Flash Fiction for the Cocktail hour

Competitive Advantage

Spring brought the workers out of offices and cubicles into the courtyard, circling the fountain that splashed water into a tiled pool. Nearby palm trees swayed in the mild breeze. It could be a park, but it was far from that. Faces were sculpted into hard lines of determination, mirrored on her own. Minds whirled behind foreheads filled with technical problems, market strategy, customer demands, and never far behind — career goals.

Men wore flat walking shoes, khakis or blue jeans, dress shirts, and jackets. Some engineers favored jeans and athletic shoes, or long shorts and sandals on a day like this. The women were like women everywhere — highly engaged with their appearance. Laura went further, as she did with most things — she was obsessed with her appearance, with all appearances, but not in the way the other women were.

Two thousand-fourteen and still most women dressed as if they were going out to lunch or a nightclub. Hair styled, dark lines and colored shadows made eyes pop, cheeks retract, and lips pout more than they would on their own. All her life she’d wanted to be counted as serious, her interests as significant as her brother’s, as all guys. But she was not. Horseback riding was a good activity for a girl, running was not, because you didn’t want to be faster than your brother. It would make him feel bad.

A level playing field was a joke. It made her want to trip a co-worker and watch him fall into the fountain. Of course, she dressed nicely. It was required for executive management, which was exactly where she belonged. Her career was behind schedule and she was desperate to make the next move up. Clothing should be the last thing on her mind. She was headed to meet with the sales director for the East Bay. She needed to be thinking about her strategy for getting him to focus on giving her product line the attention he gave to the latest and greatest. When revenue increased, management would be impressed with her initiative.

She neared the circular area around the fountain, the hub of four pathways leading to the main building, the company gym, the cafeteria, and the product development buildings. Approaching from the direction of the lobby was her boss’s boss. Hank wore a white shirt and suit without a tie. Walking next to him was a woman whose high heels made her almost as tall as Hank. She had long, wild red hair and was dressed in a somewhat flimsy navy blue blouse partially covered by a jacket of the same color, paired with a matching skirt that whipped around her bare legs in the breeze. She did nothing to try to keep it in place.

Hank stopped near the edge of the fountain. “Laura, let me introduce you to my new admin — Vanessa Hillman.”

Laura extended her hand. “Good to meet you.”

Vanessa glanced at Laura’s outstretched hand. She pushed her hair off her face, then slowly extended her own hand. Laura grasped the woman’s hand. It was soft, but her grip surprisingly firm . . . for a moment. Vanessa relaxed her fingers and let them settle into Laura’s palm until they felt like over-cooked asparagus. Laura started to pull away, but despite the limp form of the girl’s bones, her grip remained solid. Laura twisted her hand and managed to extract herself. The girl smiled and said hello in a soft voice. Laura glanced at Hank. His face was serene, oblivious to the chilling handshake.

“I’m walking her around to meet everyone. Monday she’ll be at orientation and then hit the ground running on Tuesday.”

“Welcome to Avalon,” Laura said. “Where did you work before this?”

Vanessa lowered her eyes, dark with make-up that would be appropriate for a date, but somehow managed to avoid looking cheap and overdone. “Nordstrom.”

“Really?”

Hank smiled. He glanced past Laura’s shoulder and nodded at a cluster of software engineers headed toward the volleyball pit. The breeze shifted as they passed by and Laura smelled sunscreen and a hint of coffee before the breeze died. The moment it stopped, the fountain settled down and the girl’s flyaway skirt drifted into place over her legs.

“Wow, that breeze was nice,” Vanessa said. “It’s hot when it goes away.” She shrugged her jacket off one shoulder. It pulled the blouse with it, so the wide neckline hung over her upper arm, exposing her bra strap. She wriggled. Hank turned and lifted the jacket on the opposite side, sliding if off her other arm. He handed it to her. “Thanks.” She smiled and looped the jacket over her forearm. The neckline of her blouse was still out of place. Laura waited for her to fix it.

“I’m looking forward to working with you,” Vanessa said. She turned to Hank as if waiting for him to lead her away.

He took the cue and they stepped around Laura and continued to the building where his office was located. When they reached the doors, Hank held his badge near the electric eye and Vanessa shifted her blouse back where it belonged.

Laura sat down on the edge of the fountain. The breeze returned, gusting through the courtyard. The water from the fountain sprayed at her back. She stood quickly. Continuing toward the main building, all she could think about were too-short skirts and cosmetics — tools for gaining a competitive advantage.

Suburban Noir lines

Getting Ahead - A Suburban Noir novel

Love her or hate her, you can read more about Laura’s fanatical dedication to her career and her next step up the corporate ladder in the novel, GETTING AHEAD, where an administrative assistant who behaves like a femme fatale and a sinister jogger at the track where she runs threaten to derail her.

Office politics, unconsummated desire, and murder send Laura and Vanessa down unexpected paths that dramatically alter their lives.

The Story Behind the Story: Voice! Setting! Action!

I don’t know the title yet, don’t even know if it’s flash fiction or a short story, but here’s the story behind the story . . . when it’s hot and full of energy, before the writing starts.

Suburban Noir acid trip

I go for a walk, hoping for quiet and some head-clearing after thinking about competitive sales support and industry analysts at six a.m. I have a rule not to read email before 6:30 a.m., but shit happens.

I pass a new house that’s been under construction since October. I think about how long it’s taking to complete and then, a voice pops into my head. Okay, technically, it was setting first . . .voice second, but the voice is what makes it come to life. I walk another half block and my head is exploding: opening scene, last line, dialog. I walk another two blocks and see a man who irritates me with his loud voice, talking either on his mobile phone or to himself, who knows. And then the story shatters my skull with a better ending. I start running back to the house.

Experience tells me this could all change. But it’s like an acid trip while it lasts.

Dark Chocolate

It smelled like chocolate when Ellen walked into her manager’s office. She accepted it as an omen of good things coming her way. The reason for the aroma was right there on Lynne’s desk — an open box of candies, half of them gone.

“Help yourself,” Lynne said.

“No thanks.”

“You deserve one. You’ve been doing good work. Everyone is impressed with how you’ve adapted to your new role.”

Ellen reached into the box and took a dark chocolate bordeaux.bordeaux_chocolate

“The dark chocolates are my favorites,” Lynne said.

Ellen smiled in the direction of Lynne’s vague, watery eyes and popped the entire candy into her mouth. She sat down in the chair facing Lynne’s desk. She chewed slowly. She did deserve it. The opening shot set her pulse jittering more quickly. After all these years, finally, it sounded like a raise was coming her way. The excuses had been real — company revenue down, then the economy, the long, slow climb back. The economy dogging it every step of the way, even now.

“As I’m sure you guessed, I wanted to talk to you about your job title.” Lynne patted her hair, running her fingers lightly over the large curls.

Ellen crossed her legs. She smiled. For the first time in a long while she was supremely confident.

“We’re re-leveling you, changing your title to Program Manager.”

Ellen strained to keep her smile steady. It wasn’t good to look eager. She absolutely deserved this. She shouldn’t be grinning like an idiot as if it was some kind of special reward she’d stumbled upon without putting forth a lot of effort.

“Of course, you realize that, unfortunately, it doesn’t come with a raise. Just a different job scope, moving you over to the program management category, but it’s not an increase in responsibility or anything like that.” Lynne laughed.

“No salary change?” Ellen’s voice sounded childish inside her head. For a moment, she wasn’t sure if she’d said the words out loud.

“No. It’s not like your work is significantly different from what you were doing as an admin. It’s not different at all, in fact.”

“But I . . . the others make more.”

“They’re at Program Manager II. You’re now a Program Manager I.”

“I do the same things they do.”

“It’s not open for discussion.”

“It doesn’t seem right.”

Lynne smiled like she was looking at a wet puppy.

“What if I say I’ll find another job somewhere else?” Ellen said.

“People are watching expense overhead across the industry. It’s not likely you’ll get a pay increase just by jumping ship,” Lynne said. “It’s a buyer’s market.” She stood. She tugged her red and gold scarf around so the knot was centered over the buttons of her jacket. “Congratulations on your new title. Keep up the good work. Go ahead and have another piece of chocolate. Take two.” She moved around the end of her desk, smiling, waiting for Ellen to stand up. In the hallway, Lynne extended her hand. “Again, great work. You’re an excellent team player.”

Ellen watched her manager walk down the hall. She could almost see Lynn’s oh-so-busy calendar as if it floated in a cloud above her wavy, tangled hair. Who had decided it was important to change the job title but ignore the fact Ellen hadn’t had a raise in eight years. EIGHT years! Almost half her career.

They had no idea how well she’d adapted to her new role. She’d learned a lot about this company. Information that would be valued by their competitors.

She went into the break room and got a paper cup. She returned to Lynne’s office, grabbed the remaining five pieces of dark chocolate, and dropped them into the cup. It sure was a buyer’s market. And she had a lot to sell. Things that were worth quite a bit more than a piece of dark chocolate.

Daycare Sucks

His athletic shoes were dark red and he didn’t like them. They looked like they were soaked with blood. He wanted white shoes, but his mom said white got too dirty. Red is cute, she said. He didn’t want to be cute! He wasn’t a little kid!

The minivan engine was running so it would get warm. He sat in the back seat, waiting. He was always waiting — for his sister to stop screaming, for his mom to pick him up from after-school care, for morning to come, for Christmas to come, for the coach to stop explaining good sportsmanship, for his dad to take him to before-school care . . . he hated before-school care most of all.

Daycare sucked. He wasn’t supposed to say suck, but dad said it. And mom said it too, a lot more than dad. Mom said other stuff too, but she said, don’t tell daddy. Jake didn’t tell, but he wanted to, just to see what would happen.

Alan-next-door agreed that daycare sucked, even though he didn’t have to go any more. He got to stay home now that his sister was twelve. Alan acted like that made him a big shot.

The front door of Jake’s house stood open. His dad was somewhere inside, calling to his mom, something about the power cord for his laptop. Jake was hungry. He hadn’t eaten any toast with his cereal because mom had said, time to get going. But now he was waiting. Next door, Alan’s mom backed out of the driveway. She waved, then tooted her horn, saying good-bye to Alan and his sister.

Jake looked at his shoes. What would happen if he traded them with another kid? Would  his mom make him trade back? Would anyone even want to trade? He shoved his feet under the driver’s seat so he couldn’t see his shoes, at least not much.

The front door slammed closed. His sister getting ready to blow, maybe. Jake unbuckled his seatbelt. He was going to miss the granola snack at before-school care.

Next door, the front door opened and Alan came out with his skateboard. He waved it at Jake but didn’t come over to say hi. He put it on the front path and let it carry him down to the sidewalk. Jake turned in his seat and watched the skateboard fly across the strip of grass into the street. Alan ran after it.

For a few minutes, Alan rode the skateboard up and down the sidewalk.

Jake’s neck hurt from turning to look so he faced forward. What was taking so long? He climbed over the console and slid into his dad’s seat. He turned on the radio. News. He twisted the dial. More news. Weather. An ad with a guy yelling about a great deal. Jake turned it down.

He pressed his foot on the brake. It was easy to reach with his new, bigger shoes. What would his dad do when he saw Jake driving? What would Alan do? He put his left foot on the brake and moved the gear shift like he’d watched his dad do a thousand times. He pressed his right foot on the gas. The engine roared. His left foot slid to the side and the minivan barreled backwards down the driveway. It squished down as it went across the grass strip, leaning slightly to the left then bumped down into the street, bumped again, slower this time, and sped as if it was driving itself across the street where it crashed into a gardener’s truck with a tearing, crunching sound. Tools clattered into the street.

Jake looked down and lifted his foot off the gas. Under the dashboard, his shoes looked darker, like blood that had dried. He looked up. Alan was lying on his back, staring at the sky. Two pieces of the skateboard were in the gutter.

Jake heard screaming, it could be his sister, but maybe someone else. He turned up the radio. Whatever was going to happen, he didn’t want to know about it right now.

Unfortunate Gestures

The edge of the curb was only a few feet in front of her. She walked quickly, her long strides made secure and comfortable by the hard push of her feet against concrete. Not yet seven a.m., it was already light, the sky a wash of pale gray. To her right, she heard a truck approaching the intersection. She turned slightly. The truck was white, one of those jacked up types, riding a foot or more above the enormous tires with thick tread, the spaces like rivulets cut by water in the rubber.

The truck hadn’t reached the stop sign yet, there was plenty of time for her to cross. She stepped into the gutter and took two more steps out into the deserted intersection. Most of the surrounding homes were dark, occupants either gone to work before sunrise, or still asleep. A no man’s land at the start of the day.

Without warning, the engine suburban stoproared like a beast let loose from its cage, its speed increased, and the truck plowed past the white line on the pavement, past the large, white letters demanding it stop, past the red octagonal sign with its back to her. She scrambled back to the curb.

“What the fuck?!” Her scream hit hard against the truck’s closed windows, evaporated into the morning air. She lifted her arm high above her head, folding back all but her extended middle finger, not sure whether it was even visible from the back window of the truck.

She held her arm there for a moment, shaking with anger more than fear.

The engine revved and tires screeched. The truck made a wide u-turn. The giant right front wheel climbed onto the curb and thumped back down into the street as the the vehicle careened back in her direction.

Her arm was still raised, her finger outstretched in defiance as the truck sped toward her.

Wanting Spring to Last Forever

Her breath grew more shallow as the sand sped through the narrow opening connecting the two glass bulbs.  Granules were in a free-fall, yet the movement of the entire handful of sand was slow, softly folding in on itself.

Within the hour, she’d flip it over and say good-bye to another piece of her life.

Suburban Noir Hourglass

He Can Hear You

They told her comatose patients could hear, and worse, feel, every word you said, but she didn’t believe it for a minute.

She sat on Mike’s bed. Everything but her had a purpose in this room — heavy-duty racks holding monitors, tubes pumping oxygen, mobile stands draped with thinner tubes pulsing with saline carrying medication into Mike’s body. She wasn’t even sure what all the numbers on the various screens meant.

It was dark, eleven-fifteen at night, but in ICU, they let her come by whenever she wanted, as long as she was quiet, unobtrusive, not a drain on the nursing staff. Carla was used to being unobtrusive so no problem there. It was understood ICU patients required different visitation rules. The only light in the room was the one over the nurse’s stand from which they donned plastic gloves and, not trusting the plastic, smeared anti-bacterial gel on their skin when they were finished. It was like a religious ritual the way they paid homage to those gel dispensers, walking down the hall, reaching out open hands and pressing the lever to receive the elixir, as if it would keep them from ever ending up in one of the beds themselves.

Each patient had a private room, if you could call it private, since it was fronted by sliding glass doors, the doors always open, making you wonder why they bothered to install them. There were drapes, but they too were kept open. It didn’t matter. There was enough noise from machines, from the hallways, from nurses talking, that no one would overhear what she had to say.

She pulled the cushioned chair close to his bed. The bed was too high, forcing her to sit with perfect posture so that her head was in the vicinity of his shoulder. There was no chance of making contact with his actual body through the cocoon of equipment maintaining his life.

She put her hand on his shin. ”I ‘m sure you’d argue betrayal is never one-sided.” She waited, letting that sink in. “You always said things are more nuanced than people make them out to be — it’s not like one political party is entirely right and the other wrong, not like one religion holds all the secrets.”

She folded her hands in her lap, pressing them down at the same time she drove her knees closer together, so the bones of her fingers dug into the bones in her thighs. The discomfort helped her continue. “You’d agree the pain is unbearable. The worst imaginable. Worse than whatever pain you’re feeling now, although I guess you feel nothing. But who knows, maybe you can’t express it, that’s all. Maybe you’re in agony.”

The nurse came into the room. “You should leave, he needs to rest.”

“That’s all he does.”

“He seems agitated. You aren’t saying anything to upset him, are you?”

“How would you know? It’s not like his pulse fluctuates.”

“I can sense it. I’ve been around enough people like him.”

People like him? He’s a man, not a classification.”

“It’s not good if he gets upset.”

“He can’t fucking hear me!”

“We ask you not to assume that’s the case.”

“I’m just continuing a conversation that never quite got started before . . .” She waved her hand toward the bed. “Things need to be said.”

The nurse glared at her and crossed the room. She slammed her fist at the anti-bacterial gel dispenser and walked out, rubbing liquid across the backs of her hands, giving the impression of a villain in a melodrama twisting her fingers with evil intent.

Carla raised her shoulders, straining to see Mike’s face. She tried to detect movement, a twitch of recognition. She didn’t know why she kept studying his face thinking that might be possible. “Anyway, I know you’d agree the pain is worse than having your lover die.”

She took a long, slow breath, feeling that the oxygen from his tube was flowing as easily into her own lungs as it was his. “It’s just so unfair that you let this happen, and now all the explanations are out there, floating away, like someone puffed on a dandelion and the seeds went out over the edge of a cliff.”

She slumped back in the chair, tired of sitting so stiffly, tired of looking at a face that wouldn’t look back. “Sometimes it goes on for months, years, making a fool out of the partner. I think you’d say that’s a victim mentality. Fine. I’m wasting my time talking to you. It’s too late but I felt I needed to do this. Even if it’s pointless.” Carla stood. She touched his wrist for a moment. She turned and left the room.

She walked down the hallway. Her running shoes squeaked on the over-polished linoleum. She opened the door to the stairwell and stepped inside.

In less than two minutes, she’d peeled off her socks and shoes, stuffed them in a plastic bag, and stepped into the nude patent high heels in her purse. With the purse slung over her shoulder, she descended the stairs. She walked through the lobby and outside to the covered drive where Jake sat behind the wheel of his Audi. The passenger door was open, welcoming her.  She climbed in and leaned over the center console. Their mouths came together and their tongues twirled around each other. She hoped that comatose patients could indeed hear. It was never one-sided.

Suburban Noir lines

 

Written for a flash fiction challenge at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog. Since I wasn’t required to choose from a random number generator, I picked from “must contain” lists one and two — 1. a lover’s betrayal and 10. a comatose patient.

The Final Candidate

Interviewing administrative assistants was a laborious task. Hank knew precisely what he wanted, but he couldn’t seem to articulate it to the recruiter. He’d said he needed someone smart. Someone determined to get ahead in her career, although that was a fine line because you didn’t want an admin who was immediately discontented, shirking her duties in her anxiousness to trade in her job for something better. She should be organized, careful with details, know how to keep confidential information to herself. And yes, although he didn’t even like forming the thought, it mattered that she was attractive. It was a very un-politically correct thought and it was not something he’d verbalize to his peers, and certainly not to Deb.

So far, he’d talked to fourteen women and three men. Most of them were not particularly smart. And the more he listened to them rattle on, the higher that criteria advanced on his list. They talked too much, they sold themselves too hard, and they were too helpful. The last candidate he’d talked to, a woman about forty and very well put together, had brought a cup of coffee with packets of sugar and cream to the interview. Rather than shaking his hand, she’d held out the steaming cup. When he suggested she drop it in the lobby trash, her eyes filled with tears. He really wanted someone clever, a woman who understood intuitively how to protect his time, and was sharp enough to learn to anticipate what he wanted without always having to ask.

The woman ushered into his office just now had long red hair, so thick and wavy it looked like a flaming waterfall. Silken strands flowed over her shoulders, hair that a man could wrap around himself and never need a blanket. She had slim hips and a terrific body overall. She seemed aware of that fact, but not dominated by it. Pleased with her appearance, but giving the impression there was more to her than what was visible. He glanced at the photograph of Deb and Kevin.

Except for the hair color, Deb used to look like that. Shorter, a little fuller in the hips, but a gorgeous face and near-perfect shape. Now, Deb was plump with motherhood. She was one of those women who had fallen in love with her son the moment he was born. Hank was glad she was so devoted to Kevin, but sometimes, especially now that Kevin was in second grade, it had started to seem a bit . . . much. There was almost no room in the picture for Hank.

“Vanessa?”

The woman nodded. She shook his hand and sat down facing his desk. She put her purse on the floor and crossed her legs. Her slacks looked as if they’d been spun around her body by an army of silkworms.

There was no way he could hire this woman. There was such a thing, he decided right then, as too attractive. She had the potential to stir up all kinds of trouble in his department. He didn’t need that. In fact, he wondered why she hadn’t pursued a career as a model. This was a waste of time. He’d cut to the chase and select someone from the other two finalists. He’d hoped for a pool of three, but it wasn’t that important. It was just an administrative position. “Tell me why I should hire you,” he said.

“I’ll make your life so easy, you’ll never have to think about your schedule or your travel arrangements again.”

“That’s a big promise.”

“I keep my promises.”

She was ballsy. He wasn’t sure if he liked that or not. It hadn’t been an ordinary first question, yet her response was wickedly fast. He glanced at her resume. “You worked at Nordstrom’s?”

“For the vice president of merchandising.”

“Technology is a lot different from a department store.”

“Yes and no.”

He picked up his pen and twisted the cap around. “Explain, please.”

“You’re selling products.”

“Very complicated products.”

“Selling is selling. A VP is a VP. Politics are the same at any large company.”

“They’re a lot more intense in this industry. There’s more at stake, more money to be made.”

He glanced at her resume gain, not really reading it. Her qualifications were no more and no less than the others he’d spoken to. It was getting to the point that he might be over-thinking it. Everyone had strengths and weak spots, and all of them could do the job.

Not caring how she answered, knowing the response would be a stock reply, he asked her about her previous jobs, what she’d liked, what she hadn’t liked. He asked her how she’d handle a display of temper by someone on his staff and what her process was for following up on action items. When she finished speaking, he was quiet for several minutes, the room filled by the faint sound of the computer keeping itself alert.

He folded his arms and pushed the resume to the side until the edge tapped the bottom of the picture frame containing Deb and Kevin. “Well, then. Thank you for your time. The recruiter will be in touch.”

She stood. “By the way.” She smiled and pushed her hair back from her face. “Politics aren’t about money, they’re about people wanting power over other people.”

He put the pen on the desk, lining it up at the side of his computer keyboard. He stood and walked around the desk. He held out his hand to shake hers. “I’d like to make you an offer.”

She smiled coyly. “Right on the spot? That’s very impulsive.”

It was impulsive, but he had no choice. Yes, her looks were dangerous, but not hiring someone this smart was dangerous in another way. It was putting too much emphasis on perception and not enough about what the company and the department needed. About what he needed.

Suburban Noir lines

This week’s flash fiction is a bit of back story for Vanessa — one of the main characters in my next novel, GETTING AHEAD, coming April 2014. Here’s a preview of the cover.

Getting Ahead - A Suburban Noir novel

The Right Fingernails

She’d always felt proper nails would give her a greater sense of femininity, but they eluded her. Without her even realizing it was happening, her nails were inevitably nibbled off. It was prompted by a slight burr that demanded to be smoothed out. As she scraped a rough spot or a hangnail on the edge of her tooth, the nail softened. Absent-mindedly, she’d clip off a piece with her incisor, then another, until the nail was a small circle at the center of her fingertip.

Most women had delicate fingers with unpolished nails, filed smooth and surrounded by soft skin. Some had a sleek look created with bright color, professional filing and trimming, soaking and buffing.

Mel was used to her ruggedized fingertips, but her job interview meant something had to change. She needed every part of her pulled together, and the gnawed, dingy fingernails were off-putting. She found a salon and dialed. When the appointment was set, she ended the call and shoved her hands in her pockets.

After the manicure, she stood at the counter waiting to pay. She was eager to get into her car and admire her nails unobserved. Already she felt the weight of their new-found glory, giving her a confidence she hadn’t felt before. They were glamorous, yet hard and business-like.

Ahead of her in line was a woman in leopard-print leggings. Her heels were longer than the length of Mel’s hand, sticks of iron that made a racket on the tile floor when she took a step. Her teased, cottony hair was the color of egg yolk. Her nails were longer than Mel’s but she had the same thick acrylic, the same French manicure, the same twist of her hands as if she, too, felt the weight of the synthetic material glued to her fingertips.

While the woman waited for the receptionist to finish a phone call, she turned to Mel. “Let me see.”

Reluctantly, Mel spread her fingers for inspection.

The woman grinned. “Those look bangin’ on you!” She shook her head, trying to toss her hair away from her left eye, but it fell forward. She turned back to the receptionist.

Mel felt sick, the ends of her fingers bloated with blood, each nail like a fungus attaching itself to her hands. The glorious swords of her nails were thick, too plastic, rendering her hands almost useless. There was nothing graceful or feminine about them.

At home, she sat at the kitchen table. She spread out her fingers and stared at them. Thirty-five dollars. Three dollars and fifty cents per finger. Meant to last for weeks. She went into the bathroom, got out a bottle of polish remover, a file, and nail clippers. She filled a bowl with hot water and soap. She spread foil across a cookie sheet, placed it on the kitchen table along with a roll of paper towels, and went to work.

Three hours later, the discarded nails sat in a pile of torn plastic. Her fingers were red and swollen her nails scratched and white. There were traces of blood along the cuticles. The look was neither masculine nor feminine — her fingers appeared inhuman. She picked up a piece of polish-coated acrylic and nibbled on it while she considered her future.

acryllic nails suburban noir

 

Watch Where You Step

With each step she watched where she placed her foot. There was a lingering chill from the thing she’d seen the day before, lying motionless in full afternoon sunshine.  The long, sinewy tail resting on  the concrete and the sewage color of its fur burrowed deep inside of her, making her stomach heave.

She’d walked out into the street, cutting a wide swath around the area, glancing to her left, afraid, despite its obvious death, it would dart out, scramble up her leg, sharp claws on her bare skin, caught in the fabric of her pants, bite the soft flesh of her thigh and infect her with disease. She looked back as she passed, horrified by its presence alongside neatly cut lawns, flowering shrubs, lovely trees, and rose bushes. Every few steps, she glanced over her shoulder, certain it was following her.

All the pavement in the universe couldn’t blot out the earth, the decay creeping up to grab ahold of every living thing. She wanted to cry with the horror of it, afraid the rat was a sign that death and disease were stalking her neighborhood, that all the good things would soon be eaten away.  She’d be left cold and hungry, bereft and exposed.

Strangely enough, seeing that thing had lessened her fear of walking in the pre-dawn darkness. This time of day was no more dangerous than a sun-drenched afternoon. She’d set out at six a.m., her eyes fixed on the ground a few feet in front of her, studying fallen blossoms, damp and glued to the concrete. Rotting lemons smelled of mold, squashed on the sidewalk near desiccated worms. The hood of her sweatshirt covered her ears, giving a sense of insulation, safety . . . possibly.

As she passed an eight foot hedge, something small and dark raced down the narrow path. She screamed, the sound of her voice quavering with tears. Despite the furious, high pitched barking, it took a moment for her mind to register a dog. A man smoking a cigarette on his porch shouted at the dog, but the leash remained taught, the small wiry animal lifting its front paws off the ground in an effort to get at her. The barking grew louder as she scurried away. She walked faster now, clawing at her palms in an effort to steady her shaking hands.

That night she dreamed of rats nibbling at her brain, consuming it like bait left in a trap. In the confusing, senseless dream world, she felt she became a fierce, threatening rodent herself, hungry to establish a stronghold in the suburbs, refusing to be sequestered in the crumbling infrastructure of the inner city.

The next morning, she stepped off the porch and walked toward her BMW — bright, satiny white under the cloudy sky. The vertical lines of the front grill glittered like a rat baring its teeth. She settled into the leather seat, closed the door, and pressed the starter. She revved the engine before putting it in gear and shooting out of the driveway. She tore down the street. Any creature who got in her way would be pulverized, left unrecognizable on the pavement.

At the end of the street she slowed, then rounded the corner. She pressed the gas closer to the floor, fleeing the neighborhood, feeling the power of the vehicle to protect her from anything that might be coming for her. She lifted her chin and looked at her face in the rearview mirror. She grinned, her lips pulling back to reveal narrow, sharp teeth, perhaps with a yellowish tinge.