Worst Monday ever
Chapter 1, part 2
Cora sits in behind the wheel, pretending not to hear her phone. The traffic is thick. The weather is too hot and too bright. The oppressive light silently bores through her skull, creating a migrainous pain behind her left socket. The muffled ping-ping-ping coming from her carryall suggests someone is texting her obsessively and continuously.
Not someone. Him.
It’s a bad Monday, she thinks, but not the worst Monday ever. Not by a long shot. She knows other people have it worse than she does. A lot worse. Her sister Laura, for example. She has three kids by different fathers, an oxy habit, and a dreadful, low-paying cleaning job. She is also intermittently suicidal. Cora is late to work because she had to schlep all three of Laura’s kids to Head Start while Laura got the state-funded counseling she needs to endure her life.
As Cora pulls into the Dynacorp parking lot and narrowly misses a delivery truck, she is already exhausted. She is ready to go home. Only eight hours — nine including a mandatory unpaid lunch break to be eaten with other members of the admin staff — to go. She sighs softly and retrieves her phone from her bag. She can’t avoid it any longer.
Where are you?
That bitch crucified me.
She hates me for no reason.
You’re a good person.
You wouldn’t betray me.
When are you coming in?
I need you.
They are all from her boss, Darrow Castle, the needy executive vice president she serves. He is handsome in a louche way, with dark hair, pale skin, and cherry red lips. He is built like a rock star, fragile and lean. She used to sleep with him until she realized he wasn’t in love with her. He just liked the steady stream of costless attention.
Cora walks quickly through the parking lot, wondering if her job is jeopardy more than it usually is. She should have parked closer, she thinks. Sweat stains already mar her crisp, white blouse. When she opens the double-doors to the reception area, a rush of air conditioning turns her skin clammy. She is sure her mascara has smeared.
As she walks to her cube, she hears a strange, windy sound that gets louder as she moves through the cubicle warrens. It’s whispering. She folds her arms out of embarrassment. She didn’t think her sweat stains were all that noticeable. Clearly, she was wrong.
“Cora?” Melissa, the CEO’s admin assistant and inveterate office gossip, stops her with one red-tipped hand, eyes glittering with gleeful malice.
“Yes?” she asks, confused. She and Melissa are not friendly. They were both involved with Darrow around the same time. And Darrow is the CEO’s son.
“Did you hear about Darrow? One of our engineers wrote a blog post saying he sexually harassed her. It went viral. It was even on our Facebook page until HR took it down. Can you believe it?”
Cora nods slowly. Yes, she can.
Cora knocks gingerly on Darrow’s office door. He is one of five people in the company who get their own, private space. The rest of the workers, like drones in a hive, exist nakedly in the open. They mutter plans to pick up children after school and visit the doctor into monitored company phones. IT has installed a cellphone jammer that covers the whole building to safeguard company secrets.
“What is it?” snarls Darrow.
Cora enters his den. His face is paler than usual. His hair is messier. He sips coffee from his favorite mug; it’s made of bone. His arm trembles lightly like a leaf in a gentle breeze. She wonders if he’s drinking coffee or something stronger and more corrosive.
“G-g-good morning,” she stammers.
“Oh Cora, it’s so good to see a friendly face. Do you know what that bitch is doing to me? Do you?”
Cora nods, not trusting her voice. Despite everything she knows, she feels for him. She wants to run to him, twine her fingers through his hair, and tell him everything is going to be OK. She wants to replace whatever he’s drinking with decaf and drive him home to sleep it off, something she used to do all the time until she learned about boundaries.
“Oh Cora, what are we going to do? My father wants everyone to think he’s so enlightened. He’ll probably fire me. That woman’s filthy lies are everywhere.”
Cora shakes her head. Her voice is a tight squeak. “I don’t think your father would do that.” She hopes his father wouldn’t do that. If Darrow is fired, then Cora will be laid off. Her sister, her sister’s kids, and her gently decaying parents in the nursing home will be cast adrift along with her.
Darrow shakes his head sadly. “You are so naïve, so precious. I know my father. He pretends to be a good man, but he is hard and ruthless. Come to me. Let’s comfort each other while we still can.” He opens his arms wide, beckoning Cora, a small woman with the dull, brown hair of a sparrow, to fly into a hug.
Cora remains motionless. She bites the inside of her cheek. She wants to huddle in his arms, but she will not be used. Laura isn’t the only one who is going to therapy. If Darrow really cared about her, he could see her outside of the office. He could help find her another job. He could ask a question — just one question — about her life and well-being.
The silence lengthens and thickens. Darrow drops his arms. His expression changes from plaintive to petulant. His cherubic mouth curves into a sneer.
“I suppose you believe the lies like everybody else.”
Cora opens her mouth to protest that she hadn’t even read the blog post, but he cuts her off.
“It doesn’t surprise me. You’re not very smart. You didn’t even graduate from high school. Do you know why I hired a moron like you?”
Cora shrugs. This particular insult doesn’t touch her. Five years ago, she could have attended Darrow’s alma mater. She had the grades, but not the money or the inclination to bury herself under a crippling load debt. She keeps her face neutral and her body still. If she doesn’t feed it tinder, his anger will burn itself out.
He smiles broadly, baring white, perfectly even teeth. “You were so dull and unattractive, I knew you would never leave me. I hired you so I would never have to train another idiot secretary, ever again.”
A sharp pain pierces Cora’s heart. This barb hits home. But she will not cry, and she will not allow him to gather her up and smooth the wet feathers he has ruffled. No, she will not let him win. She is not just hurt, she is angry, too. But she needs the job and the possibility of collecting unemployment when it ends, so she holds her tongue.
She bites down hard on the inside of her cheek, this time tasting blood.
Cora stands in the bathroom, watching herself in the mirror above the sinks. Evaluating. Her hair is brown. Her eyes are brown. Her features are soft and blunt. Unrefined. She is pleasant-looking. Unremarkable. Maybe even a little bit dull. She guesses Darrow is mostly right.
The door opens. Cora turns on a faucet, pretending she still belongs.
Cora washes her hands as the woman disappears into a stall. Cora can’t quite remember her name, but she knows she is a software engineer. Her face, achingly lovely but marked by scars from severe childhood burns, is flawed but memorable. Nothing like mine.
As Cora walks back to her desk, she takes a quick emotional inventory. She imagines putting her self-pity inside a lead-lined box surrounded by barbed wire. By the time she is sitting down at the small table she shares with the latest in a series of temps, she has regained a measure of equilibrium.
Cora is updating Darrow’s schedule when a dark shadow falls over her workspace. It is Melissa. Her looks are as unspectacular as Cora’s, but she fights it. Hard. Her hair is bleached and frizzled. Her makeup is thick and loud. Her clothes and nails are painfully bright. Perhaps, Cora speculates, that is why Melissa dislikes her so much.
Melissa clicks her tongue and plants her crimson-tipped hands on wide, leather-wrapped hips. “Darrow is late to a board meeting, and his father’s pissed.”
So what are you going to do about it?
Cora understands the unspoken subtext and ignores it. “His Outlook calendar is up to date and synced to his phone.”
“Go find him and bring him to the Concorde room. It’s your job.”
For a moment, Cora imagines quitting and skipping along the hot asphalt to her car. But I need the money. She sighs softly and stands in careful increments, as if she is a hundred years old. “I’ll see what I can do,” she says, walking towards the stairwell.
Cora knows exactly where Darrow is. When he becomes too agitated or angry, he climbs to the top of the building where he can short a line or two and count the cars in the parking lot. She takes the stairs two at a time, breathless with exertion and resentment. She is Darrow’s admin assistant, not his wife. She wills herself to stay strong and honor her limits.
Darrow, standing at the edge of the roof by a low barrier, turns slowly. He smiles ruefully. His hair ruffles in the scorching breeze. To Cora, he looks like every bad boy turned hero in every romance novel she’s ever read. Until he opens his mouth.
“Oh God, they sent you. Stupid, useless, ugly you.”
Cora stiffens and squints into the sun. “You skipped the board meeting, and your father noticed. He wants you there. Now.”
Darrow runs a hand through his hair and laughs bitterly. “My father can go to hell. He just wants to humiliate me in front of the board. And all because some bitch I discarded decided to lie.”
Cora takes a small step back. “I’m just passing on the message. Don’t go if you don’t want to. It’s your life.”
“My life is over. I’m finished.”
Cora blinks. The space around her shimmers and flickers. A flash of anger hotter and brighter than anything she has ever experienced flashes through her. She bites her cheek and rolls her eyes.
“Your life is not over. You have a trust fund. You own your house. You’re healthy. Many people, maybe most people, would kill for that.”
Darrow grimaces. “Oh Cora, you’re so small minded. I can’t just exist like you do. I can’t be a dumb pawn, content to consume, excrete, and reproduce. If my father exiles me, I might as well die.”
The otherworldly rage strikes Cora like lightning. “Then jump.”
He winks and grins.
Cora holds her breath.
He lands quietly.
She approaches the edge of the roof, swallows twice, and looks down. His body is broken and bleeding, sprawled across two Honda Civics. He is dead and so is her job.
Perhaps, she thinks, this really is the worst Monday ever.
Or maybe it’s the best.
Thank you for reading! This is the second installment of a novella titled The Half Life of Shadows, which will soon be posted on Amazon. Stay tuned for the link!