These are the first two chapters of my book Finis., the first installment in me Animal Affinities Series.
ELSA’S PARENTS and sister have become meaner than usual, and her cat, Jonas, resents her. She has a nagging concern he wants to eat her.
“He bit me again this morning — I woke up to find half the toes on my left foot in his mouth! I kicked him away but he just came back, all fangs and hissing, till I locked him in the coat closet.”
But that’s only the beginning, Elsa tries to explain to her cousin Gerard. She has to speak in short bursts: he’s conducting his water exercises, his head bobbing in and out of the water in orderly arcs. She knew she’d be interrupting his routine, but this morning’s episode has brought things to a head. On her way to work, anxiety commandeered her every thought and movement. Before she could catch her breath, she found herself tearing through Gerard’s garden gate and rushing to his salt-water pool.
“Oh, Elsa,” he says, his feet spiraling around a large stalk of kelp just below the water’s surface. He runs a watery hand across his spiky brown hair, and brine curls down his back. “What are you going to do?”
“What’s even worse, my landlord left another threat-of-eviction notice today.” She sets her briefcase down near a baby potted corpse flower and ventures closer to the pool. “I’ve done nothing wrong. My rent is always on time. I’m a quiet, orderly tenant. I thought getting a cat would mollify the building association, but unless I become a cat, I don’t think it’ll help.”
Gerard dunks, flips neatly into a ball, and spins back up; he swims to where she stands at the edge of the pool and rises. “Have you had any hints of your self?” He looks at her carefully, scrutinizing, and she wants to shrink into the empty void of mediocrity. Still, his voice is tender. “Anything at all?”
“No,” she murmurs, mesmerized by the ripples his body makes, the way the water slaps against the side of the pool and then laps backward over itself, folding the brine under to dissolve in a never-ending cycle of thrash and renewal.
“I’m not sure I approve of where you’re living, anyway. Those nasty gangs¾I read about them in the newspaper. Packs attacking Plain Ones right and left, even children.”
“I saw that, too. They usually go for adults, though¾people who ought to have blossomed by now.” Her shame for the disgrace she’s caused her family burns on her face.
Gerard smiles. “Come in for a swim. You’ll feel better.” He shoots backward through the water, darkened spiny ridges flashing on his skin.
She almost wants to but imagines how painful it would be. “I can’t,” she says, then makes an excuse. “Work.”
“Of course. The monster.”
“I’ve never been a swimmer, anyway.” Even standing for too long in the shower makes her skin feel prickly and sore; she usually just soaps up before turning the water on and then washes her hair in the sink. “I think I’m allergic to water.”
He laughs. “Off you go, then. See you later¾” His words bubble as he dives backward.
Elsa trudges out the gate, hardly even waving back at the friendly centaur trimming his hedges next door.
ELSA HEARS the snarling from all the way downstairs and pushes the six button again, as if that would make the elevator go any faster. She doesn’t want to be late. As the doors finally, slowly open, she rushes out, bumping her shoulder on one of them. An accountant from the third floor, his mottled brown and gray hair in disarray, crashes into her as he flies toward the exit.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, helping him collect his fallen papers. Quietly she asks, “Are you all right?”
He pushes his round, dark-rimmed glasses farther up his beaky nose. “Those two new secretaries missed a staff meeting last night.”
He doesn’t have to say any more about the displeasure of the monster behind the big oak desk.
Elsa adjusts the neat hair clip she always wears and steps cautiously into the sixth floor receiving area, unwilling to navigate the labyrinth of cubicles to her own workstation next to the monster’s room. She can see fresh piles of beige folders on her desk, but horrible sounds are coming from the boss’ office. She realizes with chagrin her briefcase is still on Gerard’s patio and panics, turns quickly around and walks back out to the elevator bank. Artwork on the walls and a large aquarium filled with colorful fish and other placid creatures calm her. One young man from her office, a new hire, is staring mindlessly at a large, abstract photograph as if trying to lose himself in it. Another employee rushes out to stare at a particularly soothing canvas of gray paint.
She presses her fingertips to the front of the aquarium and several fish swim up to her. The larger ones seem to smile; the smaller ones seem to be trying to suck her fingertips, through the glass. Watching the kelp and anemone and angelfish tranquilizes Elsa’s nerves enough for her to go back inside. She turns around.
Lois, the switchboard operator, quietly beckons her. Thick glasses usually cover her pretty orange eyes, but today the spectacles sit atop her head, holding back a curly mane of dark copper hair that looks mussed, as if from dodging projectiles. She doesn’t look frightened, though, despite the palpable fear among the rest of the staff. Elsa hurries over.
“Are the secretaries going to be fired?” she asks. Three empty coffee cups clutter Lois’ desk, and dirt smudges highlight a dent in the tan wall behind it. The heavy wooden door to the monster’s interior office shakes suddenly as if something the size of a potted tree has just been thrown at it.
“Already done. The question now is whether they’ll have to be carried out.”
They watch for several tense minutes as the growling and yelling and sounds of people running around and things being thrown continue to distract everyone from working.
Suddenly a shriek from the interior chamber makes Elsa cringe. She recognizes the voice of that secretary — another Plain One, she’s sure, although the woman tried to keep it a secret. But Elsa knew, could see it in the nervous way the woman watched other people interact, in the dejected slump of her shoulders when she thought no one was looking at her.
Elsa debated whether to approach her, whether she would welcome sympathetic company.
Or perhaps they would each make the other more of a pariah, since no one liked it when underdogs banded together. Maybe the secretary would be angry and offended, would keep trying to hide who she wasn’t.
Or maybe Elsa was wrong about her and would be rebuffed, her position as outcast further solidified.
She finally decided it was easier not to try to be understood.
There’s another crash. It sounds like her inner debate is quickly becoming irrelevant.
A tap on Elsa’s shoulder makes her jump. Gerard is standing there, holding out her briefcase.
“Elsa, my dear, you need someone to look after you,” he says.
“No, I don’t,” she mutters.
“Who are you?” Lois purrs appreciatively, shaking his webbed hand.
“My cousin Gerard,” Elsa says. She holds up the briefcase, annoyed with herself for having forgotten it. “Thanks for bringing this.” Grudgingly she adds, “You’ve saved my hide.”
The monster’s door opens, and one secretary — not the one who piqued Elsa’s curiosity¾stumbles quickly out, red hair up like a coxcomb. Her sleeve is gashed open. She points sloppily toward his office and mumbles, “Kelly…ambulance.”
There’s a roar, and Elsa clutches her briefcase to her chest. They can see the horns and hairy shoulders. The boss is nearly seven feet tall.
Lois sighs and picks up the phone on her desk. “I hope he’s paid up on the workers’ comp policy,” she says.
“That supervisor of yours is a nasty customer,” Gerard says evenly. “Somewhere in Crete a maze is missing its pet.”
Elsa knows she ought to try to find a new job. The monster has too much of a temper, and this sort of thing is happening more often.