There is No I in Scream

Submitted into Contest #146 in response to: Start your story during a team building exercise.... view prompt

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Fiction Horror Suspense

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

The memo goes out a month after I join EasyCo: everybody must attend the team-building exercises. I must remember to bring my opener. My group includes Jaden, also a new hire. He’s cute in a J.Crew unstained T-shirt kind of way.

Six big sleek buses trundle us out to a rustic hideaway, a monster log cabin where we assemble in the frigid air conditioning. Perch on chair-sized wooden cubes, we watch the opening ceremonies. “It takes teamwork to make the dream work! People are our most important asset!”

People are our most important resource! Get out of your comfort zone! Don’t ASSUME, it makes an ASS of U and ME. Work smarter, not harder! It takes teamwork to make the dream work!

I slink off to the peanut gallery, where Jaden sees me and points to the cube beside him.

“There is no I in team!” the announcer says below.

“There is no I in psychopath,” I say.

Jaden swallows a laugh. “Smartass Karla.”

“I’ve heard it all before,” I say. This is my third team-building exercise this year, but I decide not to share this with Jaden.

“You ready for some fun?” With a half-smile, he looks me up and down, making clear the kind of fun he has in mind.

My opener is warm in my pink purse, gently bumping against me. I give a long, slow blink.

After the speeches, we eat five-star fusion, then get chased outside to experience Nature, red in tooth and claw. Soon, it’s time to climb the mountain, which is actually an off-season ski run. Loudspeakers blare Climb Every Mountain.

“Better travel light,” Jaden says, motioning for me to leave my handbag behind, stash it in a locker.

“Nope,” I say, moving it front and center, where it’s as pink and dangly as a uvula. Lipstick, cell phone, and my little Swiss Army friend tucked inside. Tulli, I call her. “It helps to bring an opener,” I tell Jaden.

*       *       *

When I was in grade school, I used to get chased mercilessly at recess. One time I found Tulli stuck into the ground under the shrubs where I was hiding. I wiped her blade off, folded her up, and took her home. I found her useful for carving. Wood, ice, flesh: all manner of things. Bonding ensued. Tulli has several useful appendages. I called them openers because they could open all sorts of things—cans, bottles, arteries. Nobody minds when you say you carry “an opener” in your Hello Kitty pencil case.

*       *       *

The keynote speech by the EasyCo top brass is all about “transforming our tomorrows” or, as Jaden calls it, “fucking up our futures.” Afterward, their minions hand out maps. “Here’s the way up Mount Success,” the organizer says, “then we’ll do team building on the cliff. See you there in an hour.”

“We’ve got an hour,” Jaden says to me. “A lot can happen in an hour.”

“You bet,” I say, smiling, touching my purse. “I’d like to transform your tomorrow.”

“Ever been lost in the woods?” His smile grows wider.

“All the time,” I say.

The group begins to climb, in twos and threes. Jaden and I are joined by Fred, the guy who hired us. Fred has three kids and nightmares about losing his house. He also has a growth on his eyebrow, a purple wart, that makes Tulli grow warm. Another time, I promise her.

“We need to practice team building,” Fred says. “With all the turnover this year, it’s just been one team dismantling after another.”

“What, exactly, is team building?” Jaden asks Fred as he climbs over a fallen tree in our path.

“Take people out of their comfort zone,” Fred says, puffing a little with the effort to follow Jaden, “give them a task to do, and voilà! Team building!”

“Or team dismemberment,” I say. Everybody laughs.

*       *       *

It’s a tough climb. Around me, people mutter. They call it a hike, a trek, a portage. An adventure. I call it running out on the landlord the day before rent’s due.

That last time was maybe the worst. We were living right on the outskirts of town. Beyond the mega mall, beyond the trailer park. My stepdad used his belt to make us move faster. Ma said not to run along the tracks but he said that’s the easiest. “Stop your fretting, woman. We will know if the train is coming—in plenty of time.” And my stepdad was right: we did hear the train. We heard it when we were way out on the trestle bridge. Too bad there wasn’t room for all of us on the side-step platform.

There is no I in scream.

*       *       *

Fred wanders off, his footwear a problem, while Jaden and I practice heavy breathing. At a shady spot, we sit down. “So how about that opener?” Jaden says, his eyes traveling over my breasts. He pulls a ginger beer from his backpack. “D’you think there’ll be a party afterward?”

“Maybe there’s a picnic on the cliff,” I say.

Picnic, he repeats, laughing. “Picnic,” he says in a Kermit voice. He slips his fingers under my T-shirt—and then out again.

The places where they have been are starting to tingle. I feel extra-alert now. “We could try the opener right now,” I say, my hand touching his forearm. Nice veins.

Behind us is the steady tramp-tramp of co-workers.

“Do you think we can make it on time?” Fred calls as he approaches.

Jaden starts big-stepping on the path, chuckling as he leaves me behind. “I’m a champion climber,” he says.

“We don’t want a team of champions—we want a champion team,” Fred says in a fake jolly voice. Another pearl of wisdom from the keynote.

Jaden shoots me a look and I try not to laugh.

Oh no, my bootlace broke,” I say. “Save a spot for me up there, Fred, will you?” I stare into his face, yearning to do something with that purple wart. Another time, I think.

A solemn look crosses Fred’s face, as if I have just revealed the secret, special mission that only he can do. “You betcha,” he says, voice husky.

He turns his back to me and leaves.

Jaden comes close and presses a fleeting kiss on the side of my neck. I lean into him and his fingers slide back to where they oughtn’t be. “Do you need your bootlace re-threaded?” he murmurs in my ear. I nod. He looks left, right: no co-workers. “Shoot, we are real slowpokes,” he drawls.

I sit down on the springy earth, pulling him with me. “Well then, let’s fix this bootlace proper.”

*       *       *

I feel Jaden’s excitement. He is so warm and willing. I have the urge to fondle Tulli so, with my free hand, I slip her out of my purse.

At the end of the day we’ve been promised a “personal share” time. Something my new co-workers will learn about me is that I love tools. There’s great beauty in tools. They are well-proportioned. Purpose-built. As hard and smooth as a gymnast’s thighs. Always ready to be deployed.

*       *       *

I turn up two hours late to the team-building exercise. There’s already a line-up for the diving board where you jump into a mosh pit. The loudspeaker blares Eye of the Tiger. “No fear,” brays the leader. “Bravery starts here!”

“Hey, who hasn’t gone yet?” the organizer calls.

Fred starts the chant: Karla! Kar-la! Kar-LAH!

The crowd jumbles me forward, propelled like a grenade tossed from hand to hand.

I climb the ladder, shaky on each rung. It’s not as high as the fire escape at EasyCo where I like to hang out with Tulli. But still.

I look down.

It’s all sedentary office workers below me. No one in the mosh pit has the upper body strength to make this work. It’s stepdad on the trestle bridge all over again. The whistling sound of little Bobby before he made a splash. At the top of the diving board, I listen hard; I can recall the high-pitched scream of the 10:27 that night. The rumble like an earthquake and the tremors beneath my toes as the twenty-ton train curved across the old lumber bridge.

Jaden is nowhere to be seen. Jaden is splayed out under a shrub halfway down the mountain.

That was a lovely time with Jaden. His T-shirt would get very stained. We did the team-builidng exercise, or at least we did the exercise. We pressed together with sweet urgency. Jaden unburdened himself and I took it all in, all the fear, all the glory. When he grew calmer, he said, Maybe we should catch up with the group.

“Why?” I said, “there is no US in team.”

“Because,” he said, and then he began to play with my purse, just inches away. “They might need to use your opener,” he said.

“Good point,” I said.

And when Tulli was done what she had to do, that’s when I rejoined the group. My Swiss Army friend is back in my purse, gently bumping against me.

THE END

May 20, 2022 14:29

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3 comments

Rochelle Miller
12:57 May 27, 2022

Loved this! The way you built the suspense as the story progressed was really well done. I knew what to expect yet was still surprised by the little revelations throughout the story. Needless to say, I'll never trust someone with a Hello Kitty pouch ever again, oh, and probably NEVER participate in an outdoor team building exercise for the rest of my life. 😁 Well done!

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Vj Hamilton
21:48 May 27, 2022

Thank you for your kind words, Rochelle! I haven't done much horror... but I HAVE done lots of team-building!

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Rochelle Miller
22:56 May 27, 2022

😄

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