So I promised a friend I would finish a short story for her birthday. I haven’t written a real short story in a very long time. It took a weird turn, and it might be worst thing I’ve ever done. Regarding writing.
It was interesting observing this come together. I’m still developing my style, perspective, voice, blaht cetera.
I sent my friend the story Friday morning, apologizing up front for it.
Friday was her birthday.
I stayed up until 5am that morning writing it. Slept for less than two hours. Then I went to class. Then I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the weekend.
In Times New Roman 12-point, it occupies six full pages. 2,537 words. That’s not even two days’ worth for NaNoWriMo.
This is not a novel, though.
I’ll stick the tip of the iceberg before the cut.
The jar’s contents rattled. The glass container lay packed between a pair of old tennis shoes and a blue bath towel in a grey duffel bag. As Lauren’s weight shifted from side to side with each step, some of the pieces would bounce and hit the screwtop lid with a metallic ting. It sounded like popcorn in a kettle. One of the shoe’s nonmarking outsoles somehow scuffed the jar with a series of polysynthetic rubber scratches. Other supplies lay carefully placed in the bag Lauren prepared the night before.
She brought different supplies for different jobs, depending.
At least she got to travel with this job. And she got to set her own schedule, even though the limits of her contract restricted her to complete each job within three days. Her numerous clients agreed to the same bounds, the same simple terms. Her services cost a lot of money, but no one else offered what she could – though many tried. Former competitors were too sloppy, asked too many questions and then they disappeared. Her efficiency made her an ideal asset. Her contract work alone provided a very comfortable living. She often considered giving up her pointless day job that gave her much grief.
She had never been to this part of the country before yesterday. The summer days were sticky and oppressive, much like where she spent most of her childhood. She had two appointments a few hours away this morning. The quiet drive to this next stop allowed her to review her past assignments and to refocus for the next one. She took great pride in her work and loved making customers happy. In her years with this career, she had not received a single formal complaint.
A few steps away, Lauren activated her car alarm. Crossed the parking lot, taking in her surroundings. Although she’d never been to this site or parked in this lot, it looked like the many others she visited. Though she was naturally light-footed, she walked through the heat rising from the asphalt as if slogging through a marsh. The afternoon showed no mercy. The walk made her sweaty, but she parked about the same distance away from the building doors, no matter where she went for each assignment.
She reached into her bag’s outer pocket and checked her cell phone. She dialed voicemail. The first message: I hate you! You have no idea what you did.
Next: I can’t work anywhere else now because of you! You’re going to regret this.
Finally: No one can or even wants to date me now. I will destroy you.
She never returned work-related calls.
The cars sat in perfect rows. Lauren noticed the license plates, one by one. They were all from the same state, with the same design. She instantly recognized the canary yellow across the top with a fading gradient to white at the bottom. The middle displayed two alphanumeric trios in black with a shape like an appendix between them. She had no doubt she was in New Jersey, but her presence on a vast lot in front of a massive building made her question the state’s claim as the “garden” one.
This was her last stop for the week.
She never talked during these missions. She studied each target in a photograph she received through a remote email address; memorized every single feature, the placement of the eyes relative to the nose, the space between the nose and mouth. The smile, specifically. All the targets smiled in their photos. Aim was important.
The office building didn’t climb but a few storeys, but it sprawled over a couple of acres with staggered wings the company kept adding as it grew. Thick, freshly cut grass ran along the sidewalk. Mulch mounds supported arranged topiaries and rows of tulips leading toward the entrance. Lauren was surprised at the vibrant landscape. These were professional establishments, and Lauren always tried to blend in with some kind of fitted blouse and dark dress slacks. She had pulled her hair back and twisted it into a bun that bobby pins held in place. She wore conservative earrings, a simple watch, a stoic expression. Although she knew she was going to Jersey today, she rejected wearing animal print with costume jewelry and painted, talonesque nails, and Bump-It hair sprayed to high heaven. She looked sufficiently ordinary. She continued walking.
The calls usually didn’t come with much notice, two days at most. She kept a meticulous calendar with her continuous, finely detailed itineraries. She spent years improving her reputation and expanding her clientele. Before her tiny company gained momentum, quality control across the country all but disappeared, and transactions between companies – as well as intracommercial relations – suffered. Lauren’s sole effort helped restore the nation’s once-tanking capitalism. Corporate America depended on her. Washington, D.C. even contacted her a few times. Somebody from intelligence.
Lauren approached the main doors. Checked her reflection before the glass panel slid open. She shot a subtle smile at the receptionist, nodded at the guards, and swiped an electronic pass at the turnstiles to the left of the desk. She passed through.
Her shoes echoed more loudly on the polished marble tile than she wanted. Her lithe legs controlled her casual canter. She entered the elevator.
She arrived at the fourth floor. She knew where the office was. She passed a series of cubicles before coming upon the nameplate she sought. When she saw the name, an image of the target flashed in her mind.
She knocked on the door.
Lauren made quick, quiet work of it.
It didn’t seem worth the drive.
She looked around the office one last time, mentally checklisting. Her target slumped in the office chair, dazed. Lauren shook a few painkillers from a bottle and left them on the desk. She replaced the bloody gauze with some clean dressing dabbed in coagulant. Some kernel-sized pieces – her prize for this assignment – were soaking in a small, clear canister of mild, enzymatic solvent, cleaning traces of blood. Still wearing a breathing mask and rubber gloves, she gently shook the container and watched the red disappear.
Lauren never left a mess. Not a single sanguine drop splattered any surface.
With these jobs, amnesia pills were not an issue. Lauren’s clients emphasized that the targets needed to remember these moments. The violent physicality should have been enough not to forget. Her swiftness sometimes created blurry memories for her targets – especially within the first 20 minutes afterward – but the resulting agony served as a clear reminder of why she had to come in the first place. And when the pain finally subsided, a deep-rooted – or unrooted – souvenir ensured her targets would never screw up again.
She replaced her supplies in the duffel bag and zipped it closed. She removed the mask and gloves and sealed them in a small plastic biohazard bag with the wet gauze. Without looking back, she walked out of the office. Returning to the elevator, she caught a few sideways but nonalarming glances from the cubicles. She descended to the first floor alone. Tennis shoes hastened her exit from the building.
Lauren never had to revisit a previous target, so she never had to see swelling. She knew about the swelling; how could there not be swelling? There would be a lot of swelling, but at least there wasn’t disfiguration. At least not permanent.
When Lauren got back to her hotel room that evening, she reopened the duffel bag. She lifted her pair of steel-toed boots and held them up to the lamplight. She started her business with these boots. She trusted them, and they never disappointed her. She thumped the toe of the right boot where the leather started wearing thin. She thought about buying a prettier pair, one that better matched her business outfits. But these would last a good while longer.
She went to the bathroom sink and drained the solvent from the small clear canister. She tapped the remaining contents onto a towel and patted them dry. She picked up each of the little bits one at a time, between a thumb and forefinger, and dropped them into the glass jar. Then she twisted the lid shut.
Lauren slipped into her pajamas and collapsed onto the bed. She fell asleep with the lamp still on and hours before the television snowed static.
Voicemail messages the next morning resembled those from the day before, and even many, many days before that. They came from private lines, which, if she cared enough to trace, she might discover originated from the same phone, the same person. Lauren could almost feel the caller’s hot, breathy venom through the phone with every single message. She deleted every single message.
Lauren drove for the next seven hours until she got home. She pulled into the garage and turned off the engine. She took the small plastic biohazard bag and dropped it into a bin for her next trip to the lab. The door from the garage opened into the kitchen. She pressed the door closed into the frame. In the dark, she unslung the duffel bag from her shoulder. Instinct constricted her diaphragm: she held her breath.
-It took you long enough.
-Why are you here?
-I said I wanted to destroy you.
-You’ve been saying that for years.
-But I hate you.
-Because you sucked at your job or because I broke up with you?
-You’re in my house.
Lauren sensed he stood mere feet away. She decided to leave the lights off. He practically spat at her. She spat back.
-You destroyed my life.
-Your failure as part of humanity destroyed your life. You could have kept working.
-They fired me.
-Because you kept screwing up. Your company called me as a last resort. Then you still screwed up. Screwed up. My services are supposed to be foolproof. You’re the lone glitch.
–I am hideous.
She leaned back against the door. Then she sighed, sliding down to the floor.
-But you broke up with me.
-Because you’re also hideous on the inside.
-Man, I hate you so much.
-I haven’t seen you since I targeted you. And that means you haven’t seen me either. How’d you get my number?
-Broke into HR…. What do you mean, I haven’t seen you either?
-Mine are gone, too.
-Wait, how’d that happen?
-Are you still going to destroy me? Do you have kryptonite? Are you wearing a balaclava?
-Wow, I was only joking, but … wow. It’s dark, so I can’t see your face anyway. Plus, I recognize your voice, genius. We dated, which wasn’t very smart of me, I admit. And, you’ve only been threatening my voicemail for years.
-Just tell me what happened.
She was grateful the tension diffused. She didn’t know the calls and threats would reach a critical point. A criminal point.
-My day job called me for my side job services.
-They don’t know my name, only the business.
-So what you did to me, you did to yourself?
-Apparently I messed up a slide show presentation for a webconference one too many times.
-You did that to yourself?
-The boots weren’t on my feet, but they got the job done.
-And you still work there.
-They called at the end of the day a few summers ago, about six months after I received the call to handle you. I came home, did what I had to do. Went into work the next day. Had a milkshake.
-So I guess you learned your lesson.
-And you broke into my house.
-I just wanted to scare you.
She deflated him; she felt his resolve weaken.
-Look, what I do, it’s legitimate. I go where clients send me. I’m sorry I had to target you. I figure the hit on myself was karma or poetic justice or some sort of revenge that I underestimated you being smart enough to plan. But my slideshows are perfect now, all of them, every single time.
-But you broke up with me.
-It had nothing to do with my job.
-And we can’t get back together.
-A lot of people depend on me.
-You just said this has nothing to do—
-Don’t call me that.
-You’re rich now.
-Just a little.
-You should have returned my calls.
-But I don’t love you.
Awkward silence seemed to darken the house further. She scooted away from the door and toward where she last heard his voice. He wanted to say something else.
-So, I have a job interview on Monday. My first real prospect in a long time. I sort of came also to rub it in your face.
-You can’t rub anything in my face, but I guess that’s really exciting news. You should be moving on anyway. Besides, enough time has passed for you to be outside the limitations of the contract. You have cosmetic options now.
-I know. You wanna see?
-Of course I do.
He flipped on the kitchen light, already standing. He was holding flowers. She stood up. Their eyelids fluttered and squinted a few seconds before their pupils adjusted. She blinked hard once and rubbed her eyes as she focused on his face.
He had never been hideous, or even close to it. She noticed his healthy hairline, strong brow, his well-spaced eye sockets that encased a deep, sincere blue; the vanishing point that gave his nose dimension. A day-old shadow accentuated his cheekbones that somehow hardened the angle of his jawline. His smile looked how she remembered it.
Before she destroyed it.
-You should probably get going.
-Wait a sec—
-Please. I need you to go.
She looked away, down. She heard him walk toward the front door. He shut it quietly.
She grabbed the strap and dragged the bag to her bedroom. Flipped on the light. She brought out the jar, and she set it on the nightstand. Opened it. Walked across the room. Turned the combination dial to a safe: right, left, right. Click.
She pulled out a small plastic bag. She remembered his begging, his devastation, his confusion, his bleeding gums. He told her he would work harder if she didn’t follow through. He said she didn’t have to follow through. She had to follow through. He ended up using a lot of gauze. She left him extra pain medication. She left him crying. She squeezed his hand through her latex gloves before turning around and walking away, supposedly forever.
She took from the safe another baggie. The last one. She remembered that because she was the best at her job, she understood she was no different than the other targets, though she thought about using pliers, or maybe a hammer and chisel. Something easier. She wasn’t used to aiming at herself. The hardest part was keeping her eyes open, but she did it, holding a steel-toed boot with both hands.
She walked back to the nightstand. She emptied both bags into the jar, listening to the familiar soft patters and ticks of bony marbles colliding with each other, echoing within glass.