Horla Fiction (December 2021)

 

BREATHE

by DON STOLL

He would be working in a building that was only thirty-four stories tall. Timothy, who had told him about the job, said “only” in order to mock Greg’s fear of heights.

Timothy was highly placed, but Greg’s chain of command did not lead up to him. Greg was in chains to other people. It may have been the knowledge that Timothy had no direct power over him that had seduced Greg into relaxing too much one night after work. A couple drinks over the line, and Greg had spilled the secret about his acrophobia. In the morning, hung over, Greg realized that Timothy was the kind of person you should never confess your weaknesses to.       

“Grew up in New York and you’ve never been on the observation deck of the Empire State Building,” Timothy laughed. “You’ll have an interior office at this place, though.”

Greg did his best to return a blank look.        

“A lot of people are terrified to look down from tall buildings. If I were in charge, I’d take advantage of that and use those floor-to-ceiling windows in the therapy.”       

“Therapy?” Greg said.

He thought that the vulnerability of people like Timothy was that if you try to sail over other people like they don’t matter, you get careless. You let information slip out.         

“What therapy?”               

“Do you want the job or not?” Timothy said.       

“I’ve got it?” Greg said, knowing that he sounded too eager.       

That was his vulnerability. And Timothy had not revealed anything useful.       

“You’ve got it,” Timothy said. “I owe you for turning me on to Julie.”       

It was being seen with Julie that had qualified Greg to rub elbows with Timothy.        

“You mention the thirty-four stories  because I’ll be high up?”       

“Thirtieth floor,” Timothy said.       

In Greg’s current job he worked on the fourth floor.        

“If the height’s too much. . .” Timothy said.       

“I want it. And if Julie doesn’t work out, I’ll introduce you to somebody else.”       

“You beat ’em off with a stick, don’t you? What’s the secret? Is it that you’re tall, so. . .”       

Timothy raised an eyebrow.        

“You’re tall everywhere?”       

Greg was silent.       

“It’s okay,” Timothy said. “Not a secret if you give it away. This is so much better than online dating. That’s a crapshoot. But I knew you’d given Julie a full audition.”         

Greg felt sick. He had to remind himself that Julie was a big girl.      

“Anyway, your new job,” Timothy said. “Folks you’re working for have the top five floors. They were occupied for a while by the anti-pandemic task force. Then the White House changed hands and the new President moved them so they could have an entire building. She said nothing like COVID was going to happen on her watch since it cost us the White House back in the day.”       

“COVID,” Greg said. “That was supposed to be a rough time.”       

“Supposed to be? You don’t remember?”        

“I remember not hating it. My dad worked from home, and he’d grab me every couple of hours so we could go out in the yard to play basketball.”       

“Never noticing you were the wrong color for it,” Timothy winked.          

Greg didn’t want to explain that he had made his high school team. He imagined Timothy saying, “Bet you couldn’t dunk, though, tall as you are.” Greg would have said of course he could dunk, but Timothy would have said something about his ancestry: something like “Might want to see if there’s a monkey in your family tree.” He imagined Timothy saying, “Would explain why you’re tall everywhere, and the way you have with the ladies.”          

Greg changed the subject.        

“This new department I’ll be supporting. You can’t hint at what they do?”        

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Timothy grinned.        

Greg thought he should try again.    

“Top secret. Pretty exciting.”       

“Not for you,” Timothy said. “You’ll be shuffling paper.”        

As much as I’ll get for now, Greg thought.       

“Got to go,” Timothy said. “Meeting Julie.”       

He punched Greg playfully, but too hard, under the collarbone, and flashed his teeth. He kept his lips frozen in place and pointed to his mouth. Greg needed a moment to understand.       

“You’re good. Nothing in your teeth.”  

“Thanks,” Timothy said. “But maybe you’re okay with that.”       

Greg’s eyes opened wide.           

“okay with. . .”       

“Me killing you,” Timothy said. “So I’ll elaborate: it wouldn’t be quick.”       

He showed his teeth again.     

*

In Greg’s new job, his department occupied a small fraction of the thirtieth floor, accessed by way of a dedicated elevator. Access to the rest of the floor and to the upper four floors was blocked. His department was responsible for payroll. Payroll was complicated because the project tasks were executed by independent contractors.        

The contractors worked irregular hours. Nobody earned the same rate as anyone else. Some contractors were paid multiple rates. Greg speculated that the “therapy” Timothy had been so coy about involved different levels of risk for the patients, hence different levels of liability for the contractors administering the therapy. But he had no way to satisfy his curiosity about the kinds of therapy being administered, or the goals, or who the patients were.                  

His co-workers included a man that Greg learned was gay when he began flirting. He kept at it after Greg made it clear that even though the behavior would lead nowhere, he didn’t mind.        

What Greg minded was that his co-workers included no blacks or Hispanics or Asians or Native Americans. The new President had spoken bluntly about the direction she wanted to take the country in. Yet this was extreme.          

He might have given up the job except for the woman in an office down the hall.       

Louise was, out of all the light-skinned, light-haired, light-eyed workers in the department, the lightest. Her skin was as close to the color of ice as any living human’s skin could be. Greg thought this suited her because of the reception she had given him when they were introduced by the gay man, whose enthusiasm for Greg threw her coldness into startling contrast. Yet he was intrigued. Her aloofness suggested intelligence and independence. Her lipstick, blue one day and green the next, hinted at a rebellious streak.        

Late on his first Friday in his new job, he walked to her office. The door was open. Sitting in her dark coat and blue scarf, she stared at her wall clock. It showed two minutes to five.        

“Want some company?” he said. “We got off on the wrong foot, so let’s start over.”       

She surprised him by smiling.       

“It’s deliberate. I’m not every guy’s cup of tea and I want them to know. Let’s get a drink.”        

She stood and said, “Bar on the ground floor good enough?”       

In the elevator, she spoke first.       

“Am I the only one who thinks there’s something weird about this place? I don’t think the people they’ve hired is a coincidence. I bet it has something to do with the work.”       

While he thought about it she said, “I guess it’s not nice to talk about on a date.”        

He was pleased to learn that it was a date.        

When the elevator stopped she said, “I’m going to get drunk before you.”       

She ordered whisky and he said, “I’m going to beat you,” and ordered a double.       

They probed for details about one another’s lives. The discovery that Greg had asthma interested her. Her mother suffered from it.       

“It’s under control unless she gets stressed,” she said, and he said, “Same here.”        

He explained how he had coped when playing high school basketball.       

“The coach would only put me in for a few minutes at a time. And his style was made for me. We never ran fast breaks.”    

“I don’t like basketball,” she said. “But I like it that you’re tall. I’m going to shimmy up you like you’re a flagpole. Talk about whatever you want and I’ll just look at you.”                                                          

He talked but she was distracted. Halfway through the second drink she returned to her unease with their work.           

“We should try to find out what they’re doing,” she said.   

They finished their drinks and he said, “Another?”       

She said, “It’s a great world to get drunk in.”       

Greg had dropped down to a single for his second drink. Now he ordered a double again.                                                                                                                             

Louise kept speculating about their work.       

“There’s a perfect fit between the new President’s politics and the way everybody looks in our department. And I’ve heard something about therapy—”       

“Therapy?” Greg said. “Me too.”        

“Okay. But why would therapists sneak around and never show their faces? What’s the big deal about therapy? Jeez, a couple of years ago I was in therapy for depression.”                                                                                        

He wondered if he should invent something about having been in therapy. But she was smart. He wasn’t confident that he could fool her.       

He had another idea. They had reached a tacit agreement that they would go to her apartment. He thought they would be more excited when they got there if they did something else exciting first.         

Three drinks was usually Louise’s maximum. But Greg said that a fourth would provide extra courage. He ordered another double for himself.

*

On the ride up, Greg suddenly wondered why they were bothering.       

“The department will be locked.”        

“Kevin stays late,” Louise said. “And doesn’t even come out of his office to lock up.”          

Kevin was their supervisor.       

“Hard worker?”        

“Married,” she said. “Easier for him to do his thing here than at home.”        

The elevator door had opened and Louise was walking down the hall before Greg could ask what Kevin’s thing was. He caught up when she stopped to remove her high heels.        

“Trying to be quiet? Guess I should take my shoes off too.”       

“He won’t hear us over his noise,” she said. “Can’t walk in these when I’m drunk, though.”       

Greg had tried to tell himself that he wasn’t drunk. Louise’s admission made that harder. It occurred to him that they ought to be sober to do what they were doing.       

Without heels she was tiny. He rested a protective arm on her shoulder. Through the door of the supervisor’s office, its frosted glass lit by the images on his computer, they heard a sequence of ecstatic sighs and moans. Louise covered her mouth to suppress her laughter.       

In her office, Greg spoke as she foraged in her desk.       

“I’m starting to think how hard it will be to get through the wall if this stuff is top secret.”       

“You know this place has been open less than a month?”       

“So?”                  

“I think the President pushed so hard to get this going that whoever’s running it had to get sloppy to please her,” she said.       

She displayed a screwdriver.        

“I’ve been thinking about this,” she said. “But I needed a partner in crime.”        

They walked to the end of the hall. She handed him the screwdriver. He inspected the door whose handle she wanted him to remove.        

He said, “It’ll be bolted on the other side,” and she said, “Just try.”        

He removed the handle, gaining access to the mechanism by which the door had been locked from the other side. Releasing it was simple. The door came free. He slid it aside.       

“You sure—” he said, but Louise had stepped through the opening.       

He followed.        

Near the end of the hall they heard rap music. Before reaching its source they stopped outside another room. Through the window in the door they saw a black man sitting in a plush chair. He faced a large screen. He sipped from a tall glass with an umbrella in it.       

“Fucking It’s a Wonderful Life,” Louise said. “A black guy watching that!”         

“But why—”         

“Let’s check out the other room.”       

It presented a different scene: a black man, naked, arms suspended above his head by chains. He stood in a bucket. Ice cubes were visible above the rim. He faced a screen on which several black men assaulted a white woman.           

“Aversion therapy?” Greg said. “Like in that old movie? Uh. . .”       

Clockwork Orange. So if you’re right, the other room is attachment—”       

Louise’s words became a cry. Greg turned to see her draped over the shoulder of a heavily muscled man who said, “Let’s get that soul brother out of the bucket and watch her instead.”        

Two other men had seized Greg. They hustled him to the end of the hall and around the corner, into a hall whose only light came from the city beyond the glass.        

Between wheezes, Greg begged for his inhaler.       

“You can’t breathe? We can get oxygen in you faster than your inhaler can.”       

He felt his head push against the glass. He felt the glass flex.

 

***

Don Stoll has failed to find a place in the film industry despite several years of residence in Southern California. He believes that lack of photogeneity and lack of talent have blocked his way. In recent times, he has been writing ‘the noirish’ as well as horror, with fiction appearing in PULP MODERN, HOOSIER NOIR, PUNK NOIR , BRISTOL NOIR , CLOSE TO THE BONE, YELLOW MAMA and more. In 2008, he and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasising women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages. Previous writing by him for Horla can be found by entering his name in the search engine at top right of any of our pages.

Title photo credit –  The DK Photography on Unsplash

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