killers down his throat with a generous shot of scotch and went to sleep.

*****

It was bigger in the morning. He knew that without even opening his eyes.

Fumbling in the dark, Hubert could feel a long and inexpressibly awful weight twisting and turning on his chest. It descended from the center of his face (which was mostly obliterated from sight, now) and stretched down below his waist. It wriggled against his stomach and left dark blood stains on his bed sheets and pajamas.

His heart thumped as he rolled off the bed. He cried out as he kicked the sore with his foot, the pain searing, the feel of it on his toe revolting. And did it grunt at him? Did it actually make a noise as his foot connected with it? Blood dotted the carpet and smacked on the linoleum as Hubert flicked on the lights.

He screamed. Fear caused his heart to trip-hammer in his chest.

It was like some Lovecraftian monster, an engorged red and black python that wriggled against his chest and stomach, twisting up at the end as if Hubert’s face had become the hook its tail was skewered upon and it was trying, like a worm, to reach up and unhook itself. It had eyes. Four of them. Black ones that shined with some kind of malignant poison that dripped and sizzled on the floor. It had a mouth. Full of rotted, yellowing teeth. Teeth, it seemed, that had been filed down into points. It thrashed and hissed as spit and sheets of blood flew off the body and spattered against the walls, the toilet, and the floor. Hubert almost vomited, but the thought of the thing covered in blood and vomit made his throat shut tight.

The pain was overwhelming.

“Please, God, help me,” Hubert moaned, but the words were muffled by the creature covering his mouth. Hubert reached over the sink and opened the medicine cabinet. Inside was a pair of scissors. He took them down and held them up to his face. He had to cut it off. Had to.

But, oddly, the creature relaxed. It wriggled its head up and stared into Hubert’s eyes.

Hubert stared back for a full minute, wondering what it wanted, when suddenly he knew. Hadn’t he seen the same look all day yesterday in the eyes of his coworkers? The thing wanted him to cut it free. It was encouraging him to snip it off. It had stopped gnashing its teeth, had stopped twisting and turning. It simply lifted its head and stared up at him with quiet encouragement. And Hubert realized the thing would not hurt him. It was plenty long enough to reach up and bite Hubert’s face off, but it hadn’t. The creature was a part of him for the time being. “Until I cut it off,” Hubert mumbled. Yes, he’d cut the thing loose and it would turn its ugly head on him and devour him whole.

But, ever so slightly, the worm shook its head.

“No? You won’t?” Hubert asked. The bizarreness of the scene in his bathroom was not lost on Hubert (here’s a man standing in his pajamas with a bleeding wriggling sore that looks suspiciously like something out of the movie The Thing and, dear god, are they actually having a conversation?) but a calm came over him, as if he were mesmerized, as the worm slowly shook its head. It wouldn’t hurt him. Hubert could cut it loose and it would simply slither out of the apartment and go back… where? Anywhere. What did it matter? If he cut it loose he’d be free of it. Let the damned worm figure out for itself where it would go.

As if hearing his thoughts, the worm nodded. A drop of poison leaked out of one eye and burned a hole in the Good Housekeeping magazine on the toilet. “Okay, I’ll do it,” Hubert said, raising the scissors to his face. He’d have to be careful; he didn’t want to cut off any of his own skin. Hubert picked the spot and held the scissors close. But as his fingers began to close, his cell phone rang. He stopped. The worm looked up at him questioningly. Hubert waited, wondering who could be calling. No one ever called him. The phone rang six or seven times then fell silent. Hubert raised the scissors again, clenching his teeth in anticipation of the pain… and his phone rang. The worm wriggled impatiently. The movement sent a bolt of pain up to Hubert’s face.

“Let me answer it, it’ll only take a second,” Hubert said, and in possibly the weirdest emotional development of the morning, felt himself grow defensive as the worm gave him a reproachful look. He walked gingerly back into his bedroom, wincing with each careful step, and snatched the ringing phone off the bedside table.

“Hello?” he mumbled.

“Hubert!” It was Jennifer. It was unmistakably her voice. “It’s Jen from the office. You okay, hon?”

“Uh, no, Jen, not really. And I can’t talk right now. I have to go—”

“Don’t cut if off, Hubert!” another voice shouted in the background. It sounded, incredibly, like Bill Gortler. “Please, Hubert!” And that was Mike Bauer. And then, a chorus of voices sounded in his ear, as if the whole office was on the other end of the call. Jennifer’s voice came back a moment later. Low, sultry, soothing.

“Hubert, I know it’s painful, honey. But listen to me, listen to everyone. We’re all here to support you. You’re doing a wonderful thing for us, darling. Please. Please, don’t cut it off.”

“How do you know about this?” Hubert asked. “You haven’t seen it. You don’t know what… you don’t know what it’s become.”

“We know, Hubert,” she said. “Don’t ask how, there’s no time. Just don’t cut it off.”

“Why shouldn’t I? I-it’s so big! And it hurts. I have to. It wants me to.”

“It’s playing you, Hubert,” Jennifer replied. “It’ll rip your heart out the minute you let it loose.”

Hubert looked down at the worm on his belly. It shook its head no, and Hubert wanted to believe it (why on earth he should, he didn’t know), but Jennifer’s voice came back then, deeper. Her words caressing the inside of his ear as if she were there, licking his earlobe.

“Trust me, babe,” she breathed. “It’ll rip your heart out. But we won’t. We want to help you. Come to the office, we’ll make it better. And once we do, I’ll be sure to… reward you.”

It’s often said that men sometimes think too much with their little heads and not enough with the big ones. Even in this unlikely situation, Hubert was not above the stereotype. He’d been trying to lose his virginity since, well, since the fist-bump at the spelling bee. Jennifer wasn’t promising sex, exactly, but there was no mistaking the suggestion in her voice.

“I’ll be right there,” Hubert choked.

He put the phone down and briefly considered changing his clothes. But what was the point? The worm was going to get blood all over everything. So he wrapped a jacket around himself, carefully zipping up the worm inside, and walked out to his car.

The creature was not happy. It thrashed about inside his jacket causing such pain and distraction that Hubert couldn’t keep control of the steering wheel, the Stratus swerving back and forth across the road, barely avoiding multiple accidents en route to the office. Arriving at work, the car safely parked, walking to the elevator was even worse. The worm seemed to sense where they were going and didn’t like it. Its movements became more frenzied, harder to subdue. It felt like the worm had gotten even bigger, too; the bulge beneath Hubert’s jacket was equally as thick as one of his thighs. It even nipped at Hubert’s feet, but they weren’t real bites, they were just to show its displeasure and anxiety. Hubert grunted in pain as he walked. Drops of blood and poison splashed down onto the concrete from beneath his jacket.

He entered the crowded elevator and pressed the number forty-five. The blonde woman in the khaki jacket was there. She sniffed and edged toward the bespectacled man beside her, never lifting her eyes to Hubert’s. And suddenly, it was all too much.

“Oh, come on!” Hubert yelled, his voice thick. “Can you really ignore this?” He pointed at his face and, as he shouted, a wet chunk of blood and tissue sprayed out and hit the woman in her face. She sniffed, took a Kleenex from her coat pocket, and wiped the blood away.

Too much. Hubert began to laugh, wincing as the pain shot through him with each guffaw. The elevator doors dinged open a moment later, and Hubert stepped out. Behind him, the crowded elevator looked like the inside of a slaughterhouse. The bespectacled man quietly continued reading his newspaper.

Jennifer was the first person he saw as he came into the office foyer. She ran over, her yellow teeth flashing, and gingerly put her arms around Hubert, careful not to bump the creature inside his jacket.

“Hubert, you came!” she shouted happily, even giggling a little. “Come on sweetheart, everyone’s waiting.”

“But, Jen, wait, I—”

She tugged his hand and dragged him into the conference room—which wasn’t to be confused with the smaller, smellier break room—shouting, “He’s here! He’s here!” as she did so.

The entire office team was there. Bill Gortler, Mike Bauer, Liz Goldman, Guy Anders; everyone was there. The entire team. They began to clap their hands enthusiastically as Hubert came into the room. Some were laughing, some were crying, many of them were hugging. But all of them were smiling. And while Hubert felt a sudden rush of happiness—he’d never been received in such a way by anyone before, let alone an entire group—he also felt a stab of unease. With an alien growth on his face, unease shouldn’t have been a rare emotion that morning, but the unease he felt upon seeing his coworkers was different. They were genuinely happy to see him, that was clear, but their eyes were somehow lecherous. And their smiles revealed the same long yellowing teeth he’d seen in Jennifer’s mouth.

What the hell was going on here?

Bill Gortler stepped forward and the team quieted behind him.

“Hubert,” he said, his voice proud, “you’ve done a great thing today. You’ve shown courage and bravery. You could’ve cut the worm off your face and been done with it, but you persevered, and we’re all eternally grateful. You might not understand what’s happening, but you will very soon.”

“You’re right, I don’t know—”

“There’s no time to explain. We need to get that thing off your face.”

They rushed him then, and Hubert felt a surge of panic. But they didn’t hurt him. They ushered him to the conference table and gently pushed him down onto his back. They removed his jacket, exposing the thrashing creature inside. There was excited murmuring and giggles. Hubert lifted his head to get a better look at what was going on around him, and realized it was a mistake the moment he did it.

His coworkers were huddled around him, but they weren’t his coworkers any longer. There was a resemblance there, to be sure. He knew Jennifer by her short curvy body even though her hands had grown into claws with long black talons that gleamed beneath the fluorescent ceiling lights. Her nose and mouth had blended together, creating a long snout that snapped open and closed, the long yellowing teeth inside gnashing against each other sharply. A tongue that must have been three feet long flicked out of the snout and licked her lips. Hubert could still see the red lipstick she’d been wearing. The others looked the same. Their hands had become claws, their faces had grown snouts, and their teeth gleamed and their eyes shone with anticipation as they circled around Hubert, laughing as the worm on his face snapped at them. A low pitiful whine came out of the creature. The office team laughed again. And suddenly, Hubert felt bad for the worm on his face. His coworkers were taunting it. Meant to kill it, it seemed. And the creature was afraid.

Bill Gortler stepped forward quickly (it must be Bill—who else would wear those terrible Hawaiian shirts?) and grasped the wriggling worm between his claws. The pain was immense. It shot through Hubert and made him close his eyes as he cried out in agony.

But then, the pain was gone. Completely. Like someone had turned off a switch.

Someone, probably Bill, had reached down and bit the thing cleanly off his face. Hubert sat up. He could breathe. He tried talking, and his voice came out fine. He touched the spot where the creature had grown. It was a little sensitive, but he knew—how, he couldn’t say—that it would heal just fine within a couple of days. His eyes moved to the back of the conference room where the group had laid the worm on the table.

They opened it up with their claws. The poor creature shrieked a final time, then lay still. One of them, Hubert didn’t know who it was this time, ran a talon down the center of the body and folded back the worm’s skin. The others stuffed their hands inside and began pulling out huge clumps of… money.

Really?

No, it couldn’t be. But it was. Inside the dead worm were bundles of crisp green bills. And not just singles or fives or twenties. These were stacks of hundred-dollar bills. His coworkers laughed and yelled in merriment as they pulled stack after stack of money—an impossible amount, it seemed—out of the worm’s body. When they were done, a towering pile of green bills rested on the conference room floor against the wall. There was a loud roar of applause.

“We can give it all back!”

“We did it! It’ll all be okay!”

The statements varied, but the sentiments were the same; they had the money, they were going to give it all back. The season would be a success.

“Everyone, everyone!” Bill said, holding up his claws, his tongue snapping and waving in the air before him. “Our work here is done. Let’s eat!”

As they bent over the worm’s body, Hubert took one look and fainted.

*****

Hubert awoke alone in his own bed. He sat up quickly, his heart pounding, his hands fumbling for the light switch. The clock on his bedside table read seven a.m. He’d slept the whole night. But how had he gotten home? Never mind. The worm. Was it gone?

The worm, or the sore, or whatever the hell it had been, was indeed gone. They’d eaten it, he remembered. There was still a small itchy bump on his lip, but it was fading rapidly. He wouldn’t even have to put lip balm on it. He wondered for a moment if he wasn’t losing his mind, hadn’t imagined everything, but the evidence of yesterday’s events was all over the apartment. There was blood, small holes in the floor where the poison had burned through, the jacket he’d been wearing was gore-city, and the Good Housekeeping magazine was ruined. All real. It had all been real. He went back into the bedroom to change his clothes and noticed a note lying on the bed. It must have been on his chest when he woke up, and he’d knocked it off without realizing. In a scrawling cursive hand, the note read:

Hubert, honey, good morning. We can’t thank you enough for what you did. You’re the office hero. Please come back to work tomorrow. We have the money now, but there’s still a lot of work to do to make sure this season is a success. Please come back.

The note was from Jen.

Hubert rushed to get ready, picking clothes at random, and flew out of his apartment. He made it to the office in record time and, without even acknowledging khaki-coat-girl or spectacles-boy, practically leapt through the elevator doors as it stopped on number forty-five.

He didn’t know what he expected, but it certainly wasn’t the composed, office-quiet environment he walked into. The sounds, those comforting yet depressing sounds, were the same. The voices answering phones, the shuffling of papers, the feet padding across the carpeted floor. Mike Bauer walked nearby and raised a hand to Hubert in a casual hello. Mike’s face and hands were back to normal. A little confused, Hubert walked over to the break room.

Jennifer Belanger came out and flashed him a smile. Her teeth were white.

“Hubert,” she said softly, wrapping her arms around him. “So glad you made it back. There’s a lot of work to do.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Hubert stammered. “But, Jen, did it, I mean—did all that really—”

“You’re a hero, Hubert,” she said, nodding. “We have the money, but now it’s time to get to work. We gotta give it all back, remember? Everybody on deck. Oh, and, not to worry—I’ll want to thank you once the work is done.”

She winked at him and walked away.

Hubert Donovan was suddenly quite happy. He freed his mind of confusion, gave up trying to figure out what it all meant, and embraced this wonderful feeling of acceptance. People were waving at him, people were talking to him, and the prettiest girl in the office felt she had a debt to repay to him. Life was suddenly, well, good.

He walked lightly into the break room and got a cup of coffee. The pot was full and hot. He took the cup back to his cubicle and sat down. He turned on his computer. He sipped his coffee and smiled. It was going to be a good day.

The phone rang. Hubert reached over and plucked the black handset from the base.

“Thank you for calling H&R Block, this is Hubert, how may I help you?”

 

The Little Girl

by Jason Howell

 

The little girl reclined in the grass, propped up on her elbows and tilting her face to the late morning sky. She watched the blood-red stars spinning in the black behind her eyelids and soaked the July sunshine into her forehead and cheeks. Drowsing, daydreams becoming shapeless as they ambled toward real dreaming, her lips parted with a soft click. She felt blades of grass caress the sides of her hands and broken blades scratch and poke into the tiny caves made where her fingers joined her palm. She felt ants and other insects thrum under and over her fingertips. The breeze carried the smell of the beach as well as the faint crash of an incoming tide rushing to embrace the shore and then, fainter still, tearing away with the regretful sound of water retreating from sand.

With her eyes shut, the little girl could picture the creatures of the ocean, far out and away from the land and slowly, slowly flying down where the water was shock-cold, dark and still. She imagined they sang to each other and moved through the water like clouds through the sky or trees reaching for the heavens—so gradual you would have to watch for a long time to notice they moved at all. Whales, whale sharks—things much bigger than her, she knew—although, with the honest and naïve skepticism of someone who had only been alive a few years, she only half-believed any living thing could be so big. In fact, she had only recently accepted that anything (greater or smaller) really existed outside of herself and the world she knew: these bungalow apartments with their red tile roofs and morning glory vines covering almost every east-facing wall; the apartments’ playground with its half-foot of woodchips, held in by a short plastic wall, that smelled woodsy and green after it rained; the grassy slope next to the playground upon which she sat; the sky overhead; the sun when it shone; the moon when it reflected that shining.

The little girl lowered her chin to her chest and pretended with no one that her eyes were still shut as she peeked through slit lids and spied the miniature monkey-bars, a brightly colored half-circle of metal poles welded to metal rungs growing out of the woodchips. It always looked like a bent ladder to her—but bending backwards to show off or bending over protectively, possessively, she could not decide.

Pad, pad, pad. Footsteps. On the pavement. Miss Hunter and her boys, Josh and Candler, trotting to their tiny car, heads down. They had taken their shoes off. Miss Hunter shuffled as best she could in her sock-feet; arms that supported a duffle bag on the left and a frayed Spider-Man backpack on the right hovered over the boys’ heads so that she looked like a pheasant covering its chicks as they ran through the forest.

The little girl pushed herself up. In her excitement, she stepped on the monkey bars to reach her toys before they could drive away.

With a blanched but stony expression, Miss Hunter watched the little girl rise. Her older boy was just climbing into the backseat as she picked up the younger and shoved him after his sibling, still watching the advancing horror. Miss Hunter slid into the driver’s seat and shut her door as the little girl made it to the car. The girl waited for a moment, indecisive, but once the engine fired she fell on the vehicle, her knees on the pavement, hugging the roof to her chest. Glass and metal whined and crunched.

The little girl repositioned herself by degrees, always keeping one hand on the hood, her nails hooked carefully into the space where the wiper-blades rested. Still holding on, she scooted over to the walkway dividing the playground and the parking lot then carefully switched hands to allow her to sit on the narrow sidewalk. She hiked one bare foot onto the front bumper, catching her heel there. She tucked the front of her dress between her knees in unconscious modesty. She sat; she waited. The boys screamed.

When Miss Hunter tried to drive backwards, the little girl pulled the car toward her with her foot; when Miss Hunter revved the engine and tried to run into her, the little girl pushed back with both feet. She listened to the tires skid and the motor strain. She wiggled her toes at the occupants of the car through a windshield turned gray with a spider web of cracks. The neighbors watched from their boarded apartment windows.

Something in the vehicle broke with a pop and the ringing smack of unseen metal striking metal. The engine continued to heave a drawn-out retch but the front wheels no longer turned. The little girl withdrew her heel from the bumper and crawled, hands and knees, around the side of the car. First the crown of her blonde head, then her pale, sandy eyebrows and finally her emerald eyes filled the back window. Those eyes sent a picture of two wailing boys, upside down, to her brain. That brain was clever—and even more to its owner’s advantage, patient in its own stubbornness.

The little girl picked up the car, one hand squeezing the bumper, the other clawing into the groove of the trunk-handle, and shook. She shook the car up and down, slowly at first, then faster, bouncing on her toes. Then she opened her hands, careful to let the car land right-side up, careful not to let the tires catch her sun-burnt feet. Instead, two of the tires exploded. The little girl sat on the pavement a few steps away and waited, then returned, gripped the vehicle and repeated the shaking. Then she took a few steps back, a little further this time, and, catching her breath, waited some more.

After the third or fourth shaking, as the little girl took her seat on the ground at a calculated distance, the driver’s door creaked open and Miss Hunter struggled out, supporting herself in the V made by the top of her door and the partially caved-in roof. Gritting her teeth and bobbing with her whole upper body, the woman prepared to push herself away from the car, to give herself all the momentum she could gather. The little girl rose. Miss Hunter shoved off and staggered across the parking lot. She did not run because her left leg now bent sharply away from her center of balance. She had told the boys to get out of the opposite side of the car once the monster ran past and flee back to their apartment, the door to which their mother had left unlocked before they had packed and ventured out, in case events turned out just as they had. But the boys did not move from the car.

The little girl picked up the wobbly Miss Hunter by the waist and bit her head off. She dropped the body and spit the head into her palm, rolling it gently between her fingers—the eyelids blinked rapidly, like a stunned bee trying to flutter its wings back into normal flight—before tucking the head into a pocket on the side of her dress. Then she sauntered back to the car, swinging her arms in time with a made-up song she hummed. She yawned towards the sky, stretched, then reached into the open door, searching for Josh and Candler. She was a little sweet on Candler. After he stopped moving, even when she wasn’t poking or squeezing him, she buried him in the wood-chips of the playground, under the slide.

Then there wasn’t much going on so the little girl wiped her hands on her dress and reclined in the grass, leaning back on her elbows and tilting her head up to the wide, pale blue. She closed her eyes and felt the sun shining on her face.