The Metamorphosis of Anita Chaplain
1122 words long
This probably isn't allowed on company time. But then, so many things aren't.
Notes from the author:
It all started with a cough--with the word "cough," the first in the usual string-of-ten word prompt. "Happenstance" put in an appearance, but that was incidental. The cough was the catalyst.
After that, some blame might accrue on my having read and reread Pratchett & Gaiman's Good Omens to pieces (not to mention my current Discworld re-reading binge). If you find yourself thinking of Lisa Morrow the ill-fated telemarketer, you're not the only one. But I think what's truly at this Fictionette's heart is the modern-day horror of one's own body betraying oneself by being inappropriate during an Important Business Meeting.
One's own body--being inappropriate! It makes me inexpressably sad, and angry too, that we as a society have decided that this concept makes sense. Makes me almost envy Anita Chaplain, it honestly does.
It started with a cough, or rather, the promise of a cough. Just a small, nagging tickle in the throat that suggested a cough was coming. Anita tried to hold it back. Coughing was not allowed on company time.
Of course she failed.
She was in the middle of an important meeting with one of the company's most important clients. That meant it was vital that everyone look well-groomed, busy, and, above all, healthy. An unhealthy employee did not reflect well on the company. It made clients question the company's reliability.
Besides, Anita didn't like to call attention to herself. She had heard enough about Anaea Gnosseum, Inc., to be very nervous about their representative's visit.
She tried swallowing. She tried relaxing her throat muscles. She tried imagining a liquid coolness coating the membranes. She tried not thinking about it at all, which worked about as well as you might expect. She tried everything she could think of, but there was only so long it could last, and in the end, the cough came out.
It was just a tiny cough. A mere micro-spasm. But it silenced the accountant midway through his finance report and caused every eye in the room to turn in her direction. Silence fell so heavily that you couldn't hear it hit bottom.
The representative from Anaea Gnosseum, Inc. stared at her, no doubt thinking she'd cleared her throat to get the room's attention. Anita swallowed hard and tried to disappear between her own shoulder blades.
Eventually it became apparent that no genius ideas were forthcoming. The accountant cleared his throat and resumed where he'd left off. All eyes left Anita and returned to the podium with expressions of polite interest. The eyes of the Anaea Gnosseum representative lingered on Anita slightly longer than the rest, unless Anita was imagining it. She fervently hoped she was imagining it.
She coughed again.
This second cough came without warning. There was no agonizing build-up; it just burst out of her, a harsher spasm from further down her chest. It was loud and sounded wet. Anita felt an oddly squishy ache in her sternum region.
The CEO strode over to her. "Ms. Chaplain," he said smoothly (but it was only smooth for show; Anita and her fellow employees knew him too well to miss the tremble underneath), "are you quite well?"
She nodded wordlessly. She was afraid of what else might come out of her mouth.
"You know that you have unlimited sick days at your disposal, Ms. Chaplain," said the CEO loudly. "If you are at all unwell, the company urges you to stay home and take care of yourself! The company cares about you, Ms. Chaplain."
She nodded some more, cringing. It was bad enough to appear ill at work; it was unconscionable to have appeared ill in front of a very important client. As well accuse the company of barbarism outright. Anita silently begged the floor to open up and the earth to swallow her down into its molten core.
"May I talk to her?" The Anaea Gnosseum representative had a soft voice that was nevertheless remarkably easy to hear across the room. It sounded gentle, yet caused every hair on the back Anita's neck to stand on end. "This may be more serious than it looks. Of course, it could be nothing--"
"It's nothing," blurted Anita. "Just a bit of--um, something I swallowed wrong. Be fine in a moment. Sorry."
"But we should make sure." The representative came closer.
Anita shrank back in her chair, appalled at herself for speaking to him directly, but even more appalled that his attention was fully focused upon her. She did the only thing she could think of to defend herself: she coughed again.
This cough was a hearty, mucus-clearing cough, a cough that came right up from the belly, a cough that led to another and then to a full-blown coughing fit. Anita had the distinct sensation of her lungs attempting to crawl up her trachea. Things inside her seemed to be tearing. But the paroxysm had really hit its stride now and saw no reason to stop.
"Everyone out!" roared the CEO. "This room is under quarantine effective immediately!"
"No--" and the representative's voice was still strangely gentle and soft despite its overpowering presence-- "no, everyone down." With one small, delicate hand pressed flat between the CEO's broad, meaty shoulders, the representative brought both of them to the floor. Employees rocketed from their seats, some heading for the exit and others throwing themselves flat at shoe level. The accountant crouched low behind the podium and trembled.
Anita, meanwhile, was in agony, in a panic, and in utter humiliation. She didn't know what most to fear: that she was in the grip of some violently fatal disease, or that she'd get fired for interrupting a very important client presentation. She was also in mortal terror of the representative from Anaea Gnosseum, Inc., who was crawling toward her on his belly with a sword in his hand. With that clarity of thought that comes in the midst of a life-threatening crisis precisely so that you don't miss a single detail of your impending demise, Anita thought, There's no way he had that hidden under his jacket. It would have ruined those carefully tailored lines.
Then a final cough ripped its way out of her, split her open from collarbone to pelvis, and released her into the air as a sort of living red-and-black mist that buzzed like a swarm of bees and devoured everything in the room above knee height. This was unfortunate for the employees who'd gotten caught in the bottleneck at the door, but on the bright side, they weren't allowed much time to bemoan their fate.
The red-and-black mist, having fed, now consisted of almost double the matter initially released from Anita's discarded body. It coalesced into something wondrous and terrifying and strange, and huge. Anita couldn't see her new form very clearly, having neither a mirror at hand nor time in which to examine herself, but she felt healthy and powerful. She felt like something that need never worry about embarrassment or getting fired again.
Also, the representative from Anaea Gnosseum, Inc. had risen to his feet, towering protectively over the still prone, thus still living, remnants of the company, which included the CEO and the accountant. He was confronting her with that sword of his, which seemed now to be on fire. This concentrated her attention wonderfully.
So it was with a sense of profound relief that Anita Chaplain let instinct take over and proceeded to tender her resignation in the most unmistakable way possible.
This was the Friday Fictionette for January 23, 2015. It has been released as the "Fictionette Freebie" for the month of January.
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