So, remember Hunger? Consider this a follow-up. 😉 As always, first draft, unedited horror story for your twisted enjoyment.:
Street Cleaning Day
At 8:30AM, on the dot, Judith Trask turned the key to unlock the office door, swung it wide open, and breathed in a deep, satisfied sigh. It was going to be another wonderfully productive day, packed with exciting people needing exciting things from her. She was ready. Her computer was on, her email was loading, and her desk was spotless, just waiting for the first pile of manila folders to be dropped off for her to work on.
A homeless man smiled at her as he passed by, flashing his brown-and-black teeth. “Good morning!”
Judith gave him a tight smile, trying not to breathe too deeply. “Good morning,” she replied and hurried back inside, closing the door. Goodness gracious, that smell! She waited until the man was out of sight before pulling out a can of air freshener. A couple of hearty sprays, and olfactory harmony was once again restored. Nodding to herself, she put the can away and returned to her desk.
Judith loved her job. She loved the structure and predictability of knowing exactly what was expected of her, and when. Most people despised dealing with paperwork. Not Judith. In her mind, every piece of paper had its place in the world, and it was her job to make sure it got there safe and sound. Her job was her source of pride. Perfect attendance. Highest marks for performance. Not a single complaint in all of her twenty-seven years of dedicated service to the company. The manager had awarded her the honor of Employee of the Year ten years in a row.
“Fuck you, mother fucker!”
Judith jumped, pressing a hand to her chest as the angry woman with her hair standing on end in every which direction stomped past the front door. She was shaking a torn shoe at nothing, screaming obscenities to one side, at some invisible culprit who’d obviously caused her grievous offense.
“I’ll fucking kill you, bitch! I’LL FUCKING KILL YOUUUU!”
Hunched behind her desk, Judith watched the woman move along, listened to her screaming long after she disappeared down the block.
This neighborhood had gone downhill in the last few years. Ever since the homeless shelter closed down over by the river, the homeless population had been setting up camps and tent cities in the downtown area just to be a nuisance. Most of them used to be harmless enough, if a bit dirty and smelly. But now that a tent city had sprung up in an alley just two blocks away, the crazies started crawling out of the woodwork. Judith’s ears were often assaulted by mad ravings and violent threats. There have been times when she’d had to lock the door and hide in the bathroom in the back when one of them started banging on the window, screaming at her.
The police did nothing. They never even sent anyone when she called them anymore. Useless people. They’d bury their heads in the sand and pretend they didn’t see or hear anything until someone got hurt, or killed. Like that poor woman who made the newspapers a few months back. A good, Christian soul, who’d done nothing but help the needy, murdered and eaten in her own home.
Judith crossed herself and shook off the thought, turning her attention to her work, instead.
Today was meeting day. Everyone would be gathering in the conference room for a two-hour congress, starting at 9AM on the dot. Judith was more than ready. She had the coffee machines brewing, and large platters piled high with energizing pastries of all types. She’d even procured some of those fancy non-fat, sugar free, gluten free stuff for the younger folk, even though she would never understand what any of that nonsense was supposed to mean. How on earth could a pastry be sugar free?
The bell above the door chimed as Mr. Reynolds came in. “Good morning, Judith.”
Judith pushed to her feet. “Good morning, Mr. Reynolds! It’s going to be a busy day today, isn’t it?”
“I should say so.” He looked over his shoulder at something farther down the street, then shook his head and smiled at her. “Please tell me there’s coffee.”
“Of course, Mr. Reynolds! Fresh pot in the conference room. Shall I fetch you a cup?”
“Oh, no. I can get it myself, thank you.” He hesitated, glanced behind him again, then quietly asked, “Have those people up the street been giving you any more trouble?”
Keeping her bright smile firmly in place, Judith patted her hair. “No more than usual.” At least not in the mornings. Most of them came out in the afternoon, when the day warmed them up some.
Mr. Reynolds shook his head. “Damned transients flocking around like pigeons, the way people around here keep feeding them.” Seeming to realize how awful that sounded, he gasped. “Don’t get me wrong, I feel for the wretches. There’s nowhere for them to go, and half of them are so out of their minds with drugs and disease they can’t even dress themselves, let alone hold down a proper job. And the state sure as heck won’t do anything about it.”
Judith nodded without saying a word. What could she say? She sympathized with their plight, too, but Mr. Reynolds was right. There was nowhere for them to go, and precious little being done to help them. The kinder thing would have been to have killed them all when they shut down the shelter. Better that, than let them freeze and starve to death on the streets.
“But everywhere they go,” Mr. Reynolds continued, “decent people leave. Did you notice Miller’s across the street is closing? And the bakery down the block, too. They can’t get business anymore with transients making the street almost unlivable.” He shook his head again. “We’re probably going to be the next to go.”
Judith gasped. “Surely not!” They couldn’t do that! She could understand the restaurant and bakery closing down. Both of them had outside seating, and that simply wasn’t a good place to eat, when the entire street smelled like vomit and fermented trash. There was human excrement in the middle of the sidewalks, for goodness’ sake!
But Judith’s office was a place of business and had nothing to do with food. They didn’t get too many clients coming in, only the staff, and they were all good, decent folks who kept their heads down and worked hard to make a good life for themselves and their families. They needed this place. And so did Judith.
Mr. Reynolds smiled. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. As long as we keep this place spic and span, I’m sure everything will be just fine. And Judith, you’re so good at keeping things spic and span around here… You do us all proud.”
Judith gave him a wan smile. “Thank you, Mr. Reynolds.”
The meeting went off without a hitch. People came, people went. People stopped by to say hello to her, or waved on their way in or out, with their phones pressed to their ears. Judith did her job, processed paperwork, entered data, kept the office spic and span, but as the hour grew late, she couldn’t help thinking back about what Mr. Reynolds had said.
Would they really close down the office because of the homeless population? What if it got so bad they decided the curb appeal simply wasn’t up to snuff anymore? The firm wasn’t quite as big and luxurious as some others she could name, but the brand was fairly high-end, and fiercely protected with strict rules of conduct and such.
“Good night, Judith. Don’t stay too late now.”
“Good night, Mr. Reynolds,” she replied, then checked the time. 5:27PM. Well past quitting time. Judith had worked late many times before, and she’d never even considered asking for overtime pay. She simply fudged the timesheets a bit to say she’d left on time.
Turning off her computer, Judith looked around the office with a far bleaker outlook than she’d had that morning. The personal offices were all closed and dark for the night, leaving only the main office lit up. Judith turned off the main lights, collected her purse, and shrugged on her coat, smoothing it down over her rounded hips. At the last moment, she remembered that morning’s meeting and returned to the conference room to clean away the last dregs of undrunk coffee, throw paper plates and cups into the trash, and box up the remaining pastries.
There were still plenty of them left, and they’d be no good to anyone tomorrow. She noted wryly that most of them were those fake gluten-free things that no one wanted to eat, despite several people requesting them. Such a waste.
Well, the company could afford it. But still…
Judith took the trays back to the kitchen and placed them on the counter while she fished out a trash bag from underneath the sink. She knocked over a bottle of chemical cleaner and leaned down farther to right it again before she straightened and shook the trash bag open. Reaching for the pastries, she paused.
Damned transients flocking around like pigeons, the way people around here keep feeding them.
We’re probably going to be the next to go.
Judith put the trash bag away and retrieved the baker’s box to repack the pastries. It only took a few moments to get them all back into place, arranged just so, and they looked ever so appetizing. Almost like they were fresh from the oven.
Making a mental note to put more cleaning supplies on the order list for tomorrow, Judith turned off all the lights, engaged the alarm, and locked the door behind her as she set off down the street. The tent city was on her way home. Normally, she would cross the street to avoid having to look at those desperate souls sticking needles in their arms by the light of a burning trash can. Today, she kept going straight and at the edge of the alley, set the box of pastries down on the ground while she adjusted the strap on her shoe. When she moved on, the box remained.
“Happy Friday, Mr. Reynolds!”
“Judith, did you see all the commotion up the street?”
Judith took his coat to hang on the rack. “Yes, sir. There were trucks and police cars going by all morning. An office stopped by to ask if I saw anything unusual going on.”
“And did you?”
Judith shrugged. “I don’t think so. But I usually try not to see anything around here, if you catch my meaning.”
Mr. Reynolds went back to the window, trying to catch the goings on without physically stepping outside. “They questioned me, too. But no one would say what’s really going on.” He spoke so softly, Judith wasn’t sure if he expected her to respond. “Police cars, garbage trucks… Four ambulances. I think someone must have oh-deed in the tent city last night.”
Judith hummed thoughtfully. “With all those needles lying around in the street, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Making her tone brisk, she politely ushered Mr. Reynolds away from the window. “But I’m sure the police have the matter well in hand. They have their work to do, and so do we, isn’t that right, Mr. Reynolds?”
He smiled. “You’re absolutely right.”
“I have fifteen messages for you. Three of them urgent. I marked them with the red stamp. And Mr. Lancroft will be coming in for your appointment at noon sharp. I took the liberty of ordering a catered lunch.”
Mr. Reynolds sighed. “You are a Godsend, Judith. Whatever would we do without you?”
Judith brushed off the praise and returned to her desk.
It was a good day, with lots to do and lots to keep her pleasantly busy until closing time. There were no more sirens after lunch, no more crazy people screaming at the window; not even beggars shuffling up and down the street. The few times Judith got a chance to look up from her work, she saw normal people strolling by, and the occasional news crew with cameras and microphones trying to get a story that was long over.
When the clock flashed 5PM and the last employees left for the night, Judith once again made her final rounds, tidied up the office, packed up the leftovers from lunch, and then locked up for the night.
She hummed to herself, walking home. At the edge of the tent city, she even dared a peek down the alley. It was empty, and swept clean of every last needle. Judith took a deep breath and smelled nothing but a faint hint of disinfectant on the breeze.
She smiled to herself. What a lovely evening it was turning out to be.
“Can you spare a dollar, ma’am?”
Judith turned to face the woman who’d screamed obscenities up and down the street just yesterday. Today, her big eyes were swollen and bloodshot in her dirty face, and her hair was matted down. She was hunched and shivering, her feet bare, and her filthy hand outstretched for a pittance.
“I don’t have any money,” Judith said with a shudder, opening her mouth as little as possible, but she could still taste the woman’s ungodly reek. “But I can give you some food.”
“God bless you, ma’am,” the beggar said, eagerly snatching the box out of Judith’s hand. “Thank you.” She took off the top and carelessly tossed it to the ground before she dug her dirt-encrusted hand straight into the contents, shoveling them into her mouth so fast she barely had time to chew.
Judith pulled a moist towelette out of her purse to wipe her hands, then held the tissue to her nose against the lingering smell as she continued on her way. There would be more trucks coming by tomorrow morning, she supposed. The sooner the better–the dead body smell wouldn’t be likely to get any sweeter with prolonged exposure.
But at least now that the streets were clean, Judith could enjoy her weekend without worrying about what Monday might bring.
Just another day at the office, keeping the place spic and span.