Arnold didn’t care for the happy little chinaman that handed him his breakfast, nor for the attitude—one he interpreted as sarcasm—that seemed to drip from his voice when he was wished a good day. Then again, Arnold didn’t care for most people. They were, after all, tragically flawed in one way or another, usually through their own idiocy or their frantic need for contact with other human beings.
His day became worse when he stepped on the train, and found himself seated across from a young, chatty woman who found his suit, tie, and umbrella all quite fetching. She said so half a dozen times, and each time, it took all of Arnold’s self control not to get up and get off the train at the next station to try his luck.
Once, he’s sat across from a man who’d never even raised his eyes to look at his travelling partner. Arnold considered that one of the best days of his life.
As the woman got up, she looked at him, tilting her head sideways, the clucking in concern. “You should go to the doctor,” she recommended. Arnold didn’t ask why, but she volunteered the information anyway. “Your neck looks swollen. Might be the mumps.”
When she left, Arnold let out a long, slow breath and closed his eyes, silently thanking any deity that would listen.
He had worked out a path six years ago that, if walked, only required him to acknowledge four people on the way into the office. Four weeks ago, he discovered that arriving fifteen minutes earlier—which train scheduling had transformed into thirty minutes—allowed him to reduce that number to three.
He greeted Karl, the security guard, and Darren, the elevator operator, with the terse nod and ‘good morning’ that had left his lips at the start of each day. At his floor, he nodded to Nancy, the receptionist, and then continued down past the empty desk at the end—blissfully Pattyless—and to his office, where he sat down and communicated through memos with everyone who needed it that morning.
After that, he quietly drank his coffee, ate his breakfast, and read the morning paper while the first group of return memos arrived via messenger boys who had learned to leave their lips sealed.
On the way to lunch, he mistimed his exit, finding Patty sitting at her desk and looking intensely sad. He turned, planning to order food in, when she caught his attention. “Oh! Mister Cheese!”
He turned. “It’s Cheest,” he said for the uncountableth time. Flatly. Finding it hard to swallow.
She nodded. “Yes, sorry,” she apologized. “I was just wanting to let you know that I wouldn’t be in—“
Thank the gods.
“—because my father just passed away and I have—“
Get on with it.
“—to go take care of family affairs.”
“That’s fine. Take all the time you need.” He could manage without her.
She thanked him, then stopped and stared for a moment. “Are you… coming down with something, sir?” she asked.
He frowned. “No. I feel fine.”
“Oh, it’s just… your neck, sir. You look a bit swollen…”
He stared at her for a moment, then nodded. He walked into his office, glancing at himself in the small mirror he kept in a drawer, and then sighed. Another memo, copied to his supervisor and the Human Resources department, informing them that he was taking an additional hour for a medical visit. And then, a phone call—blissfully short—to schedule the appointment.
When he got up and walked out, he was pleased that Patty was gone. Less for him to do, then. He’d let someone else, a secretary or someone, take care of the flowers and condolences. If he was lucky, they’d sign his name for him.
“Looks like the mumps,” the doctor said, nodding slightly and getting out a pad. “You’ll be out of work for a few days, and you should get a nurse to watch you,” he recommended. “It’s dangerous to have them as an adult.”
Arnold stared at him. “I can’t be off from work right now,” he said.
“You’re going to have to be.”
“It’s not the mumps.”
“You’re most than welcome to go to another doctor, but they’ll tell you the same thing.”
“I feel fine.”
“You have the mumps.”
The second doctor agreed. And the third. Finally, with a bitterness that felt like it was rising to his throat like bile, he phoned the office to let them know the situation. The woman who answered felt it necessary to wish him a speedy recovery rather than simply acknowledge the illness, and he found himself wanting to find a way to have her fired. He would, he decided, when he returned.
Ending the first call, he talked to an operator and got the number for a nursing agency, hiring one to come round and monitor him three times a day—“You want to be safe, don’t you?” the second doctor had said, shortly before he went to the third—and make sure he didn’t need to be hospitalized, which was plausibly the worst of all possible fates at this point.
He made himself a drink, tossed it back, and walked up to his room to lay down. Hopefully, when the woman arrived, she would do her duty and leave.
“Hello, Arnold!” she said, chipper to the point that he was actively resisting striking her. “And how are you feeling today?”
She was also using his first name, which made him even more annoyed.
“Tolerable,” he said, swallowing hard to choke down the spit that had suddenly formed in his mouth.
“Good, good!” she said, pushing him down into the bed. His shoulders were on the pillow, and he was rapidly finding the situation intolerable. She fluffed the pillow behind his head, then insisted on putting a warming pad around his throat to ‘ease his discomfort’ or some other nonsense.
She fluffed his pillow, with him still on it, then pulled up the blanket and hurried to get him a cup of tea. And when she came back, he had to hear about her family.
“Oh, my son, Sheridan, he is away at university. My husband, that’s Gerald, I told you about Gerald, didn’t I?”
She had. Her third husband. She told him again anyhow.
“Anyhow, my husband Gerald and I, we’re ever so proud of him. He wants to become a doctor! Said when he did that he’d get to order his mother around, and I said to him, I said ‘You may become a doctor, but I’m not too old to tan you!’” She laughed. He was certain the feeling in his ears was blood. “And we laughed and laughed and laughed… Oh! You’ve not touched your tea!”
She got up, then put an arm around him, pulling him up and insisting on holding his tea to his lips and tilting the cup back to make him drink. It was too weak, and now, tepid. He grimaced slightly, which she interpreted as pain.
She rushed to get him a new heating pad and a pill. He sat up in the bed, coughing hard after she left, looking down at the neon-green mucus on his hand with distaste. He reached for a napkin, wiping it off, then tossing it in the trash. And then, she was back.
“Here we are!” she said, pushing him back down in the bed again. He gagged for a moment, feeling the phlegm enter his mouth again as she pushed the fresh heating pad around his neck. And then, she was sitting down again. Talking. Talk. Talk. Talk.
Her first husband, Reginald, had died in a car accident when she was pregnant with her oldest, Elliot, who she never saw anymore because he ran off with some… boy…he met in the army, and that was something she just couldn’t truck with. She’d tried, but in the end, she hadn’t been able to, and Jesus wouldn’t have approved anyhow, so there was that. And then, there was her other son, Mickey, who had died when he was three after her second husband, Samuel, had a heart attack while driving. And Samuel hadn’t lived long past that, but then she’d met Gerald a year or so later, and things were so much better with Gerald, and even Elliot had though Sheridan was simply wonderful, and even though she pretended not to know, she knew that Gerald still quietly sent Elliot Christmas Cards with little letters about how Sheridan and she were doing, but even then—
“Water,” he begged. He wasn’t begging because he was thirsty.
She leapt to her feet, fetching him a half-full glass, then sitting down beside him and pulling him up in much the same way that she had done earlier with the tea. He was shaking—which she believed was a chill—when she pulled away, and halfway through insisting him back down into the bed, he snapped.
“Get your hands off me, you incessant, nattering… cunt!”
It happened on ‘cunt,’ with his mouth open and gaping in rage, eyes screwed up, that a line of green liquid shot from his throat. It hit her between the eyes, then instantly seemed to wash over her face.
She fell backward, thrashing on the floor and trying to push herself up, slapping at her face and trying to get the strange liquid off. It was the color of bile, and as he sat in his bed, he watched her writhing and screaming on the floor. He didn’t rise to check on her until she’d stopped, ten minutes later, and by then… well…
Maybe Gerald could finally have a moment’s peace.
He worked rather automatically. Wrapping her body up in the rug on the floor, wrapping two old belts around her, then carrying her down the stairs of his house and out to the car. When he dropped her in the trunk of it, he realized he was wearing his pajamas still. With a blush, he walked back into the house, trying to keep his dignity.
He was back at work the next day. It was free of Patty still, and he found himself silently praising whatever mad bureaucrat had come up with bereavement pay. Hopefully, she’d cash in on every dime. He sat down at his desk, scratching out the memos with a small amount of delight in the regularity of the task, then sending them out again.
He smiled. Actually smiled! And relaxed into his chair, enjoying his coffee and the fresh biscuit that he had with it. The swelling was gone, and he felt… good. For the first time in ages, he felt actually good. It really was bad to bottle up everything inside yourself, after all.
Sometimes… you just had to let it all out.
License: CC BY:NC:SA 3.0