Moving Forward by Megan Fuentes

A decade after the fact, Mitch Johnson could not remember why he fired Jimmy. He had already ruled out insubordination and taking too much time off and poor performance. And he couldn’t conjure any images of horror at Jimmy’s hands—honestly, Mitch could hardly conjure his face.

He read the name again: James Moore, emblazoned on the wall in silver script. The same lettering was on his freshly-stolen pen, which he took out now to reread, as if to double-check the spelling. God knows why James Moore chose to go by Jimmy while they worked together. Jimmy was no name for a grown-ass man, and in truth Mitch believed it colored the way he’d been treated: gently, with kid gloves raised to the elbows. That much Mitch remembered. He was soft-spoken, too, right? But did he have glasses? Were his ties and sleeves just a little too long, like he was playing dress-up with his father’s suit? The more Mitch searched for details, the fewer details revealed themselves. This realization halted all other thought processes. He tried to recall another, unrelated detail: was his father showing signs of Alzheimer’s around this age?

Maybe that was why I got canned, Mitch mused. Maybe someone else saw the warning signs and thought it’d be smart to sack me early. He wasn’t listening as closely as he should have when Walters handed him the pink slip. Mitch knew, of course, that there had been whispers circling for some time containing language like “budget cuts” and “downsizing.” He had just expected to survive this quarter’s round of terminations.

Did I give the same spiel to Jimmy?

“Mr. Johnson?” a skirt asked the room, poking her head through a door. Mitch stood up, switching his resumé from one sweaty hand to another as he did so. The woman flashed a Colgate commercial smile, then turned on her kitten heels to lead him down the hallway.

“I hope you brought your walking shoes today,” she called out brightly over her shoulder.

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s a long walk to his office.”

“Oh.”

The woman turned a corner, sashayed past a few more rooms, then turned another corner. She asked if Mitch wanted water or coffee or anything, which he declined. He’d let her know if he changed his mind. He had changed his mind, actually, about being there, but it was too late to turn back now.

The woman knocked twice with one knuckle before entering. She didn’t introduce Mitch because there was no need. Jimmy looked up from the documents in front of him, said, “Thank you, Lisa,” and then she ducked out as quickly as she’d come in.

A greeting died in Mitch’s mouth. His feet were anchored to the floor by intimidation, envy, and self-loathing. His body turned cold. His face turned warm and, to his embarrassment, probably red. Jimmy did not have these same afflictions.

“Michael Johnson,” Jimmy said in reverence as he came out from behind his mammoth desk. His grin was wide and dopey, and this melted some of Mitch’s trepidation—just enough to convince his hand to catch Jimmy’s. Jimmy’s handshake was different, Mitch noticed.

“Good to see you, Mister—”

“Don’t you dare call me Mr. Moore,” Jimmy said, still grinning. “No one does. My wife insisted that the name on the letterhead be James, but you know I’m a Jimmy through and through.”

Mitch nodded, baring his teeth back at Jimmy. “I didn’t know you got married.”

“It surprises me, too, every damn day. We’ve been married for going on seven years now, I think. You met her little sister, Lisa? They run this place like the Navy. I’m just the pretty face.”

Again, Mitch nodded, and made a mental note to not ask Lisa to dinner on the way out.

“Anyway,” Jimmy sucked his teeth and dismissed this topic with a wave of his hand, “we’re not here to talk about me. We’re here to talk about you. Have a seat, have a seat.” When both men were situated, Mitch wordlessly passed his resumé to Jimmy, who gave it a glance before looking back up at Mitch. “So why are you here?”

Mitch uncrossed his legs. “I was, ah—”

“I don’t mean what the catalyst for visiting me was. Frankly, that means shit. What matters is what you want to do next. Gotta keep moving forward. No one sees a life coach unless they’re unsure about what to do next”—Jimmy chuckled and leaned back in his ergonomic swivel chair—“or they need a little nudging off the ledge.”

Mitch crossed his legs again. “I haven’t thought about it.”

“Sure you have,” Jimmy said, so certain that Mitch doubted himself. “We all think about what’s next. Human beings get compared to a lot of things, Mitch, but y’know what we really are? Sharks. We have to keep moving forward to survive, or at least believe we’re moving forward, or going to be moving forward any minute now. Stagnation is death. Now, let’s take a
look at your resumé, shall we? That can give us more clues than you might think.”

Stagnation is death. Mitch paled. He watched Jimmy’s eyes rake across every Times New Roman glyph. They were bigger than the standard 12-point to make up for the fact that there weren’t terribly many items on there. Mitch tried to envision himself at his home computer, at the print screen—which version of his resumé did he print? Did he leave anything out that had happened in the past thirty or so years, the last time he’d had to give anyone his resumé? He couldn’t have, though. He’d stayed in the same office with the same title for thirteen years.

“Well,” Jimmy sighed, “that was, uh. How familiar are you with computers?”

“Why do you ask?”

Jimmy balked at answering, but swallowed and continued, “Computers are the workhorses nowadays, Mitch, you know that. They make the world go ‘round. I know you’re familiar with the basics of word processors and spreadsheet programs, but what else do you have up your sleeve that didn’t manage to get on this paper?”

Silence followed as Mitch combed through his memories with increasing desperation. After a few minutes of Jimmy smiling patiently at him, Mitch admitted, “I don’t know.” 

Jimmy nodded, lips pursed.

“But I have decades of experience,” Mitch said, perking up some. “And my letters of recommendation paint me as second to none in what I do.”

“Do you know what that translates to?” Jimmy replied, not unkindly. “It says, ‘I’m good, but I come at a pretty penny.’ I’m not saying you’re looking for a fat paycheck alone—of course, there’s nothing wrong with that if you are—but that’s how it’s going to come across. And on top of having to pay you more, someone will have to take time out of their day to teach you the ropes of whatever programs they use, and time is money.”

Jimmy handed back the resumé and from a drawer pulled out his own, sliding it across the desk for Mitch to study. Some differences were plain: there was color, for one, and contrasting fonts—one of them Mitch recognized from the pen he’d stolen. The resumé seemed too busy at first glance, but the more Mitch scrutinized it, the more genius he found in every detail, every choice: everything complimented; your eye was drawn to the most recent, relevant work experience after Jimmy’s full name; and a column on the left hand side helpfully highlighted Jimmy’s “stats”—proficiencies in new programs with names that looked misspelled. It was hip.

“I can’t…” Mitch’s voice petered out as this very real possibility hit him full force.

“Can’t what?”

“I can’t just retire.”—Mitch suddenly felt cramped in his seat, and stood up to pace around the room, a lion in a cage—“And I won’t, not while I’m still able to be a productive member of society. That’s what you’re going to tell me to do, right?Retire?”

“Don’t—”

“No, you were, weren’t you? Jesus. It’s not like I’m a cripple or anything. I could still be valuable. I’m not proud—I’ll take some data entry job. I’ll even work part-time.”

Jimmy winced at the word cripple. Anxiety wrapped its hand around Mitch’s heart as he realized how he sounded: like an old bastard who’d become obsolete and didn’t know it yet. 

Jimmy continued in a honeyed tone. “Again, you run into the same problem. For a job like that, companies are going to be looking for young, cheap people at the keyboards who won’t cramp their style or try to climb the ladder.” Mitch thought something in his face must’ve caused Jimmy to switch tactics because Jimmy continued hurriedly, “But you don’t even need to waste your time with gigs like those, Mitch. Have you ever considered looking into freelancing? Or starting a blog?”

Mitch shook his head, his eyes trained on the spot two steps ahead of him.

“Workshops are very popular—”

“I don’t want to teach or write.” Mitch stopped in the middle of a lap and looked at Jimmy. “I want to work. Wear a suit, eat lunch out of a paper bag, go to meetings, commute, for Christ’s sake. Just find me a job in an office, any office. That’s your job, isn’t it?”

“Hey, first of all,” Jimmy spat, leaning on his hands to rise out of his seat, “your voice is getting a little too loud. I love you, man, but you need to chill out right now.” Jimmy, apparently taking his own advice, lowered himself down again. “Second, that is not my job. My job is to help you set goals and make a plan to achieve those goals. If your goal is to work in an office, fine. I’m just saying—”

“Yes, that’s my goal.”

Jimmy’s teeth made a snapping sound as his mouth shut. After a deep breath, he finished his thought. “I’m just saying it’s not going to be easy. But okay, I hear you loud and clear. You really want an office job.”

“Yes. ”

“Okay,” Jimmy sighed, sliding Mitch’s resumé back on his side of the desk as Mitch reclaimed his own chair. “Hm. Okay. You want to sell yourself as an expert in your field, then. Have you considered getting your MBA, or doctorate?”

“Back to school?”

“If you want to market yourself successfully, I think it’s a smart move.”

Mitch shook his head again, pinching the bridge of his nose with a thumb and a finger.

“I’m sorry, it’s just—I was doing so well where I was. It’s hard to wrap my head around this. I mean, you don’t understand. I was perfectly adapted to my surroundings. Efficient, well-liked, a boss when I had to be, obedient when I had to be. And now to just be tossed out like this? I mean, no offense, but I wasn’t just an intern. I had a history with—”

“I beg your pardon?” Jimmy said, head tilted. “You didn’t want to offend me by pointing out that I was an intern when I quit?”

Jimmy was chuckling, but Mitch found no humor in what he’d said. He stared, waiting for an explanation.

Jimmy raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember? I came into your office, told you I was sorry, but I was giving my two weeks’ notice, and you joked and said, ‘Good, this means they won’t make me fire you next quarter.’”

That conversation did not ring even the tiniest of bells, but Mitch thought that did sound like something he’d say.

Jimmy’s eyes widened. But then he composed himself, arranging his features to form an inoffensive, neutral expression. “So. Moving forward. Mitch, let’s talk about your hobbies.”

At publication, Megan Fuentes was 35 days away from being able to legally celebrate the occasion with a glass of wine in her apartment in Orlando, FL. She attends the University of Central Florida, at which she majors in elementary education. Her work has appeared online and in two anthologies. Megan can be found on her very new Facebook page.

Boxes by Michaël Wertenberg

Boxes: metal boxes, wood boxes, cardboard boxes, plastic boxes; long boxes, tall boxes, narrow boxes, wide boxes; from inside a cramped metal box, surrounded by levers and buttons, I drive a long series of boxes, loaded with people: short people, fat people; young people, old people; pretty people, ugly people—mostly ugly people. Sometimes they can’t all fit. But they’ll push and scrap and elbow and squeeze their way in.
I’m one of the good subway conductors; I wait for them to bustle and bump and cram and claw into my box–not like Sanchez, who won’t even wait a half-minute. I’ll wait. I know how badly people need their box.

At the end of my shift, I pick up trash left from the filthy box crammers, and put it in a can. I have a drink at Joe’s, just to unwind. Then, I get in another box— the 117 Bus to Astoria. Tonight, as usual, I stop off at the corner take-out for two boxes of food before I go home.

There’s no smoking in my home. (The box doesn’t ventilate well). So, I go to the rooftop of my five-story box to have a cigarette, just to unwind.

There are always six tasks I need to finish at home. When I smoke, I itemize, imagine, and visualize each task—I don’t like surprises. Tonight, I will shower (1); I will eat (2); I will finish the remaining twenty-six boxes of my crossword (3); I will watch the news on the idiot box (4); I will shave my moustache (5); and I will clean Cynthia’s box (6). It’s important to have a plan.

I am not a man without a plan. I am not just a thing in a box.

Tonight the sky is clear, black with a touch of blue. I see Manhattan from the rooftop, and a bit of Queens—lots of boxes. I pretend to pinch the boxes with my thumb and index finger. I’m a grown man, but I still make squishy sounds as I fake pinch, as if I were a kid playing in a bubble bath.

I smoke a second cigarette—so many rooftops to squish. I don’t usually smoke a second cigarette. But as long as I finish the six tasks, I am allowed to deviate.

Tonight, I plan to finish the first task in fifteen minutes—it’s important that I finish each task by midnight. I won’t turn into a pumpkin or anything silly like that, but if I don’t finish by midnight, I find I am visited by strange and often horrific images in my dreams. I don’t like that. I get plenty of strange and horrific images at work.

The first thing I see when I enter my box is a surprise–a strange and horrific surprise—Cynthia is not in her box. The window is open, and a draft seems to have blown my crossword to the floor. This is not good. This is very Not-good.

Before I can accomplish the first of my six tasks, I have to shut the window, pick up the crossword from the floor, and naturally, pace and worry about Cynthia. I wrack my brain remembering, visualizing, and re-visualizing the morning tasks. I did, unquestionably, tie her hands, lock the box, and double check that I’d locked the box. Those were tasks four, five and six! They are always tasks four, five, and six, and I always complete them.

Pacing and wracking my brain are not on my list of tasks. But as long as I finish the six tasks, I am allowed to deviate.

I shower, but I can’t stop worrying about Cynthia. It’s always difficult not to worry before the tasks are completed, but tonight it’s especially difficult. I sit at my table next to the window, and I eat my box of food. I eat fast and finish my crossword at the same time.

I turn on the idiot box. They are talking about Cynthia on the news. This is not really a surprise; but, this is not good. This is very not-good. I turn off the box after the newscasters wish me a pleasant evening.

Despite Cynthia being on the news, I worry slightly less now that I’ve accomplished most of the tasks. I step into the small box that serves as a bathroom, and I work on my moustache.

I’ve shaved nearly half of it off when I nick myself with the blade. The sting is disproportionate to the tiny cut, and blood seeps out at an obscene speed.

Before I can apply a piece of toilet paper to the cut, the police bang on my door.

“NYPD! Open up!”

This is not really a surprise; but, this is not good. This is very not-good.

I shave the other half of my moustache much faster than I would like.

The police break down my door.

I nick myself again, and finish the last three swipes with a bloody razor— but I finish.

I look terrible without a moustache, especially with two cuts under my nose trickling blood.

A policeman grabs me, handcuffs me, and pulls me out of the bathroom. He reads me my rights as he pushes me toward the busted-down front door.

“The box,” I say. “I need to clean the box.”

“Don’t worry about the box,” says the other officer. “We’ve got a nice, clean box for you downtown.”

My new box is smaller than my old box, and I share it with a criminal named Boris. Tonight I have six things to do: eat (1); clean the toilet (2); give Boris a blow job (3); smoke a cigarette (4); write in my diary (5); and give Boris his second blow job (6). Tonight, I don’t imagine and visualize the tasks before doing them. But as long as I finish the six tasks, I am allowed to deviate.

Michaël Wertenberg is a French-American writer of dark fiction, rumoured to be living in Budapest with his cat, Zvyezda.He is a self-proclaimed sane citizen, though his blog, My Disease-Ridden Mind, offers evidence to the contrary: https://michaelwertenberg.wixsite.com/mysite.

All’s Fair by Gwen C Katz

My God, he’s handsome. His jawline looks like it was drawn with a ruler and his cheeks are as smooth-shaven as if he’d just stepped out of the barber’s chair. Every yellow hair on his head is perfectly coiffed with pomade, which is not something I would take to war, but everyone has their own priorities. He looks less like a real person and more like the men on propaganda posters that plaster our streets, their captions translated from German into Dutch. Or even less real than that—like a plaster mannequin in a store window. I glance at the hand holding his glass, half expecting to see the tapered, featureless fingers of a mannequin, and am almost surprised when he has knuckles and nails like anyone else.

His looks stop me short in the doorway. I don’t know what I was expecting. A monster with fangs and horns? Monsters don’t look like that, not in real life. A boy from school was shot for handing out leaflets, shot by a man you wouldn’t have looked at twice if he weren’t in uniform.

I hover awkwardly, holding the pub door open and letting the cold March air in until the bartender snaps, “Come in or stay out.”

I come in. I settle on the stool next to the mannequin man, hoping he can’t see the shudder that runs through me as my elbow brushes the sleeve of his uniform. I run my fingers along the dark, smoothly polished wood of the bar. Everything in here is the same as it always was—the dim lighting, the crowded tables, the thick, sticky smell of tobacco.

Everything except the man next to me in his sharp gray uniform with the swastika armband. He does not belong. The other patrons, hunched over their drinks, throw him distrustful looks. He drinks slowly, as cool and easy as if they weren’t there.

The bartender places a glass of pale golden beer in front of me, condensation beading up on its sides. I take a sip. My lipstick leaves an apple-red smudge on the rim of the glass. I reapply it even though it doesn’t really need it, tossing the mannequin man a shy look. He nods at me.

“Drinking alone?” I ask.

“I’m new in town,” he says.

“I know.” It slips out before I realize how accusatory sounds. Of course I know his unit just arrived. It’s not like I could miss five hundred pairs of tramping boots. I hasten to add, “They’ll warm up to you when they get to know you. We’re not a hateful people.” Another dig. Leave it to me to fail at flirting. Freddie would do better. She’s a natural, even at fourteen. But I can’t allow Freddie to take on this task, not while I can still protect her.

Luckily the mannequin man either doesn’t pick up on my words or doesn’t care. He says, “A bit young to be in here, aren’t you?”

“I’m sixteen,” I say defensively. As if to prove myself, I take a long draught of the crisp, bitter drink, draining half the glass without taking a breath.

A smile curls one edge of the mannequin man’s mouth. “This little girl can drink!”

“You’ll find Dutch girls can do a lot of things,” I say, tossing my hair over my shoulder. I hate myself for saying that. I hate myself so much. All I can think is how glad I am that my father isn’t around to see this.

My father was always the romantic one, prancing into the kitchen singing a French serenade while my mother swatted him with a dish towel. My mother is endlessly practical. Maybe that’s why their marriage didn’t last.

No one can afford to be romantic now. The shelves of the butcher shop lie empty and we cut our coffee with chicory and burnt sawdust. And we’re the lucky ones. Last year they packed all the Jews in Haarlem into crowded, dirty boxcars and shipped them off like cattle. We hid our next-door neighbors in our house under the guise of relatives from out of town. Earlier today we baked pastries with the last of our sugar and helped them cut masks out of colorful paper, because tomorrow is a holiday. Purim. They told us it’s a day when they remember how God secretly protects his people, even when they can’t see it. In a sense, I’m observing the holiday.

Caring for our neighbors is the only decent thing to do, but they’re two more mouths to feed. My mother brought home a new man a few years ago, which helped, but in due time a new baby followed. Prices got higher. Ration books got thinner. Then someone came to the door and told us she had work for two pretty girls like us.

I lean towards the mannequin man, resting my chin on my hand and cocking my head just so. I laugh at everything he says. To my astonishment, it works. He responds to me as though we were reading from a script. I didn’t really think I could pull it off. I’m not pretty and charming like Freddie. I’m plain, my face splattered with freckles that make it look dirty even when it’s freshly washed. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the man next to me. He must be awfully lonely.

No. I can’t think like that. His feelings mustn’t enter my mind or I’ll lose sight of why I’m here. The beer has taken the edge off my nerves, but not nearly enough. I wish I’d ordered something stronger, not that the bartender would have served hard liquor to a kid my age.

“Do you want to take a walk?” I ask.

“I’d like that very much,” says the mannequin man.

As casually as I can manage, I lead him down a narrow side street beside a canal, my heels clacking on the paving stones. The tall brick houses block the last light of the setting sun, leaving only a swath of pastel pinks and deepening blues above us, reflected in the water. Spring has only just begun to cut through winter’s chill. My legs prickle under my threadbare stockings. It’s too cold to be wearing this dress. I pull my coat tight and lean against the mannequin man. He puts an arm around me.

He’s warm. That startles me. It shouldn’t, of course—everyone is warm—but it makes me sharply aware that the man next to me is a living, breathing human being.

The hint of sympathy sprouting up inside me withers when his hand slides down my arm and I spot the gold band on his finger. He doesn’t even try to hide it. I cling to my burst of indignation that flares up. Whether or not he personally executed dissidents or rounded up Jews, this is not a good man, and I mustn’t let myself forget that. A part of me madly wants to ask after his wife, as if that would accomplish anything.

Instead I say, “It’s so pretty tonight. Let’s walk through the woods.”

He allows me to steer him past the edge of town and into the shadowy trees. I step gingerly to avoid slipping on the leaf litter. I’m not a master of walking in heels. The elms and plane trees are just putting out their first pale green leaves, but the firs are thickly blanketed with needles. The warm lights of Haarlem wink on and off through the gaps between the branches.

In the daytime, this is a fairy tale forest. At night, it still looks like something out of a fairy tale, but the other kind. The kind with witches and monsters and murdered children. The stories my mother told me to teach me that not everything has a happy ending.

“This reminds me of the forests back home,” says the mannequin man. “I used to love to walk in the woods when I was your age. I was such a dreamer. I wanted to be an artist. My mother gave me no end of grief about it.”

No. No, he can’t talk to me like this. He can’t make me see him as a person. I have to keep thinking of him as a plaster figure.

Now he’s bending and picking a violet. He hands it to me before I can stop him. I take it, not knowing what else to do, and touch its delicate petals.

“What’s your name?” he asks me.

“Truus,” I whisper. I shouldn’t have told him. He doesn’t need to know. But somehow I feel I owe him that tiny part of me.

“You’re a good sort of girl, Truus,” he says. “We need more girls like you.”

My resolve wavers. It’s not even the particular words he said, but the fact that he has particular words, that he thinks and loves and hurts in his own way. At this moment that seems precious to me, no matter how ugly his thoughts, how vicious his feelings. Would it be so terrible to turn him around and walk him back into town? But it’s too late for that.

A man in a hat steps out from among the trees.

“A little girl shouldn’t be out here at this time of night,” he says. “It’s after curfew. Don’t you know that?”

I don’t look at him. I look past him, at the redheaded girl hidden in the shadows, watching us. The one who came to our house that day. Freddie and I sat on either side of our mother, fidgeting with loose threads on the couch while we listened to her proposal.

“It’ll be dangerous,” she warned us.

“I can handle danger,” I said defiantly.

“I know,” she said. “But they don’t. That’s why it’s brilliant. When they look at us, they don’t see a resistance fighter. They only see little girls.”

The mannequin man steps forward to challenge the newcomer, his relaxed body language replaced with the rigid posture of a Nazi officer. “Who are you? And what is your business being out here at night?”

I tug his sleeve. “It’s all right. I’ll go.”

I slip away just as the other members of the resistance step out from behind the trees, guns drawn, and surround my companion.

Freddie is with them. She comes up beside me, her hair in pigtails, half skipping with her hands in her coat pockets. “Nicely done. And look, you even got a flower out of it!”

I crush the violet in my hand. The gunshot comes, dampened by the trees. No one in town will hear. No one will find a fresh mound of earth deep in the forest. I wish I could feel Freddie’s exuberance, or satisfaction, or at least relief, but instead my insides are as cold and numb as if I were the one made of plaster.

Freddie and I head home to try on our Purim masks.

Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist who lives in Pasadena, California with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals. Her first novel, Among the Red Stars, follows Russia’s famous all-female bomber regiment, the Night Witches. It comes out on October 3.