July 17, 20151 Comment

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 2

You can read Part 1 here.

The bus carrying the VIP entourage of commissioners was king of the parking lot, tall enough to let its passengers look down their noses at lowly cars and trucks driving alongside. It pulled up outside the power plant with a low rumble followed by a squeal of brakes. The hydraulic door sighed and a stream of community leaders disembarked, wearing somber business suits and faces to match.

The first woman to approach Robin’s check-in table was a tall black woman with a poof of blond hair. Her name was Ladonna Jackson, and she was the newest commissioner. A few seconds later, she was replaced at the check-in table by the head commissioner, Bradley Harmon, and the city’s fire chief, Tim Daniels. They were both built like aging defensive linemen, large and imposing but with sagging skin and grandfatherly smiles. Harmon, a feline-faced good ol’ boy with a grey bristle brush mustache waxed into handlebars on either side of his mouth, looked through the name badges for his own, while the other nattered on about the mayor’s latest press conference. Robin was invisible again, even though she handed Commissioner Harmon his name tag.

Paul stood by the door, working the sincere eye contact “I really care about you” thing and two-handed handshake with the finesse of a United States Senator at a voter rally. As the last commissioner got off the bus, Paul followed him into the conference room where Robin sat with a pleasant smile fixed on her face, just in case her invisibility was slipping.

Commissioner Harmon stood in the back with Paul while the others sat down in rows of chairs set up for a presentation by the head engineer of the power plant. Paul never sat for anyone’s presentation. He considered his time too valuable to spend listening to someone else.

Robin watched as Paul grabbed Commissioner Harmon’s shoulder, temporarily wrinkling the light grey wool gabardine of his suit.

Harmon turned quickly and looked over his shoulder, startled. He smiled but his eyes were wary.

Paul leaned in to say something, then used his square chin to point to the driveway where the bus sat, still running. They exchanged a few more words, then Harmon ran a palm over his bald head with a nod, the mustache concealing any frown.

Robin watched them exit the glass doors and vanish into the afternoon sunlight. She was confused by what she saw. Was Harmon was afraid of Paul? It seemed like the balance of power should swing the other way, since the chief of staff served at the pleasure of the commission. But it was not unlike Paul to find ways to punish people who got in his way, even people with more authority than him. Working for him for three years, she had been conditioned to keep problems from him and never question him in order to avoid his wrath. Who knew what Commissioner Harmon had done to Paul? Perhaps he had embarrassed Paul publicly. Or questioned a decision he made. She was embarrassed to realize that her first reaction was relief that Paul had a victim other than her in his sights. And this realization made her ashamed, so she put the episode out of her mind and went to check on the coffee.

When the head engineer finished his show-and-tell, Robin turned on the lights. People blinked and stretched and yawned. The polite ones who had put their electronic devices away in pockets or purses or briefcases for the duration pulled them back out and bowed their heads to study the small screens.

Paul rushed to the podium, sidestepping past the head engineer to stick his mouth in front of the microphone. Robin turned and saw Commissioner Harmon in the back, scrolling through email on his mobile. She was startled to see his face had gone white as marble and his hands were shaking.

“For the next part of the tour, you’ll need to wear hard hats and safety glasses,” Paul announced. “We’ve got them for you in the back. Now, I know for some of you ladies, this isn’t fashionable, so if you don’t want to mess up your hair, you can skip the tour.”

Ladonna Jackson grimaced and marched past Robin to grab the first hard hat and glasses and put them on. “Is he always such an ass?” Ladonna asked a man in shirtsleeves, who shrugged. Robin followed them through heavy doors into the hydroelectric power plant.

The vast hall felt more like a train station than a power plant. Vaulted ceilings soared seventy feet above, and the massive turbines were cased in a sea foam green metal casing that resembled nothing as much as classic Pullman train cars. The air was thick and moist, and the turbines rumbled and roared like jet engines. Sunlight glistened off the reservoir through the open bay doors and onto the shiny tile floor.

The head engineer pointed down the aisle separating two rows of the massive fifteen-feet tall turbines.  A stainless steel landing with rounded guard rails adorned the top of each turbine. With gestures and shouting, he made it clear that the group was to follow him up the stairs to a catwalk that grazed the roof line.

With a few raised eyebrows and exaggerated feints of fear, the group queued behind the head engineer to tramp up the grated metal stairs. Ladonna grabbed the handrails on either side and climbed the steps on tippy toes, taking care not to let her three-inch heels get caught in the grating.

Paul was the last to mount the stairs.

“Get pictures of this for the newsletter,” Paul shouted in Robin’s ear. She’d forgotten to take any photos at the presentation, had forgotten even that the small digital camera was in her jacket pocket. Icy white waves of anxiety pounded in her chest and she tried to quietly calm her breathing. A simple mistake, that’s all, she told herself. No one has died. I made a simple mistake.

She waited until the commissioners arrived at the catwalk and were looking down into the spinning turbines, then snapped away. She saw Commissioner Harmon pause, his eyes on Paul. Paul arrived at the landing and looked down. Robin waved to let him know she was doing what he asked, but got no response back. Invisible again, or maybe just hidden by the shadow of the turbine. Paul wouldn’t care where she was as long as she got the pictures he wanted.

She saw Paul shake his head and try to move past Harmon, who blocked him like a linebacker on the fourth down.

The head engineer led the group farther away from the pair, pointing and gesturing down toward the turbines. Everyone’s eyes were cast downward towards the huge machines, except for Paul’s and Commissioner Harmon’s. Robin zoomed the camera lens, to see if she could read their lips. All she saw was bared teeth and snarls.

And then, in one abrupt and entirely unexpected gesture, Commissioner Harmon bent at the knees, grabbed Paul by the arms, and flung him like a doll off the catwalk. Robin screamed, and so did Paul, but no one could hear it over the noise of the turbines. Robin somehow managed to press the camera button at the apex moment, capturing a perfect mid-air picture of Paul, arms and legs flapping like wings. On the catwalk, Commissioner Harmon’s gaping mouth was a black hole under his bristle brush mustache.

Paul tumbled sixty feet to land, rear first, onto the pointy top of the turbine case. His body crumpled then lay still.

July 10, 20151 Comment

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 1

The first time it happened she was at the laundromat. Then there was another occasion, a few weeks later, while pushing her cart at the supermarket. Initially it was terrifying, but now it happened nearly every day and Robin was starting to like it. It was certainly more gratifying than the long stints of yoga and meditation she’d been trying in order to replace resentment and powerlessness with peace and acceptance.

Yes, she did feel just the tiniest bit lonely, but loneliness was a tolerable price to pay for this seductive new power. The things she learned! Just today, she’d discovered that Alesha and her husband hadn’t had sex in three months. And that Missy was pretending not to know how to use a spreadsheet program to avoid doing work.

Knowledge was power. And power was something Robin definitely lacked in her dead-end cubicle job at Creek City. She’d tried to accept it, writing out little gratitude lists every morning to try to keep her attitude positive. I am healthy. I have a wonderful son who loves me. I have a job when so many people do not. But knowing people’s secrets turned out to be far more motivating. Her secret knowledge made her feel strong, like a hammer cracking through people’s outer shells, revealing their messy, gooey insides. So she quickly learned not to mind that she’d had to become invisible to get it.

Even Robin’s young boss Paul Boyce, Creek City’s chief of staff, wasn’t immune to the power of her invisibility. She heard his footsteps, quick and agitated, on the hallway tile before he poked his head in the conference room where she had been waiting for him for half an hour.

“I almost didn’t see you. What are you doing just sitting here?” Paul was short and plump, with tiny hands and a high-pitched voice that reminded Robin of her son when he was a toddler, always on the verge of a temper tantrum if he didn’t get his way. Her son grew out of it, but Paul was committed for life.

“You said to meet you down here at one,” Robin said. She tried not to let her impatience leak out. His favorite power play was to make people wait.

His little legs covered the twenty feet of thin office carpet in surprisingly long strides. He started rifling through the box of laminated name tags. With trembling hands Robin fumbled for the smooth black jade pendant hanging around her neck, trying to tap into the calming powers promised by the saleswoman at the Goddess Rock Shop. Try as she might, she could only partially believe in the stone’s mystic powers. If Paul were to ask about whether the stone had any meaning (which he never would) she would deny it and say she simply liked the way it looked.

“Robin, am I going to find typos again?”

The sound of her name hit her ears like the heavy clang of a bell. She could feel his anger rising like a fiery morning sun, even though he hadn’t actually found a typo yet. He was looking for an excuse to erupt.

“I checked them twice,” Robin said.

She tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry. After days of enjoying her invisibility, she felt practically naked to be the focus of so much of someone’s attention. Especially the critical kind.

If he found a mistake in the name tags, he’d start yelling and then follow her back to her desk where he would stand over her shoulder watching her try to correct the names with shaking hands. Please don’t find an error, she thought.

He pulled out a random sample for inspection, his green eyes ping-ponging over the names and titles. Robin held her breath. Paul had every name of every commissioner memorized. He was the kind of man who was uptight about the small details but often let the really big things slide.

“Looks OK,” he said, and flung them on the table in a messy heap. Robin’s hands crabbed over the table, gathering them up for re-alphabetization. He turned his back to her.

Her shoulders softened and she took a deep breath to release the tension, like the yoga instructor told her. She was invisible once again.

You can read Part 2 here.