What a month!
Stay tuned for the obligatory 'what I learned during my first ever NaNoWriMo' essay.
Henry and Henrietta showed up at the office. Both were exhausted from the night prior and did not want to return as early as they were, but the text they had received from Darlene felt urgent. When they arrived, Darlene looked exactly as she had when they left her. Like, exactly. It was very likely from her appearance that she had just stayed the night in the office. The only difference was that her hair was slightly flatter a musty looking. Darlene led them into the conference room and sat down.
“I appreciate you for coming in on such short notice,” she said. “I think it’s time that we go through our first employee performance evaluation.”
Henrietta raised her hand.
“Are we doing this here and now or will we have them one on one,” she asked.
“Both,” Darlene said. “They will be here, now, and I will speak to you one at a time.”
Henry and Henrietta nodded slowly.
“Let’s start off with you, Hen.”
Darlene pulled out a yellow legal pad that filled with tiny writing. She flipped through several pages until she came across one with the header ‘Hen’ written in big block letters.
“Okay, Hen. I want you to know not to take this evaluation of your performance and personality personally,” she said, combing through the text. “You really dropped the ball this shift, and your scores will reflect that.”
Henry swallowed hard.
“I have written down here that you abandoned the gate during your shift, is that correct?”
“And that when you abandoned the gate, you were not operating the gate.”
“I also have written here that on your public Facebook page, you regularly misuse punctuation.”
Darlene produced a screenshot that had been taken of a computer screen with an actual camera. The image was distorted and covered in lines, but Henry could make out his status from the night prior: “First day of work tonight! Excited!”
“‘Excited’ is not a full sentence,” Darlene said.
“Wait, is the issue me using Facebook during work? Because I posted this before I was at work.”
Darlene inched her face closer to Henry, not like romantic-tension close – they were still a table away from one another – more, ‘the raptors in the kitchen’ scene from Jurassic Park’ sort of close.
“Henry, I have told you once before not to speak with me tersely. This is not a time to attack me for something that you did,” she said. “While you were not on the clock, you were still technically employed here, and when you are employed here you must always be on your best and most professional behavior. Poor punctuation use is unprofessional and will not be tolerated. We might also have to speak about your Tumblr blog.”
“It’s an aesthetic blog,” Henry whimpered.
“And I don’t appreciate the aesthetic,” Darlene hissed.
She sat back in her chair.
“Plus you have some serious issue with photo citation, which-”
Darlene was interrupted by her phone ringing. She stopped speaking, took a full five seconds to dig the phone out of her purse, and picked it up. It was Verge at the gate. He told her to come quickly and hung up without explaining further. Darlene set the phone down.
“Well, it looks like we have a special assignment that will interfere with the evaluations today,” Darlene said. “Henri, you get a default ten out of ten. Hen, I will only give you a seven out of seven; you have room for improvement. Now come with me.”
The three walked out of the conference room, past the locker – Henry gave it a double take after hearing a phantom barking sound that was entirely in his imagination – and out the door. The same buzz sounded through the cul de sac, and when Henrietta looked up, she saw that the street lights were still on. A car was parked at the gate. To figures, one presumably Verge, stood next to it, and as they reached closer they could hear yelling. Further inspection revealed the second figure to be Jon.
“They let me go!” Jon yelled. “And either you let me leave now or I will drive through someone’s lawn!”
Verge saw Darlene and gave a sigh of relief. Jon saw Henry and Henrietta and immediately grabbed for his keys.
“No!” Verge yelled. “Hen, get him.”
Henry, looking to please, sprinted full force at Jon. Jon was standing in front of his car, so he wasn’t in an optimal position to be tackled. Unsure what to do with his momentum and without much time to think, Henry reach his arm back and punched Jon squarely between the eyes. His head fell back and smacked the rearview window. He slumped to the ground, conscious, but very dazed.
Verge made a crayfish clawing motion with his hand toward Darlene and she handed him a zip tie. Verge bent down and bound Jon tightly at the wrists. Jon moaned in pain. Darlene clapped merrily. Henry tried to catch his breath, and Henrietta observed everything with confusion.
“This is the one they’ve been looking for,” Verge. “He just drove right in.”
“I just need to get my shit and leave,” Jon said from the ground. “You told me I was free to leave.”
“Yes, well that was before I got a warrant for your arrest in the group chat,” Darlene said.
She bent down to Jon’s level and pulled out her phone to show him. It was a brief message explaining that one of Heather’s friends had run away from the party after an incident, accompanied by Jon’s profile picture.
“That’s a Facebook message from Liza to your book club,” Jon said. “That’s not an arrest warrant.”
“If this neighborhood was a city, Liza would be the police chief, so for all purposes in tents, it’s a warrant. Thank you for your work, Hen. I will be updating your evaluation to an eight out of eight.”
She reached down and tightened Jon’s constraints. Darlene stood up, pulling up Jon as she did. His body was limp, not so much from the punch, but more from Jon trying his hardest to defy Darlene’s will. Using this subordination and gravity against him, Darlene let go of the zip tie and Jon fell back to the ground face first, without his hands to catch him. His nose and teeth struck the ground and made a single audible click, like when you and your friend need to work together to draw something on a chalkboard, but you only have one stick of chalk, so – being the critical thinking individuals you are – one of you grabs the piece of chalk firmly by both ends and snaps it in two, making that sound not unlike a twig snapping but sharper and more high pitched.
“Okay, Darlene, let’s not get too crazy,” Verge said. “He’s not a dog.”
The two laughed together with concerning merriment. Darlene reached her hand into Jon’s jean’s pocket – an incredibly difficult task if you’ve never tried; jean pockets were meant to be accessed by the wearer and the wearer alone – and pulled out the car key. She threw it to Henry and commanded him to pull the car out of the way of the gate. Henry held the keys dumbly.
“But there won’t be anyone to open the gate even if someone wanted to come through,” Henry pondered.
“Hen, if you weren’t you, I would tell you to tackle you right now. Now go move that car away from the gate, and let’s get going.”
Henry obliged and got into the car. It was filled with the normal amount of trash that one might expect from a car owned by an individual of Jon’s demographic, but the air carried a strong smell of wet towel, and Henry couldn’t locate a wet towel. He turned on the car and pulled it over to the side of the road. The wheel was sticky. Not sticky in a ‘visibly noticeable and tangibly noticeable when putting one’s hands down’ way, but sticky in a ‘when you take you have to go hand-over-hand to turn, each time you take your hand off the wheel, there’s a little resistance; you hear a little sound, and you get the chills’ way. Henry exited the car gagging a bit.
“Your parking skills are subpar,” Darlene said.
The five made their way to Liza’s house.
Heather knew that her mother was following her, but kept walking until at least two rooms away from dining room. She stopped in a large living space with a piano, fireplace, and ample seating. Heather threw herself down onto the couch. Liza sat delicately next to her and brushed her hair with her hand. It was soft but bore the signs of having been vomited, slept on in a hospital, and only lightly washed in a sink without a proper shower. Billy and Ben crept in shortly after and stuck themselves to the walls. Heather’s face was pressed into a pillow. Though she couldn’t see who had walked in, she didn’t really care.
“How does it feel not being dead anymore?” Liza asked with a dreamy voice.
Her hand caught a knot and she brought in her other hand to work on it.
“Not as lively as I was hoping,” Heather replied after a moment of contemplation. “I just feel like my whole body has a headache.”
Billy’s mind said ‘straight people be like,’ but his heart said ‘keep it in your head or text it to Ben’. Liza nodded consolingly and continued stroking Heather’s hair.
“You know I’ll always support you in whatever decision you make,” Liza said. “If you want me to lock Chris in the cellar, we can lock him in the cellar. I’m pretty sure we could get away with that. Might have to cancel book club though. Or just uninvited Maggie… I think I’d be okay with that.”
Heather shook her head. She didn’t want that. Plus, it would be more appropriate to lock Connor in the cellar. Nothing made sense, and she just felt exhausted. All her life, if she had bad dreams about a fight at school, or invasive thoughts about something mean she had done, Liza would tell her to either delegitimize it, or turn it into a lesson. She could look at that broken glass and say “you know, shit happens. We can get a new one,” or look at it as an opportunity to reflect on special awareness. But she couldn’t think of a way to get the thoughts away or come to a conclusion about Chris. Chris was someone that she had known for a very long time and someone for whom she cared about. As broken as he seemed, Chris wasn’t a smashed bottle of Côte-Rôtie that, come to think of it, was probably still laying broken and sour on the cellar floor. But if she chose to care about Chris, what kind of lesson was she supposed to learn from this? She just wanted someone to blame.
Thundering footsteps and shouting sounded from the foyer, and Liza jumped. Heather did too, not because of the sounds, but because Liza’s hands were still deeply rooted in her thick knotted hair. Liza turned, expecting to see Andy beefing with Chris and Paul, but instead it was Darlene, her crew in tow. Darlene stormed to the center of the room, black combat boots getting dust on the carpet, and threw the heap of Jon onto the ground. Now Heather jumped. She had turned her head briefly to see what was going on and – with her head on the couch low to the ground – seen Jon’s crumple to the floor far closer than she would have liked had she been given warning.
Heather scooted back into a seated position and stared at the lump. His face was swollen and generally unrecognizable, but mostly unrecognizable because Jon wasn’t really a face one remembered. Or a body one remembered. Jon was a fairly unmemorable individual unless you were Paul. A police sketch artist could probably get a decent result interviewing Connor or Bailey or Jon’s own mother, would he or she be employed to do so, but that list capped off at three.
“Caught without a leash,” Darlene said proudly.
Liza stared at the crumpled body with a like confusion to Heather’s. Billy and Ben squinted from afar.
“What have you put on my carpet?” Liza asked.
Darlene hesitated and turned to Verge. Verge turned to Henry, and Henry turned to Henrietta. Henrietta looked at the floor, and the lump spoke up.
“Jon,” Jon said, coughing.
Red flecks burst out of his mouth. They were dry flecks though, ones that you could probably vacuum up if you tried hard enough. Liza looked to her nephew.
“Which one is he again?”
“Paul’s brother,” Billy said.
It wasn’t his trauma, but just the presence of Jon made Billy start feeling nauseated for Heather of sympathy. Saliva built up in his mouth, and he swallowed.
More footsteps and the indistinct sound of three people struggling to take rubber gloves off of their hands because of that whole air tight seal effect came from around the corner. Andy, Paul, and Chris had made quick work of the dishes and came over to investigate the sound followed by Connor and Bailey who had been sitting at the table awkwardly. Chris recognized Jon on the ground. He wanted to feel happy at the sight of Jon’s visibly bruised and swollen face, but he just felt repulsed.
“Heather, would it make you feel any better if Chris kicked Jon?” Liza asked.
Darlene nodded quickly. She stared at Heather eagerly.
“I don’t think so?” Heather replied.
Jon, hearing all of this clearly, started to get up. Darlene moved over and took the kick herself. He collapsed back to the floor and chose not to move. It didn’t make Heather any happier. It made her already-pumped stomach sicker.
“Should we do more kicking?” Verge asked. “I imagine this one would be very good at it.”
He pointed to Henry who smiled sheepishly. Liza took a look at Heather and shook her head.
“No, you can leave,” Liza said. “There are far too many people in my house right now, and I’m having a hard time breathing.”
This was true. With she and Andy, Heather and Chris, Billy and Ben, Connor and Bailey, Paul and Jon, Darlene and Verge, and the two new hires she couldn’t remember the names of, there wasn’t even enough seats in the room might they have wanted to all sit down, and the room had ample seating.
Darlene made to pick up Jon and Liza stopped her.
“He’ll stay with us,” Liza said.
Darlene nodded and directed her team out the door. Henry turned back and tossed Jon’s car key toward him. They hit him in the left eye. The door slammed closed and echoed through the house.
Andy approached Jon with a careful eye. She knew better than to tell Liza what they should do with him, but she wanted to ensure that he stayed alive, at the very least, with intention. There was a large raised bruise between his eyes that spread to his left eye. Further down his face his nose was kinked crooked, and his lip was very swollen.
“I’m going to get ice,” Andy said.
Liza did not stop her. Andy shuffled away from the room. Liza took a good look at Jon’s face herself. For as long as she had lived she never really understood why people killed other people. Now wasn’t an exception – the idea of having to deal with a dead body was more than her sensibilities could handle – but part of her had just subscribed to schadenfreude plus. The tinged green at the edges of his bruises fueled her. It wasn’t happiness though. Something close, but something more ephemeral.
Without asking Heather, Liza stood up and stomped loudly next to Jon’s head. He whimpered and shut his eyes, curling into a ball. It didn’t feel good. It just felt sick.
“Heather, do you have anything you’d like to do with this boy,” Liza asked.
Heather shook her head slowly. Liza turned to Billy.
Billy shook his head. Liza questioned each individual in the room. Ben said no. Chris and Paul both stayed quiet. Andy arrived with an icepack wrapped in a hand towel.
“You two then,” Liza said, looking to Connor and Bailey. “Just get him out of my house.”
Andy handed the ice pack to Bailey who, with the help of Connor, hoisted Jon to his feet. Jon stared at the ground, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Paul produced a knife and cut the zip tie binding Jon’s wrists. He didn’t flee. He wanted to flee, but he was too tired, and too broken to do so. Connor picked the keys off the floor, and the two helped Jon limp out of the room and out of the house.
There wasn’t a blood stain left on the carpet. There was however an imprint of the carpet fibers, pressed in a different direction in distinct shape on the ground in addition to the trail of dust that Darlene had brought in. Liza kept stroking her daughter’s hair.
“Can I talk with Chris alone for a moment?” Heather asked.
Liza nodded, gave her daughter a squeeze, and led everyone out of the room. Billy tried to stop the train just feet outside the room, but Liza had had enough eavesdropping for the weekend. She dragged them all the way to the guest quarters and sat down. They waited.
Chris took a seat. Heather had returned to laying on the couch. He didn’t like the image. He didn’t like that she was sad, and he didn’t like that he had made her sad. But he knew that none of that was in his control now. He could very well have been the one tied up on the ground kicked harshly with a combat boot, but instead he was sitting in a nice chair across from a nice woman, his physical health intact, feeling like absolute garbage.
“I can’t do it,” Heather said.
She scooted back into a seated position, rubbing her face with her eyes. She took an elastic from her wrist and tied her hair back.
“If I said I was cool with what happened, I’d be lying to myself,” she said. “If you said you were over what happened, I’d think you’re lying too. If we walked back to my mother and aunt and cousin and Paul and said ‘we’re gonna make it Facebook official’ they’d all be uncomfortable. And I don’t think we’re fooling anyone.”
Chris nodded. Though they were words of rejection, Chris felt uplifted in a way. He was happy to know that Heather was making a choice, and he was happy to have some kind of direction for what he could do to make things better.
“I still don’t remember everything, and from my blackout experiences in the past, I don’t think any of that memory is going to come back,” Heather said. “But for the sake and for the health of me, you, and everyone. I just can’t do it.”
Chris continued to nod.
“It’s gross because I still care about you, but right now I just feel sick being around you,” Heather said. “So, what I’m going to do is I’m going to work this through with my therapist, and when she thinks I’m good and when I think I’m good, I’ll think about texting you, and we can see how things go from there. You work your shit out however works best for you, but after you leave with your things, I don’t want to see you for a while.”
Heather stood up and so did Chris. He didn’t get head rush this time. His vision was clearer and his head was clearer.
“Let’s go get your stuff.”
The two left the room and walked the path the guest quarters. Arriving, they found everyone, Liza and Andy included, staring at their phones. Liza was updating the book club group chat on events. Andy was playing a word game. Billy and Ben were texting one another, and Paul was scrolling through old photos. They looked up as Heather and Chris walked in. Liza stared at her daughter expectantly.
“We’ve decided,” Chris started. “Well, Heather decided and I agree that we’re going to take some time away for a while.”
Liza smiled a small smile.
“That’ll be good,” she said. “You two are young, and you have plenty of time.”
“I’m going to grab my things. Thank you, Liza, for hosting, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am for what I did to ruin this weekend.”
“It would be disingenuous to say that was any better in my youth,” Liza said; Andy nodded in confirmation. “So your apology is accepted. And I mean, the weekend wasn’t a total bust. We still have these two flirting with love.”
Liza motioned to Billy and Ben who both set down their phones and immediately shouted their dissent in concert.
“I’m not going to say rude things about Billy around his family, but rest assured that is not accurate,” Ben said.
“You have my permission,” Andy said.
“Piece of shit,” Ben said.
“Piece of trash,” Billy replied.
“You know, that’s not the sentiment I remember reading,” Liza interrupted.
She produced a folded piece of paper from her pocket. Ben lunged towards it, but Billy grabbed him by the waist, pulling him back to the couch.
“I found this in Ben’s room during my mid-morning sweep for GHB. Oh don’t worry Ben, I won’t read the whole thing out loud. It’s far too graphic. But I will say, ‘you’ve stretched my heart and made it wide’ generally contradicts most of what you’ve said recently.”
Ben turned beat red. Billy snatched the page from Liza’s hands. He only had a second to look at it before Ben snatched it out of his, but it was enough of a glance to turn him just as red as Ben.
“Well it’s not my fault if Ben’s obsessed with me,” Billy said. “That’s on him.”
“You aren’t playing anyone but yourself, Billy,” Paul said, looking up. “I had a clean view of your phone for the past fifteen minutes, and I saw more than I wanted to see from both Ben and you.”
“You’re bluffing,” Billy said.
“I snuck creep shots.”
Billy lunged at Paul and wrestled for his phone while Ben smartly locked his phone. Heather was happy for a distraction. She would have preferred one that didn’t involve some kind of violence, but it seemed playful, and above all else, the attention was off of her. Chris took the moment of action as a way to exit to his room without being too visually distraction. A short bit later Paul did the same, and Ben did too. Liza, Andy, Billy and Heather helped them roll their suitcases out the door. Billy carried Ben’s guitar. Heather stayed at the door while Billy helped them pack away their bags into Paul’s car, and after a bit of pushing and shoving, four doors closed, and they were off. The gate raised and lowered, and the four watched as Paul’s car turned drove away around the corner and out of sight.
In the disappearing moment, there was a simultaneous wave of relief over the remaining family. With a weekend full of many, there was a certain loneliness to seeing the last of the guests drive away, but the return to a normal state overpowered that feeling. Normal here meaning, the four core family members. Heather could still feel the cold fluid in her stomach. Andy could still smell the vomit from the bathroom. Liza still knew she had to clean up the wine in the cellar, and Billy, well Billy just wanted the best for his family.
Everyone went to bed early that night. Andy and Billy had originally planned on returning home, but it felt more appropriate to stay. Each lay awake, waiting for sleep. Andy nodded off first. Liza, who took sleeping pills, second. Heather’s head had gone empty from thinking too much. She fell asleep laying on top of her bed, lights still on, staring at the ceiling.
Billy stayed awake for a bit longer. He lay on his side, phone in hand, mindlessly and programmatically scrolling through Instagram with his eyes unfocused. The smiling faces in photos were a comforting anonymous blur. He knew they were fake or exaggerated – his own posts were the same – but even with that knowledge it was still a warm presence. Right then, Billy just needed some kind of stimulation and to see happy faces. With that, he clicked off his phone and went to sleep.