Survival (Part One)
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Pick"
Originally featured on 01-12-2007
As part of our series "Phases of a Holiday Meal"

It was raining when I woke up that morning. While I stood at the corner waiting for my bus I watched the thin rivulets of water flowing down the street, greasy with car oil. Work was three bus transfers away and my eyes were slipping closed as I pulled the wire for my last stop. A man in the seat ahead of me turned his head towards me and smiled.

“You work for Josh Durgot?” he asked, fingering a line of hair along his chin missed during shaving. He appeared older when looking straight at me, and his large teeth were waxy white.

“I do,” I said, feeling my neck tighten a bit as I struggled to recognize the man. Twisting the ends of my mittens between my fingers I cleared my throat.

“You know him?” I asked, trying my best to sound friendly, casual.

I stood up as the bus slowed, waited by the back door with my hands on the bar.

“I thought I did,” the man said, his smile quickly disappearing, “but it was a mistake to think so.”

“Why?” I asked, drawing my eyebrows together. The green light above the door clicked on and I pushed the door open. A woman near the back of the bus looked up at the man and I and then back down to the paperback opened in her hand. The man didn’t answer and turned away entirely so that I had no choice but to step off the bus, watching it from the sidewalk as it turned the corner and headed back downtown.

The rain was slackening, but the clouds spread over the city were empty slate blue and the faded yellow of a two week old bruise. The street was quiet except a far off dog barking, and I quickened my step. I looked over my shoulder at the sound of kicked gravel, expecting to see the man from the bus but seeing nothing.

The office was an old red brick building at the end of Industrial Avenue. My own window overlooked a mess of unused railway tracks and the back of an ironworks building. When the iron was being heated it smelled like toast, then chocolate.

“A man on the bus this morning knew you,” I said to Josh, watering the ivy plant on the corner of my desk. My Mary Jane’s, soaked from the walk, were in front of my space heater. Josh shrugged.

“Who was it?” he asked, turning his head towards me so that I could see the sharpness of his profile.

“I don’t know. He had bright white teeth, that’s all I remember,”

“Was it Sam Carpenter?” Josh asked, looking over his shoulder to the other employees passing by my office.

“Sam?” I asked, shaking my head, “I don’t know any Sam.”

“You met him. He used to have your job. We laid him off because he couldn’t cut it . We hired you to take his place. You met him, when you were training.”

I thought back to when I was training but all I could remember was how hot the office had been in the summer, when the light blazed in through the windows even with the blinds down. If I had met him it hadn’t stayed with me.

“You shook hands and he was telling jokes about the drugs we put in the coffee,” he looked at me expectantly, hoping his comments would jar my memory. I looked out the window, ran my eyes along a seam in the clouds.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, and pulled my chair closer to the desk, signaling that it was time for work. Josh took the hint and headed to his own office, one of the big triangular ones that overlooked the park and had real carpeting, mahogany cabinets and plush leather chairs. I thought of the man on the bus, the way he fixed his gaze on me only slightly crookedly. I shuddered. My feet were still cold.

“You should come to lunch with us,” Josh said later, resting his bulky frame against my doorway, and though the ‘us’ was ambivalent I knew who it referred to. ‘Us’ was the upper management whose positions were practically tenured. Everyone knew them by the way they walked through the office, the ease with which they spoke to the big bosses in pressed black suits. When they smiled at you it was with pity, plain and simple. They were like a high school clique—the one you could never admit that you desperately wanted to join.

I nodded yes and picked up my phone to check the voice messages. I heard a deep rumble of laughter emerge from the conference room and then the door close for the Monday morning meeting. I had no idea what was discussed during these meetings, and I knew better than to try and find out. The only way to know of upper management affairs was to be upper management.

I worked as steadily as the rain fell, and the morning passed by quickly. Josh came in to drop a stack of paperwork onto my desk and stood at the window, hands in his pockets.

“We’re going to get out of town for lunch today,” he said to me, after sitting for a few minutes on the edge of my desk, picking ivy leaves off the vine. He glanced at me before standing up, “I think they’ve got an eye on you for promotion,” he added and winked his narrow eye. He leaned in closer to me over the desk, his gray and blue striped tie folding on the cracked glass.

“It can be kind of a challenge to impress these guys,” he whispered, and winked again, “just make sure to keep your head, and it’ll be fine.” He turned around to leave, pausing in the doorway. “Be ready to go at twelve,” he said and was gone. I looked at the clock—it was quarter of. Crouching in front of the space heater I felt the sides of my shoes—still wet.

“I only have to wear them to and from the restaurant,” I said quietly, turning them so that the insides could warm, “I don’t have to wear them once we sit down.”

I looked around at the kitschy paintings that adorned the walls, the rectangular fluorescent light humming on the ceiling, the box windows and tight weave carpet. I looked at my desk, at the opened calendar, the straightened piles of paperwork, the banana peel already turning brown. Running my fingernail across a split in the glass, I let my chin fall heavily into my hand. I pushed a pen into the thickest part of the split and drew it down at an angle, watching the glass separate further. Ink seeped under the panes as the tip of the pen bent and broke. I smiled, twisting a strand of hair around my finger, each strand breaking free and straightening again.

I was ready on time. The wet shoes rubbed against my feet as I walked out of the office amidst a crowd of loud men in buffed black shoes and purposeful haircuts. We went in two cars and I sat in the backseat of a BMW driven by a man who spoke with a heavy New York accent. Next to me was George Franklin, and riding shotgun was Jed Kingston, whose black hair formed a solid wave akin to Elvis’. I knew their names only because it was impossible not to. George shifted uncomfortably next to me. When I spoke he only nodded, his fat cheeks moving and seeming to swallow his eyes when he did so.

“I hope you enjoy working at this company, Marie,” he said to me, his expression overly serious. I attempted a smile and slipped my heel from the shoe, feeling my toes beginning to numb.

“We’ve recognized your initiative and hard work,” he said mechanically, and the ‘we’ he spoke of now seemed much clearer and closer.

“However,” he continued, in the same tone, “first we need to make sure you’re qualified.” I looked up to his dull eyes and neatly pressed smile.

“Of course,” I said, slowly, and looked to the front seat. Both men were quiet and obviously listening.

“We consider you worthy of being picked for a higher position. Are we correct in thinking this Marie?”

The pace of my breath quickened, and with it, my heart. I glanced at the men in the front of the car. They were looking straight ahead to a road I had never seen before.

“Yes,” I said, with only a slight delay. George glanced at the to the front seat and I saw the driver nod in the rear view mirror.

“Thirty years ago I was the first man to complete RyCo’s experimental wilderness survival challenge,” he said, in his own voice now. The car began to slow down. “We’ve relied on it ever since, as a way for candidates to…prove themselves.”

“Where are we?” I asked, trying to make out the surroundings. The car pulled up alongside a long open field. In the distance I could see the green tips of pine trees, “how long have we been driving?” I asked, feeling my throat quiver a bit.

“It’s easy,” said the driver in a borderline sympathetic voice, opening his door and then mine from the outside. I gripped my fingers onto the leather seat and dugs my heels into the floor. As he took my arm I could see the other car pausing briefly and then continuing along the highway. I wondered if there was another candidate inside.

“Five miles due north into the woods is the company cabin. If you can get there by nightfall, you’re in. If not…”

“If not what?” I asked.

“If not…” he sighed and shrugged his free arm, “you’ll never leave the office you’re in now.” He loosened his grip on my arm but strengthened his gaze.

“This is crazy,” I said slowly allowing myself to set my foot on the dirt, “the sun will be down in less than five hours.”

“You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think you could do it,” George said, motioning me out of the car.

“Once you get there, it’ll be worth everything,” the shotgun passenger said, his thick eyebrows rising, “trust me.”

The driver closed the door and turned towards me, his lower lip pushed forward so that I could see the inside.

“You’re the first woman,” he said, smiling weakly.

He got back into the car and I listened to the wheels crackle over the loose dirt, not quite able to move, or speak. It continued down the straight highway, leaving me open mouthed on the side of the road, my small purse dangling uselessly from my hand. For a moment there was nothing but panic rushing through my body. My skin tightened. If there really was a cabin, I thought, could I get there? I thought of giving up, walking along the highway until a car spotted me, but was there any guarantee that anyone would come?

“Sam didn’t make it,” I said out loud, and I felt a wave of nausea as I then wondered what exactly he had been warning me about.

“Where does that highway go anyway?” I asked myself. I rifled through my bag and pulled out my heavily accessorized key ring, praising my purchase of a glow in the dark compass months ago. Before I knew it I was heading across the field. following north. I looked up at the clearing sky, felt the stillness of the air. My senses tensed and suddenly my ears were pricked and my eyes wide open as I entered the forest. I began flipping leaves and cracking sticks, telling myself that if something were to go wrong, I could find my way back quickly enough. I can get there by nightfall, I thought, then I’ll be in.

Read More By Liz Varley

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