A Petrified Forest

It was just typical to get stuck rewriting a whole Collateral report, after all the ‘work’ the regular guy had done. 

“You need to redo half of this. We can’t turn this in.”

“It’s fine,” he said. That lazy ass Hindricks – who came in late almost every day, spent an hour and half in the lounge, then another hour on social media site updating his status and posting about how work sucked – that lazy ass Hindricks. “Have you seen the other reports? How do these guys graduate college?”

“Did you graduate college?” Mearan sneered. “Do you use the provided word document programs? This is trash. I’m not putting my name on this.”

“Then don’t.”

“I did the research for this.” God, why did Hindricks get assigned to her? He didn’t want to work for the company, he wanted that cozy software job over at Disk.net. Her supervisor was thinking about releasing Hindricks if his quality of work didn’t improve, but the request hadn’t gone through yet. Mearan hated paperwork.

“I typed it up. Fair trade.”

“It’s like you didn’t work on this,” Mearan shouted. “It looks like you paid some fifth grader to write up the report, because this is a lot better than your usual quality.”

The argument ended there. Hindricks was unmovable, he didn’t want to put any more time into the report than he felt he was ‘paid’ to supply. That was the most work Hindricks had done all that month, but Mearan was unwilling and insulted to supply her name to the project, and couldn’t supply it to her growing resume of work.

Collateral reports were the staple of the company she worked for. Solid Straight was one of the surnames the branch used, and worked with analytical teams to make up long winded, over scrutinized documents that advised some smaller up and coming companies were assets were lost, and how to refine efficiency of production without cutting costs. Solid Straight had a lot of intern opportunities, and it was where Mearan got her big start, once she hit the department to train up interns… but usually got stuck with college graduates.

Somehow, with her polished and clean record, she managed to enlist the ‘aid’ of Hindricks. Solid Straight had strict policies regarding abrupt terminations, and employed every conceivable resource to give members a chance to reform, and improve quality of work prior to release. Unfortunately, this policy also applied to lazy C+ students who swam through college on the strong currents of expectations, rather self-fulfillment or motivation. Hindricks had been with the company for five months, and was already on his way out the door.

Mearan’s comfortable jogging sneakers squeaked occasionally on the smooth cement of the parking garage. She ran through the events of the day, pulling double shifts in order to finish up a side report her beneficiary supervisor had asked for, while also combing through the swill of Collateral report Hindricks hacked together. The errors were not typical punctuation or grammar, but primarily the research portions that Mearan supplied Hindricks with. She had to reopen the documents she’d closed the night before (after a strained sigh), and reevaluate the Accounting pages. It was like Hindricks barely skimmed through, nothing of the work was accurate or even close to the provided research.

It was done and over with now, she tried to absolve. She could only write up a scorching review for Hindricks performance – no doubt in her mind he neglected to fill out the standard coworker Eval. himself. No skin off her back. She’d have to remember to inquire with her supervisor come the following work week, about the status of Hindricks release. She did not want to waste her time toiling over a half cooked assignment.

Normally she wouldn’t leave work this late, or go home at all. The level where Solid Straight had offices set up supplied staff with a nice lounge, completely with a makeshift kitchen and living area. On the rare occasion Mearan ran with late nights she could always hit the couch, maybe with Jenkins, another co-worker who frequently lost track of time. But the cleaning crew was on their work level that evening, and she wouldn’t be able to sleep with the shuffling and monotonous vacuums roaming.

Before leaving, Mearan changed out of her skirt and dress shoes, tucked them into her rented locker and redressed in comfortable (and unappealing) jeans and jogging shoes. The night guard unlocked the glass doors, and bid her a goodnight as she stepped out. 

On her own in the wild, Mearan took her usual route, down the stairwell and into the parking garage. Though it was out of the way, she felt safer in the underground chamber, where the sounds carried and light was abundant.

The sneakers did not return an echo, and by all purposes she was nonexistent in her passage beneath the city. When she was on her own, like this evening, she sometimes revisited the incident a year before. As typical as it sounded, she was robbed at gunpoint by a man in a hoody. He took her purse, which forced Mearan to cancel and replace all her cards. But this all occurred on the road above, the assailant slipped from the shadows of a nearby alley, and held a gun up right beside his hip. Mearan threw her purse and ran; there wasn’t much else to be done. Her assailant didn’t pursue, she halfheartedly reported the incident but not much could be done.

Mearan had been more careful, more aware of her surroundings since then. She avoided dark places, listened to her surroundings, and kept away from areas that could conceal thieves, thugs, or worse.

She followed the bend of the parking garage, vacant of most vehicles, and in effect most cover. Mearan had hoped she’d be able to catch someone leaving late, and who would’ve walked with her to the bus stop. But the cleaning crews were coming in, and many of the cubicle workers packed away some of their more valuable trinkets for the evening, before whisking away right when hours ended. 

Mearan paused as she entered the pathway that opened up before her. She swore she heard a sound, not like a snicker but more like a chatter, or a clack. It was an obscure echo rebounding after her, and must’ve originated in the empty expanse of the garage at her back.

The light from the support columns shimmered a tepid orange on the puddles of water from the afternoon rains. She backed up a little and scanned down the lined up slots of white lines, signifying parking slots by number. The parking sections of the garage were separated by tall walls, which restricted sound travel. Mearan saw no movement, heard nothing.

Aside from the busy street three levels above. Vehicles zoomed by at all hours of the night, only calming periodically between closing hours of night clubs. It was a Friday night, most of the clubs would be open till dawn. The cops would be on patrol, answering calls to the areas where activity swung into the unruly. Spring usually did that to people.

She knew Hindricks was a party goer. He had that look to him, and was probably hitting the clubs now with some of his dropout friends; probably telling them how lame she was, a workaholic. The usual.

She should just ask Jenkins out. The guy was single, didn’t have a girlfriend; that is, he didn‘t follow with Mearan‘s attempts to flirt. Jenkins might be confused by her hints; he was a gentlemen, but would he be put off if the girl asked first? She would ask over an email, start with something simple like coffee or brunch, and come clean with him and see what he thought. Just a question.

Mearan stopped in her tracks. She knows she heard it that time. The soft pat-pat of footfalls echoing around her. She twisted about, so fast she expected to see the man there in mid-step.

The parking garage extended forth void of movement, of shimmer and shadow.

“Hello?” She calls. “I know that you’re following me.”

No answer. Unsurprising. But, it does cause the skin to crawl on her neck. Someone was following her and they’re pretending to go unnoticed. There was an eerie concept to the delusion, like it was some sort of game. Or the delinquent had confidence in their unconvincing stealth. 

But it was also possible Mearan was not being followed, that her paranoia was getting the best of her. If someone was following, they wouldn’t have been able to hide so smoothly the instant she spun.

“I advise you to stop right here,” Mearan went on. Her voice was steady, but she didn’t detect any immediate danger. She waited, and listened to the returning chatter of her voice. She felt positively alone, and isolated. “It won’t end well for you, I promise.”

With the threat voiced, she turned away and resumed walking. She didn’t dwell on Hindrick, or wonder if Jenkins was as available as he seemed, and she didn’t pick up the pace. No one was following her; she didn’t hear the sound of steps. At the end of the parking garage was an open access that led to the upper or lower floors. She could reach the street there, and disappear among a crowd of people. The garage was creepy, sometimes she thought she saw shadows in her peripheral, people waiting there that didn’t belong. It would be fine, everything would be okay; paranoia was a side-effect of stress.

At her back came a song; not a song, but someone was humming a melody. Mearan slowed her steps and looked back, but didn‘t stop this time.

“This isn’t funny,” she screamed. “I carry a firearm, and I will use it! I’m not the best aim, but I will kill you.”

This was all false. She had a license to carry, but was always afraid she may have to use the gun. She carried mace instead.

The voice didn’t falter in its song, and Mearan began to recognize the accent. “Hindrick! Is that you?” She stopped running, and moved back towards where she thought the voice rose from. “Were you waiting out here for me, Hindrick? I swear to god, I am carrying a weapon! I could kill you over a shitty prank!”

“Anneau autour de la rosie,” the voice chimed. It was right by Mearan’s shoulder.

Mearan whipped about, hand going for her jeans pocket. It was the damdest thing. She knew she could hear that voice, but she couldn’t react fast enough to the source. It was always at her back or her shoulder, humming and chiming with its melody. It began to dawn on her that this wasn’t Hindrick, this was someone she didn’t know at all. This was an opportunist, and she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her head swam with the revelation. It could have been anyone, but it was here right here.

Mearan ran.

“Poches pleines de posies.”

The voice never gained ground but never lost pace. It hummed through the rhythm of Mearan’s rapid footfalls. And despite the speed Mearan forced herself to maintain, her pursuer’s song never faltered.

“I have a gun!” she cried. “Don’t you understand, I’ll shoot you dead! I swear to god I will!”

“Cendres. Cendres.”

The man, or whoever it was, can’t be reasoned with. He knows Mearan is bluffing, that the woman is scared out of her mind, and fleeing in utter desperation for her survival. Mearan is terrified because the man doesn’t want money, he wants her. He desires whatever value her body will offer his carnal desires, and will kill Mearan out of necessity to protect his identity. Mearan will be dead and forgotten while the lunatic rots in some asylum, singing his twisted melodies for the orderlies that come to clean and feed him. What was worse, there was a high chance he would live on with her memory, and the excitement her death brought him.

The stairwell and elevator awaited ahead. Mearan charges; her legs surge with a burst of adrenalin. She can make it, she will make it. Above was the street, she can hear the engines roaring, buffeted by the sharp steps of the stairwell. She bypasses the elevator and dives for the rail, and that first step. She heaves upward and climbed.

“Nous tombons tous.”

Mearan needs not look back, doesn’t look down – her eyes fixate on the second level of the garage parking. She scrambled hand and foot up the steps, two and three at a time. It’s only when she reaches the mid-level that she risks a look down, over the side of the parking curb. She kneels, panting and drooling.

The entire cement complex was silent. Not a mutter over her ragged breathing. She heard no voice, save for the subtle rumblings of passer-byers on the road above. She inched backward on hands and knees, before using the rail to haul upright. The city and its active life was a lone ascent away, calling, and Mearan moved with the care and caution of a child trying to sneak out of their room. Movement at her right caught her eye, and Mearan froze when her eyes met the shape huddled at next set of steps, blocking her path.

“Est-ce que tu cours, Alouette douce?”

It wasn’t a man. It was hardly an animal. The shock wouldn’t relent, and Mearan nearly missed the movement— The Thing lunged at her in one large bound, its eyes glinting in the sheared light. Mearan had her mace up— 

The nozzle was locked. She never unlocked the cap, and it didn’t matter. The creature’s jaws took her arm, and an explosion of pain burst up Mearan’s forearm. She felt a brief tingling in her fingertips, felt her arm crumble out of her grip.

Then open nothing. She fell, twisting, spiraling; mind fractured, body left abandoned and bare in open air.

An audible crack resounded through her body when she hit. She skid several feet on slick cement; her ears buzzed when she came to a rest – unmoving. Feeling dissolved out of her hand; Mearan no longer perceived the warm cylinder of mace in her grasp. Hot vapor enveloped her wrist, and spread into her elbows. Fuzziness bundled the remnants of her senses. She was still conscious somehow, despite the trauma, despite not feeling attached to herself. 

Soft steps neared. She doesn’t hear the approach so much as detects the invading movement. Her head lay splint, but not completely severed from awareness. Wasn’t someone supposed to find her? Didn’t anyone hear her scream? The street above seemed impossibly distant, nonexistent – life buzzed, traffic rumbled, she could hear occasional conversations – she struggled to call out, yet couldn’t muster a mere whisper. It felt unreal that no one would realize she was a few feet beneath, attacked, bleeding out.

And dying.

A heavy pressure sank into her ribs, a set of icy claws bore through her flesh. The blood pooling down her skin felt soothing. She struggled feebly at the polished skull as it began flaying the flesh from her stomach in large, bloody chucks. The teeth shook savagely, and the claws kneaded muscle loose. Finally, as the blood loss set in and dulled her outer extremities, Mearan began to slip. She was absorbed into a deep, calm, nullifying death, where worldly concerns existed only as petty distractions. If only she could have done more in her life. She wasn’t ready for this. 

 -  Characters  and content © 2017 Tempus Willow.