(*Author’s note: what follows is part I of a 2-part short story. It’s still a work in progress and, as such, I would love any reader feedback. It does contain adult themes and language, so it’s not for the easily offendable. Thanks.)
Dylan’s ear was still ringing. A dull, pulsing, rumble that didn’t want to go away. It was clinging to him, some strange residual feeling that reminded him of the first minute and a half after he got off the childhood bumper cars at the Nebraska State Fair.
The doctor told him he’d ruptured his ear drum. It only took him a moment with his metal and his lights and his diploma-on-the-wall to determine just exactly what was causing the aching, gnawing pain that had crept into Dylan’s right ear. A quick, uncomfortable moment of disposable plastic meeting inner ear canal and he was stepping back and sagely nodding his head.
He tried to crack a joke, briefly, but Dylan’s pain-ravaged attention span was already fixated on a sign attached across the room to another of the doctor’s drawers. 16” Rectal Swabs the sign proclaimed, a Times New Roman lamination of horror that sent a shiver up Dylan’s spine. He rubbed his temples and turned to the doctor. “Just do me a favor, Doc” he said gesturing ominously across the room. “Don’t try to get into that drawer, okay?” The doctor tossed his head back and let loose a long, hearty laugh. Dylan rubbed his temples again.
He’d sat there with bleary, emergency-room-at-2:15-AM eyes and nodded. He’d taken a slow, half-hearted look at the mottled tile floor, the unthreatening paintings adorning the wall that had probably been labeled “soothing” by some prick with a psych degree, and shifted his weight on the paper-coated island he was sitting on and wished he was home in bed. The doctor had scribbled an entirely illegible set of instructions onto some designer-drug stationary, given him some cotton for his ear and sent him out to make a 24-hour pharmacy appearance.
He’d popped two pain killers, dripped two ear drops and crash-landed into sleep. No landing gear.
But here he was at 3:39 on a Thursday afternoon, ear pumping human-created static into his hearing, staring at a spreadsheet and anxiously awaiting 4:30 when he could pop another couple of pain pills. The girl laughing two cubicles over seemed to worm into his flagging concentration, nightcrawler-ing in there like a particularly juicy one before getting stuck on a fishing hook.
Ah, what the hell?
He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out the pill bottle. He popped in some relief and chased it down, flushing the pills with yellow dye #5, carbonation, and caffeine from his Mega Grande sized gas station cup. With the pills, the pain was manageable. He just couldn’t hear worth a damn. It was like being down a well, or having land-bound swimmer’s ear.
“Hey,” Eric from one cube over leaned his head past the taupe walls separating them from one another. “You remember we have that conference call at 3:45, right? We have to talk with Bellevue about that conversion their doing to the new Infodata processing. I’m heading in now.”
Dylan nodded vaguely. “Right. Yeah. Bellevue. I’ll be there in just a second. Let me grab my notes.”
He snatched up a yellow note pad that was completely blank, quickly wrote BELLEVUE on the top and put a blue-ink box around it. It was as official as it was going to look. He pushed back his chair, squeaking metal joints howling briefly for oil, and turned to follow Eric to the conference room. They quickly wound their way through the corporate labyrinth and found themselves seated comfortably in the conference room with the rest of the New Client Conversion Team.
These chairs were more comfortable. Sat in by big wigs with big wigs and potential customers that were about to be schmoozed and boozed; a true private stash of ergonomics and lumbar support.
The conference call was almost underway. The standard holding procedure was in effect and the speaker phone placed ceremoniously in the center of the table was fuzzily playing soft jazz music while they waited for their counterparts from Bellevue to join the call. Mercifully the music ended after a short while. The conference calls were always a little awkward for everyone involved.
“Uh. . .hello?” A tinny voice on the other line didn’t sound too certain that it would get a response.
“Hello, Mike? This is Allen Dennevert here. Can you hear me okay?” Allen took the lead as was the conference call protocol.
“Yeah, we can hear you guys just fine, thanks.”
And so it went. Different departments checked in and ran down their bullet-pointed lists, firing all their rounds until they were out of ammo or out of targets. Finally it was Dylan’s turn to collaborate with the disembodied voices on the other side of the black Motorola base. He still hadn’t come up with anything to say.
His ear was making a kind of whooshing noise that somehow reminded him of crickets in August and his trip to the shores of Northern California when he was in high school rolled into one.
“Yeah, hi, Mike. This is Dylan Jackson, here. How’re things going for you guys out there? Uhh. . .did you get those test files that I sent you on Tuesday?” He spoke a little too loudly and grimaced at his own lack of volume control.
“Yes, Dylan. Things are going good. As a matter of fact we did. We ran them through and uploaded them to the test site and everything checked out fine.”
He raised his eyebrows. That was about all he had to contribute on this one. “Umm. . .perfect. That’s great. Well, I guess, did you guys have any other questions or concerns for me?”
“I don’t think that we—“ Before Mike could finish his sentence the phone crackled for a minute. Loudly. A little too loudly.
“Hello?” Allen sat up from his plush, executive’s throne and leaned in close to the phone. “Mike, do we still have you with us, buddy?”
The phone’s speakers started humming. A kind of pulsing noise that started off just at the edge of hearing, building fast, then faster. Cindy from the Quality Assurance department leaned in and slapped her palm on the speaker phone. “What the hell is this thing doing?” She demanded to no one in particular, all semblance of the artificially sweetened professionalism leaving her voice.
The pulsing surged, then, steaming to a high pitched, vibrating hum; part old-school dial-up modem on steroids, part unnerving wail. It rattled somewhere back in Dylan’s molars as he lurched back in his chair to instinctively jam his hands over his ears. It couldn’t have lasted more than 10 seconds, crescendoing to a fervent whine that dug into Dylan’s skull; an auditory dental drill on maximum power.
Everyone in the room had slid their chairs back from the table. Dylan glanced around the table and everyone seemed to be dazed. Herm from Accounting, sitting in on this meeting purely as a formality, sat staring blankly at the expensive wooden table that separated each of the conference callers. Dylan looked to his left at Eric. “What the H was that?!?” He whispered. Eric blinked three times. Suddenly he snapped his head up and looked right at Dylan, his eyes out of focus for a moment. “Hey,” Dylan leaned over a little closer. “You alright, man?”
“What?” Eric’s eyes had regained a little of their focus. “Yeah, man. Yeah. I’m good. What was that? We need to get a new phone in here. This P.O.S. is totally busted.”
Cutting through the stunned quiet that had momentarily taken over the conference room, Mike from Bellevue’s voice was back on the speakerphone. “Hey, guys? Hello? Do I still have you with me, there?”
Allen quickly leaned in. Dylan noticed a slight tremor in Allen’s hand as he slid the speaker phone base back closer to his end of the table. Something seemed. . .off. Before he could try to line up his thinking with the events unfolding in front of him they were suddenly back to the normal routine. A boring, standard, paint-by-numbers conference call on a boring, paint-by-numbers Thursday afternoon.
Dylan felt something working its way across his scalp. A strange, tightening. A worming chill that was usually reserved for a cold drip of water on a hot summer afternoon that somehow found its way to the skin underneath your clothing. He tried to dismiss it. He shook his head and fake-jotted down a few notes that were truly just scribbles on an already scribbled-up piece of paper. Conference calls were all about looking busy. Especially if you weren’t.
Brandon from the sales department was looking at him.
Not the usual, we’re-stuck-in-small-quarters-and-I’m-nearly-euthanized-with-boredom stare. It was different. It wasn’t a full on wide-eyed gaze. More of a subtle, peripheral side-glance. Surreptitious. There was something there. Some unspoken intent that Dylan couldn’t quite place.
“What’s up, man?” He asked. Turning his body to face his distracting co-worker. It wasn’t accusatory, but it held a whispered question, imploring a response.
“Huh? Nothing, man. What do you mean?” Brandon didn’t wait for an answer. He simply turned his head back in the direction of the call.
Things were wrapping up in the conference room. Dylan was anxious to get out of the suddenly airless room. He was feeling a little nauseous. Those damn pain pills may not have agreed with the 40 ounces of diet pop he had already consumed this afternoon. Or maybe it was that stupid wooshing noise that sounded like the tide going out. Whatever the case, he was ready to go sit at his desk and feign productivity until the rest of the day was done.
“And I think that’ll be all from us, here. We look forward to coming up there and helping you guys out next week, Mike.” Allen leaned in and pushed the red “end call” button. He leaned back in his chair with a sigh. Dylan saw something red on the lobe of his ear.
“Hey, Allen, man? You okay? I think your ear’s bleeding or something.” Eric had seen it too.
Allen reached up with his pointer finger and dabbed at the corner of his ear. “Well son of a – I think I am. I thought Dylan was the only one here with ear problems, right?” He chuckled and grabbed a tissue from the box on the countertop near the door. Dabbing at it, he walked out, heading towards his cubicle.
Everyone rose from their chairs at the table and wandered out a few at a time. Dylan was ready to head back and plant himself firmly back in his chair so he could get in some very good blank staring. Before he sat he gazed briefly out the window. The parking lot, 2 floors below his window, had already started getting dark. Winter nights in the Midwest had a way of ambushing the afternoon, pouncing viciously and draining any semblance of heat or light from a day. It was in mid sneak-attack, now, burying the Fords and Toyotas in creeping shadow.
He wasn’t feeling so hot. He sat down a little too hard into his chair. He reached up to his forehead and wiped away a slick sheen of sweat. Not a lot of sweat, just a small amount, a clear slick caressing the edge of his hairline. Damn pain pills, he thought to himself, they’ve got me fucked up. He reached for his gigantic cup full of pop and took a deep pull. He knew he needed to make the contents of the cup last only another hour and a half and he would be out of here, but he was suddenly very thirsty.
The squeak of another office chair wheeling in behind him shook him from his caffeinated daydream.
It was Eric. “Hey, man. I just went into the bathroom and I’m pretty sure that, um, Allen and Cindy are. . .” He paused here, raising his eyebrows and wiggling his head slightly.
“What?!? You think they’re banging? In the bathroom?” Dylan was shocked.
“Well, hell, man. I dunno. But I’m pretty sure I saw them go into the bathroom together and there was definitely something going on in the handicap stall. I’d go back in there and try to catch ‘em in the act, but, honestly, I feel like shit. I think I’m getting a bug or something, man.”
“Yeah. Me too. But this is too good, man. I’ve got to go investigate. Besides, I feel like I might puke anyway. I think I took too many painkillers for my ear or something. I’ll get to the bottom of this. It’s probably just someone taking a hefty deuce, anyway.”
He stood up, a small tide of dizziness and nausea sliding from the crown of his head down to his ankles. His ear was still pulsing. Dylan’s sudden reinvigoration, sent coursing through his veins with the details of a potential interoffice affair, waned slightly as he realized that he legitimately might be sick. He steadied himself on his desk for a moment then turned and walked swiftly towards the bathrooms.
He opened the door to the Men’s room slowly, letting it swing open quietly before taking a few tentative steps inside. The lights were on. In the dim, 3-bulbed light of the Men’s room Dylan could see movement in the handicap stall. Just like Eric said. Those horny bastards couldn’t even wait ‘til they were off the clock. The noise was muffled, quiet. Whatever was happening in the back stall, someone was being very covert about the whole thing. He silently crouched down, half-squatting to see if he could identify the shoes of the perverted culprits.
He caught sight of the back heels of a pair of dress shoes. They were Allen’s, alright. His swanky fashion sense wouldn’t allow for anything other than high end leather that glistened like spit-shined silver. They were rhythmically rocking from heel to toe, heel to toe. My God. . .he’s really getting after it.
As he went to rise from his crouching position, leaning in closer to the crack in the door, he suddenly lost his balance. Whether it was the pills, the equilibrium-offage from his ear drum, or just being a little too uncoordinated to perform such a nimble, stealthy move, Dylan nearly fell.
He lurched off to his right, flailing wildly in an attempt to catch himself. He landed in a heap onto the bathroom floor. As he did so, crashing hard on his hip and tossing his hand into the bowl of the urinal, he set off the sensor on the toilet and it flushed, splashing water on the sleeve of his dress shirt. He leapt to his feet, threw the door open and power-walked his way down the aisles of cubicles without looking back.
He sat down heavily and desperately looked for Eric. He had to tell him what he’d seen. Laying there, flat on his back, his hand doused in toilet water, he had gotten a clear view. Allen had had his belt off. And he’d had it wrapped around her throat. Eric was nowhere to be seen.
Desperate to share this juicy gossip, Dylan squealed his chair back to the aisle and walked down to Chris’ cubicle. He wasn’t there either. He walked back to his cubicle and pulled his phone out, trying to remember how to spell “Asphyxiation.” If there wasn’t anyone around to tell about this then he was damn sure going to tell his girlfriend.
He pulled out his phone and dropped it onto the floor. The battery came flying out. “Shit.” He said out loud, an un-hushed whisper that he’d meant to keep a little quieter. His mind was spinning on its axis, wildly rotating at carnival-ride speeds. He lurched down to the floor to pick up his battery and fumbled to jam it back into his phone. A pair of shiny, glistening leather shoes landed in front of his crouched position. He craned his neck to look up.
“Hey, Dylan.” Allen’s voice was soft. Somewhat distant. He looked down at Dylan with a mild disinterest. “I hate when I drop my phone like that. Do you need to borrow mine to make a call?”
“No, thanks, man. This old POS is just about ready to get swapped out. Ya know, maybe I need to go back to a Blackberry or something.” The tips of his fingers were tingling. His body was strangely, electrically, charged with a current of fear. He accidentally made eye contact with Allen and immediately regretted it.
There was something there, in his eyes. A kind of vacant malice. He stared at Dylan. Not through him or past him. At him. Into him.
He tilted his head slightly to the left; a curious spectator, staring at a zoo animal behind the glass for the first time.
Dylan stood back up. It took his brain five seconds to catch up with his body, bungee-ing from down on the floor up to where it could fully communicate with his mouth. “Uh, did you need anything else?”
Allen smiled at him. Then he turned and walked away. He wasn’t wearing his belt.
What the fuck is going on around here today, he wondered to himself, watching Allen exit the maze of tan walls and generic, insurance company calendars. He jammed the battery back into his phone and pushed on the power button. Nothing. He pushed it again, this time holding the button down for a longer period of time. Still nothing. He plugged it into the USB charger that he always kept plugged in at his computer and sat back, waiting to see if there was any action. He heard a chair squeak next to him.
“Hey, man,” Dylan leaned over the cubicle wall, preparing to regale his friend with the lurid details of the bathroom fling he’d just witnessed. He caught himself, mid-sentence. Eric was staring at his computer screen, looking a little too intently at the e-mail that he’d opened. His fingers rested on the top of his keyboard where his thumb was still pressing the space bar button. He was spacing across his reply, one character mark at a time, a flickering cursor that was all but disappearing from the over-exertion.
He blinked twice then slowly turned around to look at Dylan. He didn’t say anything. Just turned and looked. Dylan’s spinal cord seemed to be winding its way to anaconda tightness. For the second time in the last 10 minutes he found himself cotton-mouthing empty, remixed attempts at words as he attempted to backpedal from someone he knew.
“Uhm. Nothing, man. Forget it.” Eric started to turn his chair back around. “Hey, man,” Dylan said, summoning courage from a place that he didn’t used to think was so buried beneath cowardice. “You okay?”
Eric turned and looked at him. He smiled, then, his lips curling up in the corners into a smirking attempt at happiness. “Yes.” He said it softly. As he finished the sentence he stood up and turned quietly. He left his cubicle.
Dylan desperately grabbed at his phone to see if plugging it in had helped. It was still dead. Either from the drop or from some kind of technological implosion at the worst possible time. His ear was pulsing, still, and his head was starting to spin a little faster. He took a deep breath and felt the oxygen rush to his brain. He looked at the bottle of pain pills, checking the side effects to see if there was any reason why he was feeling such wild, emotional, swings. Ticking through the laundry list of legal ass-covering, he finally touched on side effect in particular, nestled in between “diarrhea” and “heart palpitations.”
“Mild bouts of paranoia.”
Mild? He thought to himself. More like full-blown, governmental conspiracy, hide-my-ass-in-a-bunker paranoia.
An idea occurred to him, suddenly. Where had Eric been going? Their shift wasn’t over for another couple hours and his friend had left his computer unlocked and his car keys sitting on the desk. It wasn’t break time. He lurched to his feet, dizzily catching his shoulder on the edge of his cubicle as he set out at a brisk walk. He could just see Eric’s brown hair peeking out from the back cube in the networking department. Of course, he thought, he’s talking to Mark from networking about the Bellevue conversion. Still, he felt compelled to go and see.
As he was winding his way through a few more cubes, he saw Eric’s head disappear for a few moments. It came bouncing back into sight a few moments later.
As he was walking Dylan started to feel a little worse. He stopped for a minute. His eyes were getting a little cloudier. Something was going on with his vision. The hallway looked. . .dimmer, somehow, as though he was in a tunnel and it was only lit from a far window. He was going to have to call the doctor and make sure that he didn’t overdose on pain pills. Clearly that, coupled with his Diet pop-induced dehydration was taking its toll. It wasn’t going to be a very good night. And his ear still hurt.
His vision cleared briefly and he started walking again. Eric’s head was gone, disappeared to another section of the department or off to parts irrevocably office-y. Dylan rounded the corner to Mark’s desk, intent on asking him if he’d noticed anything weird about the way Eric was behaving. Mark was lying with his head down on the desk.
“Hey man, you need a five hour energy or wha—“ Dylan never finished his sentence. His voice sputtered to silence, jerking back into his throat with a sudden yank, like an expert fisherman, hooking a big-time catch.
Mark was dead.
Blood was pooling up near his black loafers and the wheels of his chair, dripping down the neutral tones of his desk. He lay slumped over, his right hand lifelessly dangling over the edge of his chair and his left hand smashed onto his keyboard.
Dylan reached for him, instinctively. Desperately hoping that the rising cocktail of bile and terror that was edging its way up his esophagus was somehow the product of those damn pills and not because he was really and truly staring at the bloodied body of Mark from networking. He leaned Mark gently back in his chair, confirming his worst fears with a dive-bombing heaviness.
His heart was machine-gunning in his chest, ripping off rapid fire, staccato shots.
Mark’s throat had been cut open. A jagged, imprecise, bloody canyon where his throat used to be. Dylan stumbled backwards, slamming his back painfully into the edge of the cubicle. He spun dizzily and dropped to his knees, tears welling up in his eyes. It has to be the pills. . .it has to be the pills. . .he rubbed his eyes, desperately scrubbing them with the palms of his hands and blinking feverishly in the hopes that somehow his pain-pill addled mind had failed him and he was back asleep at his desk.
Mark was still there. Mark was still dead.
Dylan lunged to his feet grabbing the office phone from off of Mark’s desk. “Hey,” he shouted into the pristine, corporate-manufactured air. “Hey, somebody come help!”
Three coworkers appeared at his side, materializing from cubicle aisles. “Holy shit! What happened to Mark!?!?” Antonio was the first to reach the scene. Dylan didn’t answer. He was busy desperately punching in 911 on the office phone.
Nothing. The office phone wasn’t dialing out.
“Somebody,” he rounded on the small group, his fear siphoning volume from his voice. “Use your cell phone. I can’t get Mark’s phone to work and my phone’s at my desk.”
Sue, one of the receptionists pulled out her cellphone and started to unlock it while Will came rushing up to look at Mark’s lifeless body. Dylan took a ragged breath and leaned heavily against the desk.
Mark’s phone crackled to life. The speaker hissed for a moment, then popped.
The same pulsing, ringing, noise from the conference room came blasting out of it. Louder this time. Reverberating like a brutal, unending cymbal crash. Dylan’s hands flew up to his ears once again. Leaping forward he grabbed the phone and yanked it out of its plug. He threw the phone against the far cube, shattering it into several pieces. The noise was still going.
It was building. Getting fuller. Dylan turned around realizing with horror that the noise was piping in through all the phones in the office; a rolling, roiling wave of excruciating decibels.
“Holy F-ing hell!” He shouted above the din. Struggling to stop the auditory buzzsaw from splitting into his brain. He slid down to the floor and balled up against the desk, huddling himself together, a child post-scolding. Just as suddenly as it had come, the noise went. There were a few last pops and a few final speaker hisses, but the noise had ended and with it came silence.
The silence. It vibrated. As Dylan finally released his white-knuckled human ear muffs, he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more pause than stop. Shakily, tenderly, he touched his non-ruptured ear. He looked down at his fingers. He wasn’t sure if it was his blood, or Mark’s. But there was blood on his fingers. “Hey, you guys, oka—“ He stopped mid-sentence.
Will, Antonio, and Sue weren’t moving.
They were standing still, blankly looking at one another, seemingly frozen; mannequins with pulses. Dylan had seen that same empty look on those same granite faces. It was what Eric had looked like. And Allen. He slowly rose to his feet. He needed to get to his cellphone and call the police. Or get to his car. Or get to the street. As long as he got the hell out of here.
This wasn’t the pills. This wasn’t dehydration mixed with overdose mixed with office drone stupor.
Something was very, very wrong.
To Be Continued. . .