“Oh god, don’t look at him…” they said that every time I walked by their little group. They didn’t know that I heard them, even though they said it fairly loud. That’s probably why I never hung out with them, it was a whole new level of stupid that I didn’t want to get on me.
It’s not like I had to pass by them either. I could have gone down three different paths that wouldn’t put me near them, but it delighted me that I made them miserable. We all had to go out into the world after the afternoon meeting, so if I could add a bit of agony for them to carry around all day, why not?
“How’s it going, Al?” I took my usual seat, plonking down next to the only person who could stand me.
“Heya, Ralphie!” He slapped me on the back, harder than was socially acceptable. “Boy oh boy! I heard you’re getting a sweet deal today!”
“Like it matters. It’s all the same.” I didn’t even break out a notepad anymore. I could sleep through this thing, but then the boss would put me on the rack for it.
“Ha! You say that now,” He leaned in closer, his breath wreaked of onion bagels, “but a little batty told me that you’ve earned a special reward.”
“Yeah, sure thing.” Nothing was special down here, that was how they designed it. In the beginning you didn’t really catch that they gave you assignments that were just a little off. They were slowly boiling you to the point where you didn’t flinch when they handed you the knife.
The big guy did his usual spiel about how there weren’t quotas, but some of us needed to step up our game. He talked about a new technique a millenal was trying out, but I always found solace in doing things the old fashioned way. He passed out the assignments as we exited the room. I stopped right outside the door and read mine.
I slammed the door behind me as I marched back into the conference room, “I’m not doing it!”
“Oh Ralphie, it’s funny that you think you have a choice after all these years.” He lit up his cigar, staring me down. “You’ve become complicite in much worse and have no room to back out now. I’ve held on to this one for thirty years, waiting until you were in too deep.”
“Damn you…” I knew there was no way to get out of it. My sins had buried me. I walked solemnly towards the departure bay, not knowing how I’d accomplish my mission.
You never get used to materializing back on Earth. Normally it was somewhere you had never been. Sometimes you got to scare tourists spending the night in a haunted hotel, other times you’d just pop up in someone’s bedroom and mess with their dreams a bit. You never really got the chance to get revenge on a neighbor who had a dog that wouldn’t shut up or the co-worker who cooked fish in the microwave.
So, as you might imagine, getting this one caused some anxiety. The vibrant oranges were fading to black in the sky, initiating the planning period. I crept around, admiring the quaint house. The weeping willow in the back looked like the one from her favorite painting.
I froze as I rounded the next corner. If I had a heart it would have skipped a beat. Even after all these years, she still had a power over me. I drew closer until she gazed through me. It wouldn’t be long until she saw me as some vile creature or Ms. Drury, her 6th grade homeroom teacher. Until then I remained on a spiritual plane, slightly off from her reality. The fear of being punished for not meeting my quota remained an ever-present threat.
She continued to read her book and drink her camomile until our old grandfather clock struck eleven. She was always a night owl, but she never missed a chance to chastise me for staying up late. She was right to of course, I never handled sleep deprivation with grace. Even when I wanted to take care of the kids when they woke up in the middle of the night, she would take over and kick me back to bed. She was a better woman than I deserved.
She sighed deeply, gathered her things, and headed inside. Following closely, I stood by her as she looked at the pictures on the wall; our kids all grown, married, and with children. I didn’t see her with anyone else, which I thought would make me happy, but I just wanted to hug her and tell her how sorry I was. She strolled down the hall to her bedroom and turned on the radio. Slightly dancing as she got ready for bed, which still drove me wild.
Oh Jenny, why did he have to choose you? You’ve done nothing to deserve this… I reached out to caress her cheek, but she spun away to end the song with a flourish. Suddenly, she sat down on the bed and put her face into her hands. Only after I kneeled down next to her did it hit me. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, our song, came on the radio. Damn him…
I ran back to the exit, through the empty halls, and stormed into his office.
“Ralphie my boy, back so soon?”
“I can’t do it… you knew I couldn’t.”
He had the audacity to feign shock, “I would never do such a thing.” Taping the ash from his cigar, “Of course I’ll have to add this to your debt, such infractions carry a steep cost.” He pulled out my ledger, lazily turning the pages. “I’ll never understand you humans. There are thousands of stories warning you about making deals with me, but I still have to hold new employee orientations every week.”