Writing Challenge: Week 7 (part 2)

As promised, the sequel to “Help Wanted.”

**

“Workplace Romances Never End Well”

by H. M. Snow

“Steve!”

Once the thunder of Esau’s bellow faded from the room, Steve said, “What’s up?”

The gigantic man of hair pushed a stack of paper scraps into Steve’s hand. “We need you to go shopping. Now.”

“I went yesterday—”

“These are special things,” said Esau. He kept twisting backwards as if looking for someone. “Hard-to-find things. You must go now and find them. Don’t come back until you find them all.”

Steve looked at the different scraps. “Okay. No problem.”

“You must find them all before you come back.” If Esau’s eyes had been visible—Steve still wasn’t sure Esau had eyes, in fact—but if he had them, and if they could be seen, Steve was sure they would have been round and earnest just then.

Leaning away from the mass of hair leaning toward him, Steve said, “I got it. Find them all, then come back. No problem.” He surveyed the lists quickly. “Nixie doesn’t want anything?”

“No!” shouted Esau. Then the giant hair-man collected himself. “I mean, nothing you can handle.”

Once out on the sidewalk under a muggy summer sky, he gave no more thought to Esau’s manner. Steve rarely gave a thought to his coworkers’ eccentricities anymore. Instead, he began to sort through the pages. No one at the Foundation collaborated on shopping lists. Everyone wrote separate lists—even Tom and Banji, the two-sided man—and handed them all to Steve, expecting him to sort through them and make sense of the miscellany. This was the oddest collection of lists he had yet seen, including a little something of everything from an obscure brand of hoof polish for Boroka to unpronounceable electronic components for Marianas Wildemann herself. “Mmm,” Steve remarked to himself. “This might take a little longer.”

It took him just over three hours, in fact. Steve prided himself on knowing just about every shop in the city. He had applied to most of them during his extensive job search. Being thorough rather than brilliant, Steve had researched every business in order to make a good impression during interviews. Though none of his work had succeeded in bringing him gainful employment—as far as that went, the only time he had gone in blind to an interview, he had been hired—the knowledge came in useful now, because no one at the Foundation had yet been able to stump him, not even the most esoteric requests. He preened himself on his way back to the Foundation. “Three hours, fifteen minutes,” he said. “That must be a record or something.” The only hitch was that half of Marianas Wildemann’s components had had to be ordered, and the salesman wouldn’t commit himself on a time frame for the shipment’s arrival.

Steve went to the milking lab first. Ricky’s order was restless inside its opaque plastic bag, and Steve wanted to deliver it before it either stopped squirming or escaped. “Hello?” he called out. One light in the back of the lab still glowed. Ricky was nowhere to be seen. “Weird,” said Steve. He consulted his watch. As he thought, the late afternoon milking session should have been in progress. He found an empty glass tank just as the first fang-puncture stabbed through the plastic bag; once he dropped the bag and its contents into the tank, he had just enough time to fasten the screen over the top before the plastic began to shred and something glossy, green, and angry spilled out. Steve stumbled backwards as a squirt of venom arced through the screen, missing him by a matter of inches.

Nothing else in the shopping bags was alive, so Steve went back to the vault, where he meant to deliver Tom’s and Banji’s orders. The vault was even emptier than the milking lab. This, to Steve’s mind, meant that a staff meeting must have been called while he was away. “Good,” he said, still talking to himself. “I can hand everything out in one place, if I’m in time.”

Still, something didn’t seem right. The lights were on in every corridor, for one thing. The lights never had been on during previous staff meetings, since many staff members were leery of bright light. Not a sound echoed from the rec room either. Thus Steve wasn’t altogether surprised to arrive and find the public areas empty and oddly dank with humidity. Since the handles of the canvas shopping bags were now digging into his fingers, he deposited the shopping in the middle of the room, where no one would trip on it. “Where is everyone?”

A babble of voices resounded in the distance, as if several of his coworkers had decided to answer his question. Steve followed the babble until he could pick out which voice belonged to whom.

“Zis is no joke,” said Bartholomew.

“I never said it was,” Boroka replied, in that tone of voice that meant she also had tossed her black hair and twitched her silky tail in displeasure. “But Esau’s so skittish!”

“Because of vat happened to Isabella last time—”

“I know, you pompous bat, I was there, so don’t lecture me. Does this look like one of your university lecture halls?”

“Enough,” said Marianas. Her voice had that faintly tinny quality that meant she was suited up to go out. “Boroka, do you smell anything yet?”

A long, deep inhale followed, and then a sigh. “Nothing.”

“Then we can be sure Nixie hasn’t thought yet to head for the front door.” A beep—Steve knew that sound as the activation of the intercom system that was wired through Marianas Wildemann’s pressurized suit—resounded just around the corner. “All teams, report. Any sightings yet?”

After a few seconds, Ricky’s voice came over the speaker. “Nothing on the garage side.”

“Nothing on the—” Waldo’s voice broke off in a storm of fizzing and confused shouts. “Found her,” he yelled cheerfully.

“Cafeteria.” A note of urgency entered Bartholomew’s voice. “Zat is not far.”

Esau grunted. “It is a good thing that we sent Steve away in time…” He broke off when Steve rounded the corner.

All four of them stared at him. Steve said, “What?”

“Boroka, Esau,” said Marianas, “take him back upstairs. Do not leave him alone, and do not leave the building. We cannot afford to let Nixie outside. Bartholomew, you’re their advance guard. I’ll turn off the lights so you have a greater range. I’ll find Waldo’s group. Carol can manage, I’m sure, but we can’t run any chances.”

Esau’s burly arm shot out and wrapped around Steve’s torso twice. Then the trio took off running, with Steve dangling in midair between them. He was at Boroka’s eye level, so he said, “What’s up?”

“Nixie, darling. It’s her time of the month.”

“What does that mean?” Steve blushed. “Not that I want to pry if it’s something personal…”

Boroka laughed in such a way that Steve’s blush deepened. “It’s personal to you, darling. Water nymphs go a little crazy when the tides are highest. You are human, her natural prey, and she already likes you. She will come for you. But do not be afraid, little man; we will protect you. If you wish to scream, however, it may inspire me to defend you better.” Her dark eyes mocked him.

“Nixie doesn’t seem so scary,” Steve noted thoughtfully. “She’s always a little crazy.”

Esau’s voice rumbled at his back. “No! You don’t know what she’s like!”

“Esau is afraid of her,” laughed Boroka.

“What if Isabella gets in her way again?”

“Again?” Steve asked. By this point, his voice came out strained from the loops of burly, hairy limb that coiled around his chest. “What happened last time?”

Esau shuddered. “Isabella used to be a fine girl, as tall and strong as I, until she tried to restrain Nixie in her time of the month.”

“You cannot blame Nixie for that,” said Boroka. “It was you and that hair dryer.”

“But Isabella was–”

Ahead of them, Bartholomew interrupted. “Vill you two be silent? I cannot hear my own echolocation vith you two bickering so loudly.”

They emerged into the lobby, where Ricky awaited them. His featureless white face turned instantly in their direction. “She’s headed this way.” He extended a thick, three-fingered hand toward Esau. “Behind me.”

Steve landed hard on the carpet between Ricky and the wall of windows, where Esau dropped him.

The intercom crackled. “She’s in the plumbing! I repeat, Nixie has gone into the plumbing,” reported Marianas Wildemann. “Be aware of any faucets or fountains in your near vicinity.”

All of Steve’s defenders shifted to orient themselves toward the lobby water fountain.

“STEEEEEEVE!” Waldo came sprinting out of the corridor.

At almost the same time, the water fountain exploded off the wall, shooting an indigo geyser to the ceiling. Nixie’s voice, amplified twentyfold, echoed Waldo’s cry in an entirely different tone. Waldo flopped on his face and did not move again, but as Steve gazed upward at the twenty-foot Nixie looming over him, he heard Waldo’s voice close by his ear, saying, “Don’t worry, Steve. I’ve got you covered. Big brother Waldo won’t let her drown you.” Breathing became a struggle. Steve’s vision blurred. He collapsed to his knees. As he ran out of oxygen, Steve saw Nixie dive down toward him , arms eagerly outstretched. A huge brown object crossed his line of sight. Then Steve passed out.

He awoke to the groggy sight of a featureless white face only inches from his own. “Steve? Steve, don’t move.” An oxygen mask covered Steve’s nose and mouth. “Just breathe deeply.”

Beyond Ricky, Marianas Wildemann stood with her many-jointed arm propped against what might have passed as her waist. She spoke to the air in front of her. “So you thought, rather than risk Nixie drowning him, you’d asphyxiate him first, Waldo? You are not breathable. You might have killed him. Now get back in your suit. Ricky will make sure you haven’t left any part of yourself behind.” Her tired exhale resonated inside her helmet.

Ricky lifted the oxygen mask. “Stay still. Just answer my questions for now. What is your name?”

“You just said it,” said Steve. “Twice. My name is Steve.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“In the lobby, on the floor.”

Ricky hesitated. Then, as if in a burst of inspiration, he said, “Where does one purchase the Occidental Freckled Toad Snake?”

“Tickle,” said Steve.

“What?”

“T.C.L.E.,” Steve explained. “Twin Cities Lizard Emporium. Ask for Sal. He sells them at cost from his own private breeding program. The ones you get from Rare Reptile Rescue are twice as expensive and less healthy. Sal says… if he doesn’t sell off one or two every month, they start eating one another and the venom gets too concentrated…” Steve grabbed the oxygen mask for another few breaths.

“I wondered why the quality had gone up,” Ricky replied. Over his shoulder, he called out, “It’s Steve. He’s himself.”

“I’m relieved to hear it.” Their boss came to stand over Steve. “You must be very shaken, Steve.” She reached out her hand to help him sit up.

Still clinging to the oxygen mask and its portable tank, Steve said, “What happened to Nixie? Is she all right now?”

“They’re working on containing her for the moment. When the moon moves out of its current phase, she’ll be back to her usual self again and most relieved to know that she did not harm you. Nixie is very fond of you, you know, Steve.”

Because he was still shaky on his feet, Steve let Ricky and Marianas Wildemann support him on either side. Their feet squelched on the sodden carpet as they followed the trail of water down into the research area. They arrived outside the vault just in time to see the staff sealing up something that looked like a large helium cylinder. Its narrow window was indigo and showed one large and mournful eye. On the floor, a massive hair clog stretched limp across their path.

Izzy hovered next to it, giggling in a manic fashion. “Boroka,” she said, “bring me the hair dryer!”

“Yeah,” said Steve to Marianas Wildemann, “what’s the story about the hair dryer?”

“The same happened to Isabella last year, at Nixie’s strongest tide. She sacrificed herself to stop Nixie from going out into the city to look for humans. Esau was in a panic afterward. He borrowed Boroka’s hair dryer in an attempt to bring Isabella back to herself more quickly. As it turned out, Esau and Isabella are composed of a different type of fiber than human hair. When subjected to a prolonged blast of hot air… oh, dear,” Marianas said as Boroka returned with the hair dryer as requested.

Izzy switched the dryer to its highest setting and, with a drawn-out diabolical cackle, began drying Esau. Wherever the hot air struck, Esau’s mass of hair crinkled and shrank.

“Well, you can see what happens. It has taken Isabella nearly a year to grow back again even to this short length. She snubbed Esau for weeks after it happened, and Esau pined terribly for her. I do hope they reach an understanding after this,” sighed their boss. “These workplace romances…”

Steve glanced back at the industrial cylinder, from which Nixie’s eye kept gazing adoringly at him. “Uh-huh,” was all he could say in reply.

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hmsnow1

Fantasy novelist and essayist H.M. Snow, author of the Last Book of the Kings series and the novella Faerie Tales for Travelers.

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