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David Massengill
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timeoff.jpg
Art by Jeff Karnick 2011

Time Off

 

 

David Massengill

 

 

          Therese ignored the knock on her office door. “Do not disturb a disturbed working woman,” she muttered to herself. 

 

She reread the email she’d been writing:

 

People have serious adverse events in drug studies all the time, Richard. I understand this is a post-marketing study and Dermaplease is already in stores. But we don’t need to draft the safety reports this second.  I’m actually going to be on vacation next week

 

The knock sounded again. Therese glanced at the time on her monitor:  9:53 P.M. 

 

“Who is it?” she asked, in an irritated voice.

 

“Janitor,” a woman called through the door. She had an accent.

 

Therese groaned quietly. “Can’t you come back later?” she asked.  “I’m trying to wrap up something in here.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” the woman said. “I wait out here until you finish.  Yours is last office.”

 

Therese shook her head. “Why don’t you just hang a sign outside my door that says BITCH?” she whispered to herself. She rose and opened the door. 

 

A shadowy, petite woman stood before one of the many empty cubicles that filled the eighth floor of the Pharmaffex office tower.

 

          Unsettled by the dim, unpeopled space, Therese asked, “Have you been working in the dark out here?”

 

          “I turn on lights as I go,” the cleaning woman said, “and then I turn them off.” 

 

She stepped forward. The light from Therese’s office revealed her face.  She had black, close-cropped hair that accentuated the gauntness of her cheeks. Her lips were almost as pale as the rest of her face, and her pretty, dark eyes were underscored by reddish pouches. Therese guessed she was in her thirties, but she looked much older.

 

“Well, you can skip my office tonight,” Therese said. “It’s clean enough.”

 

          “I cannot do,” the cleaning woman said. “I have rules. You have rules, too, no?” she asked, pointing at the nameplate on Therese’s office window.  The nameplate read,

 

Therese Witten

Senior Manager of Regulatory Affairs

 

          Annoyed, Therese went back inside her office. “Alright,” she said with reluctance, “you can come in and clean. But only the front part.”

 

          The cleaning woman pulled a cart of supplies into the doorway. She used a cloth to wipe a side table holding framed photos of Therese’s family—her husband Michael and their 14-year-old twins, Marie and Elise.

In one photo, the girls had their tanned cheeks pressed together as they smiled widely at the camera. Sunshine made their long, yellow locks radiant and their green eyes translucent. Therese and Michael always joked about not knowing their twins’ origins. How could those girls come from a bald man with brown eyes and a gray-eyed woman who straightened her curly hair and dyed it Blonde Mystique?

 

          “Your daughters so sweet looking,” the cleaning woman said.  “Different from you.”

 

          Therese winced at what sounded like an insult. She forced a grin and told herself the cleaning woman just didn’t know how to speak English properly. The woman looked like she’d emigrated from one of those smaller Eastern European countries where Pharmaffex conducted so many of its studies.

Therese sat back down at her desk and thumbed through the stack of study data she’d pulled off her printer. She hated Richard for emailing her all these documents on the morning before her weeklong trip to Maui. She frowned as she glanced at various pieces of text: side effects in 8% . . . pruritis, rash, pustules, fever, tarry or bloody stools . . . life-threatening . . . two cases resulted in hospitalization . . . sign of contagion . . . suggest immediate contact with FDA . . .

 

          “I have sister,” the cleaning woman said. 

 

“Excuse me?” Therese said. She glanced up from her paperwork with tired eyes and saw that the cleaning woman was giving her a grave look.

 

 The woman then turned and kneeled to pick up the latte cup Therese’s boss had left on the carpet after their grueling afternoon meeting.  As the woman bent over, her ash-colored shirt lifted and revealed her lower back.

 

          Therese’s eyes widened. She saw a trail of pink bumps leading up from under the cleaning woman’s skirt. The bumps in the middle were larger and had little white spots in their centers. Some looked like they were leaking pus.

 

          “I said I have sister,” the cleaning woman said, her voice more forceful. “It just me and her. No brothers. Like your daughters.”

 

          Therese wondered how the cleaning woman knew she didn’t have a son. She regretted allowing this stranger to enter her office while she was working. She had deadlines, after all. She’d only been with Pharmaffex for three years, yet she was so sick of the drug company. Twelve-hour days and weekend work had become her regular schedule, and she felt like she had too many drug development projects to remember all the regulations governing those projects. She told herself it wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t do her job perfectly, but guilty thoughts sometimes invaded her brain.

 

          A throbbing pain began in one of her temples. She brought two fingers against the side of her head. The cleaning woman started humming.

 

          “Listen,” Therese said in a strained voice. “I’m sorry, but I really need quiet. I’ve got to finish up some work so I can go home. I have a flight first thing in the morning.”

 

          “I be quiet,” the cleaning woman said. She placed her cloth on the edge of Therese’s desk.  She rubbed the material against the fake wood with one hand while she scratched at her neckline with the other.

 

          Therese saw that the cleaning woman had more bumps on the upper part of her chest. These were smaller, and less agitated looking, yet Therese cringed when she imagined those bumps covering the woman’s breasts.

 

          She forced herself to return her gaze to her email and keep typing.  She ended her communication with the following:

 

          I’ll call you when I’m back in town, and we can go over the safety data more carefully. I’m not too concerned about Dermaplease being yanked from shelves. Too many Americans use it for it to suddenly become an evil.

 

          “Pardon interruption,” the cleaning woman said, “but your company make magical drug, no? It cure skin problems. What it’s called—Dermapeace?”

 

          Please,” Therese said. “It’s called Dermaplease.” Nervous about the cleaning woman’s proximity to her monitor, she hurried to send the email.  Her discomfort increased when she thought that the woman might be using Dermaplease for her own skin condition. Or even worse, what if she were a research participant?

 

          “Have you tried it?” she asked the cleaning woman.

         

          “Why?” the cleaning woman said. “You have bottle in desk for me?”  She gave a sarcastic grin.

 

          “No,” Therese said with a frown. “I’m not a doctor.” She told herself she should stop giving the cleaning woman attention.

 

          “I clean your computer stand very quick,” the cleaning woman said.  She stepped around the desk until she was on the same side as Therese.

          “Excuse me,” Therese said, her face reddening with anger. “I said you could clean the front part of the office, not the back part.”

 

          “I quick,” the cleaning woman said. She held the cloth in the air and made a fast rubbing motion. Therese spotted a moist, worm-like scab spanning the underside of the woman’s raised arm.

 

          Therese also noticed that the cleaning woman was standing close enough to the stack of study data to read the top page. Therese grabbed the papers and deposited them in one of her desk drawers. She decided she’d take her laptop home and complete her work before bedtime.

 

          As she powered down her computer, Therese told the cleaning woman, “You can clean as slowly as you like. I’m leaving now.” She locked her drawers and picked up her laptop and purse.

 

          “You not have to leave,” the cleaning woman said. “I almost finish.”

She blocked Therese’s path out of the office. She had a strange, almost crazed look in her eyes.

 

          Therese suddenly felt afraid. She looked down at her bare wrist and said, “It really is getting late.  I need to go.”

 

          The cleaning woman grabbed her wrist and squeezed it until it hurt.  “But you not wear watch, ma’am.”

 

          “Don’t touch me!” Therese cried, freeing her arm. She pushed past the cleaning woman and entered the dim hallway. As she hurried toward the elevators, she decided she’d contact the building management and complain about the woman. But she’d make the call after her week on the beach. All she needed right now was time away from work.

 

          “Ma’am,” the cleaning woman called.

 

          Therese turned back just as she reached the elevators. She could see the ghost-like silhouette of the cleaning woman at the other end of the hallway. 

 

          “My sister take Dermapeace,” the cleaning woman said.  She like the drug—but only for little while. Then she get much sicker.”

*

 

“I feel like a brand-new woman,” Therese said. She lay on her back, staring up into the azure Hawaiian sky with sleepy eyes. “I wish this could last forever.”

 

Michael sat beside her, rubbing sunscreen into his scalp. “I agree, baby. You’re much happier when you’re thousands of miles away from work. Did you have any good dreams during your nap?”

 

Therese smiled and slowly nodded. While stretching, she asked, “Are the girls still bodysurfing? I was thinking we could all get lunch together. A club sandwich sounds perfect. What time is it anyway?”

 

“I don’t know. I didn’t bring my watch. I can tell you one thing, though. We need to get you a new watch when we go home. Yours is giving you a reaction.”

 

Therese furrowed her brow. She lifted her arm and looked at her wrist.  Tiny purple bumps had circled her arm like some hideous bracelet. 

 

Her panic increased as she rose into a sitting position. She frantically checked her arms and legs for other bumps. During her inspection, she remembered the cleaning woman mentioning that her sister had used Dermaplease, and she also recalled the study data referring to signs of contagion.

 

“Hey, Mom.” 

 

Therese glanced up and saw her daughters standing over her, wet and smiling. Her body stiffened. 

 

Tears stung Therese’s eyes when she said, “Please, girls, don’t come any closer.”

 

 

 

David Massengill lives in Seattle and is conscious of germs.  His short stories and works of flash fiction have appeared in various literary journals, including Word Riot, 3 A.M. Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, Tainted Tea, Pulp Metal Magazine, and MicroHorror, among others.  His Web site is www.davidmassengillfiction.com

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