Smoking Section

Submitted into Contest #203 in response to: Start your story in the middle of the action.... view prompt

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Fantasy Fiction Speculative

CLINK

Jared flicked open his Zippo and flipped a flame to life. He sucked on his cigarette, coaxing the flame into it. He heard the sizzle and pop as the flame caught. He turned the suck into a pull and let the burn flow down his throat, relishing the break as much as the nicotine.

It was a crisp fall day. There wasn't a breath of wind, and the world seemed shushed. Smoke and breath vapor hung in the air, unsure of what to do.

Jared heard the crunch of the crash bar on the exit door that led to their smoking gazebo.

"Puff, puff, puff, puff," an urgent call came from a woman as she rushed him, waving her hand up with each word.

Stunned, Jared lifted his cigarette and took a drag. The woman stepped in close, too close, and stuck a cigarette tip onto his cherry. Jared looked everywhere but into her face during this odd and intimate interaction.

She pulled away once her cigarette was lit. "Oh, thank god," she huffed out on a cloud of smoke. "I left my lighter upstairs, and going back up there would have wasted my whole break. You're a lifesaver."

"N-no problem," Jared was still taken aback.

"Our floor manager is a real stickler about breaks," She explained. "He times us. Fifteen is fifteen, or time gets deducted from paychecks.

"But really, he's only that hard on the smokers. It's discrimination." She pulled on her cigarette again. "I'm Evelynn. Everyone calls me Evie." She had a cute heart-shaped face Framed perfectly by her short hair. She was small, probably petite under her heavy coat. Jared noticed during their close encounter that she had vivid purple eyes.

"Even brighter than Liz Taylor," he muttered.

"Say what?"

"I said, Hi, I'm Jared." He tried to recover.

"It's nice to meet you, Jared. Your cigarette has burned out." She pointed to his hand where a very long ash hung from the filter.

"Damn," Jared put the cigarette in the smoke tree. "I guess I'm done." He looked at Evie's cigarette, which was nearly done. "Wanna ride the elevator together?"

In the elevator, he asked, "Where do you work?"

"Accounts receivable, on the fourth floor," She reached for the button.

Jared had never seen anyone push the button next to his frequently pressed number five. He couldn't remember ever noticing the button before. It was a bit faded compared to the others.

"Where do you work?" Evie asked.

"I'm a Safety Officer," Jared said. "We're not very popular."

"I don’t imagine so," Evie said as the elevator stopped. "It was nice meeting you, Jared. See you around."

The doors opened to darkness.

"You're late," a voice snarled from the dark.

A pale hand shot into the elevator and grabbed Evie's arm. Her eyes locked on Jared's with a sad, heartbreaking gaze.

She was yanked, bodily, out of the elevator.

"Hey," Jared tried to follow, but the door slammed shut with bone-shattering force, then the elevator instantly jerked into motion.

Jared Reached his floor and went to his desk. He started on his inspection reports but kept getting lost between his notes and the inspection form. He tried splashing his face with water in the bathroom. He grabbed coffee in the breakroom. Nothing got his mind off those sad violet eyes.

"Earth to Jared," a voice from behind him as he stared futilely at his computer. "Where you at?" Karl was the floor manager. He was a good guy with a quick smile and an easygoing demeanor.

"Sorry, Karl," Jared said, shaking his head. "I'm a little distracted."

"I'd say so," Karl rebutted. "Anything I can help with?"

"Well," Jared thought about it. "What do you know about the fourth floor?"

Karl raised a brow. "That it sits below ours. That's about it."

"I rode the elevator up with someone that works down there," Jared said. "She said that the manager is kind of a hard ass."

"OK," Karl shrugged. "Just because you have the best manager in the company doesn't mean everyone can be up to snuff."

"Yeah," Jared ignored the brevity. "When we hit the fourth floor, she was yanked out of the elevator and scolded for being late."

"Like someone physically grabbed her?"

"Yeah, a hand reached in and pulled her out."

"Sounds like you should go to HR," Karl said. "If she isn't going to report that behavior herself, you should file a third-person harassment complaint on her behalf."

"You sure?"

"Very sure," Karl said with an expression that proved it. "This company doesn't need assholes harassing, threatening, or assaulting other employees. That's not how a manager should act. Do you want me to go with you?"

Jared shook his head. "No, I got it. Do you want me to go now?"

"No," Karl said.

"OK," Jared said, cowed.

"I wanted you to go three minutes ago."

Jared rolled his eyes slightly. "All right, I'm going."

HR was on the eighth floor. Jared got into the same elevator he’d just ridden up with Evie. He looked at the bank of buttons but couldn't find the “four” button. It was like it never existed. Just a smooth gap between three and five. She'd pushed a button right there. He touched the spot, but nothing was there. He pushed the “eight” and rode up in soft tinkling music that was nearly drowned out by the elevator noises.

He followed signs to HR and found a cubicle farm with a gatekeeping desk. The gatekeeper was on the far side of middle age. She had bright red cat-eye glasses. Her jowly face looked like it hadn't had any personality besides those glasses in decades. She had no laugh lines or frown creases.

"Hello," The gatekeeper said in a pleasant voice with a deadpan face. "How can we help you today?"

Jared shook off his morbid fascination with this woman's face. "Yes, I'd like to make a harassment complaint."

"Oh," Her voice inflected. Her brows may have lifted slightly. "I'm sorry to hear that. Come with me." She stood and revealed a beige dress. It was so plain that you could forget the woman within a blink.

They walked past every cubicle straight to an office in the back of the room.

The gatekeeper knocked, "Mr. Koontz?" she asked in her pleasant voice. "This young man says he has an A99."

"Thank you, Pearl," a smiling voice responded. "Let him in."

Mr. Koontz was a large, rotund man. He was tan like he was of Latino descent or spent a lot of time outside. He had a full head of dark hair. It was hard to tell his age with that and his full face.

"Come in," Koontz said in a booming, jovial tone. "Take a seat."

Jared followed the exuberant gesticulations and sat in a visitor's chair.

"Now," Koontz said, folding his hands. "I hear you have a serious complaint. The first question I have to ask before we get started. Do you wish to remain anonymous?"

"Um," Jared hesitated. "Well, It's actually a report on behalf of someone else."

"Oh, I see." Said Koontz. "The same rules apply. You can remain anonymous if you wish."

"I don't think it matters," Jared said. "It isn't even in my department."

"Oh, perfect," Koontz said. "What department is it?"

"Um," Jared had to think. "Accounts receivable? It's on the fourth floor."

Koontz's caramel color drained away, and his jovial demeanor vanished. "That's specialized accounts receivable." A sheen of sweat broke out on his double chin. "That's a different HR manager. Head back out to the hallway, turn left, go to the end, and the door on the right is the one you want."

"Oh," Jared said slowly.

"OK, Off you go," Koontz popped out of his chair and around his desk quicker than expected for such girth. He ushered Jared out the door and closed it very quickly.

Jared followed the directions down the hall. The light above the door was dim and flickering, and the floor hadn't been mopped or waxed within six feet of the door. Across the hall was a supply room. Jared noticed a layer of dust on the room's placard.

Jared knocked on a door that had its color worn to an un-namable brown-gray like the dust in the hall.

There was muttering and shuffling behind the door, then in a hoarse irritated voice, "What."

Jared opened the door to a wall of cigar smoke. It was enough to make his eyes water.

"In or out, junior," the hoarse voice croaked. "But close the door before the smoke alarm goes off."

Jared slipped in, shutting the door.

The room was dark, but as Jared's eyes adjusted, he saw files everywhere. The desk was covered, piles teetered on the floor, and a precarious stack of file folders occupied the visitor's chair. Several filing cabinets lined two walls of the office. They seemed to be overflowing with piles on top of files.

"What do you want, kid?" It was buried if the short, potbellied man had a nameplate on his desk. He had red hair ringing his head and running into a chinstrap beard.

Jared swallowed hard. "I was told to come here with complaints abou-"

"What did my guys do now?" The red-headed man interrupted. "Did they dent a car? Put a hole in a wall? Put a hole in a wall with a dented car?"

Jared's brow creased. "Not that I know of."

"Oh, good. Then what are you whining about?" The red-headed man grabbed a cigar and chomped on it. "Gotta light?"

"You can't smoke in here," Jared said. He was still reaching into his pocket reflexively. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

"Don't be sorry. I never threw it to you." The man said, lighting the cigar with Jared's Zippo.

Jared didn't remember handing it to him.

"Murphy," he said, passing the Zippo back to Jared.

"Well, Mr. Murphy," Jared said, swallowing his frustration. "I witnessed one of the fourth-floor employees being yanked off the elevator by her manager after her break."

"Oh!" Murphy's green eyes widened, and he slapped both hands against his cheeks in mock shock. "Did you meet a pwetty giwl?"

"She was assaulted," Jared said abashed. "Regardless of her looks, she should not have been treated that way."

"Listen, kid," Muphy said, flipping ash on files with abandon. "The fourth floor is a special lot. They do things differently than anyone else, and you should just forget that floor exists."

"So you're not going to do anything?" Jared's eyes were wide. His hands balled into fists.

"As I said," Murphy's tone was condescension pretending to be sympathy. "The fourth floor has to do things differently than other sections. The managing style is going to be different as well."

Jared's heart was beating hard at the confrontation that never happened.

"I don't have any lollipops," Murphy said, waving his cigar towards the door and shuffling files. "Get outta here."

Jared stormed to the elevator, where he ran out of fervor when he saw the “four” was still gone.

Jared avoided Karl for the rest of the day and got very little work done. He couldn't stop thinking about how sad Evie had looked as she got yanked from the elevator. What was on the fourth floor?

Jared left a little early since he wasn't getting anything done. When he got to the lobby, he saw a petite figure leaving with brown hair that looked vaguely familiar. He strode out to catch up and see if it was Evie.

At an intersection where the do not walk sign started flashing, Jared realized how creepy he was being, so he let the woman cross without following her. She entered the coffee shop on the corner, but with all the cars driving by, it was too hard to see her face. Once Jared could cross, he went into the coffee shop to see it was Evie.

She was with someone.

Jared stopped short as a tall, athletic, tanned man with shining hair sat with Evie. He stumbled over his feet to get into the line to order a drink. He kept stealing looks at their table. She looked OK. He'd still like to make sure. Maybe he should apologize. She was talking to him on her break, which was probably why she returned late.

Murphy's mocking words floated through his head like cigar smoke. Did you meet a pwetty giwl?

That wasn't it, he told himself. He just wanted to check on her after seeing her get treated poorly. But she was smiling and laughing with the guy she was with.

Then her violet eyes met his.

That same sadness flashed through them. Then she said something to her companion, and they were standing to leave.

That look spurred Jared into movement. He fell in a few steps behind Evie and her coffee mate. They led him around the corner of the coffee shop to an access alley. Evie was laughing and touching the guy a lot. She didn't seem so sad.

Abruptly, Evie's demeanor changed. Her face locked into a severe expression, and her body tensed like a cat ready to pounce.

Jared could barely hear her words. "It's time, Michael," All tittering flirtation was gone.

"What?" Michael's chuckles sputtered out.

"You made a deal," Evie's statement was frigid. "The marker has been called."

"N-no!" Michael started backpedaling.

Evie started singing a single, beautiful note. Michael stopped moving.

Jared tried to do something. Leave, walk up to them, anything. But he was locked in place. His legs wouldn't move.

"You've had your fun," Evie said, running a hand across Michael's chest. "But, there was a price for these muscles and that jawline."

Jared tried to lean or wiggle but couldn't do anything. Only blink, breathe, and watch.

Evie whispered something into Michael's ear and produced a bottle. Something out of a cartoon or a fantasy movie. It was glass with intricate swirls and had a cork.

Evie popped the cork and held the vessel up to Michael's mouth. A glowing white smoke started streaming from Michael's mouth into the bottle. As the bottle filled, Michael began to shrink. His six feet and change folded to a frame slightly taller than Evie's tiny stature. His athletic physique softened and became flabby, his hair thinned, and his hairline retreating.

Jared was transfixed. He was locked into place by the sight alone.

Now Michael's body tensed as if in pain. His flabby body began to shrivel. His remaining hair fell out. In a matter of seconds, he was reduced to a mummy.

Evie recorked the bottle, now full of white glowing smoke. Michael's mummy fell to the ground and puffed into dust.

Jared felt a heavy hand thump onto his shoulder. He looked at it to see familiar pale fingers gripping his shoulder hard.

"Wrong place, wrong time, friend." A deep voice he'd heard before growled from behind him.

"Jared," Evie saw him now. Tears were welling in her eyes.

Snowflakes floated down around the smoking gazebo on a still, cold morning.

CLINK

Evie flicked open the Zippo to light her cigarette.

June 24, 2023 03:46

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