Panse Harbor (Part 1: Don’t Take it Personally)
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Dragon"
Originally featured on 02-08-2008
As part of our series "Zodiac Thriller"

CURSIVE INSCRIPTION ON A FOURTH GRADER’S DRAWING DISCOVERED AT MIRRIAM H WEIZLER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL:

Rats spred disease caus they bite you in your ankle and there teeth are sharp and rip your tights. Caus they salivate yucky orgimizems that turnd the hole world into zombees. Zombees have puss.

(The foreground of the child’s drawing depicts an adult male subject with a head wound baring fangs, and the background shows a lightning bolt stenciled in purple)

(It’s been speculated that “salivate” was among that week’s spelling words)

 

FROM PUBLIC NOTICE STAPLED TO TELEPHONE POLE:

[indecipherable text]…ncerned citizens are advised to congregate at the Hamil Armory at 416 Legion…[indecipherable text]…must pass physical screening…

 

“Fucking hate that phrase. Next person who says it, I’ll punch ‘em in the face.”

“And then say don’t take it personal,” Stacy chimed in. She waited for laughter before permitting herself any. She would wait all night—that was Stacy.

It had been raining heavily all day. Outside, thunderclouds became vocal.

“I mean, seriously, what does it even mean?” Genevieve did not seem to care if anybody was listening to her rant. Everybody was listening to her rant. “When things go badly, my first question is, could I have done something different? And if the answer’s no it was out of my control, I keep thinking about it until that answer changes. Barring a meteor crash or an epidemic, free will’s the pill. You’re either a master of your own destiny or you just eat it and bitch about your own smallness.”

Everyone looked to Stan. Stan was a perpetual debate machine. Some parties hired strippers; they had Stan. He liked to perceive conversations as balloons bouncing around a dance floor. If one lost tension, something would die.

Stan stretched his jaw. Party guests gripped their spouses' ribs and exchanged smirking glances. “It’s not an evil phrase, it’s just the way people use it. Notice how you never hear someone say congratulations, you won the lottery, don’t take it personal. Ever kissed someone and said I’m aroused, nothing personal? Good things happen and bad things happen, and the majority of them just aren’t about you, that’s all it means; it’s a statement of humility.”

Genevieve whittled down her gaze to a line of zero thickness stretching from Stan’s long, pert nose to his widow’s peak. “Hey, Stan?” She gave him the finger. It was then that she noticed the yellowness of his face. She thought nothing of it in the next instant.

An unseen skin stretched and popped, spraying the apartment with hushed taunts, boos and predictions. If sports on television were half as entertaining as Genevieve and Stan going at it, Stacy mused, sitcoms would go out of business.

“Care to elaborate on that?”

“On what? This?” She repeated the gesture.

“You're suggesting I engage in a manual form of self-love?”

“If I’m feeling randy, I don’t shove my tongue in some stranger’s mouth on the bus. My expressions of lust are always personal. If I’m in a strong mood, I want to share it with the person I’m closest to, whether that means cussing him out over nothing because I’m bleeding into a fist of cotton crammed up my hooha and he’s not, or whether that means bursting in the door, snatching the telephone out of his hand and saying love me. And yes, I am suggesting that you pleasure yourself with however many fingers it takes you to experience the meaning of…what was your word, humility?”

“Semantics.”

“Talk about eff’d up phrases, how ‘bout when people preface something with don’t take this the wrong way?”

“Darling, nobody says that anymore,” said Stacy.

“I always want to interrupt them and say then don’t put it the wrong way.”

Daniel Mayorsfield stepped in between them holding up a martini glass. It seemed the martini was walking his body like a dog. “There is no wrong way to tell the truth. Only a wrong time.”

Stan put his arm around Daniel in relief. “Thank you, Danny Aphorism. He’s like a pocket Confucius. I’ll bet he talks that way in the sack too.”

“Excuse me?” Daniel noticed Stan’s discoloration. He looked more concerned than affronted.

Genevieve patted Daniel on the shoulder. “Stan’s had his feathers rustled. When he’s intellectually challenged, he goes straight for the human shield. Take no offense.”

Rain slapped intelligibly at the window. The thunder sounded like two rocks trying to melt into one.

“No offense? No offense?”

The evening continued on in that manner until the lights in the apartment flickered.

When it happened, Stan was cozying up on the couch with a blond accountant whose name he was pretty sure rhymed with a European city.

When it happened, Daniel was urinating and had to finish in darkness. He tensed his shoulders, bracing himself for the sound of failure pelting off porcelain. This worried him.

When it happened, Stacy was rifling through her purse for a phone number she had jotted down on a playing card that afternoon. The card was a queen of diamonds.

When it happened, Genevieve already had one foot out the door. She paused in the hallway, trying to decide if the power outage was cause to go back in.

“What did you do to the electricity?”

Foggily recognizing the male voice behind her, she turned around. “What?”

“Master of your own destiny? Ah, never mind.”

The figure sunk into the black doorway. Drinks spilled. Feet shuffled. Laughter settled. Having already said her goodbyes, the door in front of her was a city street’s width away.

There was no reason to go back in. The party guests would do an awkward stumbling dance and then everyone would figure out whose purse was whose and migrate to the stairwell clustered into a random distribution of hand-holding sediments. She pictured chalkboard diagrams of carbon compounds from chemistry class. There would be the occasional cry of who just pinched my ass? followed by in-unison proclamations of guilty as charged, and the evening would be past its peak.

She progressed down the hall at a moderate pace, the balls of her palm skimming the plaster wall for guidance. She stopped when her knuckles recognized the texture of the stairwell door. She had assumed the elevator would be nonfunctional, but was it? Maybe it had a backup generator. It didn’t matter; stairs were safer anyway. She felt for the doorknob.

Had she entered the stairwell a moment sooner and not stopped to contemplate the elevator, she might not have heard the scream. In that case her night would have gone differently. Had she acted differently, that was. The thought was a maddening one.

 

REPORTED BY SEVERAL ANONYMOUS CITIZENS:

The insulated city of Panse Harbor and select outlaying seaports have been evidently effected by what can only be described as a modern plague. Surviving residents have taken to the streets in refuge from a toxin that the Board of Containment has—as yet—not been able to brief us with any information on. An air quarantine has been established around the perimeter of the affected area that spans most of Panse County and some residences in contiguous counties, and media vessels are unable to get any closer than this unconfirmed transcription at this time, but we will continue to provide up-to-date information as early as such information is disbursed to us, regardless of the reliability of the reporting parties. The Parliament of Priority Action (PPA) has been mobilized to assist Panse Harbor in what is being declared a national emergency.

 

The puddle spread into the hallway. Three men, one of whom Genevieve recognized as the journalism professor’s tall husband who had brought the champagne, were on their knees conferring on a cautious examination of the syrupy liquid. One of the men reached a finger down to take a taste sample and another stopped him, shaking his head. The third man looked at Genevieve. She could not identify him with the lights out.

A voice behind her whispered “Free will’s the pill.” It was after she heard it that she realized that the voice was not whispering. Her chest hitched, and the laugh was released in that same near whisper. She tried to utter syllables of English, but found that her voice was inoperable. The tingly burning sensation in the back of her throat was barely noticeable until she attempted to speak.

Free will’s the pill. She tried to remember where she had first heard that corny mantra. Either in a children’s television show or on a self-help billboard on some corn-fed stretch of back-country highway during her hitchhiking stint. Wherever it came from, she had laughed herself into an aching ball when she first heard it, and made fun of the expression for years before it assimilated itself into her everyday vernacular. Slogans had a funny way of doing that, that…slow absorption.

Again, chemistry class came to mind.

The harder she thought, the more her throat grew fuzzy. Whatever was making the air thick had no smell. The third man was still looking at her.

The pool of liquid seemed to have its own light source. The gelatinous film on top was the color of snot, the kind that comes out first thing in the morning when one has a cold—yellow. Almost orange, but yellow. Sick yellow. Genevieve’s left foot pointed toward the stairwell and her weight leaned that way, but she stood frozen where she was.

It was Stan. He lay on the floor, his head in the doorway. His body stretched around itself like a Twistie trying to seal off a sandwich bag. His hips and shoulders were ninety degrees apart. One arm lay across his body and the other was folded behind his back. His legs flagellated in a dance of static electricity.

Inside the apartment everybody stood back from Stan, unsure.

The liquid was issuing from Stan’s mouth. The harder his legs twitched, the more of it pumped out.

Genevieve looked in the direction she remembered the stairwell being in. A reflected line of bright light flashed across the floor. It was lightning from the window. The sky blushed, and the lightning appeared to have a purplish tint. After several seconds of silence, thunder closed around the apartment complex like a fist and squeezed. It was a personal sound, like the muted noise one’s stomach would make if every internal organ ruptured at the same instant.

Genevieve turned back to Stan, who was now crawling out into the hallway. Stan did not seem to be using his arms at all; his abdomen gripped the floor and slowly slid his body across the carpet with each contraction like a worm. His face was wet and melty. She could see the newly formed sores swelling across his forehead in a perfectly straight line, even in the dark.

His mouth was open. The mucus syrup poured out in torrents, bubbling when he breathed. It looked not unlike champagne when it first hit his lips. He crawled right into the puddle, which seemed to suspend him in lubrication. It appeared he was trying to whisper.

The three men had all scattered and retreated from Stan. One of them was vomiting.

Genevieve backed up. Something furry brushed her ankle as it scurried across the hall on its way to never. She tripped, but her back was numb and she would have had to strain her eyes to see the ceiling.

 

TRANSCRIPT OF LOOPING RADIO BROADCAST:

…evacuate your home. For your safety, please evacuate immediately. Do not listen to the rest of this special broadcast. For those now tuning in, a city-wide evacuation is in effect. Head south. If you have not yet been affected, proceed south as fast as possible. If you already show symptoms of lightheadedness, loss of speech or bipedal imbalance, this special broadcast does not apply to you. Please Evacuate your home. For your safety, please…

 

SCRAWLED ON THE BACK OF A QUEEN OF DIAMONDS:

We’re fucked.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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