The Break Room by Susan Rooke
Stan looked up from stirring his coffee. A tidy pile of empty sugar packets lay on the table beside the mug. He greeted the newcomer with a faint smile and a nod. “Doug.”
Doug crossed the vinyl floor of the break room to Stan’s corner table. “Mind if I join you?” Without waiting for a response, he pulled out a plastic chair the color of old lemon rinds and sank into it. “My feet are killing me. What a day!” He mimed sluicing sweat off his brow with the swipe of a finger. His cuticles were bitten raw. “But hey, TGIF, huh?”
Stan eyed him. “Weekend plans?”
“Hell, yeah. Football. All weekend long. College, pro, you name it. There’s even a high school game on one of the local channels tonight. I’m thinking I’ll invite some of the guys over Sunday for the Denver game. Say, you wanna come? Bring beer if you do!” Doug laughed.
Stan shook his head. “Oh, you know, Doug... football doesn’t really interest me much. I appreciate the thought, though.” He pulled the stir stick from his coffee mug and placed it with fussy precision on a paper napkin. Its three plastic prongs dripped a brown, three-pronged stain.
“Suit yourself, but you don’t know what you’re missing. That TV of mine is kickass. The definition’s sharper than real life.” Doug gave a snort. “It oughta be. I hocked my cojones for it.”
Stan smiled and lifted the mug to his lips. Steam rose curling from its interior. He looked as if he were breathing smoke. “I don’t doubt it.”
A short, chunky brunette popped her head around the break room doorframe. Her makeup was so thickly applied she could have been wearing a mask.
Spotting her, Doug gave a guilty start and looked away.
“Doug, what are you doing in here? Your break’s not for another hour. We’re swamped out there!” She frowned, her dark, penciled brows drawing together.
“I’m just getting a cup of water, Marlo.” Doug jerked a thumb at the water cooler.
Marlo gave him a look of frank disbelief. “Uh-huh. Fine, but hurry up. It’s a madhouse with that big sale today.” She gave the steel doorframe an emphatic slap with the palm of her hand, and her rings clanged against it. “Chop, chop!” She turned and vanished from sight.
“Be right there!” Doug called. He rose from his seat and made a crude gesture toward the now-empty breakroom entrance. “I’ll give you chop, chop,” he muttered. “What a bitch. God, I hate this job. I tell you, Stan, I can’t take one more second of watching another old woman squeezing her bunions into shoes two sizes too small. I don’t know how you do it.”
Stan looked up at him. “You’d better get going before she comes back. You know how Marlo can be.”
Doug shook his head, his eyes turned up to the acoustic tile ceiling. The fluorescent lighting gave his skin a grey cast. “Christ, why me?”
Stan sipped from his mug, gazing at Doug over the rim. His face held a look of mild interest. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
Doug started to laugh, but stopped, staring at Stan for a long moment. His Adam’s apple bobbed, and a muscle twitched in his jaw. “What do you mean?”
Stan set his mug down and absently ran a hand down his tie. He propped his elbows on the table, steepling his fingers. The long sleeves of his white button-down shirt bore a crisp, starched crease. “Surely you don’t believe you’re the only one who knows about that incident seven years ago, do you? The little girl you found feeding ducks in the park? Her mother had gone to the restroom. You remember. What happened after that, Doug?” He cocked his head. “Be honest. Haven’t you always known that day would catch up to you?”
Doug’s mouth tightened, his eyes narrowing. “You son of a bitch. You think you scare me? You and your prissy ways, your starched shirts and your silk ties! You’re not some rich lawyer or banker, Stan—you sell women’s shoes at the mall, just like I do!”
Stan grinned, displaying a mouthful of jumbled teeth.
Doug drew back, his face even greyer in the flat, bluish light.
“It’s always Friday here, Doug. Never the weekend. Or hadn’t you noticed? Your break is always an hour away. And that fancy TV of yours? Pure fiction.” Stan shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. You’d never have the chance to watch it. Oh—” He held up a finger— “and it’s ‘ladies’ shoes.’ That’s the term we prefer.”
Stan stood up from the table, and for an instant his slight frame seemed to swell, filling the small, cheerless room. “Don’t you want that cup of water you came in for, Doug?”
Doug’s mouth dropped open. He began to back toward the breakroom doorway, knocking his chair aside.
“Ready to get back to work, Doug?” Marlo said from behind him.
He whipped around to face her. There was a red gleam in the depths of her black eyes, and her smiling, painted lips looked waxen and false. From the doorway she extended her jeweled fingers toward him, beckoning. The many rings she wore gave her a primitive, ancient look.
After a time, Stan took his seat and resumed stirring his coffee. “I can never seem to get it sweet enough. A dozen packets of sugar in this one cup, at least, and it’s still bitter.” He sighed. “Never mind. Who’s next?”
“Ah, yes. From the DMV, correct?”
Marlo smiled. “You got it, boss.”
“And after her?”
“Patrick. We’ve put him in telemarketing.”
Stan nodded. “Excellent. Thank you, Marlo.”
“No thanks needed, boss. You know I’m always happy to serve... Stan.” Marlo threw him a wink.
Stan’s face brightened, and he gave a low chuckle. “Close enough.”
Copyright Susan Rooke 2019
Susan Rooke is a Pushcart-nominated poet and author of the Space Between fantasy series. Her work has appeared in such publications as Inkscrawl, Eye to the Telescope, The Twilight Zone Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among many others. She lives with a husband and cows in rural Central Texas, and when she's not writing speculative fiction and poetry, she blogs fortnightly about real life, food and cocktails at http://susanrooke.net.