Note: This story will appear in my upcoming collection Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and that’s why I’m posting this teaser. However, it has already been published in “Kindle” format, and there is a link to that below, in case you cannot wait for The Cabinet to be published.
[In case you can’t tell already from this teaser, this is a VERY dark story, so be warned.]
UP, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN…
The nine of hearts is showing on the left. Nothing very noteworthy about that, except that the card’s already partly stuck to the table, lying in a tacky spot of something someone spilled there and didn’t bother to clean up. I’m already not sure I’ll be able to pull it loose without tearing, at least if I have to wait too long before I play it. I should have been more careful when I was laying it out, I guess, but…well, it doesn’t really matter.
I look across the table, trying to meet Vicki’s eyes. She’s not paying any attention to me. She’s just sitting there in her chair, with a bowl of oatmeal resting in front of her. The oatmeal’s probably cold by now. She never can just eat her food; she always has to putz around until it’s tepid at best, and until anyone watching is as annoyed as hell. Right now, I’d bet she doesn’t even mean to finish the stuff. She’s just sitting there, staring into the distance, lost in thought, ignoring her food, ignoring me, and ignoring everything else.
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“I’m really sorry, Jerry, but…I’ve got no choice. I’m giving the account to Walt. You’ve always been good for Tel-Co before, but…well, lately I’ve been getting…complaints.”
“Complaints?” I asked. To be honest, I didn’t give two shits about any complaints—what they were, why they’d been made, or who made them. But it was expected that I’d be concerned, and I decided to be a good boy and play the part that was assigned to me. I think I must have failed pretty badly; my voice sounded dull and flat even to me. Chasing certainly seemed puzzled. I liked that, at least.
Chasing’s tie was plain and red. His suit, of course, was blue, because he considered that a “power suit,” God only knows why. Unfortunately for him, the suit, along with his red tie and white shirt, made him look like a reject from some Army recruitment poster: a cheesy, modernized version of Uncle Sam, but with a puffy and worried face, no beard, and hair that was kept from going the traditional, distinguished white by regular application of Just for Men®. That thought amused me, and I suppose I must’ve snorted a bit, because Chasing looked at me quizzically before he continued.
What a dork.
“You know that I’m behind you all the way, Jerry,” he said, probably with about as much truth as we put into all our advertising. “But…well, more than one person—and these are people I have no reason to disbelieve—more than one person has been…complaining.”
He looked at me for a reaction, but I just watched his face, thinking about how much better it would look if someone would throw a bottle of acid on it. He must’ve been disturbed by the way I stared at him, because he suddenly looked down at his shoes. Maybe he just didn’t like what he was forced to be saying. I don’t know. I don’t care, either, not really, and I didn’t at the time. After all, whether the universe contracts in on itself or just fizzles out into a haze someday, we’ll all be long gone and forgotten.
“I’ve heard that you’ve been…well, neglecting your responsibilities.” Now Chasing grabbed a pen out of his pocket and started fiddling with it, flipping it around in his fingers. He only did that when he was really uncomfortable. That discomfort was obvious in his voice, too, when he said, “You haven’t been meeting your deadlines…or your extensions. It’s not like you. More importantly, though, is that when you come through, you’re not providing quality work. Yesterday I read your outlines for the next Tel-Co TV spot series, and frankly…well, frankly I was shocked. You can’t do things like that, Jerry; Tel-Co pays us a lot of money to give them the best. And you are the best, I know that, like everybody here does…” He stopped then, looking at me, probably waiting to see how I was going to react to his forced praise. I wasn’t sorry to disappoint him.
Looking back on it now, it’s kind of surprising that I remember what he said so clearly, considering that I really, honestly didn’t care, not even in the most distant part of my mind. Somehow, I can hear him as if it was all happening again.
Isn’t that a horrible thought?
“Look, Jerry, it seems obvious to me that you’re having some kind of…personal difficulties. I don’t know what they are—the stress, the pressure, something at home—and I’m not going to pry…at least not unless you want to talk to me about it.” He stopped again there, I guess waiting to see if I was going to open my heart to him.
What I wanted to say was, “The problem, Chasing, is that you’re a greedy asshole bastard, and I’m probably one, too, but that doesn’t matter, because the world doesn’t notice either of us until it finally swallows us up, and the universe doesn’t notice the world at all.” I knew he wouldn’t understand, though, so I stayed quiet. Chasing looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be disappointed or relieved, and I was more than happy to see him confused.
“Well, look,” he said, “I’ve gotten approval in advance for you to take a few weeks off. With pay. I want you to just stay home, starting tomorrow, and…relax. Take care of whatever it is that’s bothering you, okay? We need you here and we need you whole, Jerry.”
“Thanks,” I said simply, then just watched him until he muttered something appropriate and left my office. When I was alone behind the closed door, I laughed—quietly but intensely—until there were tears in my eyes. What an idiot! At that moment it was hard to think of anything more appealing than the notion of worms chewing on his rotting corpse. Although, come to think of it, that would be a sort of cannibalism, wouldn’t it? Heh.
I turned around in my chair. For the rest of the day, I stared out through my office window, looking out onto that disgusting city, watching the world as it died around me, most of its inhabitants not even realizing that it was ill.
UP, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN…
The next two cards showing are the three of diamonds and the ten of clubs. That’s convenient. I’ll be able to move that nine when I’m done dealing—assuming, of course, that it’ll come unstuck. Who spilled that shit there, anyway?
It must’ve been Denny. He always makes such a mess. Well, okay, not always. Not right now. Right now, he’s over in the family room, watching cartoons on TV before he goes to school. It must be nice to be in kindergarten and not have to go anywhere until noon. Not that I have to go anywhere today. Chasing, the prick, saw to that.
Poor Denny. To have been born and to be growing up in a dying universe, on a world where life is not only futile, but hateful and wretched as well. I wish I could do more for him than I have. But I can’t. Nobody ever can.
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