Occupational Hazards by Kimberly Ndombe

            The ding of the elevator cuts through the silence, as the doors give way to the bright, white fluorescent hallway she had walked in and out of for a year and eight months. The clickity clack of Aisling Halpern's bright yellow heels accompany the fading twang of the elevator's electric bell and the resounding vrump of its doors closing behind her. She couldn't think of better sounds to hear on her way to die.

***

            "How long have you been living in New York?" asked Celia Swisher.

            "A little over six months now," she said.

            It had actually been closer to a year, but Celia doesn't need to know how long it has taken Fae to find a job in the city.

            "So you're pretty fresh then.”

            Despite the inability to afford laundry and the outright lie, yes.

            "Is there anything else, you would like to add?"

            Yes, there is. She can't keep crashing at her friend Klein's place because of certain expectations she could no longer fulfill.

            “Yes, there is," Fae started, "I know you've probably seen a dozen carbon copies of people like myself and there are probably a thousand more lined up to interview. And yeah, we can all do this job. That's the truth. Plenty of people can do this job, but I will do this job without any excuses. If you want something, you will have it. Everybody wants this job. But I just need to work for you. And I'm telling you, you need me to work for you too."

            Celia's brows threatened to jump right into her bright blond locks at that last line. Fae liked to read people. She wasn't sure if she was good at it, but she liked to do it. She liked knowing what people really thought of her (so long as it was in line with what she thought they thought about her). Celia proved tougher to read than most throughout the interview, which caused Fae's oft-complimented smile to waver and her usual guffaw-inducing jokes to elicit a single percussive “ha" from Celia. The brow raise signaled Celia's most expressive moment of the last 45 minutes, but brow raises signify surprise and are neither inherently good nor bad. Faes future depended on the goodness or badness of that brow raise.

            Fae crossed her legs a little tighter. She had washed this pair of panties with dish soap in Klein's kitchen sink this morning. She sniffed the crotch after she blow dried them and thought they were decent enough to wear. On the outside, she looked the part. Black blazer, white blouse, black skirt. But her bra straps no longer contained elasticity and her panties hung loosely off her form.

            "You're the best candidate that's come in today," said Celia.

            Fae gave a small smile that tilted down at the corners before bowing her head and then looking back up at Celia with raised eyebrows. She had practiced this look in the mirror before and decided it perfectly displayed grateful, humble, and surprised in that order. Celia's one-sided, slightly upward curled lip didn't display much of anything to Fae.

            Fae's other interviews had yielded compliments such as "You've done surprisingly well for someone out of a public high school.” and "Northwestern is a great school. Were you there on scholarship?" Yes, she had been, but that couldnt help her secure her a job now. It didnt even get her in this office. A call made by Fae's godmother to her college friend whose husband writes a young adult fantasy romance series about a young farm boy who falls in love with a centaur princess got her in this office.

            When they first me, Celia’s cuteness caught Fae off-guard. Her small features fit her small face. Fae didn't often describe women in their early 40s as cute, but Celia is. Cute like a young girl. Worn in her age, yet soft.

            But not all soft. She couldn't be. Not too many soft people have an office like this in Midtown Manhattan. Floor to ceiling windows provided the 22nd floor perspective on life. The people on the ground are small. They move without purpose. When a dot stops walking, you can't tell if a car cut it off or it ran the dot over. The dot simply stopped or disappeared. Fae could imagine Celia looking down at the street, watching the dots stop and start, feeling like she willed it all. Then Fae remembered that you work hard for a view, so you can sit at your desk and stare at a computer screen all day, The American Dream.

            "Do I amuse you?” asked Celia.

            Fae hadn't realized she'd chuckled at her own stupid non-joke.

            "I'm just surprised," Fae said. "If you want to work in publishing, you want to work for you. I was expecting stiff competition, the best and the brightest--"

            "It's been the stiffest, and I don't need the best and the brightest. Just someone that can do the job and listen to me go on at length about the assorted trivialities of my life. I love to complain you know."

            After months of interviews, it was Fae's turn to guffaw.

            "That wasn't a joke,” Celia said.

            "Well once you're in your position, I guess you can complain about anything you want right?"

            "Correct. You on the other hand won't be able to complain at all. At least, not in front of me."

            "That's what the other assistants are for, right?”

            Celia leaned back in her large black, cushy chair calculating the figures that added up to Fae. Her look (or leer) unnerved Fae. At first, Fae stared back, but she couldn't sustain. She couldn't keep watching Celia watch her. Even with her eyes glued to the fractal designs in the Persian rug, she could feel the heat from Celia's eyes. She looked back up. Nothing had changed. The eyes were still on her. Fae could only recall being stared at like this one other time in her life.

            It's not like she had never been stared at before. Growing up, people often described Fae as exotic, which is unsurprising in its ignorance in white-washed New Hampshire where it often felt like the only other black people were her mom and sisters. She noticed the differences in her face and the few black schoolmates she had. They didn't have her almond-shaped eyes. They didn't have her high cheek bones. They also didn't have a mother who escaped civil war in the Congo to eventually become a pharmacist stateside and reside in a house with three bathrooms. Fae was born here, but her face told of far off places. People stared to try to figure out where. Stares never bothered her. There was one though.

            On the long Good Friday weekend her junior year, Fae and her friend Klein decided to skip out on celebrating the Lenten holiday on the Northwestern campus. Well, Fae skipped out. Klein liked to call himself "spiritual" rather than religious, but breathy "Oh my God"s during sex were the extent of his spirituality. Not that Fae knew about that. A five dollar Domino's pizza and 157 miles later they found themselves in sleepy Saugatuck, Michigan. On an abnormally warm March weekend, Fae and Klein explored the town and didn't once think about their upcoming presentation on "The Wife of Bath" chapter of Canterbury Tales on Tuesday. They shopped stores with names like American Spoon Foods, The Great Turtle Emporium, and It Is What It Is. Klein bought Fae a jar of Red Pepper Mango flavored "Jazzin Me Jam". She bought him a tacky wooden turtle miniature because it wore round, olive colored tortoiseshell glasses on its face that were identical to Klein's. He loved it. When wine tasting proved too costly. They got drunk at a dive instead where Klein and Fae led the bar in a spirited rendition of Janet Jackson's "Together Again."

            On their last day there, they tried to go to Oval Beach, but they must have followed the wrong trail because while they found themselves at a beach, it was strictly the kind where the dress code is no dress. Neither was easily embarrassed nor were they the types to shy away from a challenge. Fae had one rule though. He couldn't look at anyone but her. Klein nodded quickly and made her swear the same, but for him. When their clothes lay shed in piles beside them, Klein and Fae lay on their towels seeing all of the other for the first time. The light chill caused him to shrink and her to nip. Fae’s steady gaze slowly made its way up his body. She started at his feet and followed the prominent blue veins up his calfs and quads. She paused at the apex of his thighs. She paused again at the swell of his chest, but paused longest at his eyes. Neither spoke. Though that hadn't been a rule, a silent truce had been made.

            Under furrowed brows, his gaze never left hers. She looked away needing a moment to hide, to not be so bare, to ponder whether what she saw in his eyes was reflected in hers. She tried to control her laboring breaths. She didn't want him to think that she was nervous, but his eyes never left hers. Would he notice the goosebumps on her hips and toes and breasts? Surely, he would notice the goosebumps on her breasts. She never lifted her eyes from the pebbly sand. She focused on the glossy pieces that dashed light in her eyes and made her see spots. His gaze never faltered. Klein must have noticed the goosebumps. It explained why he threw his arms around her though it didn't explain why it felt so desperate and even a bit violent. She felt his warmth. His warmth explained it. It explained why she slipped her arms around his back, fingers splayed, why she ever so slightly inched her thigh closer to his half-hard, shrunken dick, and why it grew slightly harder. His hot breath quickened on her nape and Fae's temperature went from warm to hot. His warmth explained it. The goosebumps were gone. But it didn't explain his chapped lips pressing into hers, or hers opening wider to accept his tongue. It was then they were shoved apart and told to "Go get your dick damp in a fucking room you perverted pieces of shit."

            And in the privacy of their too small motel, they shared one of the two twin beds. Fae learned of Klein's spiritual affinity in bed and that he liked to keep his glasses on during sex even though they kept falling off. Klein learned that girls really do bleed when they lose their virginity and that someone deemed him worthy enough to be first. They stayed another night and discussed their Wife of Bath presentation while holding hands late Monday afternoon on the three hour drive back to campus.

            "I want you," Celia said.

            Her words seemed right out of Fae's reverie. Celia Swisher, mind reader? As long as she doesn't know I'm about to soil this $4000 chair, Fae thought.

            "So when are you going to start thanking me," Celia said.

            "I'm sorry I'm just surprised."

            "Still waiting."

            "Thank you! I'm sorry. Thank you so much. This means so much to me."

            "Fae, this job isn't meant for just anyone. It's not going to be a walk in the park, but stick with me, and I can promise you whatever you've dreamed about having in this industry will be yours."

            Fae has dreamed of this exact view.

            "You can handle this," Celia said. "And you deserve this."

            "So this is real. You're offering me the job?"

            "I'm offering you the job."

            "Don't you have more interviews?"

            "I'm going to cancel them."

            "It's funny, I have this card. See I was going to send you this handwritten card as a thank you for the interview. I was going to write it up really quick and leave it at reception. What do I with this card now?"

            "Leave it at reception for me. Now it's a thank you for the job."

            Celia raises her hand, asking for the shake that will unofficially seal this deal and bind them as COO of Market Road Inc. publishing group and the assistant to the COO of Market Road Inc. They would remain this way for a year or so Fae hoped. Maybe a year and a month or two? Maybe two years? Celia's desk was wide and long, yet she made no effort to extend her hand. Her bent elbow kept her hand close to her body. Fae didn't need to be asked twice. She stood from her chair and leaned over the desk. Her left hand settled against the furniture for balance. As the dark wood cooled one hand, the other grasped Celia's, their firm grips competing with one another, though this was not a shake of equals. Neither friendly nor a greeting, it was a deal. Fae enjoyed ending handshakes first. She also enjoyed pressing her index finger into the vein of a person's wrist the moment before the connection split. She thought it made her memorable. Celia raised an eyebrow. Some people thought it made her weird.

            "I didn't really see this coming," said Fae. But how she had hoped. She currently had six dollars in her bank account. She was thinking of celebrating by ordering some warm nuts off of a street vendor. She had spent too much of her money on them when she had first arrived in New York.

            Celia let out another one of those percussive "ha"s. Fae detected a hint of derision in it.

            Just then, the door burst open. A mass of curly, bright red hair stomped into the office. Her bright yellow shoes a contrast to the mascara stained rivulets that marred her face. Her steps faltered as she took in Fae, shooting her a look of pity, which confused Fae since she landed the job.

            "Do you need to cancel her," Fae said. "Because I can go."

            Celia's attention focused solely on the girl with the yellow heels and the red hair. Her lips thin, jaw tight, neck strained.

            "What are you doing here?" Celia said.

            The girl beelined towards them. Fae backed up into the desk, wincing in pain as her hip collided with the edge. Fae could see freckles beneath the spidery stains. As she tried to back up further, she could see hurt all over her face. The chapped wobbling lips, the flared nostrils, the deep seated pain in her eyes. The emotion radiated in every direction off of this girl. Fae's pity became honest concern. She wanted to cry with her. Someone must have really hurt you. The words almost left her lips, but she stopped herself, realizing they were completely inappropriate first words to a person.

            "You fucked me," said the heels and the hair.

            Before the girl reached under her pale blue skirt and between her legs, before she pulled out a tiny silver and black revolver, before Fae thought it looked like a toy, before Celia gasped, before the heels and the hair forced the muzzle between those chapped lips, before she bit down on it and squeezed her eyes shutter than they could shut, before her fingers squeezed the trigger the first and only time she would ever hold a gun, hurling a bullet 990 miles per hour through her brain and out the other side along with squishy pieces of skull and innards that ranged in every color of red imaginable though none were the color of her hair, before the ceiling and the desk and Fae and Celia were covered in splatter, and before the lifeless body hit the ground with a permanent thud, Fae thought, "You fucked me" are definitely inappropriate first words to a person.

 

 

About the Author: Kimberly Ndombe lives in Los Angeles, CA, but often writes about the places where her heart truly lies, New York and New Hampshire. She works in television and film and volunteers for 826LA.