Howdy. Here’s Chapter Two, the Rustle of Papers, from Aftermath: Boise, Idaho. Happy Memorial Day, America.
PART TWO: THE RUSTLE OF PAPERS
“Hannah? Hannah, wake up.” A soft female voice in her ear, the rustle of papers, the typing one heard from laptops and computers and devices, the hum of bored voices, the ring of several phones. Hannah sat up at a corner desk, a computer before her, and a file open: letter/fundraiser/Halloween. Nothing yet written—not even a date or an address or anything. The blinking curser waiting for her to start the letter. A picture of her, with short fluffy hair, next to a tall man who looked like he had just stepped off a movie set. Someone had drawn a heart around her and that strange man.
A woman stood by Hannah as she struggled to wake up, wearing a sedate hunter green dress and a blue paisley scarf, her golden-brown hair in a sedate updo secured with a large barrette. “Late night? That letter needs to be finished by five. What are you doing? Get it finished.”
Hannah blinked, looked around. She sat at the very back of a giant room full of other desks. Others working. Others. Behind her, a giant window overlooking a street; other tall buildings, trees. She wore dark brown slacks, a light raspberry-colored sweater, and a fake string of pearls! No zombies that she could tell. What was this? No. No, be smart, be careful. “Yes, late night. Do you think you can help me with this letter?”
“Oh, well, sure.” The woman pulled over a chair, sat, smelling of peaches. Peach perfume or peach shampoo. Something faint yet pleasant. Everything in this office—a big wide space of many desks with mostly women working at them—seemed very clean. “Jodi wants two points hit, right? It’s for a good cause and you can win prizes. Keep it the same bullshit as always, is my advice. Feckos don’t like change. They like order and things to go a certain way. Jodi should run everything here, she’s so wonderfully organized.”
Feckos? Hannah looked at the calendar on the desk. It said September. But what day? What year? “Oh sure, Feckos don’t like change. Jodi’s so organized, sure.”
“No, they sure don’t like change! They like tradition and order. Who doesn’t? Jodi says tradition and order win every time, no matter what. It always comes back to tradition and order.” Why did the peach-smelling office drone seem so stuck on this Jodi? “God, Lana at the meeting this morning! I about choked on my coffee. She’s hell-bent on naming names, you know? You should avoid her. Not take rides from her. Or Phil.” The woman had clear brown eyes. And an agenda. Mystery! It felt so nice to have such a harmless little mystery to solve as this woman and her office shenanigans. “Oh hey, just pull up that other fundraising crap from Christmas. Copy and paste what you need, slap a new date on it, change some details, there ya go! Do you still have them? It’s what I do, for the updates. I just copy and paste, it’s not like there’s changes at our level. Oh hey, did you hear? The wall got breached over on the Oregon side. Eatery Feckos got through,it was a mess. Nora has to deal with that PR nightmare. She’s in tears over it. Henry will probably fly up from Winnemucca if she fucks it up. And you know she will. And Henry will want to … you know.” The woman rolled her eyes as Hannah searched for a Christmas fundraising letter. There—a Christmas file and yes, a list of fundraising letters and events. The woman leaned forward a bit, nodded. “That one. Try that one, about the Holly Ball. That was the auction one, that’s kind of like the Halloween thing for this year. Yep. Just copy and paste what you need. The Feckos like their auctions. But we’re not supposed to know about the ones where they buy kids. Yuck. We all know about Salliana but we don’t know, you know? Just copy and paste what you need. It’s what we all do.”
“Thank you. I seem to have lost my notes for this fundraiser. And the name. I so spaced off or something. Salliana, yeah, that’s so gross,” Hannah said with a giant goofy smile, her brain ticking away furiously. What the hell was all this? Was she in hell? Had she been sent to hell to write fundraiser letters? She did not have office experience of any kind. No magical spate of knowledge on office letter writing came to enlighten her, either.
“That’s not like you. Are you okay? Is it Kevin?” The woman looked around, then leaned in, her breath reeking with coffee and spearmint gum. “Don’t let that pretty boy distract you. Keep your eye on the prize. You know what happens if you get distracted here.”
“Sure. Yeah, Kevin … he’s very distracting lately. We’re fighting.” Hannah said and the woman nodded. “So, it’s the 19th today, right?”
“What is? Oh crap … there’s Jodi. Just get that done and sent to her. And no more napping. Maybe call in sick tomorrow. Kevin is not worth it. Don’t fall apart now.” The woman pushed the chair she had taken back into the empty desk beside Hannah’s. She walked back up the aisle, toward a messy desk piled high with wrapped boxes. A woman in a navy silk pantsuit stopped to speak to her and at that point, Hannah noticed this navy pantsuit woman … was a zombie. She moved slowly and carefully, she wore an obvious wig the color of moldy carrots. Hannah had the letter opener in her hand, which had a Bureau of Humans on its silver handle. Zombies. They were in hell, of course they were. She’d have to fight her way free… Why was no one else screaming and running? No one seemed to care an actual zombie moved among them, and the zombie seemed oddly intent on pretending to be a boss or a supervisor. And then that zombie shuffled toward Hannah and Hannah came to her feet, her bladder hot and heavy and ready to let go down her leg.
The sensation crawled down Hannah’s spine that someone watched her. Studied her. Someone besides this zombie bitch about to … to attack her, of course. That’s what zombies did. They were famous for it.
“Hannah. Is that letter done yet? I need it.” The zombie came right to Hannah’s desk, stood there, oblivious to the fact that she was a zombie or that she should be trying to rip Hannah’s face off. It was unnatural. This was an unnatural zombie. “Hannah?” There it was, that smell, masked only slightly by heavy floral fumes that someone had tried to perhaps label a perfume. Filmy gummy eyes, a light silvery veil actually worn, that hooked behind the droopy ears. Maybe a Muslim zombie? Don’t laugh, don’t ask!
“Fine. Good. About done.” Hannah mumbled out, her voice tight and high. Jodi the zombie stared at her, then stepped closer as Hannah stepped back, the wall meeting her back, her hand a fist around that letter opener. Those gummy eyes went to the letter opener, then to Hannah’s face.
“Is there a problem?” The voice, gritty and low; the voice of dead things that should not be speaking. “Did you and your boyfriend have a tiff?”
“No. Fine.” Hannah made herself casually drop the letter opener, near an actual letter. “I’m fine. Fine.”
“Uh huh. Please get that done in the next half an hour. It should have been done this morning. Don’t let cute boys distract you, dear.”
“Fine.” Hannah could not stop repeating that word. Cute boys? Had she heard that? “Today’s date?”
“Yes, the nineteenth. Use the Winnemucca address at the top. We’re including our whole territory this year. And the Boise one, of course. I’m pondering whether or not to extend to Salt Lake, but I can put in that address if I do, so don’t worry about that. Thank you, Hannah. You’re a good worker, and I know it will be done and well written. You manage to improve even a copy and paste job. Take Sunni as your model if you need guidance.” Jodi moved off and Hannah sat slowly, then noticed she really had to go. Her bladder had turned into a throbbing monster. Bathroom. Or she’d squat and pee on the ugly dark gray carpet like a bad dog.
After a careful look about, she got up, wearing low heels that pinched her feet and pantyhose beneath her slacks. Pantyhose. That were a bit too small. Hannah walked up that aisle, trying not to gape at everything. It seemed everyone knew her and that she worked here. Wherever here was. A gigantic white square clock said it was past two. Afternoon, had to be afternoon. The sun shone through that big window. White walls. Insane asylum? Inside of a white whale?
“Hannah, instead of potato salad, can we go halvsies on a cheese and cracker tray?” a Mexican-looking woman said to her as she went past, heading toward the big glass double doors. Hannah stopped. “Jodi just said she’s bringing her potato salad. We can’t have two potato salads.”
“Sure. Cheese and crackers.” It seemed important to just agree with whatever was said to her. Food. There was food nearby yet her stomach did not seem empty. No raging thirst. No trots from sipping dirty water. It seemed there were bigger actual offices outside the glass doors, with nameplates screwed into them. Zombies lurched in and out of these offices … wearing nice clothes. Zombies dressed up like bankers. God damn it.
“Han? Are you getting sick? You’re pale,” the woman said, tapping away at a laptop—some kind of numbers report. “You need a Skeezie?”
“Sure, yeah. A Skeezie.”
The woman reached her hand into a desk drawer, her fingernails painted beige. Those beige-tipped fingers brought out a small opaque bag and this got handed to Hannah in a secretive way, rather like she was being handed a tampon. “Just take what you need! Take one right before you go home. Otherwise, you’ll, well, you know.” The woman made gusty wind sounds and waved her hands a bit, then laughed.
“Thanks, Susan,” Hannah threw out and the woman snorted, then pulled up something else that had even tinier, insufferably smug, collections of numbers and columns.
Hannah saw a memo with the name Katherine at the top. “I’ll just take one for later, Katherine.”
“Katherine? What? Maybe you should take one now and just go home. Just put that bag in your top desk drawer, I’ll get it later.”
Another memo, with Ophelia on it. Damn it. Hannah was getting too unnerved and chickenshit to try another name. Then Ophelia, not Katherine, looked over at the woman who had helped Hannah with her fundraiser memo. “You’re friends again with Sunni? After she hit on Kevin? You’re a saint, Hannah. Though, you should let her have him. He’s trouble.”
Sunni, the woman in the hunter green granny dress. Okay. Jodi, the zombie. And now Ophelia. And Kevin, the man in the picture. Okay, got it. “I like trouble,” said Hannah, her face trying to smirk. No, no, you don’t know these people or what’s going on. “Forgive and forget. Thanks for the Skeevers.”
“Skeevies. Uh … you want me to go with you?” Hannah wasn’t fully listening. She was gawping at a very tall, gaunt zombie draped in an eye-watering poison yellow suit, paired with a blood-red tie. “What? Oh yeah, Harrison, he wore that yellow suit yesterday. He looks like a giant canary.” Harrison spoke to Jodi, hands moving slowly, gray hands… He had gray hands. “Don’t stare at them, they hate that. Fectos, they want us to pretend they’re normal. He’s such a perv. They all are. We’re not supposed to notice. Or care.”
“Yeah, Fectos. Fine.” Hannah forced herself to walk through those glass double doors and walk past Jodi and the zombie canary man. She saw two restrooms—male and female an a unisex one—plus a break room, with the door open and two men seated at the big table, coffee cups before them, heads together. They nodded at her as she went past and she nodded back. Once in the ladies, she sat on a toilet, which had a bowl full of clear bright water. The air smelled of roses from the air freshener left by the third sink. She took deep, head-swirling breaths, trying to calm herself.
Off came her slacks, simple pull up ones, and then those damn pantyhose got torn off. She stuffed them in the little wastebasket, and covered them with toilet paper. Actual toilet paper—not leaves or her own hand. There were used tampons, wrapped in shielding layers, in there as well. When had she last had enough to eat to be able to shit something out? Or have her period? The little bag Not-Katherine had handed her held six black pills. They were stamped with an S and were long pills, not round. The black coating smudged her fingers. Skeezies? Skeezers? Skeezawhatevers? She took one, put it into the pocket of her slacks. Then sat again, not ready yet to face going back out there.
Where the zombies were.
What was going on? What was that name the two women had used? Fecto. Festo? No, Fectos. Both had casually said it, as if they used that term for zombies all the time. What did it mean?
Someone came into the restroom, went into the next stall. A series of astonishing farts and whistles, then a long sigh as plops sounded. Hannah clamped her hand over her lips, the smell of fresh human shit so oddly welcoming. Just so normal. It was just so normal here except for the odd boss zombies slumping here and there.
“Sorry! I couldn’t hold it anymore.” The woman next to Hannah said, a cheerful grandmotherly voice. “When you gotta shit, you gotta shit.”
“Absolutely,” Hannah said, flushing her toilet, leaving her stall. She washed her hands, the soap in the dispenser a bright violent pink that smelled of roses. Cheap roses. Her reflection showed she did seem pale. Her face was her face—her little round chin, her snubby nose, the winged eyebrows she had always liked—but there was no giant scar from plunging through a barbed wire fence as three zombies tried… No giant scar. She was not starving or filthy. Her hair had somehow grown back and she had somehow added blond streaks to it. Her gray-blue eyes had been rimmed with brown, her lashes clumpy with mascara. Silver eyeshadow smeared on her lids. But she had never been good at applying makeup. More plops and sighs from the woman taking a monster afternoon shit. Sensible shoes, thick ankles, thick legs encased in dark hose. Hannah left her to it.
That very long hallway, with big offices and the break room and the main room full of worker bees… Bright overhead lights. Big windows that looked down on a city street. This was still Boise. She was still Hannah G. Gray. She looked at her left wrist. A faint scar ran from her wrist to her elbow, a jagged faint pink line. She remembered the blood pooling, the smell of hot crushed pennies. She did not remember this office or these people.