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Holiday Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

(CW: language)


“Thanks a lot,'' Joe muttered.

Thanks a fucking lot, he repeated a decibel above a whisper, behind the safety of his face mask that made breathing difficult and his lips unreadable. He was getting angry, trying to suppress that underlying current of rage that was getting the best of him, again. Suddenly, Joe thought of his girlfriend. “Just breathe deeply, babe” she would coo when he would start to glow red and inevitably curse. That was her advice. Just breathe more. Like more air would solve his problems and change his life. Sure. 

He tried that right now, just as the credit card screen said “error.” 

“Huh, try turning it the other way,” instructed the barista girl. 

“Like this?”

“Yeah, try it again.”

“Ok”.

Error, again.

Joe looked up at the girl, who shook her head.

“What now?” he asked, bringing a hand to his forehead. 

The barista girl’s eyes widened. She pointed to his face. “Sir! Your mask is below your nose! I have to ask that you fix that, please.”

The situation was deteriorating and Joe was starting to fume, which always meant he turned a shade short of maraschino cherry.

“Sorry!” he yelled back at her, grabbing the paper mask that was sliding down the bridge of his sweating nose. Joe shoved it back up to where the prominent bags were highlighting his aching eyes. 

“Try the card again, please. Facing you this time.” The barista girl tapped her glossy black nails on the counter, impatient and unhappy with this delay. 

“Ok.”

Error.

Someone behind Joe in the growing line bumped into his elbow, as another barista was leaning to the side and trying to take their order. To help move things along.  

“Sorry,” announced the annoyed customer. 

Joe just stared at them, and back at the barista girl who finally got the card to work at another credit card machine at the drive-thru. 

“Here,” she announced with an eye roll, “finally.” The barista girl handed him back the card. 

Joe nodded, suppressing the urge to scream. 

 “Maybe you should get a new one. The strip is worn out.”

The annoyed middle-aged balding man in a faded gray uniform who desperately needed that java fix had no time for this nonsense. I am worn out, he thought to himself.  

The line was reaching the door and Joe was getting looks. He grabbed the coffee. It's one of those days when he knew right from the moment the alarm sent him in a panic and tripping over a laptop that his girlfriend left on the ground near the edge of the bed that everything was going to shit. The bad luck continued when the barista girl with a bad attitude handed him a medium but charged for a large, and then the card didn’t work. When these misfortunate days occurred, Joe just wanted to quit. Drive away from the stupid job, idiot boss, and a string of mediocre yet highly toxic relationships, and just start over somewhere else. Maybe Texas. He heard some good things about the Lonestar State. His cousin Nick moved out there and loved it. Cheap real estate, good food, and more blondes than New Jersey could cram into its overpopulated boundaries. They even had a beach.

“Yeah, sure. Thanks a lot for the advice.”

The barista girl squinted. “Sure, hun. Happy Thanksgiving.” 

 Fuck your tip now, he thought, pupils dilated and sweat beading off his forehead, contributing to a quickly sinking mask. Marching to the door, Joe could feel the phone in his pocket buzzing nonstop with texts that he guessed were from the boss. He snatched a straw from the dispenser, slammed it down on the counter trying to separate it from the paper wrapping, and cracked the fragile plastic. The straw splintered, and an air hole stifled his efforts to sip the iced latte that was two times too heavy on the cream. 

Should’ve just got up early and made it at home, Joe thought.

Five paces from the van, Joe ripped the mask off his face. For a second, his vision was obscured, and his right foot landed in a deep pothole. He tripped, tried to catch the latte, but missed. Some of it landed on his leg, the rest splashed on the ground, pooling around his scuffed and worn shoes. Enraged, Joe substituted a barrage of F-bombs with a loud grunt, tried to breathe more air, and returned to the van. He slammed the door shut and immediately exhaled five obscenities in a single breath about the barista, masks, and credit cards, and with an aggressive twist, turned the key to start the neglected engine. It took a few tries before turning over. No surprise there, it was a shitbox. The one hundred and eighty-thousand mile engine didn’t like the cold weather, and his boss skimped on the tuneups (and pretty much anything else that he could get away with to impress the council at town budget meetings). “Saving us money, honey” the arrogant manager of the animal control office would sarcastically remind any employee that complained. 

What a fat cheap idiot, muttered Joe, as the van sputtered to life. 

The phone buzzed again with another text. 

Joe glanced at the cracked, smudged screen and sighed. The boss who was comfortable in a plush office chair with fucking lumbar, and who was probably reloading another Keurig pod, just texted him the next assignment. The disgruntled animal control officer with the name “Joe” stitched onto his wrinkled shirt had to check out the mobile home park next. The notorious mobile home park. The carnival with half-naked and half-sane senior citizens plagued by perpetual animal infestations. The community was a maze of despair. That place. 

Only the best assignments for Joe, he thought, shaking his head. 

The phone buzzed again. The idiot boss loved power texting as much as he loved reloading the Keurig or revving his loud sports car every morning. 

“Great,” Joe muttered, scrolling through the newest text. A nervous resident was complaining about a rat. Last week a raccoon, the week before a turkey - it never fucking ended at that place. And they say town jobs are supposed to be good, mused Joe, as he watched everyone piling into the coffee shop with no concept of schedules or deadlines these days. Everyone didn’t work or if they did only minimally, or just worked from home. Or so it seemed from his bleak perspective behind the foggy, stone-chipped windshield.    

It was the day before Thanksgiving and Joe was distracted by the miserable coffee encounter and the smug designer-clothed patrons waltzing around to their expensive cars with remote start and heated seats. He was freezing his ass off trying to let the decrepit van warm up so it didn’t stall half a mile down the road. Joe’s thoughts suddenly drifted to the prospects of spending tomorrow with his girlfriend and her diabetic cat.

But first, he had to deal with the rat

When that was over, maybe he could leave early today? The possibility of clocking out made Joe feel good for a brief second. His boss was probably already running to the Corvette with a mug full of hot coffee and an EZ-Pass, ready to race down the Jersey Turnpike and straight to Maryland like he did every holiday. Lucky idiot, thought Joe, hoping his pant leg would dry soon. He turned the heat vent toward it and cranked up the fan to the highest setting, even though the air was barely warm.   

The phone rang. It was Kelly, the girlfriend of three months and the most promising of the past two years. 

Joe glanced at the time and decided to take the call on speaker, as he pulled the transmission gear selector into drive. Couldn’t be that important, he thought, but then again he didn’t want to piss the girl off. He was already in enough trouble for crushing the laptop on his way out this morning. 

He swiped to answer. “Yeah?”  

A light cough. “Joe? Baby! I don’t know what to do! She’s not moving!”

Joe’s eyes were wide as he gripped the steering wheel with both hands. The van pulled onto the highway, just as he noticed a duplicate message from his boss texting him the address with the rodent problem, again. 

“Is she breathing?” he asked, hoping the terminal cat was still alive. There's nothing more upsetting than a dead cat and a broken MacBook. On the same day. Fucking bad luck, seethed Joe, glaring at the phone.  

“Can't tell.”

“Put your ear to her nose,” he instructed.

“Ok.”

Joe listened to the rustling of the phone and the sound of Kelly trying to put her ear to the lifeless fifteen-year-old cat. 

“I don’t think so…

Silence. Joe was afraid to ask again, so he waited.

The phone rustled some more. Kelly’s breathing was loud, and she was crying. “She’s dead Joe. She’s dead!”

“Ok, just -”

There was a deep cough. Joe’s eyes lit up. He stared at the phone, and back at the road, distracted. “What was that?”

“What?”

“Kelly! What was that?”

He heard the cough again and then a door shut. 

Kelly stuttered, muffling the phone with her hand. She was talking to someone else. Someone in the room. 

Joe was suddenly not worried about the dead cat. He had just heard someone else with his girlfriend. “Who else is there?” he demanded, livid. 

“Uh, I have to go.”

“Who else is there? Kelly!” he screamed.

Silence. 

That was no audible mistake or “error”, thought Joe, his thoughts racing. His temperature was rising, his face was turning bright red, and his stomach felt acidic like he had just eaten an entire jar of cherries. He swerved into the mobile home park. 

“Uh, that was just Chris.” 

Chris! Are you fucking serious?”

Kelly yelled back at him, frantic and high-pitched. “Well, listen, maybe you didn’t have to, you know what...maybe you need to just calm down. Chris was just jogging around the block and I called him because of the cat.”

Joe was furious. His blood pressure was through the roof. Why was her ex-boyfriend there an hour after he had left for work? What the fuck is wrong with her

What the fuck is wrong with me? he asked, staring at his twitching red face in the rearview mirror. 

Joe had just forgotten about that persistent leaching “personal trainer” named Chris, and now he knew he had to break up with her because he was no fool. What a fucking rat. They're both rats. 

“Kelly, I have to go.” 

She hung up.

Joe punched the dash. He snatched the phone from the holder and threw it on the ground, and opened the armrest console for the bottle of Advil. Popping four into his mouth because a migraine was starting to develop around his temples, Joe guzzled half a bottle of water just as the van screeched to a sudden halt in front of the pale green mobile home marked “22”. He had a job to do.

There was a woman in a bright pink robe smoking a cigarette, one hand on her hip and the other clutching a cane that she was waving toward a cage on the ground. She was shaking her head. Joe nodded. He grabbed his thick gloves and approached the woman, who cackled as she tapped her cane at the hideous creature trapped in the cage. 

“Baited him,” she announced. “Been running through my utility room for a week now. He must be a sucker for Skippy.”

“Yeah, peanut butter will do it, usually,” agreed Joe, not caring about this lady’s rodent problem. 

She snorted between a draw on her cigarette. “Took you guys long enough.”

Joe just stared at her for a second and grunted. He picked up the cage and threw it in the back of the van and slammed the door shut.

The woman was already marching back into her house with her cane. It was chilly. And she wasn’t wearing much.

Driving back on the highway, Joe was fuming and upset. And then he had a bad thought that he just couldn't shake. He started laughing. And then snorting. And back to laughing. “Guess what, buddy?” he yelled to the rat in the back of the van, “I've got a new home for you. And a gift for that cheating bitch!”

 At the last second, Joe took an unexpected left at the next intersection, ignoring more texts from his boss, who was probably in Delaware by now. The boiling animal control officer started humming a song and his face now wore a permanent crimson smirk. 

Joe was on a new assignment. Revenge.

November 25, 2021 16:03

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2 comments

Thomas Giorgione
15:38 Dec 02, 2021

Great ending.

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Kevin Marlow
22:43 Nov 29, 2021

That was hilarious!

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