***Author's note*** This short story was originally supposed to relate to the prompt, but it didn't quite turn out the way I intended it to. It doesn't relate to the prompt much if at all, but I hope you enjoy it anyway. ***Author's note***
“Guess what? I got a job at your office, but don’t worry, it’s not going to be awkward. If anything, it kind of makes this sexier, don’t you think? One day we’ll run the place, like a power-couple or something,” Max said.
Clarissa smiled but didn’t say anything.
A week later, she said this: “I’m sorry Max, I don’t think this is going to work out. It’s not you, it’s me, you’re a great guy.”
Two seemingly unrelated events, only connected in Clarissa Harmony’s mind. It would be awkward to work with Max. Not for him, he doesn’t shy at all, but for her, it would be. It was the right choice, she told herself.
Any time she started a new book, new movie, new boyfriend, she would tell herself it was the right choice but she was never fully convinced.
“Oh well, um, I’m sorry you feel that way. Does this mean we’re not watching anything tonight? I got Tarantino on DVD.”
“You can’t be serious…”
“Sure, we don’t have to cuddle up or anything. Your TV is just bigger than mine, that’s all.”
Clarissa Harmony looked at him for a long time.
“How do you do it?” She asked.
“I don’t know. Go through life so easily, I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what are you gonna do tonight.”
“I don’t know, watch Tarantino, play some video games. Just a bachelor living the bachelor’s life, hell, these have been the most liberating three minutes of my life.”
“Oh right, I should probably get out of your apartment.”
“I’d appreciate that, sorry you thought this was going to be a date.”
“Don’t be,” Max said, “see you at work, I guess.”
Surely enough Clarissa saw him at work the next day. They said hi to each other, that was all.
“Holy shit that was so awkward,” Jillian said.
Clarissa smiled. She smiled every time Jillian cussed around the office. Clarissa always enjoyed talking to Jillian, even if it was just about the weather. People were always talking about the weather and how bad it was. The first snowflakes began falling that day, and people ate it up. There was talk of the weather in the cooler, around cubicles, in the elevators. The office collectively turned into a meteorologist convention.
“It wasn't that bad,” Clarissa said.
“Right, no, of course, it’s not that bad. But still, like, kinda awkward.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Are you going to the dinner tonight?” Jillian asked.
Clarissa wanted to say yes. She would have, had she not taken on so much extra work after the breakup. She wanted to keep moving, like a shark, work herself to the point where she couldn’t even remember Max’s name. It was better to be anxious than it was to be depressed.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Clarissa considered the offer like a child considering a piece of toffee. She was going to take it.
“The whole department is going to be there, I think, even the boss.”
The candy turned into a disgusting fish. Her boss, and Max, no thanks.
“No, I have to work late tonight, maybe next week?”
“Well, I don’t know if the whole department will want to go out again next week.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“I wouldn’t mind if it was just the two of us though, I could use a ladies' night.”
Clarissa smiled. She didn’t mind staying late on her own. Something was exciting about being in the office at night.
“Bye Clarissa,” Max said on his way out.
Clarissa watched him leave. Jillian stood up and shook her head slowly.
“What?” Clarissa asked.
“Come on, what is it?”
“That was the coldest goodbye I’ve ever heard. Why are we being so cold to Max? Did he do something to you? You know what, you don’t even have to tell me, I’m in. Let’s make that boy’s life a little colder.”
“Relax Jillian, that’s just how I talk. Max has been nice and professional.”
“Oh, nothing interesting ever happens around here.”
“Yeah,” Clarissa said.
They waved goodbye and Clarissa made sure to put a little more energy into it then she did with Max. She worked on her latest report. Her job in the marketing department was mostly writing reports. The word-count was just over one-thousand. She sat back and stretched her typing hands as she wondered what her coworker’s word count was, just how many words they said every day. Max’s would be quite high, he talks in rather short bursts but he likes to speak to everyone on the floor. Jillian’s would be crazy high. Clarissa thought about all the long monologues she’s listened to from Jillian, it made her smile.
Her smile disappeared a moment later when she heard something in the building. Sounds of running, then silence, then a loud splash like someone fell into a pool. Clarissa leaned back in her chair and listened. The scene transformed into a barn, animals were going crazy.
She thought back to her orientation day when Jillian had toured her around the office. It was a huge tinted glass building downtown. Her floor was somewhere in the middle. Closer to the top, there was an indoor-farm. Clarissa thought Jillian was joking, so she laughed. Jillian insured that the animals were taken care of and sent back to a real farm sometimes. It wasn’t a joke. There was also a pool on the top floor. Clarissa had never been and neither had Jillian.
Clarissa tried to calm herself. These noises made total sense, the animals were just being loud. Someone was swimming in the pool. But she wasn’t fully convinced. She’d never heard these sounds before, so why start now, late at night, and as she was alone? Was she going crazy? No, that wasn’t it, there was a logical explanation here. Shit, now she sounded like a character from a horror movie.
Clarissa listened closer and placed the sounds from somewhere above her. That’s where the barn and pool were located. She walked into the elevator. At this point, the noises were only growing louder. Was she to go down to safety, or upstairs to quench her curiosity? Down, this wasn’t a movie. She felt a tingle rush down her spine. Her finger prodded the button for the ground floor, but it wouldn’t work. She hit it again and again, then, almost out of frustration, she hit the button that would take her to the top floor. Chills turned into goosebumps, eyes widened, knees shook. The ride felt much too long.
The elevator opened and Clarissa stepped out into the darkness. She felt like she was being watched. Something brushed past her ear. She fell on the ground, covered her eyes, and shook back and forth as she tried to wake up from this nightmare. The thing that had brushed up against her also reacted. It let out a deafening screech, and suddenly there was no sound. The animals had shut up.
Clarissa’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. She could see faint outlines now. She didn’t want to see any more than that. Eyes fully adjusted. It was the barn. Why was there a barn in the office in the first place? The animals were all kept in small pens, except the owls which seemed to fly around. A snowy white owl, the one that had brushed up against Clarissa, was staring at her. There was something strange about how casual the animals were acting, like children trying to hide the plate they just broke. Only the owl betrayed any sort of suspicion towards Clarissa.
She wanted to leave, but the elevator wouldn’t open for her. After a long time she tried falling asleep on the floor, but any time her eyes closed the animals began making noise. It was as if she was in her own mind. When was the last time Clarissa had gotten some sleep? She couldn’t remember. It sucked, living alone, sleeping alone, being afraid of having a nightmare, and waking up alone.
She kept moving. It was too dark to see the other side of the room at first. She continued walking, a brown door materialized. The door shut behind her. Darkness again. Complete darkness. The type of darkness that mankind had spent millions if not billions of dollars fighting with street lights and car lights. The animals in the other room were quiet. The splashing sounds picked up again. It was as if someone was swimming towards her, pushing and shoving their way out of the water. One final push and the swimming noises stopped, somebody was flying through the air.
The silhouette was a woman, Clarissa guessed. She was graceful, elegant, perfect, featureless, wet, heavy. The silhouette tackled Clarissa to the ground. It grabbed her by the legs and started dragging. Clarissa, who’d taken martial arts classes as a little girl, kicked her way out of the silhouette’s grasp. She backed up in the other direction, towards the brown door that was no longer there. The silhouette grabbed her feet and dragged. Clarissa kicked out again. This little routine lasted for a long time. Clarissa was surviving, but how much longer could she go on like this?
“Max!” She called out, not sure why. The total silence chilled her to the bone, but she kept calling out names.
She tried to remember other people’s names. Why hadn’t she taken the time to remember? Was it because she lived on autopilot, talked to the same two people every day, then went home to watch movies all night?
She stopped fighting the silhouette. It dragged her along a smooth, dry, invisible surface. Then, the surface disappeared. Her lungs were on fire. She was in the water. The silhouette was grabbing at her face, trying to open her mouth. To force her to take the breath she so desperately wanted to take. Clarissa considered giving up, succumbing entirely to her shadowy attacker. Why not? Her job? They wouldn’t miss her here. Her parents? They might shed a tear, but they were far away and had Clarissa’s young brother to worry about. She opened her eyes, for the very last time, she thought, to face the attacker. The silhouette felt familiar, and as Clarissa began to see a bright light, she could also see her attacker’s face. It had the same eyes as her, the same ears, the same mouth, the same little chin. Clarissa looked at herself for a long time, and then it wasn’t Clarissa anymore, but rather Max. He looked funny under the water, and he was smiling at her. Then it wasn’t Max anymore, but rather Jillian. She was gorgeous, her face showing absolutely no signs of the struggle she was having with Clarissa.
Seeing Jillian, Clarissa decided to kick up. She left the pool, through the brown door that reappeared, the quiet barn with all the animals sleeping exactly as she’d left them. The owl was still sitting on a beam in the ceiling, but its eyes were closed. The elevator functioned as an elevator again. The only unpleasant surprise was that she’d been at the office all night, and it was time to start work. She sat at her desk, next to Jillian. They all sat together, it was supposed to encourage communication or something. Clarissa rubbed her head and tried to drown out all the surrounding noise by focusing on her computer screen.
“You plan on actually turning that on?”
Clarissa blushed as she realized she was staring at a dark screen.
“Oh, um, yeah.”
“Did you sleep here or something? I never saw you come in.”
“Yeah, lost track of time.”
“Come on, you can tell me, what were you really up to?”
“I already told you. I fell asleep at my desk.”
“Then why’s your hair wet, did you finally go check out the pool?”
“Our little secret, don’t worry,” Jillian said, “you want some aspirin, I keep a bottle in my drawer.”
Clarissa swallowed the aspirin and willed herself to smile at Jillian.
“You look like a bit of a mess, Clarissa.”
“Oh um, I guess so.”
“How about we go out on Friday night?”
“Like a romantic date?”
Shit, did Clarissa just say that? She blushed.
“Yeah,” Jillian said with a big smile, pick you up at seven?”
“They’re playing this new movie I wanted to see at seven.”
“Perfect, we’ll go together.”
Clarissa liked sitting in movie theaters. Surrounded by people, all focusing on the same thing, there was something very cool about it.
Max walked by.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, how are you?” Clarissa said.
“Wow, somebody is in a good mood today. I’ve never seen you smile like that.”