Return to Big Stupid

I'm stuck in a life I always wanted to leave behind. Cut from work early, a rare measure that The Suits would never have taken if they didn't earnestly believe the threat of the storm. Oh, they don't give a shit about us, it would just shove a middle finger into the ass of their bottom line if they had to pay overtime. I have no doubt that they'll expect us to file in behind the plows as they clear the streets, to selflessly bust ass and make up for the two-hour ding to their stock price.

Another day, sitting at the bar with the closest thing I have to a friend in the world. Dave, the only asshole I've ever known to order and eat enchiladas from a dive bar. They aren't even on the limited menu at this shithole, just your typical greasy bar fare. Starchy crap and zoo-grade meats, dangerously past their expiration and fried beyond the ability for humans to taste the danger. The ingredients for enchiladas are nowhere in any of those coronary nightmares either. Somewhere between the tenth and millionth time I stood silent witness to him ordering them, I broke down and asked, "why, how, are you ordering enchiladas here? They aren't on the damn menu."

"Of course they're on the menu," Dave challenged, "any place called Amigo's has enchiladas."

Dave logic, like arguing with the wind.

"Gotta get 'em Florentine too. A healthy colon is a happy life." He said with a mouthful of slop.

"Florentine? That's Italian. Look, I'm genuinely asking, does Arlo keep tortillas and spinach behind the bar exclusively for you?"

"I told you Kid, any place called Amigo's..."

"By way of Florence. Right."

"Hey Kid, it's a Mexican bar, rules all its own."

I didn't know how to tell him that this dive was less ethnically diverse than a Paducah trailer park. The sad collection of hardened faces hiding in smoke and shadow were whiter than the whatever-the-fuck sauce that was congealing on those enchiladas. Dave's dinner, at least four days a week. Always the same, served in the same gigantic antique ashtray. Not sure if that's kitsch or fetid laziness.

Tonight was no different, other than the sun still being visible above the skyline when we abandoned it for this smoky dump. The stool conformed and flowed into my ass, the eager embrace of an estranged lover. I got my familiar room-temp bottle of Newcastle Brown and Dave was served those damn enchiladas. He rested his smoldering Nat Sherman on the massive ashtray and dug in with a grey plastic spork. Ashes commingled with his "white sauce", if he noticed he didn't care.

We both froze as my phone buzzed to life on the bar top, its blazing face a half-sphere of techno-blue light in the dense atmosphere. My damn work phone. Seizing the opportunity, Dave shoved a sporkful of quivering enchilada into my face.

"Try a bite."

"Gah!" I recoiled in absolute terror.

He only needed that moment. While I was cowering and pushing his hand away, his other darted out with a grace and speed I never would've given him credit for and touched my phone.

"What did you do?" I demanded.

An infuriatingly winsome smile his only reply.

I grabbed the phone from the cracked and moist leather bar top. It was a text of course.

from: SUIT #5

HEEEY BUDDY! Cn U run up 2 my office & turn on the heeter on in my FISHTANK Knda RLY importint! Thnks! countign on U!

me: K

"What did you do?" The gravel in my throat drew all eyes to me. "Why? Why would you do that?"

"I know, right?" Was what he offered as an answer.

"I fucking hate you."

"So, what was it? Sounds pretty good if you ask me." He said, leaning onto the bar and licking his lips as if in some bizarre form of seduction.

I threw the phone at him.

"Let's see here. Who's #5? Is that Tate?" He asked, inspecting the phone more than any of the meals he'd eaten here.

"No, it's Cooper. He's not even head of our department. Why is he texting me? He has twenty other assholes around him he should ask first." I chugged what was left of my beer.

"Oh, he asked them. I have no doubt he went down the list. You were just the first idiot to reply. Way to go, Kid." He smiled in a way that made me clench a fist.

"You're such a fucking asshole." My words were razors.

"You've got a mouth on you, Kid. Could be why you've been stuck on 8th for three years."

"Oh really? You have me beat by five, what's your excuse?"

"No excuse. Just an observation. Either that or you're just too damn bitter."

Arlo unceremoniously gifted me with another bottle of Newcastle, Dave snatched it before I even noticed.

"It's Cooper, right?" Dave asked again, knowing the answer. "Blow it off. He goes nuts on the weekend, I've never seen him show up before lunch on a Monday. All you need to do is come in ten minutes early, sneak into his office and play grab-ass with the fish tank."

"But the wish will be dead."

"So? The heater will be on."

"Yeah." I agreed. I let Dave keep the beer.

"Hey Kid, let me borrow a ten."

All I had was a twenty that I unthinkingly passed to him across the bar, leaving a clean smear. He bolted up and walked his Dave-walk, all cock-and-windmill strutting, over to the jukebox in the cobwebbed corner. I motioned for another beer and had an off-off-label brand dropped in front of me. The Clash roared to life at a level that drowned out casual conversation. Good. I was done talking. Dave returned and began literally licking his "plate" clean.

The beer was the bitter dirty flavor of stale pool water but I didn't care. The taste of a sad summer day on the Jersey shore stained my mouth. A new song sprang to life, the same as the old. More Clash. I gave Dave a quizzical look that he avoided. He lit another cigarette and drew deep. Smoke rolled out of his mouth and he glanced over to me as the song ended. And then began again. A cracked, evil smile spread across his face. Arlo stormed over to us.

"What's goin' on? One of you turds do this?" Clash fan or not, the man didn't appreciate repetition.

Dave cocked his head toward me, "The Kid had a twenty."

"That's forty plays!" Arlo was pissed.

"Whoa, hold on!" I begged.

"Get yer shit, yer outta here!" He bellowed.

He sprang over the bar, meaty paws grabbed my shoulder and I was dragged to the back. Arlo kicked open the service door, it would be unseemly for customers to see me kicked out the front, and shoved me down the steps. I slid on ice and went face first into the snow. It was summer last time this happened. There was a patch of weeds then, with some oddly pretty fuchsia flowers growing out of the fissures in the pavement. Now, only cold asphalt.

Arlo'll forget all about it by next week. Welcome me back with shitty beer and absurdly cheap audio equipment with highly suspect provenance. Thanks to him I've assembled a fantastic stereo system. Surely the envy of all my friends, once I make a few. It's easily worth more than the shithole apartment I house it, and myself in. Covered in snow, I sat up and struggled to pull my coat on. Dave poked his head out the door before it closed.

"Hey Kid, don't worry. I just texted Cooper to let him know you're on the way, you'll even get some sweet OT for it. You can pay me back for the beer on Monday. My lunch is still in the fridge if you get hungry. Pastrami from Costanzo's, shame to waste it." He pulled the door closed and the screams of The Clash were silenced, leaving me with the dull noise of the city. Rebellious counterculture antics, muted by the jackboot of reality.

Fuck him.

The wind howled bitter cold, the sun raced toward the horizon, and in its passing the storm gained strength. Dave was my ride, damn him, I started the thirteen-block run back to work. If I didn't catch Lenny before he locked up it would be pointless exercise, snow crunched underfoot as I quickened my pace. The sidewalks and streets were nearly deserted, a literal calm before the storm. No idiots to dodge, no irksome tourists gawking about, no homeless trying to piss on me, the city as it should be, apart from this one lonesome idiot and his madcap run to the twelve-story concrete tomb of B&S Enterprises.

Four years wasted there, three years on 8th, the same time it should've taken to finish my degree. I was lucky to land a paid internship there my Sophomore year. Fuck that, it wasn't luck. I was good. Perfect grades, great drive, passion and vision, they saw it and wanted me. As did Charlene. I was her rockstar, didn't party, didn't sleep around, I took her and my career as a student seriously. I was spiraling upward, fast, and she wanted to hang on for the ride.

Especially when she got pregnant. For me there was no other option than to sell what I could for an engagement ring. Didn't really need my car anyway, or my rare books, or my 5-string acoustic bass, or my stereo system. Those were things, there was only one Charlene. I didn't want her working in her condition, I think it went down like that, once my internship was up I talked B&S into a full-time position. University studies had to wait. I, we, needed the insurance. Birth is expensive. And damn it if B&S didn't fall short there too. Too young, too naive to realize it then. OB visits, scans, testings, the actual birth, about seventy-percent covered. Just money, right? That was an easy mentality to maintain until the actual birth, a little girl, that was several dozen shades darker than either of us. Somewhere around Pantone 2478 C.

The stunned silence in the room answered the litany of questions tearing at my soul. My eyes closed and tears flooded out.

"I'm sorry." Charlene whispered.

When my eyes opened I was a hardened man. That's not really true, just some pseudo-poetic horseshit I said to Dave once. I cried like a baby for a week. Hmmm, a baby. Guess that I don't know what a crying baby is actually like. When my eyes really opened I was in the hallway, leaving the hospital to catch a bus and pack up my shit. Never got the ring back. But I did get a ream of bills from the hospital. It cost me so much time and money trying to fight the collection agencies that I stopped caring and paid most of them.

The rusted gate was half-closed, enough so that vehicles could see the unmistakable message to go away. Lenny, that poor dumb bastard, was still here. My wallet cracked in half from the cold as I opened it. I pulled bits of frozen pleather from my B&S keycard and slid it through the card-reader. The mag-lock released on the dimly lit employee entrance and I slid inside along with a column of frost.

"Lenny?" My voice echoed in the empty room. The stink of morning coffee and ancient carpeting filled my nose as it thawed. The ground-floor break room, the behind-the-scenes entrance and egress to my day. It's never been disproven to me that the furniture here was leftover from the construction of the building. Utilitarian steel decor, dented and endlessly repainted until their original shapes were lost to the ages.

I'd bet a fistful of Clash songs that the time clock here was actually used by the riveters and electricians as they erected the building. Without a degree, a time clock is the best I can get. I've risen almost as far as that handicap will allow, all the way to the 8th floor where they collect the abstract problem-solvers. I should be on 12th. In a better world, the one I abandoned, I'd be starting my second year there and telling Cooper to get his fucking fish out of his office, they have no place in the halls of business. But no. I get a timecard decorated in pink stars, unicorns, and lipstick kisses. Thanks Dave. HR has already talked to me about that. Twice.

"Who's there?" Lenny's slurred and wizened voice broke the silence.

"It's me. I need to run up to 12th, last minute business. Or some such shit."

"Judd? That you?" Lenny had never properly learned my name and it'd long ago passed the point of a friendly correction. Our head of security, always on the ball. Every time I saw him I was born anew and christened as he saw fit.

"Maybe." Was the best I could offer.

He rounded the corner with a look of surprise, "oh, it's you Tommy." He'd used Tommy once before, maybe two years ago. I felt disappointed in hearing it again.

"Sure. That's me. I need to sign out a pass for 12th, pay a visit to Cooper's office. Take a shit in his desk, the usual."

"That's easy enough, but I am out the door in five minutes. Gotta go across town and need to get dinner first, the sooner the better. Right? If you need longer just hold onto it until Monday, or whenever they let us back in the building." He passed me a crumpled sign-out sheet and and the all-access keycard with the archaic steel hook that served as his right hand. I scribbled my name and handed it back.

"Huh, that's a weird way of spelling it." He muttered, glancing at my Escher-esque signature.

"Lenny, out of curiosity, did Cooper try and call you?"

"Heh, no one ever calls ol' Lenny." He replied with a sad shake of his head.

"Hey, be safe out there, in case I don't see you." I called over my shoulder, mentally kicking myself for not calling him myself and avoiding this entire mess.

Anything above 9th needed special clearance, my standard keycard was useless. The elevator buttons wouldn't even light for it, I've tried. Lenny's tobacco stained card worked fine, number 12 flickered to life for a bumpy Muzak-laden ride. But damn it I was hungry, only had those beers since lunch. Dave was right, it would be a shame to let a sandwich from Costanzo's languish uneaten. My finger incessantly stabbed number 8.

The after-hours nightworld of the 8th floor, a not altogether unknown fiefdom. An open expanse of cubicle maze that overlooks a tract of windows with an enviable view of another building with much happier employees. They have casual Fridays, office parties, and no cubicle walls. Youngsters, kids my age, with Nerf guns, chessboards, an office jukebox likely blissfully free of The Clash and KISS, and an actual kitchen. The only thing separating us being sheets of glass. And a degree. And having no goddamn idea what they did over there aside from sauntering to work at ten and clocking out at four. It's quiet over there now, there's no one looking back. I've caught their gaze once or twice, it's always a sobering moment. For them. In a shining second they see how lucky they are to be there. And it has to be luck.

The nexus of our cubicle village, its rotten heart, a slapdash kitchenette. Appliances that were old when ALF was new. A microwave the size of a small car that drops the WiFi for the floor when it's turned on, one of those fridges they always warned children not to play inside, and someone's grandfather's old percolator - the bastard fuck-all approach to making coffee. But I need what's in that fridge.

Winding through the maze on autopilot, the sleeping cubicles each shone a dulled reflection of their hosts life and personality. Harris the Hippie, all tie-die and peace, love, and bullshit, garish in its Woodstockian proportions. Cosden's shrine to Wonder Woman, Riemenschneider's tasteful ode to his family, and mine, completely bare, pragmatic in its austerity, nothing I'd ever have to come back for should I cut and run.

And Dave's. All action figures and posters of KISS. I never listened to the band until Dave, and I hate them merely to offset his zealotry. I stopped for a moment and stiffened. I summoned all I could, it wasn't much, but I managed to fart on his keyboard.

And Bumble's desk. Almost as sadly bare as mine, apart from a few photos of beautiful landscapes. The remembrance that there's someplace better than this. Even for a woman she's small, almost childlike. The guys on 8th used to kid her mercilessly, their way of saying they accepted her into the den of uncouth, unwashed, male-ocracy. They used to. Now it's a strong and silent respect. The kind that's never shown to me. Up until a year ago we had a problem, Bumble fixed it.

It started small, the worst things usually do. A single cell, going dark, spreading as cancer, metastasizing until it's near impossible to remove. We had a devil in our midst. Attacking and undermining randomly, wielding weaponized fear and attrition. A siege of attrition that lasted years, and began before I ever came aboard. Like an artist, deftly working in the most obscene medium, decorating bathrooms at random with the foulest of bodily excretions. We were at the mercy of a Phantom Shitter.

Walls adorned with apocryphal threats written with filth, sinks filled, door handles befouled, legendary upper-deckers, things no sane mind could ever conceive. And poor Rygg was left to clean it, every time. Never any clues as to the perpetrator. Even the assumption that it was a man, no one wanted to believe a woman capable of such acts, was occasionally questioned. I was targeted, victimized, once. I was taking an unusually long time in a stall as I didn't want to go back to my desk. The lights went out.

"Someone's in here!" I bellowed. A titter of twisted laughter answered back.

It was dark, as dark as it gets. Footsteps and wet sounds echoed from everywhere. The smell crashed into me like a wrecking ball. I wanted to cry but that soft giggling was terrifying. And then, years or seconds later, it stopped. The lights flickered to life and I was sitting there, cock in hand with my pants around my ankles. I pulled them up and bolted for the stall door, it was as far as I got. I threw the latch and opened it upon pure horror. A nightmare drawn from the brownest shades of vicious bile. It was more than could ever have come out of one person, or ten. Whoever did it must've planned it, nurtured the evil and brought it all from home. It was everywhere. The walls, the floor, the sinks, the faucets, the doorhandles, I couldn't leave. Trapped. I'd been painted in by a madman.

I screamed until someone finally heard. It was Dave of course. The sight of that deviltry was the singular moment that briefly silenced his snarky nature. It took Rygg twenty minutes of mop and bucket ire to clear a path so I could leave. I went home early. The Suits on 12 didn't care. About the shit I mean, I did get flak for taking a half-day. Whatever happened beneath them, was beneath them. Our problem. Not to unfairly say that The Suits were completely soulless, they maintained a certain ideal or hierarchy. I kindly imagine them as a distant and disapproving stepfather that sees the need to keep us the barest minimum of happy, to preserve the unfettered access to fuck our mother. I won't lie and claim that they need me or us, need is subjective. I'm not even sure if B&S needed them, The Suits. For all I know B&S could function adequately with no one to fill its halls or desks or soil its bathrooms.

And so the attacks happened again. And again and again, increasing in frequency and vitriol. There was a tipping point, it was bound to happen, we even took bets on it (Cosden won), an executive bathroom on 12th was finally hit and hit hard. At the time it was spoken of in the hushed tones that follow an assassination. I never saw the inside, the damage, but two weeks after the incident I was on 12th and the bathroom was still sealed with caution tape. It had become an actual problem now. The sanctity of their kingdom had been breached. A committee was formed, which necessitated a fact-finding sub-committee, which held interviews to create liaisons to hold separate interviews and collect all rumors, incidents, encounters, and theories regarding the Phantom Shitter. For whatever reason Bumble had had enough.

She took the committee to task and by the end of it was given unchecked means and authority to end the problem. In a normal office, in a normal business environment, all Lenny would've needed was to view security footage. Our cameras were but empty shells, like those guarding a forlorn thrift store. Genuine Sorny fakes, stuck to the ceiling for the illusion of propriety and security. Much cheaper than actually doing something.

So Bumble began her quest and ended it like the badass she is. It took her weeks but she broke the spine of its terror, and we didn't even know it at the time. Days went by and her absence became worrisome. HR told us she had taken three weeks FMLA, afterward we learned it was to recover. The incidents never happened again and as much as we pestered, she never told us who it was. No one had been fired recently, Lenny hadn't dutifully escorted anyone from the building, we had more questions than before. But Bumble would never talk. She emerged the victor but with heavy cost. It aged her, hollowed her eyes and dulled that youthful verve. But I might be reading too much into it, the entropy here drags everyone down at some point. Probably hit me earlier than most.

The dark nexus of cubicle city, our "break room", situated so that we would always be surrounded with the inescapable black halo of work. And when I got there, the cupboard was bare. Along with the fridge.

"What the fuck?" The lime green patio chair sagged under my weight. "Dave, you son of a bitch." My voice carried across 8th with raw grief.

There was no sandwich. Sure, some elements of food greeted me, but not the nearly half-meter sodden heap of glistening thin-cut perfection, calling it a mere sandwich felt insulting. I left the fridge door open and stared at its pitiful innards. Bottles of mustard and ketchup from brands that ceased production before I started working here, shelves littered with salt and pepper packets, a few batteries, a box of band-aids, and a forlorn orange, so aged that its guts had shriveled and transformed its mottled rind into a loose scrotum. At least the percolator was half-full of rancid coffee. It was brown, like some foods are, so I poured a cup. Tasted nothing like pastrami.

Sometimes, like now, it does come as a relief that the kid wasn't mine. Worked like I am it would be on the periphery of my life, besides, Dave had a good point. I swear a lot, too much. No kid should be around that. I bet Charlene found a man with a calmer tongue. Wonder if he's the father? Wonder if the father is still around? The coffee was as cold and bitter as those thoughts. Maudlin whinging, dwelling on it changes nothing, grind them into time and to dust. It certainly won't bring that sandwich back. But I could stop swearing. Nothing better to do.

Nothing at all to do but endure the languid humiliating dishonesty of this farce. Dave's right, again. There'll be some sweet OT for this. The gale began to throttle the windows, I doubt there ever was an opportunity to escape the storm. Thanks Cooper, at least I'm on the clock until it dies down. A lot of time to do very little, I've done enough actual work, there're no office supplies worth stealing, same with the ragged one-ply crépe nightmare they issue as shit tickets. Might as well take the stairs up to 12th.

The stairwell, twisted veins of pitted, sodium-lit concrete, that erratically wind through the rusted skeleton of the building. Even when new it likely reeked of antiquity, a time capsule from a darker more desperate era. Few of us ever used it, the steps all vary in size from scant millimeters to double-digit centimeters. Rapt attention is required for every step. But it looks like Dave was the last to visit. Shredded remnants of a white and red paper bag littered the flight from 10 to 11. Large torn sheets of greasy brown paper stuck to the walls and stairs. Exactly the protocol Costanzo's used to present their masterworks for take-out. The paper had a smoky aroma of paprika, coriander, garlic, mustard, pepper, and beef; award-winning pastrami.

My stomach convulsed, wanting to orgasm at the memories-made-lust by the delicately textured smell. What a waste and what a mess, Rygg should've cleaned this up by now. A strange thick odor hung in the air with it, hiding behind the miasma of deli meat and damp stone. Slipping on the greased steps I left the sloppy remnants of Dave's lunch for Rygg. I had enough problems. As did Lenny, the door to 12 was ajar, the latch broken and pulled free of the steel doorframe. I snapped a blurry orange-tinted photo with my phone, one of those insignificant things turned mountain I'd be blamed for if I didn't head it off first.

The regal opulence of the 12th floor. Like the prince of all jewels mounted atop the cheapest and ugliest of settings. Olde World craftsmanship by way of near-future technology. It's more a film set of an intergalactic Amish operating room than a business headquarters. It should be my desk here. My divine Moore desk, forged of Spalted Tamarind with Purpleheart and platinum inlay, a gorgeous barrier of wealth and station between me and the man from 8th who misses what he never had. My desk. Not Cooper's. He's a year younger than me! That lucky f...

Language, I'm working on that. There's that smell again, is it me? Was I befouled by Amigo's or something in the stairwell? No, it's 12th, it fairly reeks in here, a stale bathroom smell. A wet crunch, sharp and penetrating, echoed off the pristine veneer. There's someone behind Dianne's desk.

"Hello? Show yourself!" It sounded authoritative to me.

A red hand-shaped-thing, blistered and bent, jagged claws for fingers, rose up from behind the secretary's monolith of a desk. It was holding a pickle. One that didn't come from a jar, it was big, home-brined, a glistening and crisp side dish of fabled lore, a Costanzo's pickle. A thrashing tongue, an ophidian in its own right, flicked upward and pulled the pickle under the desk.

"Hey! Get out of there!" A yellowed eye darted around a corner and quickly retreated.

"I can see you! You fu..., dummy!" Language! So easy to be safe inside bad habits.

A growl, or words from a vile and forgotten language were spat at me.

"You know, I really wanted that sandwich! You've put me in a rather cross mood! This is a private corporation, you need to leave!"

A head, if that's even the right word for it, darted up and stared at me. An asymmetrical blotchy crimson mess of leathered skin, stringy matted hair, yellow eyes set absurdly far apart, and seemingly endless rows of little grey Chiclet teeth wedged with bits of pastrami.

"Huh." I muttered as I snapped a few quick pics with my phone.

It sought refuge behind the desk.

I uploaded the photo and made a quick post on Reddit: "What is this and how do you kill it?" The head gracelessly stole another look at me, no doubt assuming itself a master of stealth.

I pointed at it, "I'll deal with you in a minute."

My post started to get a few replies. A few trolls calling me names I care not to repeat, links to bizarre sex acts - might need those later, and finally a few legitimate answers. It would seem the internet hive-mind thinks it's an "Akaname." Something-something, Japanese demon. Something-something, filthlicker. Something-something about eating unclean bathrooms. Looks like its most distinguishing attribute is its ugliness. Little to worry about.

"Akaname?" I asked.

I think it gave a grunt of recognition.

"Akaname? Get! Out! NOW!" It bolted upright. It was bigger than me, but thin, nearly starved and bereft of genitals, with too-long limbs that look cut free of marionette strings and sagging with curtains of flesh like the obese when they rapidly lose weight.

"What? We're all out of sandwiches, you punk! You need to leave!"

It gave its answer as a slash at my face from behind the desk. Clumsy oaf missed by a lot.

"Oh, you've done it now!" With a hefty sidearm throw, Dianne's 1 kilo murrine paperweight bounced off its face. Stunned, it stumbled backward and fell to the ground.

I rounded the luxuriant desk, so ensorcelled and humbled by its majesty that I didn't see the Akaname strike at me. Blackened claws reeking of pickling spices slashed at my midsection. They tore my shirt open before I could jump backward.

"Fu... dge!" That was an eighty-dollar shirt! I was going to wear it for our department meeting on Tuesday! Looks like I'll have to wait on those subwoofers Arlo offered me.

It scampered away as I was inspecting the tattered glory of my shirt. I might be able to mend it. The door to the stairwell thudded dumbly, unable to find purchase in the bent frame. I gave chase, it was going to pay. For the dual crimes of the sandwich and my shirt. I wish Dave had eaten the sandwich, he would've at least enjoyed it. Savored the subtle nuances of the artisan creation, a culmination of the occulted mythos of forgotten ages, the art that unmade the beefy sacrifice of life and reformed it into a spiritual experience that our language clumsily calls a sandwich.

It took the stairs fast, but their stupid erratic shapes slowed me down. The Akaname's labored moist panting filled the stairwell, sounding not unlike old people having sex. Trust me. Somewhere beneath me a door was ripped open. It was 8th, of course. Pulling a fire extinguisher from the wall I confidently followed it through the newly broken doorway for a home-field advantage.

"There's nothing left to eat here! No more sandwiches, just you and me! Pastrami can't be on your diet anyway!"

I could hear it, lost in the walls of the middle-income labyrinth.

"I'm coming for you!" I promised.

Servile instinct guided me, following the panting and scrapes and foul stink. It can't hide from me, not along a path I've walked fifty times a day over three years. Not under Downing's desk, or Tina B.'s. Wait, Craighan's chair's been moved. I'm close. A quick skitter-scurry, the other side of the wall. It blew down under the force of my kick, taking ten more walls to the ground with it. The Akaname fell along with the them, tangled in the cables from Harris' computer. It flailed dumbly like the lithe athlete it wasn't and dragged the computer and the monochrome CRT monitor behind it as it hobbled from me.

The fire extinguisher arced perfectly as it left my hand and impacted with a satisfying "twang" on the back of its head. Leaping over fallen chairs and walls I closed the distance. The Akaname, sturdier than I assumed, rose to its knees and threw Harris' monitor at me. I dodged, but not enough. It hit my shoulder with a shattering sound, its yellowed case or my clavicle. I fell on my back, merely stunned and not broken. But it didn't strike.

Rolling to my side I saw it pulling at the cables around its legs and torso. Needed to catch my breath. I crawled to the fire extinguisher and sprayed its yellow chemical mist onto the Akaname. It hacked and gagged like the patrons at Amigo's. Like an orchestral flourish it leaped from the cloud and tackled me. We struggled for the fire extinguisher and those grey teeth clamped onto my left arm. They weren't very sharp but they hurt! My right hand grabbed the nearest weapon it could and beat it against that foul hellbeast. One of Dave's 1/5 scale KISS dolls, all plastic spikes and glittered obnoxiousness, tearing bits of red skin free with each strike. Peter Criss, the sad Catman, useful at last. Dirty talons covered its face defensively.

I kicked it off savagely. Those nasty teeth almost broke the skin! I sprayed more chemicals into its face. Blindly it ran, with me in pursuit, spraying the extinguisher until it ran dry. Grabbing it by the hose I swung the extinguisher like a flail. A solid hit that sent the Akaname downward and bounced the extinguisher into my shin.

"Ah! Fudge! Fudge! Fudge!" I hopped around like angry fool.

Slavering mouth agape, it lunged at me again. I was a blur, faster than even Dave's porcine fingers that touched off this madness. The dented red extinguisher crashed into that open mouth before it could taste my flesh. The crack and shatter of teeth and bone was deafening. It gurgled a sound no living thing should utter and weakly sank its claws into my leg. I pulled the extinguisher free of its mouth turned dripping wound and shoved it back into its face. A yellow eye exploded in a dazzling rainbow of the blackest mire. I think some got in my mouth.

Its fight gone, it weakly knew the inevitable. Something I taught it over and over and over and over again as the extinguisher beat its head from its body in a smear of horrific red. It got everywhere, definitely no saving the shirt now. Its tongue was convulsing about the sodden carpet, a literal headless serpent, it was mesmerizing. It moved and twirled and bent itself into patterns both abstract and arcane, until its zeal slowly relented, leaving it cold and barely twitching. What a mess.

"Wow." Pretty lackluster I know. But with no one there to hear me it didn't matter. The cameras only looked the part, only I know what really happened. Which provides plenty of time to think of something witty to say if and when I ever speak of this. I could even come out of it ahead.

Dripping with gore and leaving shoe prints of the blackest sort, I took the stairs down to 6th, to Rygg's station. My clothes fell to the ground with a wet sucking sound. The pants had a few holes but might be salvageable, the shirt should be burned, the shoes are iffy. Maybe once whatever that goo is dries it'll just chip off. Rygg's emergency janitorial shower had a pressure that made me hate my entire life of showering until this point. A glorious torrential firehose of cleaning ecstasy. I was exhausted but renewed. The only clothes I could find were disposable emergency Tyvek jump suits. Better than prancing about in my boxer shorts. There was a folding cot tucked behind old mops and brooms. It smelled like the rest of the building. Wasn't as bad if I stayed on my back, made looking at those erotically insalubrious Reddit links a lot easier too. I did that until my phone battery redlined, so I finished and escaped into sleep.

The wind was louder than ever, even so I slept hard. It was nearly ten in the morning and I was starving. Curious too. Was that thing, the Akaname, as foul as I remember? If I went back to 8th would its moldering corpse still be there? My shoes were still damp with carnage, the frigid stairs were as needles on my bare feet. And there it was. Unmoving and wretched. Even its serpentine tongue was forever stilled by my hand.

"Wow." I muttered. But not really. Anyone that kills a Japanese demon has a vocabulary better than that and the wherewithal to use it. Trust me.

Whatever blue-green goop it used for blood was congealing. It really can't wait for Rygg to clean it, and I can't leave with the storm still raging. Fudge. I used the last ergs of my phone's power to take some nicely composed shots of the butchery.

I depleted most of the paper towels and cleaning fluids from janitorial supplies. Time passed strangely, like every other workday. But unlike those days I realized that I should've clocked out hours ago, with yet still more backbreaking cleaning to go. It's strange, the Akaname and its spattered brains weren't the most difficult to mop up, I think that I even got most of the smell out. Its limp body fit into a big garbage bag and I hauled it to the basement dumpster. But that fudging fire extinguisher, its yellow dust coated the entire floor. Hours ticked off as I scoured the last of it from my domain. It was dark out, I mean night, it'd been dark all day, and I had barely finished. So hungry.

I thought about that tongue. Prehensile muscle and tumescent eellike shape, and I did have a microwave oven. Might even be able to taste some of the pastrami on it. But it was in the basement now, if I went down there I wouldn't have the energy to get back to 8th. I ate the orange instead. It was the wrong choice.

An angry badger decided that my stomach was its new home. In no small amount of intestinal distress, I curled into a ball under my desk until sleep eventually relieved me of the burden of consciousness.

"Wow." The world was white. The view from 8th was maddening, so I took the elevator to 12th. The top floor vista of a blanketed world.

"Wow." I moronically repeated. I should really start swearing again.

The Tyvek jumper was a bit chilly, so I was wandering in my coat and shop rags duct-taped to my feet. Stupid shoes still weren't dry. It was warmer on 8th, a bit surprising really, for The Suits to go all Rich Uncle Pennybags on their turf but skimp on the heating here. The heating...

"The fish!" A fear orders of magnitude greater than the Akaname speared my heart. I forgot about the fish.

"No, no, no, no, no!" I ran as fast as my ad-hoc pauper shoes would let me.

Hands trembling and eyes closed I eased open the door to Cooper's office. He knew I'd been here, Lenny knew, Dave knew, my only hope is another even more vicious demon awaited to strike me down. But no. His office was immaculate and smelled like a mountain stream. And the fish swam happily in their wall-sized tank. I felt its glass, warm and friendly. I checked the heater, it was on. Always had been.

"Cooper. You idiot."

Those fish looked delicious. The day went by fast in an unfocused haze of hunger and low blood sugar. I reassembled the cubicle maze, found Harris a new monitor from storage, cleaned and reorganized everyone's workstations, fixed the door frames as best I could, snapped the arm back into Dave's KISS doll - let's admit it, it's a doll, not an action figure, and watched the sun set over the monochrome city. A bright darkness fell on the silvered streets. Flashes of yellow coruscated over the snow. The plows were out. Heralds of freedom. With morning should come hope, I could leave.

Rygg's cot was less comfortable now, it wasn't meant for constant use and my ass sagged to the ground. I slept as best I could but I awoke before the sun.

Body stiff with hunger, sleep deprivation, and abuse, I commanded it to dress. The shoes were actually dry. I took a step and their surface cracked and fell off, like crumpling a glazed donut in a fist. The elevator has never taken so long to return me to ground level. Almost as if fighting gravity.

I stared at the time clock, willing it to move faster. Two minutes to seven. I knew how their accounting worked, rounding down on thirty-minute intervals. Crooks. Bam, seven. I pulled my timecard free of its slot, unleashing a whiff of bubblegum perfume, and slammed it into the time clock.

Clunk.

Job is done. Day is over. I held the timecard before me like a trophy. My luminous triumph. That I had just clocked "IN."

"What?!" My hands began shaking.

"No, no..." Tears filled my eyes.

I remember now. Or at least I remember not remembering. I never clocked in when I returned on Friday. Lenny gave me the keycard and that was that. Too awkward for "Tommy" to hang around and do that one simple thing correctly. I had just clocked in for the day.

I wanted to tear the time clock from the wall, dash it into splinters, beat the steel furniture into submission, paint the room with my rage and frustration. A metallic creak from behind startled me. Cold tore through my jacket and filthy Tyvek suit. The door opened and a huddled black shape eased through. The door slammed shut with a soul-rending thud of finality.

"Wow." The shape uttered. A man, maybe. I was beginning to forget what others looked like. So hungry.

It, he, pulled back a hood and paisley cashmere scarf. Cooper. My hands instinctively dropped the timecard and clenched into balls of hardened bone and fury.

"Wow." He moronically repeated. "It's something else out there!"

"Is it now?" Dry, cracking words, a verbal attack holding feral madness at bay.

"Yeah! Look at you! Johnny-on-the-Spot, ready to kick the doors down and start the week. I thought I'd be first one here, a lot to catch up on since we left early last Friday. But you, look at you! Actually, yeah, look at you." He was taking in a grand view. Unshaven since three days past, hair a gorgon's nest of chaos, my cracking newly-veneered shoes, breath that reeked of the place old elephants go to die, and my Tyvek uniform of the idiot brigade.

We locked eyes. His gaze asked about a dozen questions.

"As you said Cooper, it's something else out there."

"Uh, yeah. What are you wearing?"

"This?" I dumbly inquired, pulling on the unbreathing sheet of Tyvek. "It's a thermal jumper. Some kinda super-tech supposedly. I think B&S invented it." Like he deserved the truth.

"Oh neat. I've heard of that! Does it work?"

"Not as well as you might think."

"Oh, that's a shame. Hey, it's Dixon, isn't it?" He asked with no sign of insincerity.

"Dixon? Sure, that's close enough." What's one less syllable?

"You sure look a sight. It was hard enough for me to get here, following the plows like I did, but it looks like you cut your own path. I picked up a few bagel sandwiches on the way. Want one?"

"Yeah Cooper, I really do." I could've cried.

He handed me a sack that was heavy for its size, overladen with glorious calories. I collapsed onto the nearest chair and tore into it. It was possibly even better than pastrami. Cooper slapped my shoulder as he walked past.

"Hey Cooper, the fish are fine." Translated from the language of a mouthful of cream cheese, lox, egg, and dense bread.

"Fish? Oh, okay. See you upstairs Dixon." He shot me a thumbs-up and went to start his day.

"I guess you will." I said to the empty room.

 

That was the best sandwich I ever had.