10 February, 2017 — Ann Arbor, Michigan
At a quarter to five on Friday afternoon, Kate Spence at last feels secure enough in her day’s work at the landscape architecture firm of Miller, Phillips, and Smith to allow herself a moment to look out the office’s beautifully tall oak-framed windows and notice that the sky is, at last, beginning to clear. The featureless layer of clouds that has darkened the winter sky for a week now is at last beginning to break up, maybe promising a bit of light before the early February sunset. On the other hand, that probably also means it’ll be getting cold tonight—probably too cold for the old steam-register heat in Kate’s apartment to keep up.
But at least it’s the weekend, finally! Any amount of discomfort is fine with Kate, as long as she can have two days away from work, away from the world, and away from her life.
She drags herself back from her fifteen second vacation to continue straightening up her desk for the end of the day. It’s no good leaving half-finished assignments scattered around when you walk out the door.
As she straightens things, Kate makes plans for her Friday night. Kerrytown doesn’t close until seven and it’s only a fifteen minute walk from here. There should be no problem getting up there in time to pick up a few things to get her through the weekend: a new can of pinto beans would be nice, and one of the half-baguettes they’ve been selling lately. Of course there is the little problem of being able to pay for it, but if she can avoid Mister Pogany at the apartment for another couple days—next Wednesday is payday, and then she’ll be able to give him the rent.
Standing up out of her chair, Kate carries a stack of folders to the cabinets behind her desk. Filing them will safely consume the last few minutes between now and five-to-five: that magical time when nobody minds if you start putting on your coat and boots to leave.
Thinking of the weekend, Kate smiles. She has a new Victoria Holt novel from the library! Kate’s idea of heaven is to let it snow outside, let ice build up in slow layers inside her windows as the antique heating system gets slowly overwhelmed, sip tea, read a good book, and, for just a little while, Be Somewhere Else.
More and more lately, she has found herself wishing that the Being Somewhere Else could just—last forever.
It has occasionally occurred to her that it is probably not a good sign for a person of her age to regularly fantasize about getting cancer as a way of escaping work. But if the doctor said “You have two months to live,” her first thought would be “I get a two month vacation, and I’ll go get a big stack of books today!” Thirty volumes ought to do it, if they’re hefty enough. And no worries about late fees! She smiles.
And then, from behind her, the Voice of Doom speaks, shattering her pleasant reverie.
“Hey, Katie,” it says.
Feeling ice build up in quick layers around her heart, Kate turns jerkily back toward her desk and sees an apparition of horror: a slithering monstrosity escaped from some stygian tomb beyond the ken of mortal man. A sweating, stinking parody of humanity vexed to nightmare by the approach of Happy Hour.
As the slime-being squelches closer on its pustulent pseudopods, Kate’s panicked gaze falls upon the object that the demonic thing grasps in its beslimed tentacles. She cannot help but give a despairing cry, letting the vorpal blade slip from her suddenly nerveless hand. Probably to slice off one of her toes, but at this point who cares?
The object that the creature is waving at her face is none other than the Manila Folder of Madness, its dripping surface inscribed with hellish hieroglyphs the merest glimpse of which will doom mortal office girl to unending eternities of fiery torment, and the first syllable of which will, if uttered, plunge the daylight world into the spiraling abyss of Unpaid Overtime!
The person standing in front of her desk is Mister Miller, whose friends call him Tom. (Although his ‘friends’, every last lousy one of them, are actually people who merely want him to think of them as his friends.) He, of course, is the ‘Miller’ in ‘Miller, Phillips, and Smith’, which the office girls secretly refer to as ‘Phillips, Miller, and Smith’ as an inside joke, since that makes its acronym ‘PMS’.
Mister Miller is standing in front of her desk, holding a manila folder.
Kate looks upon it as a deer looks into headlights.
“Sorry, Katie, we really need to get this one last thing out tonight. It’s for the U project. Could you just clean up the grammar a little, and let me take a look before you send it out?”
He is a pudgily overweight man with thinning and poorly kept hair, unhealthy in his complexion, who nevertheless radiates an air of smug self-satisfaction. In the few moments during the course of the last year that Kate has been able to bring herself to think about Mister Miller, she has only been able to assume that his smugness is purely the result of his wealth. Because he’s certainly a piece of shit in every other way that she can see.
“Thanks a lot,” he says, setting the folder on the desk and smiling. After a moment looking down at her, he turns and walks away.
Kate knows, without being rude enough to actually look around and thus force the issue, that the other women in the office, who are now putting on their scarves and coats a little more urgently, will no longer make eye contact with her. Not now that she has been Marked for Death.
“Well, bye!” a couple of them say brightly to no one in particular, as they hurry out into the lobby and from there into the bitter winter air.
Kate considers her situation. If it is truly just a little bit of cleaning up that the letter needs, maybe she can get it out in time to still make it to Kerrytown before Sparrow closes. She opens the folder.
She looks at the contents, and, after some time, blinks twice.
The folder contains nothing but a piece of legal paper, yellow in hue, with handwritten notes scrawled across it and sideways in the margins. There are arrows, and things crossed out. One note is crossed out, but then has a note next to it that says “Not crossed out!”
At one point there’s a circled part that says “Insert itemized quotes for irrigation plumbing here. (Do we have?)”
This is not a letter that needs its ‘grammar cleaned up a little’. This is a treatment of a concept for a letter, which Mister Tom Miller blithely expects her to write for him. After which he will, of course, not afford her any credit for the writing of the letter, not even in the privacy of his own ‘thoughts’, or whatever thought-like phenomena may, on occasion, accidentally pass through his brain. If he has a brain. To the last day of his life, Tom Miller will sincerely believe that his secretary ‘Katie’ really did just ‘clean up the grammar a little’.
As the sounds of the Five O’Clock Stampede fade away, Kate feels the prospects for her evening balancing on the keen edge between unlikelihood and impossibility. It is just barely conceivable that if she goes as fast as humanly possible, she might just be able to get this horrible thing done in time to rush to Kerrytown, probably frosting her lungs in the process.
But probably not.
Near the opening of the tunnel in the wall that Kate can see with the eyes of her imagination, the one that leads from this office down into the Stygian Depths of Unspeakable Nightmare, a doctor is leaning against the wall and looking at her sarcastically.
Well, he says, I’m afraid it’s a bit late now for the cancer. He shakes his head sadly. If only you had smoked more cigarettes when you had the chance!
Raising his eyebrows and nodding sagely, the doctor turns to take a stroll down to the Cthulhu Food Court and fades away.
Kate creates a new Word document on her desktop, and starts to type.
By 5:30, the remaining overcast in the sky has broken up but the sun has already set. Kate doesn’t notice, however, because at the moment she is frantically pillaging files on the Interlochen Project, trying to find anything at all about estimates for the irrigation plumbing.
By 6:00 it’s quite dark outside, all the streetlights that still work have come on, and Kate has long since given up on finding the actual documentation on the question, deciding instead to estimate the cost of the underground plumbing based on three previous projects. She has already added a warning note explaining that the estimate may be low due to the relative scarcity of large-scale irrigation contractors in the Traverse City area. But she also fears that she may be wrong about that, which would make her warning just sound silly, but the internet has been flaky all day and she really just doesn’t have the time to do any more checking.
The Interlochen Project is the biggest one that PMS has ever done, so Kate can understand why Miller is worried about getting this letter out. The University of Michigan is planning an entire new campus, similar to the ones in Dearborn and Flint. Except a lot better looking, which is where PMS comes in. The project is already well under way: PMS has been billing for their design work on the landscaping aesthetics, as well as irrigation, storm water handling, and some of the civil engineering parts. Some of the numbers involved, which Kate has gotten to see in the course of this evening’s mad dash, have widened her eyes.
By 6:30, Kate is just finishing, desperately giving her effort a quick proofread to make sure she hasn’t left in any stupid errors of the sort that the the spell checker doesn’t find—
And then the door to the partner’s wing opens again.
Tom Miller has returned.
“I’ve got it,” she says, a little breathlessly, and reaches out to hand him the hardcopy as he approaches.
“That’s great, Katie, thanks.”
He smiles at her.
He does not so much as glance at the letter.
Instead he perches his medium-large ass on the edge of her desk, so that she won’t be able to get out of the U-shaped work space without pushing past him. And he beams at her. Kate lowers the ignored hardcopy slowly.
Her second thought is: Oh, no, you have got to be fucking kidding me. Because her first thought was: He doesn’t give a damn about the letter why would we have to get it out tonight anyway who the hell is going to see it over the weekend and now we are the only two people left in the building and that’s why!
And while it’s all good clean fun to imagine him as a tentacled Lovecraftian horror, the thought that he has deliberately delayed her just so he could Get Her Alone With Him is just—absurd.
“You look very nice today, Katie,” Tom Miller the Partner says to her.
Kate. Deer. Headlights. Lot of cars on this road tonight! Maybe you’re walking down the wrong path, Bambi!
“I—um, thank you,” she stammers. “Would, um, you like to—to see the letter?” She smiles up at him brightly, and just as quickly blanks her face, fearing that a cheerful expression could be misinterpreted as encouragement.
“You know,” Mister Tom Miller says, exuding friendliness and confidence pheromones, “you’ve been doing really well here, Katie.”
As he exhales, Kate catches the faintest whiff of—something with alcohol in it that is definitely not cologne.
Oh Jesus H. Holy Freaking Christ with a Crowbar. He’s been back there drinking and now he’s coming on to me. This is really happening.
Next I’ll probably find out that he really does have tentacles, too.
“Thanks!” she says instantly. And idiotically. “Thanks, Mister Miller. Well, I’ll just be going then.”
The young women in Victoria Holt novels are either always in control, or out of control only if it involves mysterious and exciting men. Would Martha’s new employer prove to be as interesting as his name sounded? But that’s why she reads those thing. Because they are not in any way similar to her real life.
“Oh, no hurry,” Mister Miller smiles. “I was thinking maybe we could go for dinner somewhere? Talk about your next step here?”
Does my next step involve getting on my knees?
“Oh, thanks, but I really have to get going!” She pushes her chair as far away from him as she can and then rises jerkily to take her coat from its hook, realizing too late that this involves the tactical error of turning her back to him. She turns again quickly, clutching the long herringbone coat, too thin for this weather but the best she has. Disastrously, he has already gotten off the desk to stand in her only lane of escape—unless she wants to drop to the carpet and scoot under the desk!
“Hey, don’t go already,” he smiles desperately. “Why don’t you just come back to my office for a drink or something?”
“No, really,” she says, “I really have to be going.” And then Kate makes her final tactical error. Although Miller, by standing in the three foot wide aisle between her desk and the wall, has left her no path to escape through using conventional ideas of personal space, Kate’s panicking mind reasons that, by clutching the long coat to her chest, she has armed herself with a kind of personal space shield, thus decreasing the amount of space necessary for her personal escape lane. That’s the theory.
In theory, theory and practice are the same.
What happens in practice, however, is that when she tries to push past Tom Miller using the coat as her buffer he simply leans on the wall, putting his arm in her way and bringing her to a full stop with her face only a foot away from his.
“You’re very attractive, Kate,” he says, exhaling more fumes from his single-malt courage.
She tries to push past while stooping to get underneath the barrier of his arm. He moves again to interpose. Kate realizes that she is unable to take another step with her knees bent so much and is forced to straighten up just as he is leaning down to stop her, thus bringing the top of her head into contact with the bottom of his chin.
“Ow! God damn it!” Miller shouts, his right hand going to his injured chin and tongue.
“Bye-I’ll-see-you-later!” Kate shouts, and runs through the suddenly clear space, pushing through the frosted glass door into the lobby and flying straight out into the February night air.
Upset and breathing hard, she runs half a block west on Huron before she even stops to put on her coat against the bitter air. Even then she steps into the recessed doorway of a shuttered restaurant to do it, half believing that Miller might run out of the office and chase her, tentacles and all.
But, after catching her breath, there is still no sign of slime-monster pursuit. So Kate turns up her collar and hugs her coat tighter to her body, continuing to walk fast until she reaches Division where she can at last turn north and start making her way toward the Broadway Bridge.
Only then, still hugging herself, does Kate start to shake a little. It isn’t because of the cold.
Every evening, Kate follows this route. Its familiarity now is helping to calm her down. North Division curves up to merge with the bridge in a complicated little intersection that always seems kind of dangerous, but once across it you’re onto the nice wide sidewalks of the bridge itself. Both sides of the bridge used to have beautiful tall streetlamps every twenty paces or so, but now only the ones at the start and end of the bridge are actually lit. All the middle ones have had the wires taken out of them by copper thieves.
Kate actually enjoys the lack of lights, or at least she has on other nights, ever since mid-November or so when it started getting dark before she could get all the way home. The aspect of this part of the walk that normally interests her most is that the Broadway Bridge passes over Gandy Town.
Gandy Town is named for a now-defunct restaurant that was called the Gandy Dancer, which was a name given to railway workers during some hard times long ago.
The hard times, apparently, come and go. Although this time, Kate reflects, it feels like maybe they have come to stay.
The restaurant was operating either in the 1980s or possibly the 90s, Kate isn’t quite sure about when, except that it was back when things were still going great for everybody. Back then the old railway-station-turned-restaurant down next to the tracks was supposed to be pretty swanky.
But then came 9/11 of course, and 10/11, and finally the War and the Collapse. The old Gandy Dancer was just one of many restaurants around Ann Arbor that failed, but this one was unusual in its location and architecture. It had nice thick stone walls that had stood since the late 1800s, and which had the magical property of keeping the interior of the building not too hot in the summer, and not too cold at least for the first part of each winter. (Almost as if the ancients knew what they were doing when they built it.) And, of course, it was situated right next to a still-functioning freight rail line.
So before too long the old building was full again, but instead of the wealthy Ann Arborites and tourists of yore nibbling on their Salmon Rockefellers it now housed the riders of the rails: hobos from every corner of the country looking for a place to sleep for a night or settle down for a season.
That was more than seven years ago now, just after the War. By the time Kate arrived in Ann Arbor to seek her fortune, the hobos had spilled out of the old Gandy Dancer building and colonized the entire teardrop-shaped piece of land between the river and Depot Street that the Gandy Dancer stood near the middle of: an area of more than twenty acres. The process only accelerated when the Ann Arbor police started enforcing vagrancy and panhandling laws in town. The cops did not care what happened down by the railroad tracks as long as the streets were kept clean for the taxpayers.
Thus was Gandy Town born: a kind of hobo parody of the upscale open-air produce and crafts market called Grizzly Park near Liberty and Ashley. Except that Gandy Town is a lot bigger, a lot weirder, and, sometimes, a lot meaner.
Crossing over the bridge, Kate has always enjoyed looking down on the crazy patchwork of shanties with their roofs of blue, white, and tan tarps, their walls of cast-off construction materials or plastic-covered cardboard, and the many fires burning in drums, buckets, or impromptu circles of old bricks and cement blocks. It has always seemed like a lively, even a happy place.
Today, however, it does not seem nearly so happy. All the people down there are homeless, Kate realizes now with a new urgency. Not romantic, not quaintly content in their simple circumstances. Just dirt fucking poor. A cardboard shanty is not an apartment in a nice solid building, and every single one of those people down there would much rather have that apartment.
Some of them would kill for it.
But you need a job for that apartment, and not a one of the people down there has one.
As Kate approaches the northern edge, she looks one more time at a place where there are a small handful of fires flickering near the dark river. She holds her coat tighter and squints her eyes against a sudden gust of biting-cold wind. The people who stay near the edge like that, a little away from most of the others—are they the ones that have been in this condition for the longest time, or for the shortest? Did they have jobs just a few months ago, and now find themselves living in cardboard shanties, trying to stay warm by lighting fires in pails?
And do I still have a job? Kate wonders. After the way I got out of there? But if I go back on Monday and act like nothing happened—wouldn’t that be the same as telling him that it’s okay to come on to me?
Yes, it would be. She can see that as clearly as she can remember the look of anger on Miller’s pudgy face. If she walks back in on Monday, he won’t say a word about what happened. He will just smirk, and walk back into his plush office, and bide his time. And eventually, wearing down by gradual stages, she will at last come to a point where she will do whatever he wants.
She will, sooner or later, walk through that tunnel, and walk down the thousand stairs to the Cthulhu Food Court.
Kate shudders as she passes beyond the edge of Gandy Town. Below her opens up the dark and silent Huron River, water flowing under ice, hoping for a springtime that is starting to feel as though it will never come. Maybe one of these winters it really won’t. Up ahead, at the end of the bridge, the streetlamps are working. Kate hurries toward them.
The Broadway Bridge swerves off to the left to turn into Plymouth Road, while Kate’s quick steps turn right onto Maiden Lane and, unfortunately, straight into the teeth of the wind. She lowers her head and picks up her pace even more, going as fast as a jogger except with legs as straight as icicles, and she counts her steps. It takes four hundred, which seems like four thousand, until at last the welcome sight of Maiden Lane Court puffs into view and she turns north into the relative shelter of her apartment complex.
There are sixteen buildings in a cul-de-sac. The whole set of them used to be all a single business, until some years ago the original owner sold them all off piecemeal to people who had the cash and were willing to live in the buildings while managing them, so now each building is a separate concern. Several of them on the west side of the complex have failed and been boarded up, but on all the other buildings the entryway lights still work. It makes the little oval parking lot and sidewalks of Maiden Lane Apartments feel safe.
Kate’s building is the fourth one in, on the east side. She hurries past parked cars—fewer than there used to be, she notices, even in the two years she’s been living here. She keeps her head down and collar up, focusing as hard as she can on how bad the wind feels, because that’s better than thinking about losing her job or selling her soul.
Now if she can just get in without Mister Pogany being—
But of course Mister Pogany is right there in the entryway, because he’s been waiting specifically for her. She stops as the door swings shut behind her, blinking.
How many times can a deer get run over in one night, anyway?
“Well?” Pogany says. “You are going to say another excuse? Or do you not even bother anymore? Ten days late, you are now!”
“No!” Kate says quickly, “I mean, I’m sorry, I—I have it, I just—” I was just hoping to be able to eat this weekend, and pay you when I get paid on the 15th, except now I think I’ve lost my job. And it’s too late for me to get cancer, but perhaps a heart attack would be a possibility? Am I too young for that?
“I—um—I’m sorry,” she tries to stop her thoughts from spinning in panicked circles. “Please come up, I’ll pay you right now.”
He follows her up the stairs up to the top, the second floor.
When she first arrived in town looking for work—because the money from her parents, which she thought would last forever, was finally getting dangerously close to running out with all the inflation that was just getting started then—Kate liked the idea of having a room all the way at the top, because of the sunsets she can see over the buildings across the way.
That seems like a long time ago now.
Getting inside and turning on the light, Kate goes back to her room with a glance over her shoulder. She feels a little flash of gratitude that Mister Pogany remains waiting out in the hall, albeit with a scowl on his face. Pissed off though he may be, he does not intrude into her place without an invitation.
She gets the envelope from her dresser and goes back to the front door, holding it with both hands. As she walks toward him, Kate realizes with shock and embarrassment that her hands are shaking.
“I’m sorry—I have it all here. Seven thousand.” How stupid would it be to tell him about what a bad day she’s just had? She can barely get the seven bills out of the envelope, she’s shaking so badly. “I’m sorry, I was just—” Is it possible to ask him to let her keep one thousand for food?
“It is not seven now!” Pogany says angrily. “Eight! You got the flier under your door! It is eight, now! Everything is going up!”
“Oh, oh,” she says, handing him the fluttering bills. Kate glances up at him but immediately back down at her hands, which has the unfortunate effect of making it look like she is staring at the money. But that can’t be helped, because now her eyes are starting to tear up!
“Oh, I’m sorry—” This is just ridiculous! She feels like she is going to fall to pieces right in front of him!
Mister Pogany takes the money from her hand with a disgusted snort.
“Fine, fine,” he says, meaning the opposite. “You pay late, you pay too little. Next time you make this up, and not late! I need money too! It is not charity here! You could be on the street!”
Yes. She could be on the street.
He takes a step back but then stops, putting the thin stack of bills in his pocket. Kate manages to look up at him, inured now to the fact that her traitorous eyes are leaking ridiculously. The tears feel hot on her still-cold face.
“What do you have to cry about?” the old man says angrily. “You are young!”
And with that, he turns to go back down the stairs to the rooms on the ground floor where he lives with his wife.
After a minute or two, Kate manages to shut the door and take off her coat.
That night she has her standard nightmare again. She’s had it two or three times a year for the last fifteen years, since the day that the rest of the world just calls 10/11.
Her mother and father, coming back from Boston, walking through the door of Aunt Janice’s house to pick her up after a whole week away.
Her mother smiles and hugs her, her father smiles and nods, already looking a little distracted. She even sees them just as they would have looked from the perspective of her ten-year-old self. Every detail is perfectly real, perfectly believable. As if, in some other, better world, it really happened.
How were you, Katie? her mother says. Oh, don’t cry, honey. We’re back now and we won’t ever have to go away again. Let’s all go home.
As always, Kate wakes up crying in the dark.