Panse Harbor (Part 2: Let Not My Overdeveloped Flesh Lure You Into Any Illusions, The Situation Is Vastly Beyond My Control)
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Rat"
Originally featured on 02-13-2008
As part of our series "Zodiac Thriller"

Haley worked the evening shift on weekends. Tom knew her name because she wore her nametag such that the pin stretched her Iron Palace employee uniform to fully accentuate the shape of her chest. She was on the phone when he walked in. She swiped his membership card without looking at him. As soon as he walked by, her eyes followed him from behind—He knew it. Tom’s arms had a circumference of seventeen inches (with a barbed wire tattoo, his gift to himself upon reaching the goal of seventeen inch arms), why shouldn’t they? Additionally, he had just come in from the rain, his tank top hugging the past four months’ worth of Creatine Enhancement training.

“It’s Saturday, it’s dark out, what the nuts are you doing at the gym?” Haley spoke most comfortably when shouting across a room over rock music.

“Oh, I thought you’re open till nine thirty.”

She looked at Tom in a way that made sure he knew he was an idiot.

“Um, what am I doing? Last I checked, working out.”

“Are you patronizing me?” In a former life, Haley would have been a chain-smoking tattooed vixen downing gin and tonic and throwing darts, the object of every country singer’s affections. In this one she was a vegetarian triathlon champion. Tom knew that much about her because of the newspaper cutouts the Iron Palace staff periodically taped to the wall. Haley had sprightly shoulder-length amber hair and perfect complexion. Tom knew that much because he had a pair of eyes. The way she spoke—a certain petulant sauciness like a drop of vinegar—contradicted everything about her; it sounded like dubbed movie dialogue.

She liked to work the closing shift alone. Tom had never paid enough attention to wonder why. He loaded two ten pound plates onto the EZ-Curl bar.

“I can upgrade you to a premium membership, but I’m afraid your current package does not allow you to give me sass.” Her face was serious. Her body smiled at him from the hips.

“Want to watch me curl?” He rolled up his sleeves and adjusted the seat height.

“Hey. Look around. It’s Saturday. What do you see?”

Tom shrugged. “Just you and me, sugar.”

“I work here.”

Tom did a warm-up set of Preacher Curls.

“Seriously, what’s your excuse?” She must have been bored. She didn’t look bored.

He set down the weight and took a few breaths to bring his heart rate back to neutral.

“You mean, why am I not at some club getting wasted?”

Haley walked away.

“What?” Preacher Curls fell away from the center of his attention.

“Never mind, you just reminded me what gender I was speaking to.”

Tom stood up and followed her as she made her rounds, spraying and wiping the machines with a white and red striped washcloth. “Huh?”

“Forget it.”

“Are you okay?”

Her face remained stern. Her body laughed at him, from the position of her shoulders. “Go do your workout, pump those biceps. Eat some protein. Get out of here so I can close.”

Tom suddenly realized that they were no longer speaking in sarcastic good humor.

“Yes, official closing time is nine thirty.”

Tom put out his hands and put on his goofiest smile. “Come on, where’s the love?”

“Oh, well, I could show you where it is, but first I’d have to upgrade you to our Exclusive VIP membership. Oh, and dude, I am shamelessly coming onto you, in case you can’t tell.”

Tom laughed hysterically. His body remained rigid and serious.

Haley’s voice softened and her spine slackened. “See, the question was rhetorical; I was complimenting your work ethic.”

“What work ethic? How do you know where I work?”

“Like I just said, I have no patience for men and their simplicity.”

“Oh, you mean my work ethic at the- my gym routine?”

“I pointed out exhaustively that it’s Saturday night and you’re here. Think about that.”

“What’s the big deal?”

“What other observation have I repeatedly brought to your attention in this conversation? Could it be…that you’re the only one? Man, you’re a sharp listener.”

“Lifting partners piss me off. Lazy bastards.”

“Pause, timeout. I just told you in plain English that I lust for your body, and you laughed.”

“Right. The way you said it, it was funny.”

“It’s a disarming thing to say, might as well say it with some humor and straightforwardness. That’s how you people converse, isn’t it? Chuck all metaphoric posturing out the window. No time. Caveman hungry, caveman need unambiguous info.”

Tom sighed. “See, I’m usually a pretty smart guy, if you can believe it. Thing is, I can’t max out my brain and my biceps at the same time. When I’m lifting, I understand three words: push, push and push.”

“In that case, you need a spot?”

Tom was making his way toward the bench press. He looked at her arms and considered.

“Trust me, I’ve spotted way bigger guys than you, so don’t worry.”

“Sure, you want to help me on my next set?”

“I won’t ask why you’re working your bi’s and pecs in the same day.”

“Oh, I’m just trying out different combinations for muscle fatigue-”

“I said I won’t ask, and I won’t comment. I’m not authorized to disburse free samples of my expertise.” Haley helped him load forty-five pound plates onto the barbell.

“You’ll give me forced reps, right?”

“Whatever you want.” Her eyes rolled slightly on unseen axes, a gesture equivalent to cracking her knuckles.

The window shutters rattled as the storm winds swept in off the ocean. Thunder applauded his set of seven reps with two hundred and eighty pounds on the bench press.

“By the way, you know I was just kidding, right?” Haley said as she helped Tom take ten pounds off each side of the barbell for his next set.

“About what, the flirting thing?”

She looked away from him. “I’m not actually that unprofessional.”

“Well I’m not a dumb jock.”

“That’s a shame; you’d make a good one.”

“I mean, I took honors history and college writing lit and all that crap, I can talk abstract for hours. I know about the Oedipal Complex and, like, quadratic equations and stuff.”

She exchanged a glance with an imaginary person.

Sitting up on the bench, he swung his arms in front of his chest and pelted out jabs of air through his lips. His tank top was still moist from the rain. He wondered if she would be bothered to know that he was casually looking up her shirt while she spotted him. Was it still harassment if she hit on him first? How did that dynamic work? Asking himself the question pumped too much blood to his brain, blood that was better spent in his pectorals. “So, you from Panse Harbor originally?”

“Oh, no. Originally I’m from Haley’s Mother’s womb harbor. Moved here when I was nine months young.”

“That’s cool. I’m new in town. My uncle has a roofing business-”

“Hey. Less talk, more bench press, ‘kay?”

On his third rep with two hundred sixty, the bar felt heavier than it should have. He gestured to Haley with his chin, but her hands were already on the bar. That was why he could not budge the weight; she was pressing down, and the smooth section of barbell was on his throat.

Thunder sounded like tin foil crumpled over a microphone. The radio jolted in the middle of a Bon Jovi guitar solo and turned to static.

Looking down at him with her face one hundred eighty degrees from his, she looked positively bored. She leaned just enough weight onto her palms to keep him pinioned.

“I’m sorry to have to do this, Tom- your name is Tom, right?”

Tom tried to speak, but gagged. It was a pathetic sound.

“I’d ask you a simple question, but if the answer was yes, you probably wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about, and if the answer was no, you’d probably be lying. I realize I’m not being fair; if you wish me to explain from the beginning, tap your left foot. If you want me to kill you now and get it over with, tap your right foot.”

Both legs knocked around. At the moment his right and left were indistinguishable to him.

“Both? Good choice. I guess you weren’t lying when you said you were smart.”

Tom’s eyes poked outward from his face as if trying to physically dial numbers on a telephone that was not there. She looked even more bored.

“It’s the end of the world. No, not that kind of apocalypse. I mean it really is. Literally.”

A window shattered somewhere in another room. They both felt the temperature drop.

“When I asked you what you were doing here, I wasn’t asking to be funny or antagonistic. And I lied, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. I’ll say it again; notice how you are the only one here, mister barbed wire bi’s. If you had instead gone to a bar, you would have found yourself to be the only patron of that bar as well. If you don’t believe me, I’d say take a look outside, but that would be rather tactless of me, considering your present position. But hey, you did ask me for a forced rep, and did I not deliver? I apologize again; my humor tends toward the tongue-in-cheek when I’m threatening a man with two hundred sixty pounds against his jugular.”

Something was banging on the wall outside.

“Do you believe in fanciful creatures, Tom? Dragons, for instance? In myths there’s always a reptilian monster guarding a treasure, and that’s how you know it’s special, that it’s inviolable.”

The lights expired. Cold air whistled in through the broken window.

“Let me put it to you this way, Tom. Are you a man?”

Tom wiggled his body in an attempt to dip the barbell so as to dump the weight.

“Why are you fighting me, Tom?”

Thunder whiplashed at the walls. Haley inhaled a gunshot of air. Forty-five pound iron plates crashed to the floor. Tom’s torso spun. His lungs inflated and emptied at once as he landed on his side.

There were people inside the gym, but they weren’t people. Tom smelled them before he could see them, and he began to feel ill. They smelled like gasoline and expired chocolate. They must have crawled in the windows. Could they have?

Tom’s legs took off without him in a sprint, and then he was outside. Haley was kicking her heels at a puddle in the parking lot in a splashing, screaming dance of gorgeous delirium.

Inside, other pieces of equipment fell and metal crashed and scraped. Outside, the chocolate gasoline people stalked toward the Iron Palace moving with bent knees. Lightning ripped a hole and offered a split-second window to something or somewhere else. The black sky promptly sealed it shut.

Haley jumped and wrapped herself around Tom, squeezing. The corners of her nametag stung his chest. “It’s Saturday. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

A circle of gnashing teeth surrounded them. The monsters’ clothes were torn and their faces were oozing white jelly from red lumps and bloodless inflated cracked lips. They spat light.

Tom’s barbed wire tattoo appeared to serve no purpose.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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