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A Company Decision

by Rick Hipps

“You spelled it wrong.”

Susan looked up from the laptop, turning in the chair to face a shaggy mound of burnt orange and golden fur settled on tree-trunk sized haunches at her side. “What?”

“His name...” Sausage-like fingers, ending in curved blunt claws, waggled at the flicking letters on the screen. “You’ve spelled it wrong. It’s ‘X-P-M-R-Z-R-G--’”

“It really doesn’t matter whether I spell his name correctly,” Susan replied. “The readers won’t actually try to pronounce it.”

“Why not?” the mound insisted. “He was a Troll King, after all; details are important. It’s not all that difficult, you know. Pay attention...”

He threw back his massive head and opened his mouth, revealing a glistening white set of canine teeth, the incisors nearly a foot long. A deep intake of breath, and the creature loosed a bellow that shook the walls of her cubicle.

Susan jumped. Her knee struck the underside of the desk, causing a collection of small stuffed bears, a picture of her family framed in silver plate, and a steel mess cup of assorted pens and pencils to topple from overhead shelves. She struggled painfully to her feet, looking about the office. No one seemed to have noticed.

“Easy for you maybe.” She hurriedly returned the fallen items to their places. “You’re a troll. I couldn’t wrap my throat around that sound if my life—”

“Little accident here?”

“Mr. Pearson!” Susan looked past the troll to see her boss standing in the narrow aisle. His perfectly tailored cobalt suit, powder-blue shirt and power tie seemed to sap the cheeriness from the fluorescent ceiling fixtures. His too-gaunt, clean-shaven face and short-cropped ginger hair always left Susan with the impression of a cadaver wearing Brooks Brothers.

“Sorry, I... uh, thought I heard something. It startled me.”

“Really,” Pearson replied with a complete lack of interest in his voice. His mud-brown eyes seemed to fix on Susan’s laptop. “Another computer? Isn’t one enough?”

“It’s mine,” she smiled weakly, lowering the screen. “I use it on my lunch hour to... For personal business.”

“I see.” Pearson stared at the laptop before turning his gaze back to her. “Susan, I’d like to see you in my office when you’ve finished lunch. I’ll expect you at one.”

“Great, that’s all I need,” she muttered at his retreating back. “Another closed door meeting with ‘pinch-faced Pearson.’ You know, Grom, we started at this company on the very same day. In the same department.”

“Yeah, doing the exact same work. I know, you’ve told me,” his wide forehead crinkled for a moment, bushy eye-brows narrowed, “thirty-seven times, now. It’s a very sad tale, Susan. You should write about it.”

“And, he never lets me forget how he’s risen through the company ranks, while I’m still doing the same job. I am sick to death of that arrogant, self-important, butt-sniffing—”

“Want me to eat him?”

“What? No! Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t eat him.”

The troll scratched at one of his curled horns, as though deep in thought. Susan always believed Grom’s horns to be his best feature; they made him look like a pug-nosed ram.

“Well, not all in one sitting,” he offered after a long moment. “Over a couple of days, maybe. You think folks here would get suspicious if they noticed body parts lying about?”

“Forget it,” she said. “But speaking of food, where did you get that peanut butter?”

“From the larder. Why?”

“Larder? You mean the kitchen. Grom, that doesn’t belong to you. And, taking other employee’s food from the lar... the kitchen, isn’t right. It’s stealing.”

“Maybe it’s stealing, maybe not. It’s good, though. Nice and crunchy; reminds me of chewing bones.”

“I want you to put that back where you found it. We have peanut butter at home, and I don’t intend to get in trouble for taking someone’s ‘mega-chunky’ peanut butter.”

“No... Not really.”

“Not really what?”

“We don’t have peanut butter at home, not anymore.”

“Grom, I just bought three one-pound jars the evening before last.”

“And I appreciate that. But we’re still out.”

Susan sighed. “What did you eat before you discovered peanut butter?”

Grom shrugged. “Sheep, mostly. The occasional weasel, or ditch rat. Sometimes, if a passing cart ran over a—”

“Never mind!” she snapped. “Just... never mind.”

She looked at her wristwatch. “It’s nearly one o’clock, I’ve got to go. Stay here, and behave yourself. And, for pity’s sake, throw that jar away in the kitchen trash, not my waste basket, when you’ve finished. I’m in enough trouble around here as it is.”

Grom dipped his fingers into the open jar, popping them into his mouth with a grin of satisfaction.

* * *

“Come in, Susan. Sit down.”

Albert Pearson, hands folded atop an emerald-green blotter, held court in his leatherette chair, behind an oak veneer desk set at exactly a forty-five degree angle to the door. Pearson had arranged every brass-plated, crystal-topped and wood-accented accessory to make the maximum impression. Susan doubted he did much real work at this desk but had to admit it looked nice.

“I have a project for you,” he began. “Your supervisor has agreed she can spare you.”

Susan nodded, but said nothing.

“Several members of the board will be in town on Monday for meetings. They’ll be here at least through next week, and will want an update on our sales figures to date for this quarter. I want you to assist in putting these figures together; invoicing, delivery and inventory reports, and so on. This means working late between now and next Monday; probably through the weekend.”

She winced at the idea of losing so much free time. “I can prepare the invoicing data, but I’m not as familiar with delivery or inventory as I could be.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll have assistance in those areas.”

“Who will I be working with?”

“For now, it will be just the two of us.”

“How do we divide the tasks?” she asked. “As I recall, delivery and inventory were your areas of expertise, when you worked—”

“Actually, I’m going to be in meetings the remainder of today and all of tomorrow.” Pearson rose, walking to the door. “Get started on the invoicing, and I’ll see to the rest.”

“Well, hopefully we won’t be delivering our reports too early on Monday,” she ventured. “Have they advised you of the agenda yet?

“Oh? You’ve no need to be concerned about that. I’ll be presenting the reports. At the board’s request.”

Susan knew a corporate con job when she heard one. “Well, guess we have a lot of work ahead of us, then.”

“Yes. I’m afraid you’ll have to put your... outside interests on hold for a while. I believe it’s for the best.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Sorry, I don’t follow. Outside interests?”

Pearson faltered. “Actually, I’ve wanted to speak with you, Susan. I think now might be a good time.”

Returning to his chair, he opened a drawer and removed a glossy-paged magazine, laying it on the desk between them. She recognized it immediately.

“Where did you get that?”

“It’s not important. But from your response, I’ll assume you’re familiar with this... publication?”

“I’ve placed a number of stories with them,” she replied. “Even had the feature story twice this—”

“How long have you worked for this company, Susan?” Pearson leaned forward, interlacing his fingers. His manicured nails gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the window blinds.

“This April will be seven years. Same as you.”

“Seven years,” he muttered. “Seems a long time, doesn’t it?”

Susan shrugged, but remained silent.

“I’ve been watching you these past months. Your work is more than satisfactory, your attendance exemplary. But, I must confess I am concerned.” He indicated the magazine. “These fairy tales—”

“Fairy tales... This is about my writing?” She felt her heart pounding in her chest, and Pearson’s words only fed the anger.

“These stories are a disruption. They’re keeping you from your work. Susan, you have the ability to do more, be more with the company; but this... hobby of yours could potentially become a problem I’d rather not have to deal with.”

“I see no problem, Mr. Pearson,” she replied, tight-lipped. “I write only on my breaks, and at lunch. Use my own computer. I never print out my pages here at the office, so I’m not using company resources. What problem can there be?”

“I found this rubbish,” Pearson pounded the magazine with his finger, “in my son’s school bag last evening. Absurd stories about dragons, castles, and... and, trolls of all things. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous. A complete waste of time, as I’ve told my son, and I’m now telling you.” He tossed the magazine into the trashcan with a look of disgust. “This company, and its interests, should be your concern, Susan. Your only concern. Start acting like a team player; try to recognize what’s best for you and your career.”

He returned to the door, opening it wide. “Going forward, I’ll expect you to find another, more productive way to spend your breaks and lunches. Keep me updated on those invoices. I’ve already authorized your overtime for these next few evenings.”

Susan returned to her cubicle, struggling against a growing rage. Grom sat on the floor, holding the peanut butter jar in his lap; his furry wrist compressed into the slender opening. He held out the jar as she dropped into her chair.

“Um, Susan... Could you...”

“Open your fist,” she said absently, powering down her laptop and returning it to the case. She logged onto the company computer, opening a new spreadsheet page.

“I have to work late tonight,” she told the troll without looking at him. “Probably for the rest of the week, as well. Maybe you should leave.”

“That did it. Thought I'd be stuck with that jar... Oh! You have to hear about this friend of mine, Susan. He once told me about a wayward knight. It seems this knight—”

“Dammit, Grom. I said I have to work. Please go!”

Susan whirled to confront him. The troll was gone.

* * *

Susan settled into an empty seat on the train heading out of the city. It was nearly nine o’clock before she’d left the office, having made limited progress in the invoicing. If this was what it meant to get ahead in the company, she wasn’t sure it was worth it. Still, maybe Pearson had a point.

Her stories might be entertaining, perhaps open a mind here and there to the possibilities of ‘what if’; but would it ever pay the bills? Provide her security? A comfortable living? She closed her eyes, listening to the steady cadence of wheels upon steel rails as the car rocked gently, moving on through the night.

Suddenly a loud thump and the impact of something heavy landing on the seat next to her jolted Susan from her thoughts. A pressboard-covered sheaf of papers, nearly six inches thick, lay beside her. Greasy stains marked the cover, and blotches of brown paste containing crushed peanuts and fur stuck out here and there from between the pages.

“Didn’t take nearly as long as you thought it would,” Grom said, occupying the entire bench seat facing her. “Just had to put my mind to it.”

Susan opened the front cover and flipped through the first twenty or so pages. Well typed and double spaced gibberish filled every sheet, front and back.

“There’s peanut butter everywhere. And I can’t understand a single word of it. Did you use my laptop? I swear, if you gummed up the keyboard again...”

“I got hungry. You can’t expect a troll to dash out a report of this size without nourishment, can you? Besides, your computer’s fine. It’s still in your bag; look if you don’t believe me. I found another computer at the office while you were busy. Someone forgot to shut down before they went home. And I can’t help it if you don’t read troll. Not my fault.”

Susan glanced at the bound report. Then, after regarding for a long moment the sulking, cross-armed giant sitting across from her, she opened her bag to retrieve the laptop.

She started to type. “So, tell me about that wayward knight.”

Copyright © 2009 by Rick Hipps

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