You’re watching a spot of blood bloom on Marlon’s white shirt.
Anastasia sterilized the blade, your eyes watching her thin fingers work; it’s just a standard scalpel, which is a little disappointing given all the build up, the mythology. You couldn’t look away as Marlon took a breath, eyes open, not making a sound as he pulled the scalpel across his ribs. You wondered how Anastasia got those latex gloves over her acrylic nails without tearing them. Practice, you guess. And even after all your fantasizing about her, watching her pull on latex gloves is way hotter than you anticipated. She cleaned the wound, applied a bandage, wrapped gauze in three tight bands around his torso.
But despite her care, despite the slow and deliberate playing out of this ritual, you see some blood has soaked through the bandage, through the gauze, and is right now ruining a very nice shirt. A bead of sweat appears at Marlon’s temple, and he grimaces as he pulls his sport coat back over his shoulders.
All hands back in the office starting Monday! was the subject of the email you got last week, the one that landed in the pit of your stomach like a lead weight. Like a pound of flesh. The job was all right when it was remote, easy, but the idea of spending precisely 40 hours a week with these people is another story. Working as a team in person is a critical component of our company culture. But if you’re being honest with yourself, sharing stale office air with Anastasia after two years of on-again-off-again lockdowns sounds downright erotic. Plus the economy sucks, and it’s not like your generation has many options. And you in particular, with your student loans and two useless degrees. You have to take what you can get.
What you got was a remote gig as creative director for Chad Corwin Inc., and what you’ve gathered over the past twelve weeks is that CCI is little more than a tax shelter for Chad’s expensive habits and various side hustles, all of which sound like the cult of late capitalist bullshit to you. But, hey, everyone has a hustle these days, right? And given the disparities between your actual experience as a creative director and what it says on your resumé, if everyone’s got a hustle you might as well own up that this is yours. There are no benefits; no healthcare, no paid vacation. But given the general earth-shaking of this so-called global pandemic, given the looming reality that you wouldn’t make rent if something didn’t manifest, landing this gig was a blessing.
But now you’re watching Anastasia hand a small vial of Marlon’s blood to Chad as Marlon slowly lowers himself into a chair in the corner of the room. Chad’s barefoot, which isn’t surprising, and wearing a $200 tank top, as if scamming hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from well-intentioned but gullible wannabe flyover entrepreneurs somehow elevates him above even the most modest social contracts. Chad’s about eighty pounds overweight, and his expensive designer tank top makes it look like he has breasts. Anastasia peels her gloves off and stands, waiting, while Chad examines the vial like he’s looking for something specific, something more than the pain and humiliation, which you know is the real commodity. It always is. Chad strokes his beard. You can tell he dyes it. Everyone can tell.
When he seems satisfied, Chad nods. Anastasia steps forward and takes the vial. She sets it on a shelf next to the rest. Chad’s gaze falls on Cynthia, and you see her start to shake. Not just tremble, but really shake. Cynthia’s not old, per se, but she’s got twenty-five years on you and Marlon, and she’s spent the past ten here in this office, penitent at Chad’s bare feet. That’s where she goes now, down on her knees. She crawls across the floor toward him, pleading.
Please, she says. Please, I swear my numbers will be back up next quarter. The words slide out of her, wet, smacking on the floor as they fall. Please, you’re right, I’ve been slacking. Please. I know you’re always right. She squeezes her hands together, rocks back on her feet. Her stockings have torn at the knees.
You realized early on you could half-ass your job because Chad himself was half-ass. Every Monday, you’d watch Chad smoke expensive cigars and sip $60 pours of single malt Scotch at 9:00 in the morning. An overweight fifty-year-old man in a tank top looking to rebrand himself as an influencer. A business guru, as he explains it. Eight other little heads in little boxes just like yours, pixelated faces feigning rapt attention. In your first video call, you watched him yell at Cynthia until she cried. Her mic was muted, but you could tell. You mentioned it later in the employee Slack channel.
Chad’s a genius, was all anyone would say. We trust him because he’s the best, and you’ll see that soon. You’ll believe.
But for most of those video calls you watched Anastasia scroll Instagram on her phone. Or paint her nails. Sometimes you’d know she was texting with a lover. You could tell. Everyone could tell. When she’d laugh, your breath would catch. And when she’d look up into the camera, once or twice you were ready to grab a screenshot. And if you timed it right, and she was looking straight down the barrel, you could tell yourself later that she was looking at you, only you, ready to tell you secrets.
And now those eyes are here, and they are looking at you, looming brown and large enough to fall into. And you’re standing, and she’s reaching up to push the sport coat off your shoulders as Cynthia falls, whimpering, back into her chair. You hear the click and hiss of Chad’s blowtorch and know he’s lighting a cigar. You blink away the sting of cigar smoke and look down into Anastasia’s brown eyes as she starts undoing the buttons on your shirt. You hear the blowtorch again and know Chad’s heating the brand. Anastasia smiles as she pulls the bottom of your shirt out of your slacks, and you figure, What the hell? I can always quit.
Jacob Strunk has been short-listed for both a Student Academy Award and the Pushcart Prize in fiction, as well as the Glimmer Train short story award and the New Rivers Press book prize. His films have screened in competition and by invitation across the world, and his fiction has appeared in print for over 20 years. He earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and teaches film and media in Los Angeles, where he lives with a few framed movie posters and the ghost of his cat, Stephen.
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